Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Play in Four Scenes

Scene 1:  I’m walking out of the subway station one evening shortly after the last Presidential election having a conversation with an old friend from my days at the Federal Trade Commission.  Before we go our separate ways, he offers me a final suggestion for how I should spend the next four years as a federal employee, “Hey, Dan.  Keep your head down.”   I say nothing to my friend, but this is what I say to myself: It must be such a luxury to be a gentile.  Anyone in the 21st century who feels entitled to ‘keep your head down’ whenever that suits your own interests can’t be a real Jew.   Not after what happened to our community in the 1940s.

Scene 2:  I’m attending an interfaith event last Sunday commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.  It takes place in the historical New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown DC, the church that Abraham Lincoln regularly attended.  There are probably 250-300 people in attendance.  I have one and only one opportunity to address the crowd, and briefly at that.  The topic was how to respond to MLK Jr.’s statement that "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."  I decide to address the “sincere ignorance” idea.  Here in America, I said, we are sincerely ignorant when we claim to live in a democracy.  People sincerely believe this is a democracy, and it’s certainly more democratic than a totalitarian regime or even America in its early years.  But how can this be a real democracy if so many of us don’t vote?   In the previous midterms, 36% of eligible voters showed up.  For some countries, the percentage is as high as 90.  “If we honestly want to make this country great again,” I told the crowd, “we need to work to get as many people as possible registered to vote.” That’s the only way we can hope to have a democracy, and not the plutocracy we have today.  

Scene 3:  This is a sedentary scene -- just me, riding the subway and reading a book (Matthew Crawford’s “The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction”).  I come across the following passage:  ‘In the boom after World War II, the left lost interest in economics and shifted its focus from labor issues to a more wide-ranging project of liberation, to be achieved by unmasking and discrediting various forms of cultural authority.  In retrospect, this seems to have prepared the way for a new right, no less committed to the ideal of the unencumbered self (that ideal actor of the free market), whose freedom could be realized only in a public space cleared of distorting influences – through deregulation.  Few institutions or sites of moral authority were left untouched by the left’s critiques.  Parents, teachers, priests, elected officials – there was little left that seemed defensible.  Looking around in stunned silence, left and right eventually discovered common ground: a neoliberal consensus in which we have agreed to let the market quietly work its solvent action on all impediments to the natural chooser within.”

I was sickened by the idea that the so-called “progressive” movement had lost interest in economics, but damned if that isn’t true.  I can’t get over the paucity of passion in the Democratic Party to confront the plight of the poor or the horrors of economic inequality run amuck.  When Flag-Bearer Hillary charged $250K per speech and Chelsea charged $65K, and when the so-called “progressive” Democrats I know seemed fine with that, I knew how out of touch I’ve become with that Party.

What’s more, Crawford makes a great point in arguing that what has taken the place of economic uplift in the aspiration of liberals is the fetish about individual freedom and the need for society to respect all our individual choices.  Our entire culture is geared to living as atomized individuals who are allowed guilt-free to do whatever we want for whatever reason we want, and we define our individual success by the ability to create the conditions that foster freedom of personal expression.  Immediately, I started thinking about politicians like the afore-mentioned Hillary Clinton who come across as “scolds” (cue the sexist connotations) and who don’t express themselves viscerally, openly, and joyously.  In a culture that’s all about “free to be you and me,” that won’t cut it.  Americans today are looking for characters, odd-balls, people that speak from the gut, mavericks – but who also respect the rights of others to live similarly.  And that has manifested itself in our choice of leaders – a Hollywood actor turned politician, a guy who plays sax in his shades and who talks to us about his choice of underwear, a frat boy who’s become Born Again and bought a baseball team, a smooth preaching black man who reminds us that in America anyone can be President, and last but not least, a business tycoon turned Reality TV star turned conspiracy theorist turned politician turned Donald Rickles wanna-be.  It should be painfully obvious by now that we’re certainly not looking for professional politicians who dress formally, look sternly into the camera and lecture us about morality.  Like it or not, and I don’t, morality in contemporary America is whatever the F-- I want it to be!

Are you listening Democrats?  If you won’t give a damn about economics, at least take back the country by adapting to its culture.  Nominate folks who don’t come across as tools.  Give “the people” what they want – plainspoken, courageous, joyful, liberating leaders.  I don’t remember the last time one of you had the guts to publicly stand up for a position that wasn’t popular with the majority of Americans.  If you hold such a position, say it anyway!   No wonder you let Donald Trump win the Electoral College by 77 points.   Y’all are a bunch of poll-testing, mask-wearing phonies.

Scene 4:  I should have been shocked when I first heard about the “shithole” comment.  I wasn’t.  In fact, I wasn’t a bit surprised.  Our President is one politician who is NOT a phony.  Howard Cosell boasted about “telling it like it is.”  Well, I cannot always say that about Donald Trump, but he at least has the guts to tell it like he thinks it is.  In this case, what he thinks is, well, an indictment of a species that has lived and breathed racism for more generations than I can count.

Soon after hearing about the “shithole” comment, I went on the computer and double checked my recollections from history class.  It has been decades since I learned in school about how the Nazis hierarchically “ranked” the various races.  The Nordics – together with the other Aryans – were at the very top.  Black people were at the bottom.   And believe it or not, we Jews were placed above even the “Mongoloids” – in fact, it was because we weren’t at the bottom that we were viewed by the Nazis as smart enough to be quite dangerous in our sinister attempt to take over the world.  

Folks, whenever your President says anything that sends you down memory lane to consider how the Nazis ranked the races, that’s not a good moment in American history. And it’s especially not a good moment when this topic is coming up (a) on MLK Jr. weekend and (b) in the context of meetings that are supposed to be a pivot away from the purely partisan, spit-in-every Democrat’s face legislative activities of 2017.  We have definitely entered the Twilight Zone.

The most amazing part of this entire “shithole” debacle is that our legislators in attendance won't even tell similar stories about exactly what they heard.  President Trump denies making the comment at issue.  Two Republican Senators in attendance similarly deny that they heard it.  Other Republican Senators in attendance are ducking the issue through obfuscation.  Obviously, the Democrats don’t have a monopoly on cowardice.

Perhaps, when all is said and done, the Republican politicians today are simply honoring my friend’s prudent advice and keeping their heads down.  Maybe their faith permits that sort of thing.  Convinced that this country is nobody’s shithole, they must believe that nothing truly awful can happen if we all just do our office work, run our 10Ks, watch our favorite TV shows, shuttle our kids to soccer games, and let the invisible hand guide us through life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We don’t even need our nation’s poor and middle class to vote in the mid-terms. 

So this is what it means to make America great again.  It's no wonder that the Norwegians aren't busting down the doors to get in.  

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