A True Story

We Americans are trapped in a cage with a sleeping grizzly bear and a pack of rabid wolves. The DNC careerists hold the keys to the lock.

They keep telling everyone to speak softly and don’t make any sudden moves, for fear of being torn to shreds. When someone suggests they simply unlock the cage door so that we could all safely step outside, they calmly explain that the danger is real but that we need to consider other options first before we go to such extremes.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump punches the bear in the nose and flings his own poop at the wolves, while declaring there is no bear or wolves and even if there were he’d use his business superpowers to make a deal with them. The GOP sycophants defend his bravery in standing up to the libtards telling everyone what to do. Make the Cage Great Again, cheers some in the crowd.

The corporatist news media hacks, a mass of people between them and the now growling animals, with great self-importance fairly report both sides of the disagreement. Meanwhile, the morning talk show hosts halfheartedly debate whether bears and wolves are fake news. Then they cut to an advertisement for a new antidepressant: “Do you feel anxious? Ask your doctor about Xibuprex. Symptoms may include prostate reflux, toenail dysplasia, herniated itching…”

The American people huddle together in separate groups. With passive expectation, their eyes are glued to their smartphones. They watch videos of what is going on around them and scroll through their social media feeds trying to determine which side they agree with by liking the Facebook posts and retweeting the Tweets that align with their preferred ideology or identity politics.

The bear awakens from its slumber. The rabid wolves approach. The cage door remains locked. The crowd nervously shifts this way and then that.

Neoliberal Catastrophism

“It seems like there are an increasing number of areas where the discourse among centrists and liberals follows a fairly similar script. The opening statement is one of unbridled catastrophe: Trump is fascism on the ascendant march! Global warming will destroy us in the next x years! (I’m not making any judgments here about the truth of these claims, though for the record, I believe the second but not the first). The comes the followup statement, always curiously anodyne and small: Let’s nominate Klobuchar. How are you going to pay for a Green New Deal? Don’t alienate the moderates.

“All of these specific moves can be rationalized or explained by reference to local factors and considerations, but they seem like part of a pattern, representing something bigger. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Eric Hobsbawm for a piece I’m working on, but the pattern seems to reflect the reality of life after the Cold War, the end of any viable socialist alternative. For the last quarter-century, we’ve lived in a world, on the left, where the vision of catastrophe is strong, while the answering vision remains inevitably small: baby steps, cap and trade, pay as you go, and so on. Each of these moves might have its own practical justifications, but it’s hard to see how anyone could credibly conjure from those minuscule proposals a blueprint that could in any way be commensurate with the scale of the problem that’s just been mooted, whether it be Trump or climate change.

“I wonder if there is any precedent for this in history. You’ve had ages of catastrophe before, where politicians and intellectuals imagined the deluge and either felt helpless before it or responded with the most cataclysmic and outlandish utopias or dystopias of their own. What seems different today is how the imagination of catastrophe is coupled with this bizarre confidence in moderation and perverse belief in the margin.

“Neoliberal catastrophism?”

An Empire of Shame

America as an empire. This has long been a contentious issue, going back to the colonial era, first as a debate over whether Americans wanted to remain a part of the British Empire and later as a debate over whether Americans wanted to create a new empire. We initially chose against empire with the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation. But then we chose for empire with the Constitution that allowed (pseudo-)Federalists to gain power and reshape the new government.

Some key Federalists openly talked about an American Empire. For the most part, though, American leaders have kept their imperial aspirations hidden behind rhetoric, even as our actions were obviously imperialistic. Heck, an Anti-Federalist like Thomas Jefferson took the imperialistic action of the Louisiana Purchase, a deal between one empire and another. Imperial expansionism continued through the 19th century and into the 20th century with numerous military interventions, from the Indian Wars to the Banana Wars. Not a year has gone by in American history when we weren’t involved in a war of aggression.

Yet it still is hard for Americans to admit that we are an empire. I’ve had numerous discussions with my conservative father on this topic. At times, he has surprisingly admitted we are an empire, but usually he is resistant. In our most recent debate, it occurred to me that the resistance is motivated by shame. We don’t want to admit we are an empire because we are ashamed of our government’s brutal use of power on our behalf. And shame is a powerful force. People will do and allow the most horrific actions out of shame.

Empires of the past tended to be projects built on pride and honor, of brazen rule through force. We Americans, instead, feel the need to hide our imperialism behind an image of benign and reluctant power. The difference is Americans, ever since we were colonists, have had an inferiority complex. It makes us both yearn for greatness and fear mockery. Our country is the young teenager that must prove himself, while not yet having the confidence to really believe in himself. So, we act slyly as an empire with implicit threats and backroom manipulations, proxy wars and covert operations, puppet governments and corporatist front groups. Then, when these morally depraved actions come to light, we rationalize why they were exceptions or why we were being forced to do so because of circumstances. It’s not our fault. We don’t want to hurt others, but we had no other choice. Besides, we were defending freedom and free markets, that is why we constantly intervene in other countries and endlessly kill innocents. It is for the greater good. We are willing to make this self-sacrifice on the behalf of others. We are the real victims.

I regularly come across quotes from American leaders who publicly or privately complained about our government, who spoke of failure and betrayal. This has included presidents and other political officials going back to the beginning of the country. Think of Jefferson and Adams in their later years worrying about the fate of the American experiment, that maybe we Americans didn’t have what it takes, that maybe we aren’t destined to be great. The sense of inferiority has haunted our collective imagination for so long that it is practically a defining feature. Despite our being the largest empire in world history, we don’t have the self-certain righteousness to declare ourselves an empire. That is why we get the false and weak bravado of someone like Donald Trump — sadly, he represents our country all too well. Then again, so did Hillary Clinton represent our country in her suppressing wages in Haiti so that U.S. companies would have cheap foreign labor (i.e., corporate wage slavery), the kind of actions the U.S. does all the time in secret in order to maintain control. We have talent for committing evil with a smiling face… or nervous laughter.

Rather than clear power asserted with pride and honor, the United States government acts like a bully on the world stage. We are constantly trying to prove ourselves. And our denial of imperialism is gaslighting, to make anyone feel crazy if they dare voice the truth of what we are. We tell others that we are the good guys. What we really are trying to do is to convince ourselves of our own bullshit. This causes a nervousness in the public mind, a fear that we might be found out. We are paralyzed by our shame and it gets tiring in our trying to keep up the pretense. The facade is crumbling. Our inner shame has become public such that now we are the shame of the world. That probably means our leaders will soon start a war to divert attention, and both main parties will be glad for the diversion.

There is a compelling argument made by James Gilligan in Preventing Violence. Among other things, he sees as a key cause to interpersonal violence is shame. And that there is something particularly shame-inducing about our society, especially for those on the bottom of society. He is attempting to explain violent crime. But what occurs to me is that our leaders are just as violent, if not more violent. It’s simply that those who make the laws determine which violence is legal and which violence illegal, their own violence being in the former category as it is implemented through the state or with the support of the state. Maybe it is shame that causes our government to be so violent toward foreign populations and toward the American population. And maybe shame is what causes American citizens to remain silent in their complicity, as the violent is done in their name.

The Hidden Lesson of The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale has returned with a second season. I finished the second new episode. It offers much food for thought. The story itself is wonderfully told, partly because it is based on a fine piece of literature, but credit is due to the screenwriters and main actresses.

Also, it is one of the most plausible and compelling dystopias of the near future. That can’t be doubted. Still, it could be doubted that it is the most probable dystopia, as there are so many other possible dystopias. Some would argue we are already living in a dystopia, the only issue being how bad can it get. That isn’t to say we should fool ourselves that recent events have been as important as they seem in how they loom in our immediate public imagination. The shit storm has been brewing for a long time.

As I watched the beginning of the second season, it occurred to me that The Handmaid’s Tale is the nightmare of a specific demographic. I think it’s an awesome show, but as a working  class white guy I’m not the target audience. It doesn’t speak to my personal fear-ridden fantasies about the world I see around me. Nor does it speak to white working class single mothers, poor rural Christians, homeless veterans with PTSD, recent immigrant families, Native Americans on reservations, young black men targeted by police, etc.

I’ve talked about the haunted moral imagination of the reactionary mind. Well, this show is the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class. To be more specific, I noticed that all the lead roles are professional white women or were before the theocrats took over. Both seasons focus on various professional white women who in the pre-catastrophe world were moving up in the world. The actresses by profession are of the liberal class with most of the main actresses being Millennials and so the show points to their experience.

An older gay guy tries to warn a younger lesbian to be careful at the college where they both work, but she dismisses him as trying to “hide the dykes” and she acts tough. Like most liberal class Americans, she has never lived in a world where there were severely dangerous consequences for people like her. The toughest battles were fought in the past and it was assumed that society was permanently changed and continuously improving, the liberal class’ version of Whig history.

What exists outside of the liberal class moral imagination is the fact that, for many Americans outside of the liberal class, this society has been horrific for a long time. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about those suffering the consequences of their complicity in what has been done to others. Minority women and poor white women in the United States have been experiencing continuous oppression, including sterilizations in recent history. Middle-to-upper class white feminists maybe thought, at least prior to Donald Trump’s presidency, that the worst battles have already been fought and won with only some cleanup to eliminate the last of the misogynists in power, but as for other women the worst battles are yet to come and they’ve long known the risks of continuing to lose the fight.

The fear of American theocracy isn’t entirely unrealistic, obviously. Yet the origins of the fear come from within the dark heart of American liberalism itself. All those secular societies that the United States destroyed and replaced with theocracies along with other forms of authoritarianism, that was done with the full support of Democrats like Hillary Clinton who laughed at the suffering of Libyans (and ask Haitian-Americans in Florida why they didn’t vote for Clinton and helped swing the state and hence the entire election to Trump). A vote for the Democrats, no different than a vote for the Republicans, is to support the exploitation, oppression, dislocation, and killing of hundreds of millions of mostly poor brown people in dozens of countries around the world (the war on terror alone has involved the US military in more than 70 countries).

The Handmaid’s Tale is the shadow cast by American actions worldwide, actions supported by both parties for generations. The liberal class has been fine with promoting theocracy elsewhere, just as long as they don’t have to think about it or admit their own responsibility. What is portrayed in this show is not speculation. It is what we Americans have already done to untold numbers of women elsewhere. Within the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class, there is a seething guilty conscience that fears its own moral failure.

What The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t show is how a society becomes like that. It never happens with no presentiments and precursors. In a previous post (But Then It Was Too Late), I shared a passage from Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free (ch. 13). Like one of the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, Mayer’s was a good liberal college professor, someone who meant well but wasn’t a fighter and wasn’t prone to radicalism. He didn’t protest or revolt when he had a chance, waiting and waiting for the right moment to speak out until it was finally too late:

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late. […] It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.”

That describes America this past century. And economically well off white liberals have been part of the problem. When bad things happened to the poor, they weren’t poor. When bad things happened to rural and inner city residents, they weren’t rural or inner city residents. When bad things happened to minorities, they weren’t minorities. When bad things happened to immigrants, they weren’t immigrants. When bad things happened to foreigners, they weren’t foreigners. And so most liberals did nothing. The liberalism (and feminism) they fought for was one of privilege, but they didn’t realize that once all others had been targeted by oppression they would be next and then no one would be left to stand up for them.

The saddest part of an authoritarian takeover is how easy it is to see coming decades in advance. Radical left-wingers have been warning the liberal class for generations and they would not listen. The Handmaid’s Tale does make the liberal class sit up and pay attention. But do they learn the most important lesson from it? That lesson is hidden deep within the story and requires soul-searching to discern.

Fallen State of America

The Language of Pain, from Virginia Woolf to William Stanley Jevons
by Corey Robin
(from comment section)

Glenn wrote:

Americans account for 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (Vicodin) consumption, 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone (Percocet and Oxycontin) consumption and 65 percent of the world’s hydromorphone (Dilaudid) consumption, according to the New York Times.

The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. And by their reckoning, antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in 2005–2008, the latest period during which the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected data on prescription drug use.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better was published in 2009. Written by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.

Donald Pruden, Jr. wrote:

Let me introduce the “World Happiness Report 2017”.

Yes, this is a thing. The Report, published under the auspices of the United Nations, states boldly that (in its words) that “Happiness Has Fallen in America”.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7, titled “Restoring American Happiness”, it is written by Jeffrey D. Sachs and it focusses on the United States:

“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”

And this from a footnote at the end of the Chapter in question:

“5. It is sometimes suggested that the degree of ethnic diversity is the single most powerful explanation of high or low social trust. It is widely believed that Scandinavia’s high social trust and happiness are a direct reflection of their high ethnic homogeneity, while America’s low and declining social trust is a reflection of America’s high and rising ethnic diversity. The evidence suggests that such “ethnic determinism” is misplaced. As Bo Rothstein has cogently written about Scandinavia, the high social trust was far from automatically linked with ethnic homogeneity. It was achieved through a century of active social democratic policies that broke down class barriers and distrust (see Rothstein and Stolle, 2003). Social democracy was buttressed by a long tradition and faith in the quality of government even before the arrival of democracy itself in Scandinavia. Moreover, highly diverse societies, such as Canada, have been able to achieve relatively high levels of social trust through programs aimed at promoting multiculturalism and inter-ethnic understanding.”

[I especially like this last as some have tried to suggest that social strife in the U.S. is, bluntly, to be blamed on the (disruptive) presence of Blacks in the United States — Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” made a point of exposing this belief that Americans seem to hold by displaying it in a montage of person-on-the-street interviews. That film goes on to challenge that view. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation” was probably the very first broadly distributed cultural product in the U.S. to issue such blame at Blacks.]

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See my previous post:

What kind of trust? And to what end?

There is one book that seriously challenges the tribal argument: Segregation and Mistrust by Eric M. Uslaner. Looking at the data, he determined that (Kindle Locations 72-73), “It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.”

The Right-Wing New Age

Describing a Salon article by Mitch Horowitz, there is a post over at Matt Cardin’s blog. He offers a summary:

“But the article’s overall topic is much broader, as indicated in the provided editorial teaser: “If you think New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies, you don’t know your history.” In just under two thousand words Horowitz discusses such things as the influence of Manly P. Hall on Ronald Reagan, Madame Blavatsky’s promulgation of the idea of “America as the catalyst for a revolution in human potential,” Donald Trump’s association with Norman Vincent Peale, FDR’s decision to put the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill, Hillary Clinton’s visioneering meetings Jean Houston (who once told Bill Clinton that he was an “undeveloped shaman,” at which point he got up and walked out), and more. Horowitz’s basic point is that none of this represents a conspiracy, notwithstanding the claims of the paranoid conspiracy theorizing crowd”

It doesn’t surprise me. And I can’t say that I worry about the media having “characterized Bannon as the Disraeli of the dark side following his rise to power in the Trump administration.” That said, there might be a connection between Bannon’s attraction to both mysticism and fascism, which could cause one to wonder what kind of New Age he might envision. But the general connection between alternative spirituality and the political right isn’t particularly concerning. As Horowitz explains, that is simply a part of the social fabric of American society and far from being limited to right-wingers.

My conservative parents raised my brothers and I in several liberal New Agey churches, from Christian Science to Unity. It was my paternal grandmother, coming out of a Southern Baptist upbringing, who after she moved to California introduced my parents to New Age spirituality. It helped transition my dad from his earlier doubting agnosticism to his present family values Christianity. Interestingly, my parents now attend a liberal mainstream church, even as they remain strongly conservative. Both of my parents are into positive thinking, my dad being a fan of Norman Vincent Peale.

Religion plays a major role on my dad’s side of the family. My paternal grandfather was a minister who was more spiritual than religious, odd as that might sound. Along with reading my grandmother’s copy of A Course In Miracles, I enjoyed looking at some books my dad had inherited from my grandfather. Among those books, I was introduced to world religions and the likes of the two Krishnamurtis (Jiddu and U.G.).

I could point out that there is a common history to Evangelicalism, New Thought Christianity, and Prosperity Gospel. There are a number of books that cover this and other related history. Theosophy took hold in the US during the late 1800s Populist Era. There was a lot of odd mystical and spiritual thinking that arose in the 1800s, such as the popularity of spiritualism.

There have been many diverse expressions of religion across American history. My paternal great grandfather was an orphan in one of the last surviving Shaker villages, having left when he reached adulthood. Also, there was the Quakers, Deists, Unitarians, Universalists, Anabaptists, Pietists, Camisards, Huguenots, Moravians, Brethren, Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, Amanas, etc. Spiritualism and related practices became popular across religions. The Shakers went through a spiritualism phase, during which much interesting artwork was produced.

Multiple strains of dissenter religion influenced American society, in particular some of the radical thinking during the English Civil War when the first American colonies were taking hold. Roger Williams was a rather interesting religious radical in the early American colonies.

Here are some books that might be of interest, including one from the author of the article:

Occult America by Mitch Horowitz, Religion, Magic, and Science in Early Modern Europe and America by Allison P. Coudert, New Age and Neopagan Religions in America by Sarah Pike, A Republic of Mind and Spirit by Catherine L. Albanese, The New Metaphysicals by Courtney Bender, Ghosts of Futures Past by McGarry Molly, Plato’s Ghost by Cathy Gutierrez, The Occult in Nineteenth-Century America by Cathy Gutierrez, Each Mind a Kingdom by Beryl Satter, The History of New Thought by John S. Haller & Robert C. Fuller, Religious Revolutionaries by Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but not Religious by Robert C. Fuller, Restless Souls by Leigh Eric Schmidt, Spirits of Protestantism by Pamela E. Klassen, Secularism in Antebellum America by John Lardas Modern, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912 by Thomas A. Tweed, America’s Communal Utopias by Donald E. Pitzer, and The Kingdom of Matthias by Paul E. Johnson & Sean Wilentz.

On a slightly different note, I would highly recommend The Churching of America by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. The authors show how, until the 19th century, Americans didn’t have high rates of religiosity such as church attendance. The increasing focus on spirituality was simultaneous with greater concern with mainstream religion.

Another thing that could be added were the Transcendentalists. They had interest in Eastern religious and philosophical thought. Translations of Eastern texts such as the Bhagavad Gita were available in the early 19th century. Henry David Thoreau brought the Bhagavad Gita with him to Walden. See: American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions by Arthur Versluis and The Gita within Walden by Paul Friedrich.

Later in that century, the Theosophical Society translated a large number of Eastern texts. Theosophists came to have much influence during the Populist Era of the 1890s and into the following century. I recall a march on Washington, DC during the 1890s was led by someone influenced by Theosophical thought.

That was a major turning point for American spirituality, fueled by populist revolt and questioning of religious authority. There was a hunger for both new politics and new religion. This was the same historical moment when such things as New Thought Unity Church was organized, specifically 1889. Jackson Lears, in Rebirth of a Nation, describes this era (pp. 237-238):

“Yet the vitalist impulse itself had larger than utilitarian implications. Its significance, like its origin, was religious. It lay at the heart of a broad revolt against positivism, a rejection of a barren universe governed by inexorable laws, where everything was measurable and nothing mysterious. The real problem for many vitalists (and certainly for James) was the specter of a life (and death) without meaning. It is possible to see all the talk about “life” as a way of whistling past the graveyard of traditional Christianity. But the vitalist ferment was also a genuine attempt to explore new meanings for human existence amid the wreckage of collapsing dualities: body and soul, matter and spirit, this world and the next.

“Educated Protestants, dissatisfied with desiccated theology, cast about for vital conceptions of cosmic meaning. Many explored medieval Catholic mysticism as an alternative to the banalities of the typical Sunday sermon, the sort of platitudes uttered by Henry Ward Beecher and other ministers who reduced the Protestant ethic to a mere prescription for worldly success. Buddhism and other Asian religions—discovered, imagined, and synthesized—also began to play a role in focusing popular longings. Vedanta, popularized at the Chicago World’s Fair and after by Swami Vivekenanda, and theosophy, preached by Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, were both synthetic expressions of spiritual ferment. Paul Carus founded the magazine Open Court to carry forward the work of the World’s Parliament of Religions, begun at the Chicago Fair, to create a common ground of ecumenical discussion, which might lead to a new synthesis—a “Religion of the Future” that might appeal to believer and skeptic alike.

“The results were mixed. Contributors to Open Court asked questions like “What is Life?” and then stumbled about in a soupy haze of abstractions. “The truth is, there are, as there must be, original factors in the world…and life (or chemical activity and appetency) is like gravity, one of them,” William Salter announced in 1901. “If we wish to account for them, we have to go back to the maker of all things (if there is a Maker) not to any of the things that are made.” One thing was certain: “The only salvation for society as for the individual, is from within—it is more life.” The reverence for “life” could overcome death itself. “Who knows but that that greater death which sooner or later overtakes us all…starts energies into play deeper than we had known before—that it is the death of the body, and freedom, new birth, to the soul?’

“The desire for regeneration led to death’s door and beyond. Yearnings for empirical proof of an afterlife and for communication with departed loved ones accelerated the appeal of spiritualism. Here was another example of fascination with invisible force, impossible to see but unmistakable (to believers) in its consequences—tables rising from the floor, sepulchral voices, mysterious music. Even William James was intrigued. While he remained skeptical of sweaty séances in darkened rooms, he joined the American Society for Psychical Research, providing legitimacy to the quest for connection with “discarnate spirits.” His interest in spiritualism reflected his openness to all manner of evidence, no matter how bizarre or apparently inexplicable—his radical empiricism, as he called it.”

By the way, Horowitz’s article reminded me of a passage in What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank. In a brief but insightful observation, Frank explains why right-wingers would find appealing what otherwise seems the New Age babble of hippies (Kindle Locations 1998-2013):

“Today bitter self-made men—and their doppelgängers, the bitter but not quite as well-to-do men—are all over the place. They have their own cable news network and their own TV personalities. They can turn to nearly any station on the AM dial to hear their views confirmed. They have their own e-mail bulletin boards, on which you can find hundreds of thousands of them plen-T-plaining about this outrage and that, from the national to the local. And although they like to fancy themselves rugged individualists (better yet, the last of the rugged individualists), what they really are is a personality type that our society generates so predictably and in such great numbers that they almost constitute a viable market segment all on their own.

“One more thing about the backlash personality type: every single one of the bitter self-made men of my youth was a believer in the power of positive thinking. If you just had a sunny disposish and kept everlastingly at it, they thought, you were bound to succeed. The contradiction between their professed positiveness and their actual negativity about nearly everything never seemed to occur to them. On the contrary; they would oscillate from the one to the other as though the two naturally complemented each other, giving me advice on keeping a positive mental outlook even while raging against the environmentalist bumper stickers on other people’s cars or scoffing at Kansas City’s latest plan for improving its schools. The world’s failure to live up to the impossible promises of the positive-thinking credo did not convince these men of the credo’s impracticality, but rather that the world was in a sad state of decline, that it had forsaken the true and correct path.2 It was as though the fair-play lessons of Jack Armstrong, Frank Merriwell, and the other heroes of their prewar boyhood had congealed quite naturally into the world bitterness of their present-day heroes, Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry, Gordon Liddy, and the tax rebel Howard Jarvis.”

(Note 2. “In The Positive Thinkers, Donald Meyer comments extensively on positive thinking’s understanding of the business civilization and extreme laissez-faire economics as the way of nature. (See in particular chap. 8.) As for its politics, Meyer points out that Norman Vincent Peale, the movement’s greatest celebrity preacher, dabbled in right-wing Republicanism, and a famous positive-thinking Congregationalist church in California embraced the John Birch Society. It is possible that the universal embrace of positive thinking by the bitter self-made men of my youth was a geographic coincidence, since Kansas City is home to one of the great powers of the positive-thinking world, the Unity Church. But I am inclined to think not. Positive thinking is today a nearly universal aspect of liberal Protestantism, traces of it appearing in the speeches of Ronald Reagan and the self-help entertainment of Oprah Winfrey.” [Kindle Locations 4350-4357])

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Some of the earliest blog posts I ever wrote was a 4 part series. In those earlier writings, I covered all of this in great detail and included much of my personal experience. They came from my old blog, originally posted on the now defunct Gaia website. I apologize for their needing to be cleaned up a bit, as the transferal of posts was done quickly, but they are readable as is.

New Age: Part 1
New Age: Part 2
New Age: Part 3
New Age: Part 4

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Additional thoughts (5/14/17):

My mother’s all-time favorite preacher is Robert Schuller. He is well known for his having built the Crystal Cathedral, the embodiment of the crass materialism of self-indulgence and cult of personality. Although humbly born and raised in Iowa, he became a mega-church preacher in California and thereby amassed immense wealth.

It’s interesting to learn about how California is the origins of the mega-church movement, along with the modern religious right that took over the GOP. California is also the birthplace of Nixon (infamous Orange County), as Southern California is filled with Southerners. Nixon promoted the Southern strategy and Reagan, a California transplant and professional corporate spokesperson, gave it a voice and a face. I should note that the Southern presence was so influential even in early Californian history that the state was almost split in two during the Civil War.

It was in California that my grandmother, raised Southern Baptist, converted to New Age religion. There is not much distance between the New Right and the New Age. Robert Schuller’s prosperity gospel and ‘old time’ family values easily bridges that distance. It’s why my conservative parents could simultaneously listen to the kindly patriarchal Schuller on television, attend a uber-liberal New Thought church (Unity), and vote for Reagan with his culture war religiosity and Hollywood smile — all part and parcel of the same worldview given its fullest form during the Cold War through the expression of Capitalist Christianity.

I recently learned that a regular guest on Schuller’s televized ministry was Laura Schlessinger, one of the major stars of late 20th century right-wing radio. I remember listening to her when I was still living in South Carolina. It was around the mid 1990s, considering her show was nationally syndicated in 1994 (the year I graduated high school). As the female version of Limbaugh, she was a typical egotist who thought her every ignorant opinion was God-inspired truth. She was a no-nonsense Cold War culture warrior, one of these privileged upper middle class white people who can talk tough because they’ve never dealt with a real problem in their entire life.

One time a caller complained about personal problems and Schlessinger’s advice was that the young woman should either take care of her problems or kill herself. I was shocked that any radio host would be that irresponsible, but that was common for right-wing talk radio. There is a heartlessness to this attitude. I can guarantee you that if this person had killed herself, a sociopathic social Darwinian like Schlessinger would have been happy that there was one less ‘loser’ in the world.

Now consider this mean-spirited asshole was a close personal friend of Robert Schuller, having said of her that she is “A positive voice for positive values without equal in our time.” Despite Schuller’s kind and friendly demeanor, there was a dark cancerous rot at the heart of his prosperity gospel. In the end, prosperity gospel was simply yet more rhetoric upholding the plutocracy and defending inequality. It was a worship of Mammon, in place of God.

This kind of prosperity gospel didn’t die with Schuller. It is still going strong. The mega-church movement has become more popular than ever and, with big money, it is a major political player with impressive clout. Some of Trump’s most outspoken and influential supporters were prosperity gospel preachers, such as Paula White and Joel Osteen (along with many others). This is nothing new. Going back decades, some truly hateful and demented religious leaders have openly supported and socialized with Republican politicians and even presidents. Some of these religious right leaders said things far worse than Trump and associates have dared to say and there was no backlash. Republicans have been courting rabidly reactionary radicalism for a long time.

This is not old time religion, in the traditional European sense. But America has always had weird strains of religiosity and spirituality, a hybrid spawn of Protestant Reformation and Counter-Enlightenment. The descendants of this match made in hell were suckled at the teat of American materialism with its dark history of oppression and inequality. Then driven mad through the delusional fear-mongering of generations of propaganda, from Cold War to War on Terror.

If one were feeling particularly cynical, it could be argued that Trump represents the final endpoint and highest expression of American Christianity. But that would be too dismissive toward the religious diversity that has always existed in North America, even if the ugliest expressions of religiosity too often have dominated. It should not be forgotten that the United States also has a history of radical left-wing religiosity as well. The hard-hitting Christian attitude eloquently put forth by the likes of Martin Luther King jr is alive and well, no matter how much corporate media hacks and corporatist politicians ignore it.

There is another point that should be made clear. The religious right mentality isn’t limited to the religious right, for the simple reason that the religious right itself in America is the product of post-Enlightenment liberalism. The American right in general has long been in love with the rhetoric of liberalism with its focus, however superficial, on liberty and freedom in terms of not just of religion but also of states rights, free markets, hyper-individuality, meritocracy, private ownership, gun rights, civil libertarianism, and on and on. So, in direct connection to this, it’s unsurprising to realize the extent to which liberals, specifically of the liberal class, have embraced right-wing ideology as great defenders of capitalist realism that supposedly liberates and empowers even as it harms and scapegoats so many.

Having been raised in the extreme liberalism of New Thought Christianity, this understanding developed in my direct personal experience. What Barbara Ehrenreich describes in her book Bright-sided is what I absorbed form childhood. And it really does fuck with your head. Ehrenreich criticizes a type of cruel optimism popular in America that is superficial and too often used to rationalize egregiously immoral or otherwise dysfunctional behavior. In my experience, positive thinking just made me feel worse, as if my depression was a sign of personal failure.

The expectation of positive thinking can be a heavy burden to carry. This is much worse when dealing with serious issues involving conditions of poverty and inequality, oppression and injustice, pain and suffering, desperation and struggle. According to prosperity gospel, all problems are to be blamed on individuals. It’s the punishment of having a wrong relationship with God, a carryover from the bleak predestination of Calvinism that involves a God who favors an elect of individuals and damns everyone else. But in prosperity gospel, God’s elect are made clear as his favors are seen in this world through material gifts and blessings, i.e., wealth.

I went into some detail about this in a previous post:

The inspiration for her writing about positive thinking was her experience with cancer. She saw the darkside of positive thinking within the cancer community.

This brings to mind my own grandmother who died of cancer. It’s because of her that I was raised in New Thought Christianity where positive thinking is very popular. She was diagnosed with cancer. She embraced the whole alternative medicine field and she had great faith in positive thinking. My dad says she was utterly crushed when doing all the right things didn’t make her cancer go away. She died of cancer. She was a woman who had a great sense of faith, and apparently I inherited my spiritual interests from her. I’ve seen all aspects of positive thinking and so I have a personal sense of what Ehrenreich is talking about.

But what is different is that positive thinking has become mainstream like never before. It’s not just alternative types. Positive thinking has become merged with the early American ideals of meritocracy, and together they create something greater than either alone.

In one video I saw of Ehrenreich, she made an interesting connection. She was talking about the meritocracy ideal, but I don’t think she was using that term. She was just talking about the ideal of positivie thinking in general within American culture. She connected this with Ayn Rand’s libertarians. If I remember correctly, she was making the argument that Rand was a one of the factors in popularizing positive thinking. She mentioned the book The Secret and how it’s representative of our whole culture. She blames the economic troubles we’re having now with the business culture of positive thinking, and it makes a lot of sense to me.

Also see two other videos:

Barbara Ehrenreich: “Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Undermines America”

‘Smile or Die” How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World

Political Evil

Why is it we Americans are unwilling to honestly speak about political evil? Even the word ‘evil’ comes across as hyperbole. But what we know about recent US history bears the truth of its relevance.

The US became the self-proclaimed leader of the free world following WWII. Since then, the US has attacked, invaded, bombed, overthrown governments, supported brutal militant groups, actively participated in assassinations of leaders, created societal breakdown, allied with oppressive authoritarian regimes, put into place puppet dictators in at least dozens of countries. And the US has caused and contributed to the deaths, harm, orphaning, dislocation, impoverishment, and desperation of at least hundreds of millions of people.

A few thousand people die in a single attack on US soil and Americans go batshit crazy. But we kill more than a million innocent people in a single country such as Iraq. It was an illegal and unconstitutional war of aggression that was based on lies and propaganda. Americans barely blink an eye.

We imprison non-combatants on no evidence and then torture them in secret prisons. Or else we send them to other countries to be tortured. Because of the bipartisan drone program, we are now in the business of assassinating people and killing more innocent people in the process.

These crimes against humanity and many more like them have been repeatedly supported by both main political parties for as long as they’ve been going on. Yet detain a few people at an airport and Americans act like the world is ending. What about all those people whose lives we destroyed. And I use ‘we’ intentionally. It is our government that does this with our tax money and we do nothing to stop it, often throwing our support behind it.

It’s not even just foreigners. Our government treats much of the American population just as badly. There are more blacks in prison now than there were blacks in slavery at its height. And blacks aren’t even the majority of the prison population. The US government imprisons more of its citizens than any oppressive government in history. When you look at who these prisoners are, they come from desperate poverty and unemployment, communities with toxic dumps and high rates of heavy metal toxicity, and endless police brutality by police forces that treat these communities like a military occupation.

Trump is nothing new. He is the id of our collective psyche, showing Americans what we are, what we’ve always been. He is acting out in public what Americans are used to keeping hidden from themselves. It’s one thing to do horrific things, but it should never be spoken of in respectable company. If Trump keeps this up, Americans might start to gain a conscience, but probably not.

When does a nation finally look in the mirror and realize that the evil they always feared is looking back at them? That is a hard truth to face. Fully take that word in, ‘evil’. It’s not just a word. It has real meaning. Never forget that you are complicit. We all are, we who live our lives in the belly of the beast. Keep this in mind. One day, the beast will turn against you. And then suddenly you’ll understand why all those hundreds of millions lives destroyed mattered after all.

As our options dwindle down…

Some want to argue that we have a functioning democracy because we have the outward forms of democracy. We can protest in the street, vote, etc. But then why does it rarely lead to democratic results, specifically at the Federal level? And why is there so little ability for the public to force transparency and accountability?

It’s because those forms are separate from the actual seat of power. The two party system and corporate media is controlled by oligarchs. They use public perception management (AKA propaganda), backroom deals, cronyism, revolving door politics (e.g., politicians becoming lobbyists), regulatory takeover, and a thousand other kinds of anti-democratic tactics. They use these to determine who we are allowed to vote for and what those people can do while in office.

This system is so well entrenched that is protected from the voting public. But it isn’t just the government. Polls show that union leadership advocate for positions and support politicians that union membership often doesn’t support. The same thing is seen with organizations like the NRA, a divide between those who control those organizations and the members.

Of course, the leadership of these organizations have close ties to the two party system that controls the government. So, these organizations can’t be used by the public to exert influence on politicians. They are part of the social control. No amount of petitions or protests can change this. Present strategies of activism and attempts of reform have been failing for longer than I’ve been alive.

If what you are doing has been proven not to accomplish what you claim to want, then what do you do? You either lower your expectations by making excuses or you try something new.

We have two options left to us. The first is a constitutional convention. But the first constitutional convention more than a couple of centuries ago was taken over by powerful (pseudo-)Federalists who, unconstitutionally according to the first constitution (The Articles of Confederation), forced through an anti-democratic document to ensure their rule. Powerful forces would attempt to do the same thing with another constitutional convention. So, if that fails, that leaves only one option left. That is revolution, whether peaceful or not.

As our options dwindle down, our choice of action becomes simplified. The only question remaining is do we have the moral vision and moral courage to take action. It is up to the oligarchs about whether or not they want to push us to the edge, seeing how far we can be pushed before we simply go over. But as we find ourselves teetering on the edge, what do the rest of us do, We the People?

As citizens of the United States, here is something to keep in mind. Fool the American public once, shame on the oligarchs. Fool the American public a thousand times, that is the shame of our entire society. We’ve been played for fools and we’ve acted accordingly. Let’s take this as a lesson learned the hard way. So, what do we do now? The first step might be learning to make important distinctions.

Pseudo-democracy is to democracy as truthiness is to truth. The spectacle of pseudo-democracy gives us the appearance of democracy to absolve the public’s sense of failure and guilt. The public can say that, well, at least I voted, joined the union, protested, signed a petition, volunteered for a campaign, etc. It allows small impotent acts in order to avoid the possibility of actions that would make a difference.

If we want actual functioning democracy, it is our collective responsibility. We have to act outside of the anti-democratic system. That would require creating a new parallel system that acts independently. We need to create our own separate government, not unlike what the American colonists did when they turned revolutionary, and then put so much public support and power behind it that it can’t be denied. We’ve waited long enough for the oligarchs to do the right thing. It’s now in our hands.

All of that is easier said than done. But it is either that or we continue our decline. As always, it’s a choice to be made.

A Young Experiment

We forget how young is this country and how early on we still are in this social experiment.

When the country was founded, even the wise founders had almost no comprehension of what was meant by ‘republicanism’ and ‘democracy’, as these were mostly just things they had read about in ancient accounts. The old order of feudalism was still surviving in parts of England while in the US an entirely new system was being attempted. Feudalism would last throughout the 19th century in large swaths of Europe, not being fully ended until later revolutions and reforms. Monarchy and aristocracy lasted even longer, to this day retained in places such as England.

When my grandparents were children, people were alive who had personally met the founding fathers. And the last of the Indian Wars were fought when they were entering adulthood. In my parent’s early life, the last Civil War veterans, former slaveholders, and former slaves were alive (and consider how slavery was a way of extending the last remnants of the feudal order into modernity). Many blacks who voted for the first black president spent much of their lives without even the right to vote. Legalized racism is well within living memory. Some sundown towns were being maintained into my own childhood.

Just a century ago, most Americans were still rural small family farmers, whereas Europe began major urbanization centuries ago. The majority of American blacks were still rural a half century ago. Into the mid-20th century, subsistence farming and the barter economy continued to operate in some rural farming communities in the South. And it seems some of the most rural communities in Appalachia have maintained that old mentality of survival through kinship and community, not capitalism.

Before mandatory universal public education was created, few Americans had much if any education at all and most were functionally illiterate. When intelligence testing first was done over a century ago, the average IQ was amazingly low compared to present standards, as abstract thought was rather uncommon before the spread of education and urbanization. To this day, the number without a high school education remains surprisingly high. And more than three quarters of Americans don’t have a college degree.

Yet we complain about the experiment having failed. We’ve barely got this experiment going. We still haven’t attempted to implement a functioning democracy. We are in the stage of dreaming about and aspiring toward democracy, like a young kid having fantasized over and over about asking out on a date that girl he has a crush on. It’s time to take the risk and see what happens. That will be the next step.

We are too impatient, wanting the result without the effort. We are a country barely over a couple of centuries old, while other countries look at the world with a perspective of millennia of history and tradition and, yes, experimentation. The US is like an adolescent going through mood swings because he doesn’t always get his way, without a clue about what lies ahead. It’s time for America to embrace it’s national adulthood. But we’re afraid to leave our childhood behind.

The future is uncertain. That is always the case. We can’t avoid what is to come. But we can prepare for it.

America Is Not Great For Most Americans

I just saw a comment that stated, “There is no making America great again. America is better than it’s ever been.”

I’ve seen that same idea repeated by many people. I used to notice it from conservatives. In fact, it was the core message of the GOP inspired by Cold War rhetoric. But now I hear it from supposedly liberal Democrats. It doesn’t matter from which side it comes from. It expresses an utter disconnection from the lived experience and social reality of most Americans.

Inequality is growing. Large personal debt is becoming common. The real unemployment rate is the worst it’s been in a long time. Wages have been stagnating or declining for most workers since the 1970s. There is loss of job security, loss of benefits and pensions, loss of good jobs for the less educated (and, yes, the vast majority of Americans still don’t have a college degree). Factories have been closing down, offshored, or downsized. There are many poor communities (rural and urban, black and white) where the majority of residents are unemployed and the majority of men caught up in the legal system.

As for Trump’s supporters, older whites with average education, the world has decidedly taken a bad turn. Middle aged whites and rural whites are experiencing worsening mortality rates, not seen since data was kept. The middle class in general has been shrinking with many having fallen down the economic ladder, a generation doing worse than their parents and grandparents.

America is better than it’s ever been, really? Wake the fuck up!

If you’re the type of person who keeps repeating this bullshit, know this. It is you, in your ignorance and disconnection, in your lack of understanding and compassion, who are helping to promote Trump’s cause. You are the reason his supporters are so outraged. You are part of the problem.

Why not, instead, be part of the solution?

Ides of March in America

“You know, people have totally forgotten the true spirit of the Ides of March. It’s not just about vilifying the great. You have to create a power vacuum when you dump them so that everybody gets sucked into the dirt.”
~ Nialle Sylvan, Owner of The Haunted Bookshop

This is why it’s so important to treat politics as preventative medicine.

If we had the long-term vision and moral courage to have fought hard for progressive reform in recent history, there never would have been Reagan voodoo economics, Clinton New Democrats, Bush security state, Obama more of the same, and now crazy Trump populism. If not for decades of lesser evil voting that shifted politics right and built the corporatist state, we wouldn’t be worrying about a possible power vacuum. If instead we Americans had voted for the greater good, there wouldn’t now be righteous outrage whipping up fears of greater evil.

There are different ways of thinking about the Ides of March.

It is the infamous day of Caesar’s assassination, by his friend and fellow ruling elite. In that light, it can be seen as our past choices and actions coming back to haunt us. We are betrayed by the very system we’ve become invested in. But this also represents a change of power and of the social order.

The Ides of March originally was the Roman new year celebration and a time of religious worship and festivals. It did represent the death of the old, but also the birth of the new or else rebirth and transformation. So, it is a time to contemplate the past and an opportunity to dedicate oneself to a different vision and course of action. It is a reminder that change can be a good thing and often much needed.

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

One century has ended and now here we are in this new century wondering what the future holds in these tumultuous times. Resisting change won’t stop it. Might as well embrace it and make the best of it.

Word of advice to the ruling elite: You might want to watch closely the rest of the ruling elite. While you’re worrying about the growing mob with pitchforks, there might be a dagger at your back. During times of change, those with the most to lose are often the first to go. Remember, the French Revolution that beheaded a king began with an uprising led by aristocrats.

As for the rest of us, onward and forward. It’s a new day.