Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Déjà vu vu vu, part two

There have been all kinds of analyses as to why the election turned out as it did. The most common, the "values voters," doesn't have near the potency that is being assigned to it because while 22% of voters, according to exit polls, said "values" were their biggest consideration, those polls did not probe what those voters meant by the word. It was simply assumed that "values" always meant anti-gay, pro-Bush voters. The truth is, what put Bush over the top was likely the very thing that Kerry was supposed to be the "Anybody But Bush" who could best challenge it: national security. That's the openly contended area where Bush maintained a consistent double-digit lead - partly because of "don't change horses" thinking, partly because of the slams, slurs, and slanders against Kerry, and partly because Kerry never made clear just what it was he'd do differently.

The point here, though, is not to re-argue to campaign or the polls. It's to suggest that there's something to which we've given very little thought: the sources, the driving forces behind, the overall conservative resurgence. Not just in this election, but generally over the past few decades. We haven't, to refer to the cliche, looked at the forest.

So I want to pull out two other old things I found in the same search as that which produced the previous item. They weren't - especially the first - written with this purpose in mind, but they do relate to efforts to answer the question that has plagued us since at least 1980: Why do average people keep voting against their own best interests?

The first excerpt actually arose out of an exchange about religion I had with a friend in the UK. You can, if you want, skip the first two paragraphs and still get the sense of my argument. Don't worry, it does relate to the issue at hand.
I have an interest in the historical Jesus, that is, Jesus as the philosopher and teacher, as the real living person, not as the phony created God. For example, a question non-Christian (and some Christian) Biblical scholars occasionally ask is, did Jesus mean to start a new religion? Put another way, did he mean to overthrow Judaism? Did he really think himself a redeemer, a savior, a god? Never mind the "miracles:" Being a miracle-worker, a healer, is no indication, since there were many such healers before, during, and after his time and while being able to do "great works" was regarded by his contemporaries as a sign of special authority from God, it was not regarded as a sign of divinity. Never mind the interpretations developed when this small, heretical band decided to bring their rabbi's teachings to non-Jews, believing his message to be one of universal salvation not limited to Jews alone (a revolutionary notion for the Jewish community of the time), and found they had to adjust their laws and doctrines in order to make any headway (the elimination of the requirement for circumcision being the most obvious example). Never mind Calvin and Luther and Augustine and (most importantly) Paul. Consider just what Jesus himself said.

In that light, it's interesting to note that in three of the four Gospels, the synoptic Gospels, the only place where his (supposed) words are recorded, he never once referred to himself as the son of God but rather as the son of Man, which in the Judaic tradition meant something entirely different. The son of God could mean the "Christ," the redeemer, the promised savior; the son of Man was a prophet with a special relationship to God, through who God would speak to "his people" and whose mission was to prepare the way for God's promised kingdom. (And, in fact, could also refer simply to an ordinary person, since every man was a "son of Man." Gender usage as per the usage of the time.) While Jesus didn't deny the title "son of God" - he didn't correct others who called him that - he avoided (cagily at times) acknowledging it and sometimes ordered his disciples to avoid using the term publicly. It's only in John, written, it's generally believed, for a non-Jewish audience who wouldn't be familiar with the distinction and in which the terms "son of God" and "son of Man" appear to be used interchangeably, that Jesus is recorded as having described himself by the former term. And even there, "son of God" is used only five times while "son of Man" is used ten - and even some of those five are vague enough that it's impossible to tell if Jesus meant himself or just a man, any man.

Even through the partisan, pro-divinity filter of the Gospels, it seems clear (to me) that the answer to those questions about Jesus' view of himself and his work is no. He didn't see himself as the "Christ," but rather as an instrument to bring about God's kingdom. Indeed, he said himself that he did not intend to destroy the Judaic law, but to fulfill it. What he believed and taught was the necessity to prepare the way for the final days by returning to a purer form of Judaism, arguing that the priests and pharisees and Sadducees had (in their different ways) perverted it out of their own vanity and pride.

There is in that a fascinating parallel with more recent events in more recent times. Consider the puritans of 16th and 17th century England, who railed against the hierarchy of the Church of England, against the "grand ceremonies" and rites and vestments, and urged a "return" to a "purer" form of Christianity (thus the insulting appellation "Puritan") in preparation for (and, for many, anticipation of) the predicted second coming of Jesus - a tradition renewed of late (i.e., the last few decades - we are talking historical time here) in the growth of independent evangelical churches.

And, in its own way, the current political cries for "traditional values" echo that same theme: The old ways and days, so many believe, were simpler, not so complicated, purer, better, closer to some ultimate truth which we in our pride, our commitment to the pleasures of technology or the earth or (usually) the flesh have forgotten. Conservatives, right-wing ministers, and even those who talk of the wisdom and mysterious technologies of "ancient civilizations" are far more nostalgic than the most cliched 55-year old hippie in sandals and love beads. Whenever the present looks stressful and the future doubtful, there are those who find their security in a dimly recalled and largely imaginary past. Change is frightening to many (fear of change being the one common psychological thread across classes and ages among people who call themselves "conservative") and history has the virtue of being - or, more properly, seeming - sure.

Are we really to think, for example, that it's coincidence that the right wing gained strength in the wake of the '60s, which challenged previously "self-evident" beliefs on an unprecedented scope and demanded people rely on their own wits to judge moral and ethical questions? Are we likewise to think it coincidence, to return to an earlier theme, that puritanism gained strength and adherents during a time when not even one but two supernovas visible in broad daylight occurred (1572 and 1604), so thoroughly shattering the centuries-old and blindly accepted Aristotelian notion that the heavens were eternal and unchanging that even the Catholic church hierarchy couldn't maintain it? I've for a long time argued that the great emotional attraction of conservatism in all its forms is its certainty: You don't have to decide if something is fair or unfair, right or wrong, good or bad. You just have to know what someone else told you. It's already been decided. The doubt, the fear, the questions, the responsibility are all gone. The power of David Koresh was rooted in the emotional desperation of his followers: It wasn't his theology, which, from what I know of it, was infantile, but his certainty that captured their hearts, their minds, and ultimately their wills.

So it's legitimate to examine the emotional climate in which Jesus lived and preached. (Thought I wouldn't get back to it, didn't you?) It was, in fact, a time of simmering tension over the Roman occupation, during which numerous hasidim, in the words of one scholar, "went about healing the sick, controlling the weather, casting out devils, and quarrelling with the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem." That hierarchy was conservative and collaborated with the Romans out of a (legitimate) fear that the alternative was military reprisals, a position that did little to endear it to nationalist Jews - some of who staged riots and other forms of violent resistance. We tend to forget that the rebellion that lead to the Romans destroying the Temple broke out only a little over 30 years after Jesus' execution. In short, it was a time when many - not just Jesus and not just his followers - thought that the promise of God's kingdom was to be fulfilled. Jesus preached the necessity of doing good works and the lack of necessity of the rites, rituals, and politics of the high priests as preparation for that kingdom, which he predicted would come within the lifetimes of his disciples. The kingdom he envisioned was a spiritual, heavenly one (Some of his supporters abandoned him when they figured out he wasn't the Messiah they expected, who was to bring an earthly kingdom.) and preparation for it was to be found in - surprise - the old ways, the old, simple, "pure" ways.
Simply, the more stressful the times, the more looming the change, the greater the anxiety, the more likely conservatism becomes, the more likely a turn to what seems familiar, what seems to be firm ground, what seems safe.

Fast forward to 1994, after the cliched "angry white male" had carried the Newt-wits to victory in the Congress. This was written in the spring of 1995:
What makes the present moment more difficult is that the so-called "angry white male" is not without legitimate grievances: His hopes are shrinking, his dreams for his family and his children are fading, he keeps working harder and getting less for it - he is, in short, losing ground and has been doing it for nearly 20 years now. (Real median family income in the US peaked around 1977 and has been declining more or less continuously since, despite the fact that the average work week has lengthened and more spouses than ever are working. Consider that the rich have gained over that time, and it's clear that the decline suffered by the middle class and the poor is considerably worse than that average.) Meanwhile, things that he thought he could take for granted in his social relationships have been subjected to almost constant assaults in which he is too often cast as the conscious villain of the piece rather than as what he is: the unwitting beneficiary of standards and (pre-)judgments that profit him in the short run but damage him in the long run.

The result is that he feels pressured, frustrated, haunted by the suspicion that he's failed his family, that his efforts are unappreciated, and that he's being blamed for things that "aren't my fault" - which combine to make him bitter and defensive; ready, even eager, to have someone to blame to relieve his own guilt and creeping despair.

Bill Clinton, of all people, expressed it well in a speech on April 8: Referring to middle-aged white men who when they were 20 looked forward to a "good life" of sending their kinds to college followed by a secure retirement, he said "Now they've been working for 15 years without a raise and they think they could be fired at any time. And they go home to dinner and they look across the table at their families and they think they let them down. They think somehow, what did I do wrong? It's pretty easy for people like that to be told by somebody else in the middle of a political campaign with a hot 30-second ad, you didn't do anything wrong, they did it to you."

And who, according to those bastards, are "they?" Intrusive big government. Irresponsible poor people. Environmental elitists/extremists/doomsayers. Selfish minorities. Pushy women. And what is it they "did?" Taxes that take away your money. Laze about on those taxes - your taxes - while you work harder than ever. Environmental laws that take away the job you have. Affirmative action programs that take away the job you deserve.

So the problem isn't that the "angry white male"'s frustrations are without any legitimate cause. It's rather that the very people who are most responsible for his contracting future, for his sense of loss (and for his genuine loss of economic security) - that is, the corporate elite, the rich, the powerful, those who've selfishly gained from the economic trends of the past two decades, those who benefit the most from the old oppressions and divisions - are the very people who are doing their damnedest (so far successfully) to get him to point his finger at anyone except them. The sad fact is, it's always easier to blame those weaker than yourself for reasons that are not only sociological but also psychological: In a foot race, you may resent or envy those in front of you, particularly if you see them pulling away - but it's those coming up from behind who make you feel a threat to your position. Meanwhile, challenging the legitimacy of the position of the leaders would require an adjustment in how the structure of the race itself is viewed. In other words, blaming the poor requires only calling them names. Blaming the rich requires re-thinking the nature of society. Which of those is more likely to be seized on by lost people who feel their world no longer makes sense?

I'm sure you've noticed ... how often I've used some variation of the word "loss" in describing people's feelings. It's my sense that people in the majority culture in the US (i.e., whites) are feeling that things which were valuable to them, important to them, things that gave their lives an, if you will, organizing core, that enabled them to orient themselves with respect to the world around them, are slipping away. More than that for some - being stripped away. And even that description, misty though it is, puts too fine an edge on it, implies too much of a conscious awareness, a conscious analysis. It's more of an undifferentiated sense of being adrift with neither moorings nor bearings, because things you thought you could count on before are no longer reliable.

The punditry, on those rare occasions it can be moved to consider our national mood in descriptions of more than three or four words, will usually point to the "social dislocation" caused by movements for racial, ethnic, and gender justice as the source of our malaise. (I have to laugh, for lack of another sanity-maintaining response, at the continual efforts to blame everything on "the '60s." On May 7, for example, the New York Times ran a page one story that described the rise of paranoid armed private militias of the sort that apparently carried out the Oklahoma City bombing as, quoting the title, "an unlikely legacy of the '60s!" How? Well, in the '60s people said "question authority" and these people distrust the government, so...QED, right?) I would argue, though, that what's happening is more fundamental than "concern about an economic downturn" or "confusion over changing social relations." I say that what's happening to us is a loss of hope. Just a generation or two ago, we as a people had a certain native, even naive, confidence that things would get better. Not necessarily any specific, identifiable thing, but, well, you know, things. More recently, that confidence has faded, to be replaced by the fallback position that "things" can get better. Now, even that limited faith has failed us.

And people feel - lost.

This is not to say, of course, that social stresses and economic strains are unrelated to this; they are. But contrary to the talking heads, they are not the cause(s), particularly not feminism, gay rights, "the legacy of the '60s," or whatever else it is they want to waggle their tongues at. Social changes can cause confusion and resentment, but you get over it, you adjust and move on and, usually, the next generation isn't sure what all the fuss was about. Economic recessions, even depressions, cause genuine hardship, but you hunker down, you survive, and expect that at the end of the day your children will be a little better off than you were. No, the cause is the context in which the present stresses and strains exist, and that context is an economic one, and that economic context is an unremitting stagnation in personal income that's coming to look as though it has no end, that this is no "slump" or "downturn" that will eventually reverse itself, that rather this is the way it is and is going to be, that it's not going to change, that work gets you nowhere and more work gets you more nowhere. (Of the six primary ethnic-gender groupings in the US - black, white, and Hispanic men and women - only one of them, white women, has made a clear gain in real median income over the last 20 years. The others have either stagnated or declined.) Perhaps never before in our history, certainly never before in this century, has such a large portion of our population (and not just those proverbial angry white guys, either) looked at their children and felt that those children will wind up worse off than they themselves are - felt, that is, like failures.

What has this has done to us? It's made us a little colder, a little harder, a little more inured to others' suffering, and a lot angrier. It's prompted us to regard as "unfair" anything (such as affirmative action) that we don't see as benefitting us, personally and immediately. It's propelled us toward isolation from our own communities, fragmentation of any sense of mutual responsibility, and condemnation of anyone different or "other."
What I'm suggesting through these lengthy quotes is that people are feeling more and more, without even it being so clear a thought, but feeling more and more that things are out of their control, that their energy has to go into holding on to what they have instead of building for a future. If they can't control some things, if they can't have influence over some things, they can still try to control others. They can't control their economic futures (or even have much impact on their present) but they can stop gays from being "just like us," from dammit changing the way it used to be. Yes, there is more than enough homophobia to go around. Yes, it is a battle that has been fought over and over, on religion, on race, on gender. But one of the things that has brought it to the forefront, one of the ways in which the issue has been manipulated to focus people's attention on it to the exclusion of issues that actually affect their lives in demonstrable ways, is that it's something people still feel they can control. One familiar thing they can keep just the way it is, something they can hold onto even as what I maintain is the genuine "American dream," the idea that your children will be better off than you are, slips further out of reach.

We can't easily fight that sense of loss of control by wonkishness. We don't lack policies, proposals, or programs; we lack, as others have said, a narrative. A theme, a meme of what progressives (noting as I have before that some Democrats still deserve the title) are about. I have my own notion of a narrative, a pull quote from that speech I quoted on November 12:
What I ultimately reject is the right of so few to have so much when so many have so little; what I ultimately resist is the power of so few to control so much when so many control so little. What I ultimately affirm is the right of every human being to a decent life free of hunger, fear, and oppression; what I ultimately demand from our society is the effort to guarantee that right.
The single word summary being "justice." What we have to do isn't to show people we have programs but to show that our programs provide hope. That it's the left, not the right, that offers them the promise of a better tomorrow. For example: While the right looks at the economy and cries that we all have to "sink or swim," we talk about providing everyone with water wings: You still have to do your own swimming but you won't drown in the process.

And we are the ones who actually talk about responsibility: The right talks about being responsible for yourself, and in that they just want the half that benefits the selfish and the rich who want to be freed from any commitments that don't profit them personally. But we talk about responsibility for yourself and responsibility to others, to the community as a whole; we talk about the whole thing, not just half.

Bottom line: They talk about "go for yourself." We talk about "love thy neighbor." And yes, dammit, that will require some sacrifices, but some things you do just because they're right, not because they're profitable - and if everyone is made to chip in the way they should, according to their ability, including the greedheads and top dogs who have been screwing all of us for decades, it probably won't be a sacrifice at all.

Most importantly, we are the ones who offer them control over their own futures. We are the ones who believe in their right to privacy. We are the ones who believe in their freedoms. We are the ones who want to include them in the overall discussion of where we will go as a people, not dictate the answers. Yes, yes, yes, you can have a say, you can have a voice, and not the imaginary ones like right-wing talk radio that allow you to vent in order to distract you while your future continues to contract. But a real voice in a real community. And a real way to build a real future for you and for your children. Real hope.

That's what we offer and what the right never can.

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