Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A sort of footnote to the preceding

In response to the previous post, commenter Graeme said, in part (i.e., this is edited):
When I was young I wanted nothing more than to be an American.

But after Vietnam and Nixon and Iran-Contra and a thousand other examples of a total misunderstanding of what life was all about, I began to doubt.

I have come to believe that America is the most dangerous nation in history and American arrogance will lead to our destruction.

Your common wisdom post is brilliant, heartfelt and utterly futile.

We are fucked.
(You can see the full, unedited, comment here.)

I started to write a response there but it started to get kinda long and it raised a point worth addressing, so I decided to make it a post.

I don't know if I necessarily would call the US "the most dangerous nation in history." As L. P. Hartley famously wrote (and historians have echoed), "The past is a foreign country" and as a friend once said to me, "history is a long time." Neither the Romans nor the Mongols, for two examples, were notable for either restraint of ambition or gentleness with enemies. However, if you're thinking in terms of the absolute, as opposed to the relative, destructive power available, the absolute total of the devastation that could be caused, coupled with the likelihood of it being used, then yes, the US is without doubt the most dangerous nation in history.

But that danger arises less because of our arrogance than because of our - and I will have to explain the word immediately after I use it - innocence. By that I mean our national social conviction, i.e., our cultural mythology, that we really are a good, moral, gentle, people who always act with the purest of motives and the highest of ideals and the multitude of examples to the contrary are individual aberrations, the exceptions that prove the rule - in much the same way that the right wing dismisses every reactionary scumball who guns down some leftist or government official as a "lone wacko" whose actions say nothing at all about the right's rhetoric and ideology, with the exception that in the case of our national mythology, it is something in which many many Americans genuinely believe even if they never think of it so directly.

Indeed, I have referred to this mythology of "American innocence" as the most dangerous of our national mythologies (yes, plural; every culture will have several) because it enables us to undertake and pursue the greatest follies, the greatest inanities, the greatest cruelties, the greatest acts of greed, selfishness, bigotry, and imperialism all the while telling ourselves we are doing a good or at least the least bad thing, which makes it more likely you will be prepared to undertake those follies and cruelties. (Parenthetically, I recognize that this sort of extreme self-confidence in your own purity can be considered a form of arrogance but I persist in regarding it as a matter less of consciously looking down on other nations and peoples and more one of being genuinely puzzled as to why they don't think more highly of us than they do.) Yes, it is a delusion, but it is one shared to at least a small degree by most of us as it is part of what defines being "an American."

What all this means is that we may well be fucked, we may well be headed for an ultimate destruction that will take a lot of others down with us, it's just that the reason isn't a national arrogance but the power of some who have learned how to manipulate our national myths for their own selfish short-term benefit. I certainly have said so myself more than once: I have, for example, used some variation of the phrase "We are so screwed" in no less than 35 posts and yes, I counted.

But having said that, then what? Sometimes, especially when the darkness moves across me, the world I see coming is likewise one of gray shadows and chilly drizzle: It's a world of vanishing personal privacy coupled with increasing government secrecy; a world of diminished political freedoms; a world suffering massive environmental degradation driven by global warming, leading to bloody wars as tens, no, scores of millions of environmental refugees spark fights over shares of diminished resources; and here at home, an economic structure resembling the days of Hell's Kitchen and Five Points and Robber Barons with aid programs and worker rights to match. I have more than once said that I am sometimes glad that I will not live to see that world I see coming.

So in light of all that, in light of the apparent, to adopt Graeme's word, utter futility of it all, why am I still here in this lonely corner of the blogosphere? Why do I still write letters, go to meetings, sign petitions, turn out on the streets when the opportunity arises? What, dammit, is the point?

The point, I suppose, is to "not go gentle into that good night" because, as I reflected once before, even when all that's left is the fall, still how you fall, how you fail, matters both for the future and for your own honor.

It is a frequent but rarely noted truth that even the harshest cynics among us quite often actually are, in their hearts, unregenerate romantics whose sharp words are honed on the irrational, inexplicable, unsupportable, but still unshakeable conviction that things not only should be but can be better than they are, a conviction that makes the too-obvious failings that much harder to take, their bitter taste upon entering the mouth generating the bile that comes out of it.

I count myself among those people, those, if you will, romantic cynics (or cynical romantics), those who despair, who predict doom, but who never quite give up hope. A while back I came to the conclusion that the only thing that keeps me going, the only thing that sustains that eternal flicker of hope, is the realization that while I can't guarantee that anything I do will do a damn bit of good, I can't guarantee that anything I do will help, I can guarantee that doing nothing, won't.

So I say "we're fucked, we're screwed, I despair at the present and fear for the future" and I keep saying how it's a dark time - but I do use the word "surviving" and so at some point I shrug and carry on as best as I can. Because, at the end of it all, what else is there to do?

2 comments:

Miguel said...

At my stage in life, as I look back on it, I see a stream of fortune and happy moments, punctuate by some sorrow and painful events. As I look to the future, I see the future the same way. Our children will struggle with inequalities, poverty, wars, famines and genocides; much like us. Either they'll choose to ignore or justified them in order to survive the unbearable internal pain they cause or as other will do, take action to find remedies and solutions to what today are insurmountable problems. Either way, this blue sphere floating in space will continue to spin and the inexorable vitality of life itself will carry on as it has for millions of years. Cheers!

LarryE said...

It's odd that a vision of continued struggle with "inequalities, poverty, wars, famines and genocides" can be an encouraging one - but in the context of embracing "the inexorable vitality of life," well, it can be.

Thanks for commenting.

 
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