I have just returned to the US after four months in London. The British election was dispiriting, precisely because it seemed so dispirited. My on-the-ground sense (for what it is worth) is that the electorate was deeply tired and, thus, disengaged. There was little to no visible passion. The Brexit thing had exhausted every one except the right-wing and so the sense was “let’s fucking drive over this cliff; at least then it will be over. Better disaster then this endless wrangling.” I was not in the least surprised by Johnson’s victory–and it makes me think Trump will win in 2020 through a similar combination of cynicism, the opposition’s incompetence, an avalanche of lies, and the victory of a politics of fear and punishment (of the most vulnerable) over any kind of generous vision of society that cares for its members.
That said, I will take up blogging again now that I have returned.
I am having trouble disentangling the personal experience of decline that is old age from what I deem a more “objective” sense of decline in the world(s) I inhabit. For the record, I now, for the first time, feel old. Various capacities are slowly draining away. The decline is not precipitous, but it is relentless and certainly feels irreversible. There are no miracle cures or even roads to improvement out there. My responses to this fact range from impatience at my many new incompetencies to anger at my ineptitude to grief about my lost abilities. Old age is not pretty and how to suffer it gracefully so far eludes me.
But my grief and anger also focus on the current situation in my world(s). My mantra has become “I know I am old and cranky, but objectively things are worse.” Is that actually true? I can’t tell. I can only say that I look at the world and my guitar not so gently weeps. Was it really better in 1969 (when George Harrison wrote those words)? No. If you were gay, or a soldier in Vietnam, or living in many parts of the so-called third and second worlds, 2019 is likely better than 1969. The failure of American democracy, registered by the ability of the government to wage a senseless war in Vietnam for over ten years, was open to view then. The CIA’s shenanigans a few years later in Chile was evidence of a rogue state no less corrupt than Trump’s. Another danger of getting old: you end up saying I’ve seen all this before; there is nothing new under the sun.
So is something really different this time? I think so. What is different is the open cynicism, the complete unleashing of “I will take mine and death to all the others” without any shred of ideological cover. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue—and that tribute has now become passé. It’s open season on the poor, the immigrant, the “losers.” No need to even pretend to feel compassion for their troubles, not to mention actually doing anything to alleviate them. Just pour it on: scorn, neglect, direct harm. And the aggression to those least able to fend it off is met with howls of glee. I am constantly reminded of Yeats’s caustic poem of disillusionment, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”: “we, who seven years ago/Talked of honour and of truth/Shriek with pleasure if we show/The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.” As they say, this is unfair to weasels who are amateurs when we consider the violence humans can do—and the delight humans (and why mince words? it’s mostly men) can take in that violence.
More Yeats (has anyone ever traced the agonies and emotions that traverse aging better?) “My mind, because the minds that I have loved,/The sort of beauty that I have approved,/Prosper but little, has dried up of late,/Yet knows that to be choked with hate/May well be of all evil chances chief.” (From “Prayer for my Daughter”)
There is such pleasure in hatred. The ritual conversations that I and my ilk have about Trump and his minions have come to annoy me now. But they were sustaining for quite some time. Now I just want to walk away. I want to occupy another province, not the lowlands of hate. But the alternative seems to be resignation since I, too, live in a world where the things I most approved, most loved, most held dear, prosper but little of late. I think of myself as living in a world where I am a stranger to the beliefs, emotions, and desires of most of my fellow humans. I will never understand them—but they also seem to hold all the cards. Let me state the fear directly: after the Boris Johnson victory in England (you can hardly call it Britain since Scotland and even Northern Ireland voted the other way), I think Trump will win reelection. I think his nihilism and cynicism play well with an astonishing number of white Americans. They revel in taking the view that everyone is out to get me so I am best off hitting the first blow. Preemptive strikes: American orthodoxy since the Bush/Cheney years.
To be more parochial: the despair is not just about American society at large, but also about what is being done to higher education as a public institution and good. A combination of privatization and a relentless attack on critical thought and the production of knowledge. I guess we should be flattered that we are so hated and feared by the right-wing ideologues. But it is how ineffectual our responses are to these attacks that garners most of my attention. I feel on both the macro (society) and micro (university) level a helplessness as I watch the flood coming downriver with full relentlessness and agonizingly slow motion. The disaster unfolds slowly (rather like global warming) and we do nothing to alter its course.
I will admit to the old age crankiness of, to some extent, blaming the victims. I find my colleagues’ attitudes and behavior in the current crisis ostrich-like. They keep acting like it is 1960. Hannah Arendt was on to a deep truth when she saw much of the behavior in Nazi Germany as motivated by career ambition, by the sheer need to have and hold a job, and to keep advancing up the ranks placed above one’s current position. Academics (the ones lucky enough to occupy one of the diminishing number of tenurable positions) are focused, as they have ever been, upon getting that next book published and on getting their partner a job at the same school. Those quests absorb all their energy—and much (most?) of their interest, aside from the ritual denunciations of the Trump and their university’s administrations. These soi-disant radicals scream loudly against even the mildest suggestions of reform/change in their received practices. That the university might have to change in order to remain pertinent in a changed world is heresy to them.
That said, however, my experience at UNC clearly demonstrates that there is no placating the enemies of the university—and all that it stands for. Reforming our teaching and research practices (much as I think such reforms are needed) will not call off these weasels. My despair, it is fair to say, stems from my belief that the relentlessness and aggression of our right-wing enemies echoes a wide-spread “structure of feeling” in white America—and, here is the corresponding source of despair, a conviction that (despite the laudable insistence of some of my left-wing friends otherwise) there is simply no equivalent structure of feeling underwriting the kind of politics I hold dear. I simply do not believe that Sanders or Warren could win a national election. I think the right has succeeded in planting a fear of “socialism” so deep in the electorate’s psyche that Warren and Sanders would suffer the same fate as Corbyn. The British miracle election of 1945 comes to seem more and more a “black swan” when we consider post-1945 politics in both the UK and the US. For once, the promise of socialism triumphed over Churchill’s fear-mongering about the coming police state. The only equivalent might be LBJ’s 1964 victory—when a fear of right-wing radicalism equivalent to the fear of socialism for once led to victory. Of course, in the aftermath of that election, the Republicans discovered white American resentment and have ridden that horse ever since with pretty good results. (Yes, the Republicans are a minority party, but they have combined the oddities of the American institutional structure [the electoral college; the make-up of the Senate] with an absolutely ruthless undermining of democracy to secure their hold on power.)
So I don’t see a pathway out of the full unleashing of right-wing nastiness in the US and the UK. I guess we can say that the taboos against violence so far are holding. We are seeing nothing like the street fights (and killings) that characterized 1920s and 1930s Germany in the lead up to Hitler. Yes, we have our right-wing militias, but politically motivated domestic terrorism has been confined, so far, to loner shooters. I do think (and certainly hope I am right) that more organized violence would prove counter-productive, would generate a strong negative reaction to those using such tactics.
But the right-wing has not needed to resort to violence. Its aggressive shredding of institutional protections against the abuse of power has worked just fine. It has discovered that the electorate neither cares nor pays much attention to power-grabbing maneuvers that are procedural. There is no accountability any longer—for corporations that engage in various illegal financial capers, for rich tax evaders, or for politicians who work to deprive citizens of votes or to deprive elected officials of the other party their ability to function.
Among the things I hate is the wistfulness that accompanies my despair. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century literature (think Proust or Henry James, especially in the abominable Princess Casamassima, or even Virginia Woolf) is replete with tales that witness (helplessly) to the ongoing disappearance of a class (call them aristocrats, but better described as the leisured classes who did not have to earn their bread by working) whose faults the writers can see, but whose virtues they also think are superior to those of the commercial classes. These writers know this leisured class is doomed—and they don’t even try very hard to defend their existence, even though they think the coming world is bound to be worse. (Yeats and Eliot, of course, attempt more full-throated defenses of aristocracy, which is why they are anti-democratic conservatives in a way Proust, Woolf, and even James are not.)
I don’t like standing in a similar place, wistfully defending a set of values and a group of people who have lost their social standing, have lost their ability to influence the direction their society takes. But the flood of words from people like me—who never lose our ability to pour out more verbiage—seems more pathetic by the day. We wallow in our own virtue in a world where the weasels reign and we have nothing else to offer.
I will, per usual, knock on doors next fall, and do whatever else the Democrats ask me to do. Inevitably, I will once again donate money, and even run (as I have the last two cycles) a fund-raiser or two. I hate (so many things to hate!) abetting the link between politics and money (corrupting in every possible way) in the US. I try to abide by my resolution to give my money to local charities that I respect instead of to local political candidates. But I do not stick to that resolution resolutely. And all of it—from the knocking on doors to the raising of money—feels like tokenism to me. I don’t believe it makes an iota of difference. The real levers are located elsewhere, far from any place I will ever enter. So why do I do it? To ease my conscience. And also because people I love, people whose commitment to the fight inspires me because so whole-hearted (even as I think it naïve) do believe such things matter and ask me to do my bit. I don’t want to let them down, but they can also see my heart is not really in it. Just another messy compromise—giving something but not in a spirit that would make the gift truly welcome. But, then again, isn’t politics the art of compromise?
What does remain is the despair, the deep daily hurt of living in a society that is so cruel, and that revels in its cruelties. I don’t understand these people, yet not only must live among them, but also must accept their dominance, their ability to shape what gets done and said and felt. I will never reconcile myself to that fact—and it is crazy-making and depressing and fuels dreams of flight.