A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
There’s no end to the maladies that ail American politics these days. It would, indeed, be far easier and quicker to identify what’s working than to itemize the travails that bedevil our pathetic polity in 2017. Altogether, if this country was a piece of art it would have to combine the orderliness of Pollock with the perceptual logic of Dali, all rooted in the joyful well-being of Hieronymous Bosch, in order to do justice to our times.
For those of you who for some reason always wanted to know what it looks like when an empire cracks apart, I’ve got some lovely news for you: A certain North American specimen, not generally known for its generosity, is nevertheless happy to oblige you today. Truly, the full catalog of America’s political woes could crash Amazon’s entire array of server farms, and most of us are struggling enough with chronic nausea these days such that revisiting all these horror stories again is way too depressing to contemplate. So I won’t. But there is one thing that inflames my tortured mind more than any of these items – perhaps because it is the one thing that explains them all.
Here it is: I am sickened to live in a society that treats a malignant illness as just another legitimate point of view, when in fact it’s the very disease that is killing us. We don’t treat a heroin epidemic as an innocuous choice that some may opt for and some may reject. We don’t treat cholera as just another flavor of ice cream that some prefer while others go for strawberry. And we don’t welcome Nazism as a legitimate belief system that deserves the same consideration as any other old model of race relations a society might adopt. So why do we treat ‘conservatism’ like some harmless cup of tea that some choose over Earl Grey or Jasmine?
I’m dead serious. And I mean like, literally, dead serious, because if we’re honest about it, that which goes by the name of conservatism today is not an ideology – it’s a death machine.
Maybe there was once a responsible, legitimate (if misguided and merely moderately deceitful) ideology by the name of conservatism – I don’t know. Regardless, we’re not talking about Dwight Eisenhower or Gerry Ford here. We’re talking about societal hemlock. And it’s been that way for a generation or two, but of course now the threat from this monstrosity is no longer just a moral disaster, it’s a full-blown existential crisis, wrapped inside a suicide vest.
Death machine, huh? Maybe you’re thinking, “Sure, those Trump idiots are completely bonkers, but calling them a willful agent of the apocalypse is little extreme. I mean, artistic license is a good thing, but c’mon man…” Sorry. I’m not kidding. I’m being quite literal. This is a belief system which is bringing death to thousands-year-old traditions of Western values, to democracy, to the country, to people’s lives, to the truth, and to the planet. Because of the threat this represents, we need to stop treating ‘conservatism’ as just another legitimate ideological choice. It’s not. It’s a murder weapon metastasized to global proportions.
That this movement is a threat to Western values is transparent. Today’s so-called ‘conservatives’ are the enemy of equality, human rights and liberty (despite their protestations to the exact contrary). They instead embody elitism, bigotry and repression. They don’t stand for gay rights any more than they ever did for civil rights back in the day, or equal pay for equal work. They worship power and its use to colonize others abroad while repressing dissent at home. Five minutes at any given Trump rally last year would have made that clear enough. But in case the message was somehow lost, one look at our fearless leader and his fawning relations with the likes of Putin, Erdogan and Duterte, combined with the shattering of the Western alliance with leaders like Angela Merkel and those of other (once-)allied democracies tells you all you need to know.
And no, it’s not just one buffoon we’re talking about here. While a number of right-wing pundits have – to their partial credit – repudiated Trumpism, there are loads of problems with that alibi for their movement. First, a whole lot of other folks have not disowned the walking crime scene that is the Trump White House. Second, these are pundits – hardly a single Republican officeholder in Washington has found it ethically necessary to distance him or herself from the moral abyss DBA an orange-haired gorilla in a Brioni suit. Most importantly, however, Trump is far less the historical aberration from the tendencies of the last four decades than he is the expression of its logical outcome. The right has been trucking in racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, military aggression, environmental destruction and armed robbery of the 99 percent going back at least as far as William F. Buckley and Ronald (Jesus’ Kid Brother) Reagan. Methinks the ladies of the conservative intelligentsia (pardon the oxymoron) doth protest too much when they seek to distance themselves from an administration whose only difference from its Republican predecessors is the grotesque overtness of its toxicity. (Especially when it doesn’t take a Svengali to see that this administration is going to jail, and that its place in history will make Nixon look like Abraham Lincoln by comparison. It ain’t too brave to want to make sure your name isn’t associated with that particular catastrophe.)
Speaking of the rest of the GOP, they are even more liable for the destruction of American democracy than is McDonalds Stump himself. Democracies, of course, are built on such requisite features as constitutions, elections, fixed institutions with defined powers, and so on. But underlying all of that is something of even greater importance, a political culture that forms the fabric and the foundation upon which any democracy must be built. This foundation silently and implicitly stipulates the rules of the game and the boundaries of permissible behavior, and without it, there can be no functioning democracy. It is defined by elements such as a shared national identity that supersedes partisanship, an understanding that certain principles must be protected – even at the cost of one’s own political fortunes – in order for the system to survive, and a basic level of trust such that one can hand over the keys of government to the other side without fearing that that new government will become a weapon used against the losers of an election, while at the same time believing that the next election will provide a genuine opportunity to return to power. These are the least tangible aspects of what sustains a functioning democracy, but they are also the most crucial. After all, you can have a formal written constitution or not, you can have a president or a prime minister, you can have two parties or many, you can have powerful states within a national government or not. In all these profound ways the British system differs from the American one, but nobody would claim that the UK is therefore not a democracy. What matters at the end of the day is the political culture of mutual respect and trust, the norms and the self-imposed restraints that form the fabric and foundation of a functioning democratic political culture.
And this is precisely what ‘conservatives’ have not been conserving for forty years now, but rather instead destroying. The necessity of preserving this crucial political culture is why impeaching a president for lying about a personal sexual relationship matters. It is why five conservative members of the Supreme Court breaking all their own internal rules and supposed principles in order to install their guy in the White House matters. It’s why using the country’s racial divide to win elections matters. It’s why relentlessly employing the filibuster to block every item on the agenda of a president from the other party – even those items that you supported yourself only yesterday – matters. And why it matters when you then alter filibuster rule when it’s used in the same way against you. This is why radical gerrymandering matters. This is why targeted voter suppression of the other party’s base in order to prevail in elections you couldn’t otherwise win matters. This is why refusing to act on a Supreme Court nomination for a year in order to get the nominee you want instead matters. And its why falsely claiming elections are rigged matters.
I have nothing particularly nice to say about the feeble and ineffectual (on a good day) Democratic Party, and especially its last two presidents. But all of the above examples of the undermining of American democracy in our time come from the Republican Party and the supposedly conservative folks who inhabit it. For all the many failings of the Democrats, there is no equivalent to any one of these items on their side of the aisle, let alone an equivalent to all of them. The upshot is that rather than conserving the Founders’ democratic system that conservatives are forever cynically clothing themselves in, they are in fact destroying it. This is not death by a thousand cuts, but rather death by relentless saber slashes.
Conservatism is also death in a quite literal sense, as well. Just ask the million or so Iraqis who perished because of the right’s war of choice justified by lies. Er, oops, wait a second… Turns out you can’t ask them, because they’re dead, killed by conservatives. But you could ask the tens of thousands Americans who are alive today because of Obamacare – which conservatives have fought relentlessly – and who may be dead tomorrow if the GOP manages to kill what skimpy health care protections Americans now enjoy. Or you can ask the workers who will be dying because the conservative movement is so determined to remove any sort of workplace safety regulations from providing them even modest protection. Or those who whose lives will be sacrificed in order to destroy the (woefully) basic environmental standards that have been built up over the last half-century. If you want to know what conservatism means for our environment and health, look no further than Flint, Michigan. The story that nobody in the media bothers to tell about that insane catastrophe is why it happened. The reason that ‘Flint’ has now become shorthand for environmental meltdown and lethal governmental buffoonery is that conservatives in Michigan’s government – who fervently ‘believe’ in local control, mind you – passed legislation allowing the state to simply take over control of municipalities whenever it saw fit, despite the electoral choices of voters in those communities. That’s what the conservative Snyder administration then proceeded to do in Flint, and the rest is history. By the way, their justification for doing so was that Flint was being mismanaged, so they – wait for it, now – had to come in and get it right. You can’t make this shit up. And if you did, you could never find anyone in Hollywood willing to make a movie out of it, on account of its absurdly ridiculous improbability.
But we’re not done yet. Conservatism also means death to the truth. Of course, when it comes to Herr Bloated Pumpkinhead and the current administration, the scale of dishonesty is absolutely epic. It is literally no exaggeration to say that a consumer of any generic statement by this White House would be more likely to know the truth by simply assuming its opposite is the case, than he or she would by accepting any given tweet or Spicerism as fact. No wonder Orwell is selling like hotcakes these days. This is a true “2+2=5″ moment, Winston.
It’s hardly surprising that a career New York City real estate developer who has spent a lifetime doing little but shameless self-promotion and fabricating scams running the gamut from bottled water to bottled diplomas would be unable to speak truthfully about nearly anything. And of course, when we say ‘anything’ here, we mean… anything. What’s somewhat astonishing and most definitely disturbing, however, is the reaction that his compulsive tendency to lie produces among the roughly forty percent of Americans who form his political base. What has gone so wrong in the lives of these ‘conservatives’ that they not only tolerate being lied to incessantly, but actually crave it? This is not the place for an extended discussion of that question, but suffice it to say that conservatism’s appeal among the public – including many whom it harms the most – cannot be understood outside the realm of political psychology. One might view these ‘comfortably numb-nuts’ as the rightful inheritors of America’s storied Know Nothing tradition, but in fact that’s too generous a label, since it turns out that it is actually possible in this world to know less than nothing if you’re willing to work hard enough at it. When you believe that Iraq really had WMD, or that cutting taxes on billionaires will get you a sweet job, or that Donald Trump has your back, well then, graduating to the status of being a full-blown Know Nothing truly is something for which you are well-positioned to aspire.
This is where, alas, the Founders got it wrong, with their Enlightenment model of rationally calculating citizens. A good hundred million plus Americans have literally lost their minds in our time and, in order to soothe the resentments torturing their savage souls, they are taking down the country around their heads as they descend into an emotionally satisfying madness.
Or, at least it used to be the country they are taking down. Now it’s the world. With the president’s destruction of the Paris climate change accord, American conservatism is now bringing it on a planetary scale. Could this possibly be more jaw-dropping in its sheer stupidity? We are talking here about a phenomenon that literally threatens life on this planet, and conservatives – who are otherwise so consumed with fear so much of the time – insist on rejecting slam-dunk scientific evidence and making sure that we perish instead. Again, the pathological psychology of these folks is the only way to understand such a suicide mission, such an act of terrorism on a global scale. The president’s speech was entirely laced with the rhetoric of bogus grievance – about how the United States is the laughing stock of the world because we’re being duped and cheated by smarter, tougher, more cynical countries, and blah, blah, freaking blah… Apart from the sheer absurdity of this trope on the basis of any sort of actual logic or fact, there remains this outstanding question: Even if it was all true, who the hell cares? If the planet winds up being destroyed, does it really matter whether in the preceding years one country’s GDP grew a half-percent slower than that of some other countries? What’s that old line about deck chairs…? Could there be any other accurate term for a belief system that so jeopardizes an entire planet than ‘death machine’?
We need to stop fooling around with this shit. Smallpox is not just another disease. Totalitarianism is not just another political system. Nuclear war is not just another form of conflict. And what calls itself ‘conservatism’ today is not just another form of legitimate, maybe-they’re-right-maybe-they’re-wrong, ideology.
All of these are life-threatening pathologies of epic proportion. It’s bad enough that we have to expend so much energy to keep them at bay. But, by treating conservatism and conservatives as reasonable and acceptable we not only legitimize the unspeakable, we massively enhance its likelihood of successfully killing us.
Today’s ‘conservatism’ is not an ideology – it’s a goddam death machine. And we should welcome it into our homes and communities every bit as much as we would the Black Plague.
Members of the Trump regime clap along like subservient children as President Donald Trump announces America’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)