Consider the source

The new season of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast is about mass delusion. It’s about how cultural programming distorts the perception of reality. In the U.S., this story that we’ve told ourselves — America is great, and we defeat the bad guys, and we’ll also give you the means to buy as much stuff as you want — is profoundly pervasive. Ask anyone who came out of public school thinking, “What the fuck was that all about?” Every history lesson, every English lesson: The curriculum springs forth from a deep-seated cultural belief that we are here to set the standard for human civilization and government. It’s why guys like Francis Fukuyama end up bankrolled by political science departments in schools from Cal State to Yale.

I bring up Gladwell only because his journalism is chronicling the biggest story in the world right now: the collapse of democratic institutions in the United States. Now, he doesn’t explicitly cover this topic in his podcast (at least not in any episode yet), but his insistence on “mass delusion” as a journalistic beat is something that demands careful, critical attention right now.

“It can’t happen here.”

That’s the title of Sinclair Lewis’ vital 1935 novel, and I’d recommend any American political observer read it. The narrative arc is far more Hitler than Trump, but Lewis nonetheless points out the common-denominator factors of fascist rule: dehumanization, xenophobic “defense” policies, military supremacy, racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric in the White House, boundless protections for corporate power, legitimized cronyism and public corruption, and so on. If this sounds familiar, that’s the point I’m getting at. There’s a word for what’s happening: We’ve chosen to call it “authoritarianism,” or, more colloquially, “fascism.” It can happen here, too.

It’s important that we call things by their proper names. This helps prevent self-delusion and gas-lighting.

On a grander, nationwide scale, you can see how an unwillingness to use correct words can turn into tacit approval for authoritarian rule. This really isn’t anything new, in the historical sense. But economist Umair Haque, who’s been cited on this blog before, points out today that Americans’ cultural origin story inherently blinds us. It’s the same story Lewis wrote almost 100 years ago, wherein he eviscerated the mass delusion of post-Depression anger. Lo, and an angel appeared who willed away our penniless nights of hunger! And the angel said: Those other people will pay for our misfortune! And we saw that it was so, and it was good.

Because we defeat the bad guys, and we’ll give you the means to buy as much stuff as you want, there’s no time or cultural leg-room to even consider the slide into authoritarian rule. It can’t happen here!

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6/12/10 BDTNL

Eight years ago today, I graduated from Ohio University. I know this only because Phish archivist Kevin Shapiro tweeted about the anniversary of the 6/12/10 Backwards Down the Number Line, the first version of that song to really step out of its compositional boundaries — to go “type II” as they say./

It feels like several eons have passed. I was asked not too long ago by someone “how many chapters” there’d been in my life so far. It’s one of the better questions I’ve ever been asked. 6/12/10 remains one of the more significant turning points, one of the more pivotal moments between chapters– the passage from what seemed like a dreamworld into something far more involved and teeming. I’ve learned quite a bit since then about how to comport myself in the wilds of life. I’ve learned fleeting lessons about who I am. Not enough, but quite a bit.

Anyway, I think about chapters a lot.

And so I walked across the stage at commencement, said goodbye to friends and to a wonderful apartment — a kaleidoscopic city, all told — and hit the road for Cleveland and a series of events, some good and some bad.

I didn’t make it to the Phish show that night. That life-altering experience — my first trip to see the band — wouldn’t take place for another two months.

Earning a journalism degree, seeing Phish for the first time, landing my first job as a local reporter, seeing Phish for the second time: 2010 was riddled with the rapid-fire early stirrings of thematic elements that would follow me through my 20s. I’ll be 30 this fall, and I can already see the turning of the sun toward new adventures, new chapters.

The slide

If you’re not jarred by the “historic handshake” adorning the front page of your wispy-thin Plain Dealer this morning, then perhaps take a closer look at the casual longing in your president’s body language. Read the transcripts from Singapore. Here you see one tyrant jealous of another, more successful version of what he could become — of how he could rule!

Here, Umair Haque distills the decades-long slide into American authoritarianism. (His archive is riddled with historical context behind, e.g., late-1920s German economics and how patterns reproduce across history.) We’ve got a front-row seat for something that comes around every few generations in the modern world, and this week offers sterling examples of what most of us learned at the middle school lunch table: As one’s values shift, one’s friends will only put up with that horseshit for so long. This didn’t start with Trump, but the sheer velocity of the last two years is remarkable.

“His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor.”

Is Trump describing Kim and his concentration camps? Or is he projecting something?

American exceptionalism in the Endless War — now and always!

In the dying light of a setting sun between DFW and CLE last night, I read this excellent forum transcript on the subject of “America’s Endless War.” To those who’ve forgotten that this country has pushed hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers into politicized limbo in the Middle East, well, the invasion launched in 2003 is still well under way. Not much has changed. I don’t doubt that my future children will lament the same war even when they’re gray-haired fathers and mothers themselves.

The main takeaway is something that I’ve been thinking about for years — and especially lately, in this neo-jingoistic atmosphere that we’ve all seemed to enjoy cultivating in the U.S. I’m thinking of the absolute societal prohibition on speaking out against the military, on suggesting even remotely that we reorient our defense priorities as a country. To hint at dissent, to say that perhaps the troops are being led into disaster time and time again, wasting our resources and time and money, is to ostracize yourself from mainstream discourse immediately.

Bacevich: You are saying American exceptionalism has a racial element, right? That even though the instrument of exceptionalism—the military—is integrated pretty successfully, our expectations of who we are and what we can achieve hark back to a white, Christian, male image. But it’s not explicit.

Daddis: I think it is explicit when you take a look at the theories underpinning American exceptionalism—like modernization theory from the Fifties and Sixties. We still believe that there is a formula and there is an end state and we are the end state. General Stanley ­McChrystal used to say in Afghanistan, “We’ve got a government in a box.” That is military orientalism—the idea that rational, culturally advanced Americans can impose their ways on the savage other in a foreign land. It’s a theoretical assumption based on racism.

Bacevich: That conviction is hardwired into many Americans—that we are the chosen people and that we came into existence in order to fulfill some kind of providential purpose. And it doesn’t seem to be going well in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dempsey: Sadly, being played for suckers in other people’s wars might just be the purest expression of American exceptionalism.

Bacevich: To acknowledge that is to commit what, in the context of our civil religion, is a mortal sin.

Indeed.

The “civic religion” phrase is a useful tool, from Harper’s contributing editor Andrew Bacevich. I’ve seen Neal Gabler employ that idea over at billmoyers.com, and I think it’s something we should all bear in mind in the years ahead. It’s nothing new — this notion that American political shouting matches and divisive social “identity” rhetoric are the sermons and opium of our era. It’s a tale as old as time, really. It just used to be called, simply, “religion.” Tax dollars in place of tithes: The idea that we’re all stuck in this cycle of City Hall/White House economic fuckery makes it feel far more inclusive than the church — far more “normalized,” to use your favorite liberal blogger’s phrase du jour.

And so there’s no room to debate the structure and historical arc of the Endless War. There’s no room to scrutinize the Department of Defense and the federal appropriations bills that loft war spending well into the stratosphere. The ethos of this civic religion turns shades of gray into pure black-and-white surface-level arguments. Do you support the troops or not? Whattaya, some libtard scum? Fuck outta here! …and so on.

That’s not helpful, because it advances nothing of intellectual value. There’s no progress. There’s no breathing room for any debate of citizenship. There’s no inherent justification for that power structure, for the unimpeachable might of “the troops!” — who aren’t there to answer an indictment themselves! Rather, we’re told to trust in faceless generals and presidential administration personnel who know good and well that, before long, it’ll be the next guy’s problem. In the meantime, the American public will keep the fires rolling and the war, the Endless War!, will continue without question.

As long as the war goes on, and as long as the American bloodthirst pushes young men and women into the inexorable killing machine, the republic will thrive, if only because there will be no overt resistance. There will be no fundamental justification for any of it; the “Support the Troops” folks won’t allow it! The religion depends on delusional buy-in.

It’s the Allegory of the Cave. Nothing new here. Nothing to see.

Archie

I’ve been in St. Louis for the last 36 hours, and the Gateway Arch has loomed above my visit the entire time. It’s an omnipresent reminder of so many things in this city.

The national park itself is a tremendous and breathtaking visual: One feels like Alice, peering into the past and the future at an incomprehensible scale. The arch is pure 1960s expressionism, a bombast for the purest intent of America. It’s awesome, in the older translation of the word, and it should remind any truth-seeking citizen of the chasm in our histories. Westward the course of empire made its way, indeed, leaving behind a yawning library of death and pestilence and creative depth the country had yet not witnessed. What’s left in its wake is a touristy Sunday afternoon and a $13 ride to the top for photos.

Of what?

People on the ground take photos of people at the top, who take photos of people on the ground. The arch is stuck in the middle.

What’s true of arches is true, of course, of cities and countries.

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I’m generally not one for product endorsements of any type, but please do check out the new season of Revisionist History. The opening episode is a riveting — riveting — dissection of the political implications of grammar in the U.S. Constitution.

I listened to the first two seasons while driving around the Mid-Atlantic last year for Phish. I learned a lot about a lot of things.

Primary

Power springs from the grassroots.

It used to be that every cretin in Washington was once a down-ballot huckster peddling “big ideas” in backwater neighborhoods. Wasn’t that nice?

I think there’s something to be said for the old Emma Goldman rap that “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal,” but there are few things more important in a democratic republic than keeping a watchful eye on the crooked-footed monster scrambling for a piece of your ass. We can put a stop to them at the local level, before they do any more lasting harm to people.

And, on the other hand, we can take this opportunity to lift up local voices who shine a light on darkness and speak truth on behalf of the poor and the marginalized — those attentive organizers who seek a healthier society and, as befuddling as it seems, believe that public office is the proper route for real change. Who knows? Maybe they’ll go on to topple the oligarchy someday. But not without your help!

Every choice has consequences. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.