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The Road to Hell
That phrase appears in various contexts: like a kind of marker of pop wisdom, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”; or as a lyric from a rock song; or as a catch- all for all kinds of bad situations, etc. But here I want to allude to its use recently by the General Secretary of the UN, Antonio Guterres, as he put it bluntly:
“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator. We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing.”
From what has transpired at COP27, it looks like no national leaders have taken the General Secretary’s words seriously. But here I would like to expand the full impact of that statement to include our (U.S.A.) political culture and our social and economic “climate.” And I would like to begin this reflection with an episode shown on CNN….here is the link:
Jordan Klepper, a CNN reporter interviews this white, middle-class woman who is an “election denier.” Klepper asks her about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. She says it was a peaceful gathering. She says she turned off her TV when it started showing the attack because that “was not what was happening.” This person is living inside her own bubble…her own world of “truth.” Only what pleases her is accepted as true, as fact. That is a scary and dangerous place to be. And what is even more disturbing is that millions of Americans, the overwhelming majority, both conservative AND liberal are in the same boat. I don’t think that modern social media caused this, but it certainly enabled it, enhanced it, and thoroughly cemented it in the national fabric. Everyone, liberal or conservative, has their own truth now or what passes for the truth; and maybe you might want to say that this is simply the human condition. But now we seem even unable or unwilling to dialogue, to discuss our differences, to try and understand the “other guy.” Everyone lives in their own bubble of “reality.” Postmodernism provided an ersatz intellectual foundation for this social climate: “there is no objective truth,” “all truth is a social construction.” What this leads to is a very real “road to hell.”
Our political culture is one stage on which this is so clearly manifest. Look at this video of an interview of comedian and satirist Bill Maher. While I have found myself often disagreeing with his Libertarian politics and while he predicts the election wrong (as so many pundits did), I think here he offers at least a partially helpful insight into this polarization:
And then there’s this conservative law professor and her experience at one of the top law schools in the country:
Then there’s this story, both funny and alarming. Recall the bizarre world of professional wrestling…it is all a staged show. One guy dresses and acts the “good guy” role, the “hero”; and the other guy is “the villain,” “the bad guy,” like in Grade B westerns. They put on a show pounding each other, while the crowd vents quite loudly their feelings of approval or disapproval. Well, it appears that two wrestlers who were going to tour West Virginia thought it would be a good show if one of them was labeled as “Progressive Liberal,”…he would be the “bad guy”!! It turned out that this worked too well….the crowds not only got worked up, but the show was on the verge of spilling over into violence against that one wrestler.
Historically something has happened in this country that is hard to explain. We have a very large segment of the population that seems unable or unwilling to talk civilly about their political and social differences….they seem paralyzed by a mirage of suspicions and a lust for power to overcome “the other.” Then, also, there is a sizeable segment of the population that seems truly impossible to reach with reasonable discourse as fellow citizens. The recipe for social chaos and violence is there. The road to hell. How and why this happened is a complex story, but lets point out one element of this story: the role of the Democratic Party in getting us here.
You would think that the Dems were mostly innocent in creating this scenario but like I said the history is complex and long. It begins in the 1930s, during the Depression, when FDR built a powerful coalition with the working class, the poor, the intellectuals. In the 1960s LBJ added Blacks and the Civil Rights Movement to that coalition. The Republicans had the large business class. We all know how that turned out! The Republicans tried various nefarious tactics to wrest power from the Dems; and each tactic worked to erode a truthful dialogue/debate about policy. For example, during the Cold War the common campaign tactic of the Republicans was to call the Dems “soft on Communism.” This scared people. Then came “the Southern strategy,” the Republican alliance with segregationists, “States Rights” people, white peoples fear of Black ascendancy, etc. A whole host of other issues were trotted out, but at the heart of it all and hidden was Coolidge’s famous maxim: What’s good for business is good for America. Peel away all other arguments and you will see that’s why we have a for-profit health-care system and why education is becoming a consumer commodity, and why our natural world has been trashed, etc.
The last Dem to speak with the power to hold FDR’s coalition together was Bobby Kennedy in 1968, running for president before being gunned down. Today there is an echo from that past in Bernie Sanders, but it’s very telling that Bernie’s language about “class warfare” does not really connect very well even though it captures the truth more so than any other analysis.
About two decades ago historian Thomas Frank focused on one State, Kansas, and did a close study how the political/social culture got transformed from strongly progressive to intensely right-wing (even “conservative” is not an adequate description…Frank was conservative while in college). Here’s how Frank begins:
“Not long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and the workers – when it implemented monopoly strategies invasive beyond the Populists’ furthest imaginings – when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work – you could be damned sure about what would follow. Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.”
Frank writes a whole book (What’s the Matter With Kansas?) analyzing the change in Kansas from 1900 to 2000. There are a number of factors that led to this amazing transformation, but it is striking how the Dems themselves contributed to this situation by retreating from economic liberalism to focus on social liberalism. It is a complex picture, but here is Frank zeroing in on a core point:
“The Democratic Leadership Council, the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and — more important — the money of these coveted constituencies, “New Democrats” think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation and the rest of it.”
Now we have this awful situation where a significant segment of the population has been trashed by the “System,” and they are angry and their anger is mostly irrational and chaotic, not addressing any real problems, and due to successful “brainwashing” by certain elements in the Republican Party this anger is aimed primarily at so-called “liberals,” “progressives,” or simply Dems. But the sad fact is that the folks they are angry at are mostly NOT liberal or progressive. Take President Biden for example. We vote for him because we legitimately fear the other side. But his track record is hardly progressive! This puts us on a “road to hell,” but simply a bit slower, more gentle ride…. Here Chris Hedges documents Biden’s sad record:
One has to say, however, that there still are some progressives who know how to speak to their people. Who knows, maybe their number will increase…. Here is one such example:
And then we have to place this whole political dysfunctionality in the context of a massive social and cultural decay. And strangely religion seems to be of no help here. Just recently I read this piece in the National Catholic Reporter about the latest big meeting of American bishops—the gist of the story is the “continuing slide of the American bishops into irrelevance.” The country is awash with guns—there are about 393,000,000 guns in the U.S…..please take a look at this chart: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_ownership
The whole country, rural and urban, poor and well-off, is saturated in drugs of all kind. Gambling is mesmerizing more and more people and corrupting more and more of our cultural institutions….even higher education. Take a look at this story: https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/msnbc-opinion/michigan-state-vs-penn-state-odds-are-stacked-students-rcna58289
So at this point a key question does arise: In the face of all this, what do I do as an individual? There is no “American Gandhi” on the horizon to tell us “I know a way out of hell.” So first of all we need to use whatever resources we can muster to deeply reflect on our communal condition and our own roll and place in this mess. Here’s just a small example from Chris Hedges when he was a young reporter for the New York Times, covering the Bosnian war in the 1990s:
“ During the war in Bosnia, I worked my way through the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” The novel, populated with 400 characters, was not an escape from the war. The specter of death and the expiring world of La Belle Epoque haunts Proust’s work. He wrote it as he was dying; in fact, Proust was making corrections to the manuscript the night before his death in his hermetically sealed, cork-lined bedroom in Paris.
The novel was a lens that allowed me to reflect on the disintegration, delusions and mortality around me. Proust gave me the words to describe aspects of the human condition I knew instinctively, but had trouble articulating. He elucidates the conflicting ways we perceive reality, exacerbated in war, and how each of us comes to our own peculiar and self-serving truths. He explores the fragility of human goodness, the seduction and hollowness of power and social status, the inconstancy of the human heart and racism, especially antisemitism.
Those who see in his work a retreat from the world are poor readers of Proust. His power is his Freudian understanding of the subterranean forces that shape human existence. The novel is grounded in the bitter wisdom of Ecclesiastes: The beauty of youth, the allure of fame, wealth, success, power, along with literary and artistic brilliance, reap a horrendous toll on those beguiled by them, for they are transitory, and perish. “
Secondly, when we speak or act it must come from the heart, not from our spasmodic, chaotic feelings and delusions, which all of us experience. Cheap sentiments won’t help us; manipulation of people won’t bring us peace. Self-serving obfuscations will only blind us more and more. (During the pre-election period I happened to see a number of political ads touting this or that candidate. Not owning a TV, I was amazed at what I saw….all kinds of misleading half-truths in an attempt to manipulate our perception, and a whole bunch of mud-slinging…from both sides.) In our darkness we need to make all our words, all our acts, bearers of clarity, of wisdom, of love, of compassion, and most of all (in Gandhi’s spirit) of truth.
I am reminded of my friends, the ancient Chinese poets and hermits who often lived in terrible times—a lot to learn from them; and I am also reminded of Boris Pasternak, who wrote Doctor Zhivago during the height of Stalinism. Read Merton’s account of this great writer and his wisdom in Merton’s Disputed Questions.