Friday, December 13, 2019


It’s never easy seeing the wicked prevail but if you’re serious about saving what’s left of our democratic traditions you should get used to it. The game is longer than any of us knew.

How could we know? I recall Reagan’s first election, and knowing by instinct (for I barely had anything else in my youth) that this was worse than the usual Their Team versus Our Team. Still I couldn't then comprehend their method -- breaking the fisc with deficit spending while claiming a devotion to fiscal responsibility, then using the damage they caused as an excuse to hire their cronies as contractors to pretend to clean it up. They didn't advertise it in those days.

But I had to live in the world they were making, and couldn't bear (or, maybe better said, was not yet resigned) to be as angry and despairing as the occasion seemed to demand. I recall being laughed off when I questioned the new order -- for example, by a bunch of Wall Street kids for saying it was absurd that Chrysler workers had to take a cut while Lee Iacocca was not only unbothered but lionized for thinking of it. No one wanted to hear it or anything like it.

So I internalized to an extent their thinking: Who knows, I dimly thought, maybe we had been a little too focused on the apparent inequities of the system, a little too generous with benefits, a little too P.C.; maybe if we got lean and mean capitalism would bring the improvements we once hoped to get from government action. In other words, I was rather like one of those dreary trimmers you see gassing up social media now. (Not that bad, of course, but still.)

It took a while for me to completely shake that POV, as the system kept offering rewrites on the social contract that seemed reasonably generous (see Clinton, Bill); some social realities were acknowledged, albeit slowly, and some minor changes were allowed. But these could only be had on the terms of the market; that beast always had to be fed first. Since I was largely insulated from the worst impacts (I lived cheaply, I'm white, etc.) this seemed to be going the right way.

But over time I got disabused. By the top of the century I noticed the economy was not as hot as advertised. The war years were such a carnival of bad faith that I not only paid attention, I got interested. The run-up to the recession was a watershed for me; as Wall Street overheated I noticed conservatives trying to distract everyone from the smell. In the wreckage the whole thing became clear: lives had been destroyed and the bean-counters were hauling safe-deposit boxes out of the ruins -- social contract be damned.

It's all even clearer now, maybe because I got more observant but maybe just because of the id monster Trump's inability to even try and conceal it. They throw spoils to the rich like bandits looting a wagon, assign DeVoses and Rosses and Azars and other such scum to get what’s in the back; they don't even pretend to be doing anything patriotic.

What I'm saying is this problem is not new; that the slight relief from it offered by occasional Democratic administrations was not fundamental and couldn't last; and that if there's anything good about what's happening, it's that the stakes are plain. I doubt many people are confused about it now as I was forty years ago. That doesn't mean everyone else sees it the same way, but they see it; maybe some of them are so addled by racism, conspiracy theories, and vengeance fantasies that they don't care, but they're not fooled, though eventually they may find it convenient to say they had been. Whatever happens, howsoever it may be enabled by social media and malign foreign actors, is entirely up to the people.

You may trust your fellow citizens; you may doubt them. But you can't do much about them except show a good example and hope for the best. As Captain Shotover said in Shaw's Heartbreak House: Courage will not save you, but it will show that your own souls are still alive. If our country's beyond the reach of that, then it was never going to be saved. We'll soon find out. Hold fast and see you on the other side.

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