He is ours

Painting: Illma Gore

Just a few things to add to the national anguish which is the Republican Party’s primary:

You did it to yourselves. The Republican party since Richard Nixon has been built on the twin pillars of racism, and the destruction of the federal government. Since the “southern strategy” of 1968, which used disaffected, formally Democratic racist southerners to broaden its base, the Republican party has aligned itself with the racist elements of poor, white America. For a while this alignment was covert, and Republicans could hide behind a claim of attracting a working class element they used to cede to the Democrats. With this election cycle, that strategy is now overt, and Republicans face a stark choice: embrace those racist elements or strongly disavow them, allowing them to splinter off to become a neo-fascist American political party.

The Republican animus towards the federal government has taken many forms. The most common is a reactionary and regressive anti-tax position. In this position the Republicans have undermined the a fundamental truth about taxes: they are a commitment we make to each other as a united country. Now, through the relentless Republican media assault over the last fifty years, a tax is a near automatic scourge, an outrage, a plague. From this anti-tax position, Republicans have sought to destroy every federal program but one – the military, ironically the most bloated and economically dysfunctional category in our budget. Here’s the obvious chicken that has now come home to roost: you can’t get elected a leader of an institution you’re trying to destroy, when you’re already a member of it. And so the Republican party is now under assault from “outsiders”, which is nonsense. These are the body politic the party has raised for the last half century, all grown up now, and demanding a place at the head of the table.

It did it to itself. Our political process is binary, dualistic: Republican vs. Democrat. Almost every other democratic republic in the world elects it’s leaders and representatives through a process in which there are several political parties, each representing a significant segment of the population. Through these systems, usually called “parliamentary democracy”, the only way the country can lead itself (barring an overwhelming landslide for one party), is through coalition-building. So the leadership is almost always a mixture of positions, which have agreed to soften around the edges and make room for some concerns of another party.

I’m a Quaker. When making decisions about our meetings, Quakers don’t vote. One reason? Voting is violent. Our binary political process is inherently so. It is brutal. It relies on one side winning and other side losing – end of story. We are addicted to this process in America. I mean addicted as in “at the mercy of a behavior which is destroying us, and which we feel powerless to stop.” Here’s the cliche: America is built on competition. It’s everywhere. We begin indoctrinating our kids in competition as soon as they are able to identify someone as an opponent. If the bully knocks you down, then go back out there and hit him/her as hard as you can and don’t back down. Any other strategy is a sign of weakness – in America it makes you a loser destined to a loser’s life. Here’s the problem though. In such a culture, roughly half will “win” and the other half will “lose”, leading to obnoxious chest-thumping, and corrosive wound-licking. In such a culture, the seeds of conflict – not cooperation –  are sown and re-sown in every election cycle. Now it is harvest time.

I have a theory: that deep in our human DNA is a need for this binary, winner/loser experience. It is after all the Darwinian engine of our own enduring. For hundreds of thousands of years, we killed and ate, or starved, or were killed. Let’s not indulge in moralisms here. I watched my pretty house cat torture, kill and eat a baby mouse last week. Nature is amoral, and we are creatures of nature. As we have evolved we have attempted, to varying degrees of success and epic failure, to turn this need for conquest into sport. And sport is where it belongs now. Even there, our bloodlust is being exploited. The fastest growing professional sport in America is one in which men or women are put in a cage to beat each other senseless until one or the other either gives up or is physically unable to continue.

This brutal, win/lose binary contest is deeply rooted in our political process. Our successful politicians “crush” their opponents, “destroy” them, “bury” them. Recently, the Republican party has embraced this brutal approach to politics and voila! A brute is their front-runner. It wasn’t always so for the party of my grandfathers. The GOP was once the party of order and discipline and the Democrats were the unruly hooligans. Perhaps the pendulum has simply swung in the other direction now.

Plato was famously skeptical of democracy. He felt that the act of ruling a nation-state was an exalted calling, fit only for the most highly skilled philosophers. Historically, democratic movements have always felt this tension: between those who advocate for a kind of “ruling class” and those who agitate for the ascension of the peasant and the commoner to halls of government. In one of the many ways this political season is like some Lewis Carroll nightmare, the Republicans who have always been the party of the “ruling class” today face throngs of commoners who – for whatever reason – feel at odds with the Democratic party and abandoned by government generally. And these new Republicans want to win.

Here’s my fantasy: that we see the splintering apart of both parties. And we end up with four political parties: the vestiges of the Republican party, a hard-right party, the vestiges of the Democratic party, and a socialist party. We would look very much like most of the democracies in Europe then, and we would be forced, kicking and screaming, to the same table – the American table – where we would have to forge coalitions, listen and learn from one another. In such a process, the stark brutality of winning and losing in absolute terms is diminished, and our only hope is the common ground we share.

We did it to ourselves. I know you know this, but recently a leading contender in a national political contest made a suggestion about the size of his penis on national television and in front of a live audience of several hundred. In the Republican party primary, any discussion of public policy has been nearly abandoned, replaced by taunting, insults and adolescent name-calling. The Republican front runner is in that position because we find him entertaining, and not for any “position” he claims to espouse.

I have written before about taboo, and shame. In general, I am in favor of the free expression, liberated identity and frank examinations the diminishing of shame and taboo can lead to. But there is a yin to that yang. I’m going to sound old fashioned now, but I guess I have reached that age. Shame serves a useful purpose. At its best, shame represents a generally agreed upon boundary which encloses speech and behavior a culture generally agrees are obnoxious or even harmful. When a member of the culture engages in such speech or behavior, others in that culture shame that person. Shame, in this context, had the power to change or adjust speech and behavior for the general good. We learned from a young age, through observing older people, and through the indoctrination of our media, roughly where that boundary was. And when we crossed it, we felt shame.

For the most part, shame, in America, is now dead.

True, pockets of shame boundaries remain in some religious communities across America. But I am talking about mass-cultural America – the one that watches political debates and award shows. I downloaded the recent Kendrick Lamar album “To Pimp A Butterfly”. I mistakenly downloaded the “clean” version, and was amused by the all the little silences riddled throughout his (amazing) songs. I then downloaded the “explicit” version. The language which I heard in that version used to be inside that shame boundary – it is not anymore. I will listen to that “explicit” music in my car with my 17 and 13 year old.

That is a beautiful, empowering song. The words in question are not shameful anymore, at least in the mass culture I live in. They represent something truthful: this is the language of the culture from which the song was created. Which isn’t to say I use that language with my kids. Rather, they exist in a mass-cultural discourse in away they do not in private discourse. Perhaps that is a sign of our growing libration – I am not suggesting for one moment that anyone should be ashamed of that song, or other songs like it, or the explicit language in them. Just this: words and actions that were once shameful in public are now . . . common. And as such, they have lost their power, both in and of themselves, and in their ability to change human behavior.

By the way, Mortal Man by Kendrick Lamar is one of the most important songs of our time in my opinion.

We used to preserve areas of our experience and conduct as special and exalted in some way, and from these areas shameful language and behavior was especially banished. It was doubly shameful to say or behave in these ways in a church for example, or at school, or . . . when running for elected office. There is a hierarchical agreement necessary for shame to work: some people, places and activities are more special than others, and we used to agree to protect them. Yes, there has always been an oppressive price some have had to pay in exchange for the protection of places dear to the dominant culture. A consequence of our liberation from oppressive cultural norms is the destruction of protected zones of public experience, in which we used to agree to hold each other to a high standard in terms of speech and behavior. Fuck that. We don’t agree. Say whatever the fuck you want. It’s your right. And besides, it’s entertaining. Did I offend you? I thought not.

Shame is like a living person: once you kill shame, shame is dead forever. There is no going back. It will never be not okay to make rhymes using the word “motherfucker”. And maybe that’s a good thing? It will never be not okay to insult your political opponent using the basest terms possible. And maybe that’s a good thing?

We are moving on. We – all of us – have the politicians we created. We earned them. He is ours.

PS: A personal footnote: I miss the power of swear words.  I miss the power of language generally. It used to mean something consequential to call someone an asshole. You could galvanize a room with a well placed “goddamnit.” Words once had visceral force, and to be called an asshole was akin to being punched in the face. And to be called my love was akin to being kissed. I fear we have lost a language which pulses, burns, caresses and soothes. It’s all just information now, to be regarded with ironic detachment. It’s digital now – 1s and 0s – the binary system we are slowly becoming slaves to. So . . . I’m going to work on some Shakespeare this summer, and return to a world in which words act like startled deer, or charging bison, or the palm of your hand.