Revelatur Vector Report October 5, 2021
Gaslighting as American National Sport
Dear readers, glad to have you back! In the first piece, “Get the Story Right, Leftist Press,” we detail the continuing propensity for the mainstream press to penalize Democrats in their misplaced pursuit of objectivity. In the second, “The Big Chill,” we explore the deleterious – and largely hidden -- effect of dystopian writing and entertainment on the American national condition.
Get the Story Right, Leftist Press!
We’re beset on all sides by extreme moderates and moderate extremists, all of us living in the topsy turviest of times, a through-the-looking-glass, “up is down” frame job by the media whereby repetition of Nazi talking points by a sitting member of Congress scarcely raises an eyebrow, a detailed six point plan for government overthrow isn’t a top headline, and savvy negotiation to ensure Americans are able to feed their children and go to college is cast as “progressive petulance.” Manchin is a ‘centrist,’ Sinema is ‘quirky,’ and Republicans are just another major political party.
Witness the primetime placement of Tucker Carlson and Elise Stefanik within the realms of cable news and Congress, respectively. Both are quite comfortable spewing the Great Replacement Theory, once a white supremacist concept you’d only find only if you kept company with Nazis. Hell, talk like that would’ve gotten you at least mild opprobrium from party leaders just a few years back -- remember when King asked how the term ‘white supremacist’ got to be considered offensive and Republicans stripped him of committee assignments? Guess we have our answer. For Republicans, it isn’t offensive anymore, it’s party line.
Republicans are in full insurrectionist Nazi mode, and they’re still more or less treated as a credible alternative to Democrats by the press and most American citizens. What the hell is more extreme than supporting an insurrection or helping spread COVID? There’s no accountability anymore -- no matter what they do, the most newsworthy Republicans still get booked to talk to Chuck Todd, and they’re never once asked why they’re fine with the head of their party being an insurrectionist.
When you are a journalist, and someone says it’s raining, it’s not your job to find another person who says it isn’t raining and set them against each other, it’s your job to stick your head outside and see if you get wet. When it comes to Republican nonsense, we have far too few journalists and pundits who bother to stick their necks out. The media failed in the 2016 election, failed in 2020, and nearly every day since then, on the main.
More Americans have died from COVID than during the 1918 flu pandemic, most due to the deliberate disinformation and downplaying from the Republican Party. By any objective definition, this constitutes genocide. If you ask the folks at Politico, though, it’s just more ‘horse race’ maneuvering. Will DeSantis emerge as a front-runner for 2024 is the question they ask, instead of: how the hell did we end up with DeSantis as a frontrunner for President in 2024?
The Arizona ‘audit’ that wasn’t, the wholesale voter suppression efforts of the GOP described as ‘strict’ laws...the list of transgressions against the body politic is nearly endless. There is no abuse too egregious, no crime too brazen -- that it can’t be swept into the reflexive “if Republicans are doing it we must somehow bend over backwards not to objectively describe the awfulness” of the mainstream media.
On the other hand, according to the so-called liberal press, Dems are always in disarray, Biden’s support is always slipping, progressives are always too aggressive or too unreasonable.
And in adjacent territory, what exactly is moderate about opposing the will of voters and your own party preferences without being able to articulate three coherent sentences on your reasoning for doing so? Cough cough, Sinema, cough cough, Manchin. The ongoing debate over Biden’s Build Back Better, and the two linked bills, could not make clearer what it takes to be considered ‘serious’ by the Beltway commentariat: fealty to your corporate overlords.
These so-called moderate Democrats are anything but, know-nothings whose manner of corruption is so pervasive as to pass unacknowledged by most commentators. When Bloomberg journalist Ari Natter asked Manchin about an energy company he founded, run by Manchin’s son, Manchin responded by asking “you got a problem?” When Natter followed up with a reminder that Manchin’s son still runs the company although doing so is a clear conflict of interest for the Senator, Manchin replied: “you’d best to change the subject.”
Ahh, threatening language for journalists who want to know whether your dirty energy ties or your dirty energy donations could have anything to do with the way you legislate. What moderate behavior! Corruption is one of the few remaining points of agreement between the two major political parties.
Framing matters. It’s our collective passive absorption of unarticulated and unexamined assumption that maintains the bounds of debate -- a point explicated by Noam Chomsky and Edward Said decades ago and proven every time you watch network morning news or happen to check out whoever George Stephanopoulos booked and what they’re pretending to argue over.
It all sounds a little extreme to me.
The Big Chill
I’ve always hated dystopian movies, but could never put my finger on the reason. The first time I saw Blade Runner I disliked it. I’ve come to appreciate it for its aesthetic and storytelling over time – the “Final Edition” version certainly helped by removing that horrible voiceover. But I was watching Blade Runner again the other day and those same feelings from the first viewing came rushing back – soul-crushing hopelessness as its primary message, and no real protagonist to root for.
Dystopian movies don’t frighten me, they don’t even concern me at the level of the message of fear and anxiety they intend to send. They bother me because I fundamentally disagree with the metamessage of the scarcity, meanness, hopelessness, depravity, soullessness that underpins them. And above all, helplessness. I mean, if they are meant as warnings, what are we supposed to do about whatever we’re being warned about? And anyway, Kafka did it better, it didn’t need to be redone, and if America is still about anything, it is not about pessimism. If any aspect of a dystopian movie or book is true, what we need the director or author to do is to explain why it’s happening and, more importantly, what to do about it. Otherwise, it’s just exploitation – of the same type one would think they mean to bring to light and decry in their own works! So, dystopias are inaccurate, harmful and internally inconsistent. Why then do they persist?
Well, we’re getting a glimpse of the enduring spirit underpinning many dystopian narratives through Trumpism. Hard core followers of Trumpism have long since given up hope of making anything of their own lives, so they are taking great delight in bringing down liberals, and democracy in the bargain. If you’ve given up all hope, then nihilism is an appropriate response. If only they’d kept wallowing in obscurity in their nihilism and hopelessness, there would be less cause for alarm. It’s their zeal for inflicting their pain on the rest of us that makes further analysis and action necessary.
Trumpists, unfortunately, have found hope again – and the force that’s animating them is ugly, divisive, and violent.
Now they’ve been reawakened by a movement that makes them feel they can make a difference, that they can matter, and they’ll do anything they’re asked – including die a horrible death from Covid – just to matter. They will do anything to hold onto that feeling.
Now, I first noticed these folks more than thirty years ago – and I thought more than anything that they were more and most accurately described as losers. When Hilary Clinton called them deplorables, the only thing she was wrong about was just how many of them there are.
Unfortunately, they’re not content just to carve out their own place within a larger, diverse multi-cultural nation. The mere existence of other cultures threatens their weak sense of self, and Fox News play beautifully into this fear and has rendered it existential. Nihilism and dystopianism are convenient psychological dodges in which personal failure to achieve one’s objectives can be conveniently relocated to one’s society. Racism and nationalism are similar, but the focus is on the other people in the first case, other countries in the second.
Trumpists and Trumpism don’t merit all the blame. Neoliberalism inserts itself into the discussion – as the absolutely perfect national philosophy to marry our national myths, late-stage capitalism, the authoritarian tendencies of a sizable percentage of the population, and the very real human tendency to project failure outward. At its essence, Neoliberalism is simply the Diving Right of Kings dressed up for a modern audience – and, it has not just accelerated economic inequality, but ushered in a formal class system we in the United States long thought (hoped?) we were immune to. To the degree that liberals either embrace or do nothing to push back against creeping neoliberalism, we too own a minority share in the rise of Trumpism because it is the door through which it walks.
A society that took care of its own -- in the full meaning of that term -- wouldn’t be dealing with Trumpism. For example, Denmark, with absolutely no natural resources, is doing more for its six million people than we are with all our blessings. Its citizens are healthier and happier than ours – they are thriving individually and collectively. We are circling the drain, with declining life expectancy, the highest rates of substance abuse, incarceration and violence in the developed world, and a growing sense of dread.
It is first and foremost the liberal failure to seek utopian goals of equal justice and opportunity with the last full measure of devotion that created the opportunity Trumpists are seizing. Happy, satisfied, secure people don’t vote for people like Trump. The American left’s total capitulation to neoliberalism enables an opposition that exploits the resulting discontent. This is why the talking head blather about making sure the Democratic Party doesn’t veer too far to the left is not only wrong, but reinforces existing negative gaps between what American citizens want and need -- and what our society delivers.
Speaking of dystopians, I never liked Ayn Rand either. She’s a dystopian in her own right, dressed up as a political philosopher. Her ideas are just a warmed-over stew of authoritarianism-meets-meritocracy-meets-Hobbes. But she has adherents – the right has been totally taken over by her philosophy although it’s doubtful more than 1% of them have (can?) read her work. And worse, I would argue, is that her version of meritocracy has become increasingly accepted as a legitimate basis for policy by the Democratic Party and much of the left.
But the biggest problem is not that Trumpists are foolish, easily manipulated and highly energized – as bad as that is. No, the real problem is that all Americans have become dystopians, because we’ve all given up the vector of hope that is known as utopia. Without utopian thinking and planning as a north star that guides decision making, we must naturally fall back towards the only pole left -- dystopianism. With even liberals having rejected utopia as a legitimate rally point, all we’re left with is trying our best to hold off the slide into the abyss.
Here’s what I see just today -- The American left -- purportedly well-read, well-educated, critical thinking, morally upright torchbearers of humanity, and vanguard of “the last best hope of earth” – on its knees groveling for an infrastructure bill that represents the bare minimum effort to address the critical systemic crises we’re facing. It’s not revolutionary. It’s not even aspirational. It’s a stopgap, a corrective, and it’s still in very real danger of being watered down even further.
Most liberals think the best we can do is wait until some Supreme Court justices die, the next election cycle comes around, more Hispanics move into the U.S., oligarchs and politicians get tired of exploiting us, Congress passes some bill protecting some rights, the police reform themselves, etc. This is all such passive, useless, enervating and reinforcing thinking – and we’re doing this to ourselves. The right is damn glad we tell ourselves these big lies so they can save some money on propaganda for their own people!
This is what we’ve come to? This is the best of us that Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, MLK spoke to? That Frederick Douglas, Harriett Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day, and Pete Seeger inspired? That millions of Americans fought tyranny for, and hundreds of thousands laid down their lives for. Really? Do we not owe these people a debt and has that that debt not now come due?
As a final element in this rant, the very existence of the domain of work known as “influencers” indicates that we’ve reached rock bottom as a society. That someone could, in our economy, earn millions of dollars by putting on makeup in front of a laptop camera while others work two or three jobs their entire lives and die penniless? Not that things can’t get any worse, just that, for at least an old guy like me, it would be hard to notice.
So, hope isn’t enough – it’s not sustainable. Resolution is required. Slowing a downward slide is insufficient – and it can’t work, because, as Amy Ray and Emily Saliers so aptly put it: “darkness has a hunger that's insatiable, and lightness has a call that's hard to hear.” We must evince the courage once again to dream big – let them call it utopian because it is and we should be proud of, not defensive about, that appellation. We need to take our rightful places in the long line of people who worked hard for the right things, who sacrificed, who did not take advantage of people just because they could – who built that which we stand upon and draw sustenance from, instead of wallowing in self-pity and wondering about what could have been done.
In the 1983 movie “The Big Chill,” about a group or college friends brought together for the funeral of the most prominent member of the group (Alex) who committed suicide for no apparent reason, the presiding Minister delivers this line: “But why are we left with this? It makes me angry. And I don't know what to do with my anger. Are not the satisfactions of being a good man among our common men great enough to sustain us anymore? Where did Alex's hope go?” Like all suicides, Alex had reasons known only to him, but the remainder of the movie does a good job of outlining the spiritual void of late 20th Century America which undoubtedly contributed to Alex’ hopelessness and anomie. It’s a great movie from my perspective because it is about redemption, resolution, and the overcoming, through individual and collective will, the seductive slide into the philosophical black hole which is neoliberalism. Alex’ death inspires his friends to live, and to “live right.”
What kind of world is it in which dystopia is taken seriously as a philosophy and form of entertainment, but utopia is derided as a refuge of the soft-minded? Not any world worth accepting.
Are Republicans behind this vast conspiracy? No, their elite is exploiting, exacerbating, and accelerating this trend, but they didn’t cook it up. No, the sad truth is we’re on this road willingly, because we have the power, individually and collectively, to change this dynamic and yet we fail to do so. Timidity and waiting are our enemy – bold action now is the only antidote.
Well, what is to be done?
I participated in a Women’s March rally yesterday – and I was inspired by the great energy and the large crowd. This is one thing you can do – join a movement -- because we must first protect the hard-won rights we already have. After a lifetime of indifference, I’ve been politically active now for four years – and actively involved in multiple rights efforts, most notably Women’s and Black Lives Matter.
Where are all the white liberal men? Why are so many of them sitting out, forcing the entire fight for democracy be fought by the people who’ve already been doing all the heavy lifting? Although the most charitable explanation so many white men are not involved is indifference, I suspect it’s in most cases cowardice. Fear of losing one’s job, losing a chance at promotion. Fear that sticking your neck out, even just a little, will bring down negative consequences.
That’s what we’ve come to as a nation based on neoliberalism -- we don’t want to give up our place on the treadmill. It is a personal embarrassment to me, and should be a national embarrassment to us all, that the people who most benefit from our society are contributing the least to its betterment. I guess it’s more important that they have a boat and go golfing and put a down payment on their children’s homes than that people eat and have health care. I guess it’s ok for them to still act like a deer in headlights five years into the Trumpian onslaught, watching the most vulnerable members of society carry their water and waiting for just the right time to weigh in decisively.
White men reading this right now, I ask you to take a good luck in the mirror. If you’re doing enough already, good on you. If not, join in! Get in the fight, join a movement, dare to dream of what we could be and re-orient your life to help us get there.
I figured it out at long last. I hate dystopian movies because, perhaps more than anything else, they point out the very worst of what humanity is capable of. I know all that already -- I’ve seen the “World at War” Genocide episode at least twenty times, I’ve read dozens of World War II and Holocaust books, I studied the Holocaust in college. Why would we want to pave the road to the next one by normalizing depravity through entertainment?
If you’re in Hollywood, stop making dystopian movies, make hopeful ones. If you’re a writer, stop being cynical and start using your talents to mobilize and inspire others. If you do, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. If you do, this time, I know our side will win.