Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Season of Silence, and Why

My my my...How the time flies. I can't believe it has been more than two months since I have written in this blog. This autumnal season of silence came about partly for the reasons one might expect: work life very busy, leading to exhaustion capped by a touch of illness. Tra-la-la! There was also a more pleasant reason for my inability to find the time or energy to write here. I had a trip to Lithuania to participate in a project aiming at promoting inter-religious tourism in Lithuania and Latvia, both of which are lands blessed with amazingly rich histories of religious diversity, from their Pagan heritage to their long histories of Jewish and Muslim communities along with varied Christan contributions. This was a great pleasure but also quite exhausting.

There is however, another reason for my persistent silence. I am finding the current state of American society and politics so depressing, so frustrating, that I feel a growing sense of hopelessness for this country of my birth. The forces of obstruction and ignorance are so many and so immense in our declining, divided, self-destructive nation. I can only compare our situation to scenarios imagined in mythology and religious prophecy, like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that usher in devastation and destruction in the Biblical Book of Revelations, or the ten plagues that descend upon Egypt in Exodus, or the dark forces that take down the world in flames and flood in Norse Ragnarok, or the dread dance of Shiva that beats out its world-crushing rhythm when humanity has become so stupid, so cruel, so lost, so impervious to guidance or wisdom that the gods decide that the world must be put out of its misery and cleared away to make space for a new world yet to come.

We today in America are facing a really sinister and powerful combination of retrograde forces. These range from carbon-based energy industries that do not want to see any movement toward a greener, healthier planet and economy, to the gun lobby that refuses to even consider very modest measures to reduce the danger of guns and gun-related materials falling into the possession of mentally imbalanced individuals who go on shooting rampages or into the hands of immature youths who are eager to settle scores with bullets. The list goes on to include the greedy, self-important minority of super-wealthy plutocrats who do not wish to see higher wages for people at lower strata of our highly unequal and unfair economy, to the Tea Partiers and libertarians who do not want the government to do anything besides putting people in prison and maintaining a grossly oversized military whose continued existence and immense expenditures can only be justified by continual conflict and crisis and propaganda inflaming our fear and hatred against whichever foreign country is now top of our enemy-of-the year list. I fear that our interlinked military-intelligence-industrial-political sectors will keep pushing us to either use or threaten to use force overseas as often as possible, even though this may only inflames others against us. Then we have the disheartening spectacle of the Supreme Court that is gutting and discarding decades of Civil Rights progress and returning us to a time when state and local politicians could enact all kinds of barriers to prevent African-Americans or other disfavored social groups from having any voice in our supposed "democracy," which the Court has also damaged terribly by allowing more freedom for wealthy individuals and corporations to dominate the political process through unlimited political advertising and financial contributions to the causes that perpetuate their interest and privilege.

In the embattled world of academia, which I know from the inside, the forces of misguided "reform" seem to be pushing us in the direction of a standardized, bureaucratized, heavily managed and number-driven form of education in which teachers will have little autonomy or job security, and in which liberal arts education, which can waken people to higher visions of life and a desire to create a more equal and less cruel society, will be pushed aside by an obsession with job-training out of a mistaken belief that training young people with the right technical skills will somehow overcome the problems of corporations seeking to send jobs overseas to lower-paid workers, or to bring lower-paid workers to America to replace highly skilled workers here, so that the majority of college graduates, even if highly trained and skilled will have to compete for low-paying jobs in corporations that refuse to share their profits with their workers. If we do not change the rules of the economic game, simply training people will solve nothing. Since the 1970s, American workers have become more and more productive, but rarely been allowed to enjoy a fair share of the profits generated by their productivity, and unless we have a revived labor movement or some other mechanism to force companies to pay better, there seems little hope for the American worker.

And as for the media's favorite pipe dream that high-tech millionaires and billionaires will show us the way, let's not forget that it was great geniuses like Steve Jobs who sent so much high-tech manufacturing to countries like China and India. Entrepreneurs will never lead the way to a more equal economy. They often make their millions and billions from the hard labor of workers who are paid as little as possible. It will require some kind of external pressure to force the high-tech folks to share much with the common man and woman. The popular adulation of high-tech entrepreneurs as economic saviors is a joke. They are in it for themselves, not for us. And since our government is increasingly at the beck and call of consummately greedy and self-interested companies and corporations, not only the high-tech toy-makers but also the oil companies, the multinational banks, the pharmaceutical industry, Wall Street financial firms and so on, I find it hard to escape the conclusion that we are entering a new Middle Ages, in which a small class of ruling elite will live in splendor, in beautiful mansions, surrounded by servants and flatterers, like kings and barons living in castles of olden times--and aren't our modern gated communities just an updated form of castle fortresses?--while the rest of us will eke out an insecure living through hard labor, deeply in debt, but unable to challenge our social superiors.

I am mentally and emotionally exhausted. That is why I am not writing much these days. I look for rays of hope, but see so very few. The advent of the Affordable Health Care Act, aka Obamacare, a modest attempt to re-structure our primarily corporate health care system to provide better care to more people, has only unleashed new ferocity among the various groups who oppose any kind of government activity apart from military action, and see any kind of social reform or even the slightest effort to provide assistance to the growing ranks of poor and needy persons in our society as a foul betrayal of freedom and liberty. I see anti-government zealots ready to cut food benefits to the hungry and who smile when 800,00 government workers are cut off from their salaries for weeks on end, and who don't even care if their actions push the international economy to the brink of financial disaster. I see the President mocked when he tries to negotiate peace with Iran.

The only comfort to me right now is the election of Bill DiBlasio to the office of the mayor of New York City. At last, a leader who speak about income inequality and rising poverty as problems that all society, and especially government, must address. His election is an answer to those who dismissed the Occupy Wall Street movement nearly two years ago as a silly, leaderless, rudderless social fad that would have no effect. It was the Occupy movement elevating the issues of financial institution greed and wealth inequality in New York that lit the spark that became the bright light of the DiBlasio candidacy. No doubt DiBlasio will not be able to satisfy all the hopes and ambitions of those who supported him, but I think he will at least try to push back against the trend toward plutocracy that is at the heart of so many of our ills. I am glad to see someone, somewhere, making some kind of stand and articulating an alternative vision.

But sadly...anyone who knows America knows that New York City is an anomaly in this country. I live some distance from NYC, and I know that many of my fellow citizens here believe the old Reaganite narrative constantly reiterated by right-wing media like FOX, but increasingly in evidence across the culture, that "government is the problem" and that cutting taxes, shrinking government, and "unleashing" business and entrepreneurship are the solutions, that the military is sacred and that we must "support the troops" and never question what the troops are called upon to do and why, nor the effects of those actions, and that if you are not a "success" in America--something measured primarily, if not exclusively in materialistic, money-making terms--that you only have yourself to blame. The alternate, liberal narrative of "we are all in this together," and that we could use government as a vehicle to share out resources to create a better life for everyone, not just the elite few, is not convincing to most people.

I am facing the reality that the things I really believe in may no longer have any place,or at the very best, only a very marginal,vestigial place in this sad, misguided, self-delusional and self-destructive country, this very dis-United States of America. The pendulum may someday swing back to more equality and compassion in this country, but I don't see it happening in my lifetime.

It is these thoughts that crush me into silence. Perhaps this will spark a renewal of my spirituality; I hope so. Maybe it is time to turn inward, and to seek refuge with other spiritual refugees in this very hard and fearful time, while no longer expecting the larger society to improve or change very much, at least not in any foreseeable future. The Buddha taught that the fundamental truth of life is suffering, and that this is the starting point of spiritual insight. Perhaps that is the crossroads that I am facing. I don't know. All I know is that it seems very dark outside indeed.


Ken said...

I hit the comment button hoping that something, anything inspirational would come to me, but I got nuthin'. I'm with you, just beaten down by the darkness.

I guess all I can say is that somebody has to live during the downturns of humanity, and this time it's our turn. Every darkness has its pinpoints of light; let's try to be one of those.

Maelstrom said...

Excellent point. Many periods in history have been even more awful than this, so we should keep that in mind even as we regret current conditions. What really galls me though is my sense that the USA was on a much better track in the 1960s and 70s, and in the last thirty-forty years we are just throwing it all away to become a state that increasingly resembles a militaristic banana republic!

Kris said...

Maelstrom you bring up a great point, USA was on a much better track than now. My concern is the stalemate that is occurring, is it due to a African American President or a Democratic President, will this stand-off continue if/when a new Democratic President is elected??

Maelstrom said...

Kris, I think the particular low point we have reached is not just a matter of Democrat vs. Republican anymore. There were always such tensions and rivalries in the past, but often the two parties found ways to compromise and move forward on various issues. Food Stamps was a program that the two parties used to support. As I see it, the crux of the current crisis is the rise of far-right, anti-government Republicans who are basically opposed to ANY kind of government programs. They are all too happy to shut the government down, to cut at government spending with a meat cleaver, as happened with the so-called "sequester," and would love to privatize programs like Social Security and Medicare that actually do a pretty good job. To them, making the government more dysfunctional, more crippled, less capable, is a wonderful thing because it then "proves" that government is evil and should be reduced or even eliminated. This is like breaking someone's legs with a baseball bat and then saying to them,"You see, you just aren't capable of walking." I think Obama being African-American has fired up a certain amount of conservative Americans with racist leanings, but let's not forget that the Republicans in the 1990s also went crazy with rabid conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton too. The real problem is a very extreme anti-government mind-set. We need to remember that government can and do many good and useful things. Sadly, the start-up problems of the new health care policy will only add fuel to the fire and bring smiles to the faces of the anti-government radicals.

Karl Bonner said...

I think you're mistaken in the future political trend. The REAL victory last November 2013 wasn't in NYC but rather in Seattle, with the election of socialist Kshama Sawant to office. Since then she's been leading an energetic movement for a citywide $15/hour minimum wage - and it's a struggle that is spreading across the whole nation now.

Over the past few years we've finally seen a chorus about income inequality gradually developing, and it's starting to catch on. I think what we're going to see is an increasing effort by both hardcore progressives and hardcore conservatives to implement their policy ideas more aggressively at the state and local level, since the federal Congress is so dysfunctional.

So while the GOP in red states can block poor people from getting Medicaid, in the Northeast and along the Left Coast I think you're going to see more and more efforts to tax the rich and raise the minimum wage well above $10 an hour. You might also see increased efforts to promote things like worker-cooperative enterprises as an alternative to the traditional corporate model!

The winds of change are coming, but they won't take quite the form that people on either side of the divide may have hoped or suspected.

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