Alec Soth. Hearne, Texas)
I possess a dignity and a power founded on ignorance and credulity; I walk on the heads of men who lie prostrate at my feet; if they should rise and look me in the face, I am lost; I must bind them to the ground, therefore, with iron chains. Thus have reasoned the men whom centuries of bigotry have made powerful. They have other powerful men beneath them, and these have still others, who all enrich themselves with the spoils of the poor, grow fat on their blood, and laugh at their stupidity. They all detest tolerance, as partisans grown rich at the public expense fear to render their accounts, and as tyrants dread the word liberty. And then, to crown everything, they hire fanatics to cry at the top of their voices: "Repeat my master's absurdities, tremble, pay, and keep your mouths shut."
--Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary. 1764
A long dispute means that both parties are wrong.
We are surrounded by men stronger than we are: they can harm us in a thousand different ways; three times out of four, they can do it with impunity. What a relief to know that there is in the hearts of all men an inner principle fighting in our behalf and protecting us from these attempts. Without that principle, we could live only in a state of constant alarm; we would walk among men as among lions; and we could never be assured for a moment of our goods, our honor, or our lives.
--Baron de Montesquieu, Persian Letters. 1721
For the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself. She seldom has received, and I fear never will receive, much assistance from the power of great men, to whom she is but rarely known, and more rarely welcome.
--John Locke, "A Letter Concerning Toleration." 1690It's difficult not to feel disgusted and disenchanted with the current state of politics in this country. With very few exceptions, in fact, I've felt disgusted and disenchanted with American politics since I came of voting age. The first year I was eligible to vote Ronald Reagan won the Presidency, and in the years since there have been precious few occasions when I've felt genuinely stirred by a political candidate --two, actually: Paul Wellstone's first senate race in 1990, and the hopeful rush of Obama's 2008 campaign.
For much of my adult life I've been obsessed with the writers, scientists, and philosophers of the Enlightenment, that astonishing period when so many of the fiercest and most enduring political ideals --the ideals on which American democracy were founded-- were first being formulated. For a man in the 21st century such writings can be a source of heartache. So much hope and so many lovely (and lofty) ideals have been squandered during the more than 250 years since most of those words were written.
The writers of the Enlightenment were wildly idealistic, but they were also keenly aware of the foibles of human nature, religious hypocrisy, and the perils of both greed and power. Thus, in the 1750s, Denis Diderot could write in his Encyclopedie, "There are narrow minds, deformed souls, who are indifferent to the fate of the human race and who are so enclosed in their little group that they see nothing beyond its special interest. These men insist on being called good citizens, and I consent to this, provided that they permit me to call them bad men." And there was the Marquis de Condorces, writing in the late 18th century: "In looking at the history of societies we shall have had occasion to observe that there is often a great difference between the rights that the law allows its citizens and the rights that they actually enjoy, and, again, between the equality established by political codes and that which in fact exists amongst individuals; and we shall have noticed that these differences were one of the principle causes of the destruction of freedom in the ancient republics, or the storms that troubled them, and of the weakness that delivered them over to tyrants. These differences have three main causes: inequality in wealth; inequality in status between the man whose means are hereditary and the man whose means are dependent on the length of his life, or, rather, on the part of his life in which he is capable of work; and, finally, inequality of education."
Reading again those words in 2016, and reading as well the words of the founders of American democracy, is an exercise in exasperation. They have a slippery and double-edged potency, and might be appropriated by people with otherwise wildly divergent beliefs. I'm pretty sure, though, that in my lifetime, beginning in my childhood in a smallish town in the Midwest, I witnessed firsthand the defeat of all those Enlightenment ideals (as I choose to understand them), incrementally and, eventually, catastrophically. I saw my hometown, and other similar towns all over the country, gutted by labor strife and the de facto defeat of organized labor. I watched with dismay as the universal corporate milfoil crept across the nation, town by town and State by State. Family farms lost out to giant agri-business. Main Streets and small, locally-owned businesses were decimated by the incursion of huge corporate retail establishments and franchise restaurants. I saw small banks absorbed by indifferent behemoths, roadside mom-and-pop motels replaced by hideous, prefabricated and endlessly replicated motel chains. I watched as small and once autonomous local radio and television stations whose programming was once full of distinctly local color and character were overrun by the glum, generic, and virtually unlistenable and unwatchable formats of corporate media.
I experienced firsthand, in my own family, the devastations of corporatized medicine and the growth of the sadistic and labyrinthine insurance industry. I've also had exhaustive --and exhausting-- firsthand experience with the disabling and utterly callous game of Russian Roulette that the pharmaceutical companies engage in with the full and unquestioned collusion of the medical establishment.
And in the wake of all these changes --let's call them what they are: predatory and invasive-- economic cataclysm and an epidemic of psychological disorders, loneliness, addiction, crime, and pathological disconnection have followed. People have suffered. Communities have withered, or at the very least the old, quaint conception of "community" has sustained a terrible blow. Even so many of the churches, which in the town of my childhood were so often nurturing and charitable agents of community and compassion, have become political pulpits, divisive, agents of intolerance, mercenary, grasping, insular; capitalist enterprises like any other, and more mega by the year.
In the midst of all these seismic disruptions is it any wonder that our politics have become so strange, so cynical, so angry, and so charged with confusion, helplessness, and disengagement? Everyone seems to have the sense that they're under siege --their rights, their jobs, their way of life, their bodies, their families and communities-- and politics today is so divisive, so polluted with money and influence, and so bogged down by the broken machinery of Washington and the major political parties, that even otherwise principled and like-minded people are at war with each other about who's to blame and what's to be done. People on both sides of the great divide seem at the very least to be united in the two fundamental questions they most want answered--Where did our country go? Who took it?-- even as if often seems that we may be long past any sort of agreement on the answers to those questions.
I know this, though: all those changes I've seen all over the U.S., all those identically-ruined landscapes and small towns and big cities, are not representative of either progress or progressive politics. And politicians at the community, state, and federal levels have been complicit in every step of this force-fed corporatization of America. These politicians didn't just allow those changes; they enabled them and lined their pockets and the coffers of their political parties. Time and again they caved in to special interests and lobbyists; they gutted environmental and safety regulations; they rattled their sabers for destructive and unnecessary wars; they consistently turned their backs on the working class, the poor, and the minority and immigrant communities, and have succeeded in demonizing those populations to a wide and angry segment of the populace.
In my lifetime America has never known a class war or a revolution as either is properly understood. But make no mistake: we have lived through a class war --perhaps the most effective class warfare in modern history-- and a revolution, but they have been pressed, and fought fiercely and absolutely without ethics by the upper class.
It may be too late for those of us who are prisoners of disillusionment and disenchantment, those of us who agree on many, many things, to decide that this country has a soul and that that soul is worth saving. And maybe the writers of the Enlightenment were naive, impractical, and even foolish, but their notions of liberty, democracy, and basic human rights, dignity, and values were crystal clear, and they have been perverted beyond all recognition.
And if, at this late date, we're forced to conclude that all that gossamer, pie-in-the-sky stuff is in fact naive for the time and place and predicament in which we now find ourselves --that it just doesn't work given the complex realities of 21st-century America-- then can't we at least admit to ourselves how dangerously naive it also is to believe that these multi-tentacled corporations and the politicians who do their bidding have our best interests and welfare at heart?