Philosophy Weekend: Rejecting the Apocalypse

Here’s a tough challenge for anybody: talk about politics, about everything our muddled, dysfunctional democratic government is doing wrong, without resorting to the following cliches:

  1. Declaring that the other side is evil.
  2. Declaring that the other side is stupid or uneducated.
  3. Declaring that the other side is so hopelessly corrupt that negotiation or compromise is pointless.

These easy excuses have become very popular in the United States of America, and of course the sentiments are the same on the right and the left. Many of those who find hope in the Tea Party movement believe that our government has been infiltrated by socialists or Marxists (“evil”), that decades of soft-headed liberal education has left Americans unable to understand and appreciate the hard edges of the U. S. Constitution (“stupid”, “uneducated”), that Washington D.C. is a nest of thieves that must be wiped clean (“hopelessly corrupt”) before our society’s true inner goodness can be revealed.

On the other extreme are the frustrated liberals who may have once held some hope for Barack Obama’s leadership, but are disgusted with the results so far. They believe our nation is in the grip of racist, hate-filled voters (“evil”), that the Fox News-watching, Rush Limbaugh-listening, Sarah Palin-fan club populace knows nothing about history or economics (“stupid”, “uneducated”), that Washington D. C. is a nest of thieves that must be wiped clean (“hopelessly corrupt”) before our society’s true inner goodness can be revealed.

These conservatives and liberals are often against the two-party system, but they’re not against the apocalypse system. They’re increasingly attracted to the idea that the only way to fix the United States of America is to prepare for a revolution, a grand battle that will pit good against evil and hopefully vanquish the bad guys before the bad guys vanquish the good. “It’s getting to that point,” they’ll grimly declare.

It’s funny that some people don’t think our problems can be solved by the democratic process, yet foolishly dream about armed revolutions or final battles that might finally “settle everything”, even at the risk of turning our prosperous and luxurious society into a tableau of tragedy and violence resembling Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (a novel whose apocalyptic visions of good vs. evil are so cleverly positioned as to allow all readers to think it must be written for them, and against their opponents, whoever they are).

I was recently talking to a smart 14-year-old girl who told me “I just have a feeling that things are getting worse and worse, and nobody’s going to be able to fix it.” What a scary thing for a young person to believe! Of course, there’s plenty of evidence for this. In the last ten years our nation was attacked, we became embroiled in two wars, our economy crashed.

This past week has been especially frustrating, degrading, hopeless. Following the stark brinksmanship of last month’s debt debate, one major ratings agency has downgraded the USA’s credit score for the first time in the nation’s history. This feels like a slap in the face to a furious, beaten-down populace. We feel we have no voice in our government. We’re scared for the future. Who do we slap back? Have things become so truly hopeless that we’ll ultimately have no choice but to fight it out in the streets, and hope the good side wins?

I’m pretty sure we’ve got some better options. I reject the apocalypse system.

I’m not crazy about the two-party system in the United States of America either, and I’m certainly disgusted by the dysfunctional Congress our voters have elected. But I believe the solution is more compromise, better compromise, smarter and more carefully considered compromise. Compromise, however, is rarely popular, and many people think it’s the wrong direction for our leadership to take. Isn’t compromise the same thing as appeasement? Doesn’t it result from a lack of principle, a lack of backbone? Doesn’t it fail to root out the evil that rots us from the inside?

As we struggle with difficult problems, I continue to personally find inspiration in the leadership of President Barack Obama — even though he’s now so unpopular on both the left and the right that I truly fear our nation may make a decision in 2012 to replace him with any of several potential leaders who have shown less character, less wisdom and less humanity. I’m sure that we’re lucky to have him atop our dysfunctional system, and I hope we’re smart enough to keep him there. The system remains dysfunctional, but there’s been a linchpin of sanity, rationality and true moderation in the Chief Executive’s spot. I fear how much worse things can get if that linchpin is lost.

We all know why American conservatives hate Barack Obama. Many liberals seem to hate him too lately, and I do understand why. His Taoist style of leadership — it’s funny that his enemies call him a Muslim or a socialist, when it’s clear that he’s a Taoist above all — always seeks the middle. He appears all too willing to give ground to the opposition, often for nothing in exchange. It’s easy to see that his often puzzling and inscrutable moves towards compromise have deep roots in the sense of satyagraha preached by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and yet it’s no easier for the world to accept the stubborn, difficult choices a wise leader must make today than it was when either of these two wise leaders were alive.

I don’t like the mess that the two-party system has left us: greedy, vain Democratic politicians slugging it out with greedy, vain Republican politicians in TV ads that insult our intelligence. But I’ll take the two-party system over the apocalypse system. I don’t believe an armed revolution or final battle between good and evil will solve anything. I’m not interested in seeing Cormac McCarthy’s The Road predict our future.

And it’s interesting that the need for a revolution is the one thing that the hard left and hard right seems to agree on (though they disagree on which side will win). I’ll choose the path of inclusion instead. And, yeah, even in the frustrating summer of 2011, as our economy declines and our Congress continues its pathetic dance of mediocrity, I still love and trust all Americans, and I still believe that inclusive, compromise-minded leadership offers our best hope for a better future. Do you?

17 Responses

  1. “Compromise” sounds nice and
    “Compromise” sounds nice and reasonable, but it’s just being a chump if one side is not negotiating in good faith. Obama’s middle is not a middle — the Republicans set their standards by an extreme and make the the available middle ground just a little to the side of that extreme. That’s a longstanding political tactic used by various groups throughout history: create a far extreme so what previously seemed extreme now seems like the moderate choice.

    Obama’s good at giving the other side a lot of what they demand; he’s not good at recalibrating the middle. He’s compromised his way to the right of Reagan and Nixon. Maybe there’s a grand strategy in that, but right now it just looks like gullibility, naivety, and weakness.

    Peter Daou has a pretty good analysis of how we got to this point:

  2. …..and why should we start
    …..and why should we start with the assumption there even has to be a usa? reminds me of the russian late eighties deperation of keeping together a cobbled group of fighting brothers. perhaps a hopelessly fractured population should make it official, draw some boundries and be free to persue, to it’s full potential, their favored ideaology. sure, it would be inconvienient for a few that would need to relocate, but over the years, the migration would continue and produce friendly competitors. currently, we don’t really know the best way forward because each side blunts the other. for our part (the southerners) we would surely recruit the carribean island nations to join along. can you imagine the wounderous tourist industry waiting to be developed to it’s full potential. the northerners, gleaming citys and most of the appalachian trail, would control the world’s finances with their banks and cufflinks. california would have to be decided and who knows, hawaii and alaska could choose to have a go on thier own. Lord knows, the alaskans have a bank of oil and palin would likely think it was good idea. hawaii will always be the jewel of the pacific. fly whatever flag dude, …and hang ten. colorado is ours, it was literally ours once. despite their insistence of hatred for the texans, the real mountainmen and mountainwomen of colorado know, deep down, of the once mighty union. texas in the 1830’s. the mexican’s heads would be spinning. the border would be shut down until it disappeared. eventually it would disappear. ahh texcio, finally…..texico..

    —brightness of a texico night—

    listen all you brothers and sisters,
    all you amigos and senoritas.

    we all have times like these,
    these are our times.

    problem with getting what you want,
    is the satisfying.

    only lasts about a minute or two, don’t it,
    always thought we would feel better.

    our sorry lot just asks for more,
    begging like beggars for acceptance.

    never understanding who they are,
    or why they were able to live this life.

    a box of bones await that man,
    dust kicking up as he walks the road.

    for me, i’m a grateful sort,
    grateful for starlets and neon lights and
    the brightness of a texico night.

    yaaaawn…hmmm, must of been sleeping…somebody must have put a political debate on the tube…..put me right to sleep.

  3. Which part of Obama’s
    Which part of Obama’s leadership inspires you most, Levi? The war crimes or the loyalty to Wall Street?

    I find myself most moved when he cracks clever jokes about predator drones at $1000-a-plate fundraisers. We’re so lucky to have a Democrat in office.

    NEWS FLASH: Obama is no Taoist. He’s a unabashed corporate capitalist and is prepared to go down with that rapidly sinking ship.

    Maybe your life is “prosperous and luxurious,” but do you honestly believe this is the case for most others? How delusional and insulting it is to virtually dismiss the widespread hardship across the country and the globe.

    To get to your main point: You “foolishly” over-simplify with the democratic process/armed revolution dichotomy but even if that were the case (and it’s not), you’ve left out a third – far more likely – scenario: social, economic, and environmental collapse.

    Which allows for a fourth – and perhaps most sane and compassionate – course of action: working to ease the impact of that looming collapse and creating a softer place to land.

    Good luck with your prosperity and luxury and your Taoist war criminal. As I said on the last thread, I’m opting out this debate.

  4. Pretending there are always
    Pretending there are always “both sides” is contributing to the problem. If no side is better, why should anybody bother to get out to vote? Then the loudest side wins, which is what just happened, and the result is the stock market losing everything it gained this year and quite likely at least a return of the recession.
    Pretending any opposing voice is equal to any qualified voice is how we waited until climate change is upon us, with at least a degree or two C average rise no matter what we do, making some parts of the world worse than McCarthy’s sanitized retelling of old science fiction themes. Have you read about Somalia lately?
    Sometimes there are indeed two sides: one side is the truth, and the other is a lie.
    It’s one thing to say Obama did the best he could when confronted with intransigence funded by oil billionaires. It’s quite another to say those who wanted him to do better are the same as the people who are funding the destruction of our world.
    You could help instead.

  5. The problem is that certain
    The problem is that certain ideas are held like religious beliefs, rather than enconomic or political ones. No one will compromise with their religious beliefs. One of the big religious beliefs is that we can’t raise taxes. The tea party and most of the republicans will not compromise because they think it’s like breaking one of the ten commandments or something. It’s not.

    Think of a business. If a business is struggling, and has a lot of debt, it makes sense to cut expenses. You can cut expenses to the bone, but if you never increase revenues, the business will fail. You must have revenue for a business to flourish.

    Thing of the US as a business. It is in the business of providing services to the citizens, maintaining the infrastructure, and educating the young. If the US continues to cut expenses without raising revenue, it too will fail. Without a balance between revenue (taxes) and expenses, the US will fail.

    We already see the results of this when we drive aroung the country. In many places the infrastructure is in miserable shape. Workers are surly and unhelpful. Our hospitals are a joke – my wife recently spent a single night in the hospital, spent over 10,000 dollars, and received no preceptable care.

    For some powerful people in this country, money is to be used solely to arm ourselves to the teeth and blow up our enemies. For others, money is to be used to help the people. The first type of people call the second type of people socialists or other names. Because many powerful people in the country hold their political and economic beliefs as religious beliefs, they will not compromise.

    We are in a hell of a mess now. But we have been in a hell of a mess before. Look at the late 60s, look at Vietnam. Look at the seventies when Japan was on a pace to become the world’s leading economic power. Look at the Reagan era.

    To solve this problem democratically, the American people have to realize that taxes and spending and providing social services are not religious beliefs – they are the necessary functions of good government. And they have to vote for leaders who will lead in this manner, not spew forth religious sounding platitudes and then obstruct, obstruct obstruct.

    The depression of 1929 marked the transition from a country based on small business to one based on big business funded in a large part by the government (railroads, for example). It was an example of the so called creative destruction where one type of business model wins out – to the pain and suffering of many people. This depression – for me it started in 2000 with the dot-com bubble and continued with the Great Crisis of 2008, is another transition – from nationalism to globalism. And it carries with it the intendant destruction – destruction of jobs, of life style, of economies.

    We as a people need to band together to elect officials that will make government serve the people, and not the giant corporations. And we can’t just elect them and hope for the best. For better or worse we need to hold our representatives accountable every day, if it means allocating 15 minutes a day of emailing and phoning. And it’s not just on the national scene. Look what happening in the states where Republican governers are trying to strip away union rights.

    If we don’t get involved to an extent that we have not before, then we might as well hand the country over to the tea party. Because they are involved.

  6. there’s nothing terribly
    there’s nothing terribly wrong with declaring the system hopelessly corrupt, if in fact it is hopelessly corrupt. the first step toward any shot at possible “recovery” . . . well, at least any sort of meaningful improvement, is to recognize and admit the problem(s). and be outspoken and active in your specific criticisms and protest. and i do think a sense of urgency is in order.

    bottom line . . . obama’s actions as president have not come close to matching his promises during the election campaign, and ultimately it’s because he’s far too dominated by the machine like almost everyone else in high office. i’m not sure if this is simply due to him playing ball to enable his own re-election, or if it’s something more sinister than that, perhaps even concerns for his own well-being, but his actions do not match the noble words. not even close, really. the only (possible) thing to recommend him at this point would be to say that, once again, for the umpteenth time, “the other side is worse.” but with the difference ever more razor thin with each election, does this rationalization cease to be a valid at some point, and a boycott of both sides the right answer?

  7. How is the rejection of
    How is the rejection of corrupt government, in all its forms, an a priori endorsement of an apocalypse system? Obama has repeatedly demonstrated that his idea of compromise — which in its considerable concessions to the other side is “better” from any vantage point — is little more than an ineffectual and weak-kneed approach to leadership. The two chief Republican factions — through Boehner and through the Tea Party — have repeatedly demonstrated that they are unfit to strike bargains unless they are pushed to the brink. The Democrats have repeatedly demonstrated that they are unfit to fight long and hard even when they are given an advantage. This system is rooted in gridlock, not democracy. It is government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. Or have you not been paying attention to the crass economic policies of the past five years? Given such reality, why wouldn’t one call for nihilism under the circumstances? Anarchism and revolution are far more utopian ideals than believing in a phony government — in large part because they now seem the only instruments with which genuine progressive principles and reform are likely to be actualized.

  8. Thanks a lot for the
    Thanks a lot for the responses so far. I’m glad we’re able to talk these important questions out.

    Matt — yeah, I agree. But that’s why I said we need *better* compromise, not just any compromise. I wasn’t happy with how the debt ceiling compromise played out either.

    Hypcollector — I don’t believe in nations either. Never have believed in them. After I wrote this blog post, I regretted writing about Americans and USA exclusively. It’s a small world and I care about everybody in it. I guess I only wrote about USA because unfortunately I don’t have a very good understanding of what’s going on elsewhere.

    Mickey — well, yeah, the truth is that Barack Obama *is* a war criminal. Anybody who assumes the role of President of the United States of America becomes a war criminal, because we sure as hell are involved in some questionable shit around the globe. But does that mean a good and decent person should refuse to become President of the USA? In order to get elected, he had to promise continuity with military leadership and general foreign policy direction. He decided that he was willing to live with this compromise. It’s clear to me that, like Bill Clinton, he’s focused on a domestic agenda more than a global agenda.

    John — well, I do know from talking to many conservatives that they take their positions seriously and they believe themselves to be well-informed. As a liberal, I think it’s important that I be willing to listen with an open mind to anybody who disagrees with me, and to give their opinions serious consideration. I listen to people I disagree with a lot, and it’s often a very informative experience for me.

    Michael — I agree with every word you say. Thank you.

    Mnaz — okay, but this “boycott of both sides” you speak of — where’s the beef? Believe me, I don’t love the two party system. But every attempt I’ve seen to break past it has been a pathetic failure, so why don’t we accept this fact for now and move on?

    Ed — I don’t call for nihilism because I read a lot of history. It was this kind of reckless, nihilistic foolishness that led to, hmm, let’s see … the US Civil War. World War One. World War Two. Not a great track record for reckless nihilistic foolishness.

  9. the principle here is, if the
    the principle here is, if the machine is broken, realistically beyond repair, then don’t vote for the machine, vote outside of it.

    obviously, this seems a pipe dream, an impossibility. it’s a little like saying, “if everyone would be peaceful, we’d have peace.”

    i still haven’t decided if “voting against the republicans” is still a good enough reason to vote for the “d” trademark in the next election. (was it ever?)

  10. Mnaz, if a viable third party
    Mnaz, if a viable third party (or, better, a third non-party) arises, I will be very open to supporting it, and I think many other voters will too.

    But I do think much is at stake between the “d” trademark and the “r” trademark today:

    — a woman’s right to choose
    — anonymous corporate sponsorship of political advertising
    — health care reform
    — finance reform
    — education budgeting
    — fair taxation for the very wealthy

    These are the issues that keep me on the “d” side, even though the party doesn’t go nearly far enough.

  11. you might have a point on
    you might have a point on your first item, levi. that, and trying to preserve what’s left of the supreme court’s integrity (is there any?), as you mentioned earlier.

    and the rest of your list is important too, but where rubber meets road, do we see any real progress on these items? and do we have any reason to expect it?

    re, your list:

    — i don’t recall the democrats trying to address anonymous corporate political sponsorship. (maybe i missed it).

    — did we achieve a credible, viable public health care option? or did the democrats join with republicans and essentially cave in to the insurance lobby?

    — will we ever see any follow through on finance reform? or will that get also get ground up in the gears of the machine, as everyone makes corporate deals to get re-elected?

    — you may have a point on education; i haven’t looked into that.

    — as for taxation of the very wealthy? where is it? the democrats have had more than enough time to fix this.


    — what about big oil? obama’s committee to investigate possible fraud / collusion in the production control and international commodity trading– is that something else that will quietly just blow over? also, didn’t obama challenge the repubs. constant refrain of “drill baby, drill” in the campaign (2008 gas crunch)? yet, obama was set to do essentially that– open up a lot of drilling– in april, 2010, just before the b.p. rig blew up.

    — and don’t get me started on the insanity of both our military “budget” or foreign policy. obama has not so much as pretended to make an effort at getting any sort of handle on either one. in terms of drone attacks and covert missions in places like yemen, he’s actually crossed some lines that bush didn’t cross. and git’mo? still open for business.

    again, in real terms overall, is it possible to reach a point where the machine is corrupted beyond repair?

  12. Good questions, Mnaz. I’m
    Good questions, Mnaz. I’m not going to pretend I have answers to most of them. I wish I had an answer regarding big oil and the military budget. I am very unhappy with the Obama administration’s initiatives in this area.

    It’s worth saying, though, that it’s the American voters who must take the blame on this front. If Obama had promised before getting elected to cut the military budget and significantly change our military direction, and had then failed to deliver on this promise, then he would take the blame. Unfortunately, it appears to be the fact that he could never have gotten elected at all if he had promised big changes in these areas. The big change that’s needed here is to engage all of the country (and the world) in a more hard-hitting debate about these issues. I’m not going to blame politicians for doing what voters demand — I’ll blame the voters.

    The one issue you brought up that I can answer regards anonymous corporate political advertising, and here the issue is the Supreme Court. Here’s a link about this:

    It’s all about the Supreme Court. I don’t know why there hasn’t been a greater uproar about the ideologues appointed to the Supreme Court by GW Bush, but anybody who cares about the future of this country needs to pay attention to the politicization of the Supreme Court. This branch of government holds immense power, and real damage has been done to its integrity by the appointments of Alito and Roberts. One area where I give Obama big positive marks is in his excellent Supreme Court appointments, but I won’t feel safe until he gets to appoint a couple more.

  13. re: dem vs. repub. the
    re: dem vs. repub. the supreme court issue is about the only “difference” issue that holds much weight with me anymore, and i’m starting to wonder if even that perception will ultimately prove illusory as well.

    re: foreign policy and the military. i don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame the voters if both candidates are hawks— both pledged to policies of war in one form or another (both essentially pledged to to do the m. i. complex’s bidding). if anything, this would be a strong argument to “vote outside the machine,” especially if one had strong moral convictions about these issues.

    i agree that any candidate would make themselves far less electable if they promised large, draconian military cuts, but i don’t think obama needed to propose an escalation in the afghanistan war/occupation, as he did, to make himself electable. if anything, this position could have worked against his electability, considering who his base was (or who we thought they were).

  14. The direction of this
    The direction of this conversation seems to be that the difference(s) between R & D are negligible, if at all. Obama being portrayed on one side as a sell-out to the Progressives and a easily duped President that the Conservatives can manipulate. All in all, the talk about some 3rd party is akin, to me, to the rise of the TP’ers… just some disgruntled people, like most of us, having their voices/concerns heard. Too many opinions and not enough factual honesty about the whole friggin’ mess.

    Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, USA, there is our democracy hard at work to recall the Republican members of the State Senate who, along with their Governor, Scott Walker, who is anti-Union to the max and has his (R) leadership towing the party line. In a tv special last night (MSNBC Ed Shultz Show), he was among a very large crowd of (D) supporters in the special election recall. It’s refreshing to see our democracy working overtime with the citizens of WI, who have gone all over their state and recruited voters to aid in the recall… many of them voters who helped elect the current Senate and Governor who felt like they were lied to.

    I bring this up because this recall election may turn out to be far more important than the most of us realize. If the (D) wins the majority of the WI Senate, the next recall election may very well boot out Scott Walker, which many would like to see removed. The (R) supporters from around the country have reportedly put in over $40 MILLION to campaign against the people’s wishes in WI.

    Tonight can be a telling night in our democracy that could well effect other (R) take-overs by (R) Governors in MI, OH, NJ, FL and other key states where the radical right agenda seems to be spreading using deceitful means and lies.

    Tonight could well be a turning point for the hungry Progressives that have felt neglected and even lied to by the (D) leadership. It could be a wake-up call for many of us that our democracy can win for the people. (at least I certainly do and will be watching…)

  15. good post cec. easy to
    good post cec. easy to forget that the battle spills into the lower rungs of government too. yes, union-busting has always been part of this fight.

    classic poli-sci theory tells us that the D & R sides of the aisle have fundamentally different philosophies of governance. but the rift seems more and more a battle over near complete corporate takeover from (and substitution for) government in general— “private vs. public”— which kicked into high gear with the reagan regime, and took off to numbing heights under bush II.

    we see this in the relentless push for de-regulation, the large corporate tax breaks, the repeated efforts to privatize everything from social security to large segments of our (now permanent?) foreign wars for increased american hegemony, and the endless assault on the government social safety net— generally by draining the treasury and claiming no other way to fix the budget except social cuts. medicare for everyone? are you kidding? that idea has been d.o.a. in congress for at least 30 years— there is already far too much socialized medicine as far as the insurance juggernaut is concerned. corporatism, in its purest form, would strip government to the bare bones and privatize all of its functions— completely crush any and all remaining vestiges of the new deal.

    and of course, democrats, to stay in the game, with the insane amounts of $$ it costs to be elected, have been pulled past center to the right— just not quite as far right as the repubs (usually). the most vilified (by corporate media) “liberal” in america would qualify as right-of-center in most european nations. ultimately, it’s like i always say— neither pure capitalism nor pure socialism work well— the trick is to find the right balance point. like many other things in life.

  16. In general, yes, I agree that
    In general, yes, I agree that Americans tend to seek healthy compromise. It’s the basis of our government. It has worked for a very short time.

    But I do not think it matters. Events are outpacing the ability of compromise to work. This nation suffered its worst crisis since the Civil War with the 2000 election and presidency of George Bush. That wound is bleeding still and will not heal for another 50 years at least.

    That is the my estimation of the scope of what we are in the middle of.

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