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At Orcinus: The Centre Cannot Hold

by NBBooks Sun Jan 13th, 2008 at 07:48:01 PM EST

At Orcinus there is an excellent series written by "Sara" about the political upheavals that are upon us. Here are some extended excerpts from yesterday's post, which is the conclusion of a five part series.

She begins with the quote from William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming" in which the center cannot hold. Yeats, she writes,

has endured because it captures the raw and terrifying essence of those certain rare moments in which we finally accept that the past that we have known is over; and that all that remains before us is a choice of unknown and largely unknowable futures. And yet, even amid the collapse and chaos, we know we are making foundational choices that will determine how billions of people live and die for several generations to come.

We are, once again, standing at that inflection point. The center is not holding. The structures that sustained the past as we knew it are being swept away -- as the colonial order was swept away in 1776, and the slaveholder order was shattered in 1865, and the tyranny of the industrialists was leveled in 1932. Now, a world built on oil and consumerism has become too dangerous to sustain; and that center, too, is falling away to make room for something new.

But we don't yet know what will rise in its place. That's what's being decided now. The biggest determining factor at these moments -- and also, far and away, the biggest risk -- is who gets to the center first and lays down the most compelling vision....

America has been fairly lucky. At similar points in the past, we've been blessed with fleet-footed, reform-minded idealists like Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt -- leaders who weren't afraid to step into the breach and challenge us to become something entirely new and (for the most part) considerably better. Jefferson and his fellow Founders did this with such vision and passion that they remain one of history's prime examples of how this kind of transformative moment can be used to usher in an entirely new era of history.

Lincoln offers a more sobering view of what can also go wrong. After his assassination, Andrew Johnson allowed the corporate royalists to capture the still-very-new Republican party, and co-opt Reconstruction for their own ends. The military part of the revolution was won; but without The Great Emancipator's steadying hand through the aftermath, the social revolution that was supposed to finish the job of bringing African-Americans to full equality was throttled in its crib. The result was the rise of the Jim Crow and the robber barons, the excesses of the Gilded Age, the financial panics of the 1880s and 1890s, and (forty years on) the wrenching crusades of the Progressive Era in which a new generation fought to take back their government and use it to reclaim the common good.

One of those Progressive reformers was Franklin Roosevelt, whose seized his own moment and used it to create the modern middle class. He succeeded in part because he had 14 years in office -- plenty of time to follow through. By the time he died, his efforts had taken solid root, and the emerging middle class he sought to nurture had begun to flourish. As long as people remembered what he'd done, the will to maintain that middle class remained strong. It was only when the main beneficiaries were too old and comfortable to remember clearly, and a new generation came up with no such memories at all, that the Reaganites could finally get out the tools and begin to chip away at it.. . .

Another wild card is the religious right, whose long alliance with the royalists has come up for a serious re-negotiation on several fronts. As I've noted before, there are a number of long-term forces that are moving the next generation of Evangelicals slowly toward the center. One of these (crystallized in the campaign of Mike Huckabee) is a deep sense of betrayal at how their 30 years of loyal support have failed to pay off politically for them. Another is a growing sense of populism that is putting them back in touch with their own class interests. A third is a younger generation that's beginning to engage with the same issues of ecology and economy that the rest of us see, and are mounting a powerful Scriptural critique of it.

For the past decade, observers of the radical right have been worried that this group would be ripe pickings for a populist leader who promised them palingenesis -- a Biblical renewal of national purity, achieved through an eliminationist purging of the country's liberal and decadent elements, undertaken (as mandated by some theologies) in order to prepare the way for the Second Coming. If the right leader emerged to unite the moral passions of the religious right with the economic rapacity of the corporatists, a fascist state would almost certainly be the result.

However, given recent trends on this front, it seems possible that that the ripest moment for this may have come somewhere around 2003, and is now passing. It could still happen, especially in the event of another large-scale terrorist attack. But, absent that, as the dissatisfactions between the religious and economic right widen it will continue to become less likely.

Sara notes that the results of the U.S. presidential primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire have forced a shift in the political rhetoric, with all the candidates seeking to sell themselves as agents of change. But as Sara notes:

"I am the candidate of change" tells us absolutely nothing; and we're fools if we accept this proclamation as sufficient. We need to know: What does change mean to you? Where do you want to take us? And, most importantly: Do you fully understand the magnitude of change possible in this moment? Are you willing to think at a scale that will help us lay down the foundation for a reworked economy, a new energy paradigm, a set of cultural values that don't depend on consumerism, and an entirely different relationship with nature and the rest of the world?

At the end, she issues a stern warning for progressives, who have been paralyzed by the cynicism accumulated over the past thirty years of disappointment.

While we're standing around, hemming and hawing, far less prudent people are already hurling themselves into the breach. They don't have a moment's hesitation about dreaming big; and they don't worry in the least about having enough information, or thinking through the consequences, or wondering if their decisions are reasonable. They want CHANGE, dammit, and they want it now. Their appeal is emotional, furious, and sometimes incendiary. And while their definition of "change" is incoherent -- even those involved in some of their movements can't quite tell you what they stand for -- their zeal to get in there and become the first to seize the center more than makes up for it. The details can wait, they figure -- they'll work that out once they've taken control of the new reality, which will allow them to frame the terms of the conversation about possible solutions.

That's what leaders and winners look like in this moment. And it's why serious factions, yearning for change, are lining up behind people like Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. Their common trait is their willingness to hurl themselves into that breach in the name of creating change NOW, and -- for better or worse -- working out the details later.

This is some excellent, very compelling, and delightfully insightful writing. If you read only these excerpts above, you are cheating yourself of a wonderful treat. For example, from Part 2:

It's natural, staring into that abyss that's now falling away in the place where our center used to be, for us to ask hard questions about who we are, how we're living, what we should be doing differently, and what we really want for our children. In a healthy culture, the answers and the new solutions will come straight out of the context provided by that common worldview. The material, political, economic, and technological world around us is about to undergo massive and necessary changes. But whatever new thing we end up with, if some recognizable piece of our best underlying American spirit and values still shine right through, it'll be proof that we probably got it right.

The bad news is: we're not doing so well on this front these days. Decades of conservative contempt for shared American values, strong communities, and the common good has left our sense of collective destiny and common purpose in tatters -- just at the moment when we're about to rely on it most. They've rewritten our history, muted our media, squandered our dominance in technology and science, replaced the rule of law with the rule of men, and co-opted government to the point where it can no longer effectively address our future. All these assets were a sort of national trust fund that generations of Americans paid into, specifically so we'd have resources to fall back during times of challenge and change. Like every other American legacy left to us, the modern Republicans have spent it, quite literally, as if there was no tomorrow.

And worse: they almost certainly did it on purpose. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein lays out the events through which conservatives learned how to deliberately undermine other countries' ability to fall back on their common cultural resources to regroup and recover. "Shock and awe" techniques are intentionally designed to cut people loose from these solid moorings. Since no one can articulate shared values, set community priorities, or identify the common good amid all the free-floating chaos that these techniques foment, well-prepared corporate opportunists are able to rush into the void and fill it with a new order of their own design. They destroy cultures on purpose, in order to steal people's futures right out from under them.

Everyone should wander over and spend some time.
Then come back and begin to define the change they would like to see.

I will go and look later, but I admit she lost me when she compared the illiteracy and innumercacy of the Paul campaign with the principles of Kucinich. I may not feel he is the best candidate, but to say his platform is idiotic betrays a centrist bias that makes em wonder what change means to her.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Jan 14th, 2008 at 07:55:40 AM EST
me too.  not much comparison between Paul and Kucinich, either in ideological position or in long-term thinking ability (as if the two were really separate issues hmmm)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Jan 14th, 2008 at 12:40:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well having read the essay on the page I'm still unsure where she's going or what her conclusion is. And that annoys me as Orcinus is a good site that shouldn't publish stuff like this.

She complains about the vagueness of the politicians positions, correctly identifying that merely saying the word change doesn't exactly signify much (hello I said that last flipping summer), but however much she's impressed by the Shock doctrine, the fact is that this is hardly the greatest revelation.  All in all, she comes over as much too pleased with her erudition to actually edit her piece to make a more interesting and wider point .

I know this comes across as whiney and pedantic, and maybe I'm a bit grouchy today, but seriously, if I am still confused about what she's trying to say, then she missed the point of publication.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Jan 14th, 2008 at 02:12:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
also squandered our dominance in technology and science is insiduous rhetoric, expressing as it does the underlying belief that there is something right, natural, just and desirable about the US having "dominance" in these areas.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Jan 14th, 2008 at 12:41:31 PM EST
(sigh) insidious

what fool put I next to U on the damn QWERTY map...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Jan 14th, 2008 at 12:42:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Notice that the letters for typewriter are all along the top row. It makes it easy for some sales person to expertly type out the word and impress the customer. No skill is actually required.

That leads to a second problem. Speed. People just plain type too fast. When that happens, keys jam - tempers rise, and maybe they decide to go back to pen and paper. The solution is to re-jig the key layout to slow you down. Look at where the vowels are. The a is hit with your pinkie, the others all require a reach to the top row. Keys don't jam - no nasty temper tantrums - and everyone's happy. No?

aspiring to genteel poverty

by edwin (eeeeeeee222222rrrrreeeeeaaaaadddddd@@@@yyyyaaaaaaa) on Mon Jan 14th, 2008 at 01:14:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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