not in our stars, but in ourselves
As the four years of slaughter drew to a close, the well-known Austrian writer Robert Musil cynically jotted in his diary in 1918: “The war can be reduced to the formula: you die for your ideals, because it’s not worth living for them.”
– To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949, Ian Kershaw
Hello, friends and enemies. It’s been a while. My mother asked why I hadn’t posted in so long; since she is one of about three people who reads this, I suppose I’d better give it a shot. Anyway, I haven’t been in the mood to write because I find the world to be grim and getting grimmer, and talking about it doesn’t help me to feel any better, and I feel very small and alone and sad. I feel alone in my fear, worry, and pessimism; I feel like a dog trying to warn its owners that the house is on fire, and like the humans just won’t get it until it’s far too late. (Trust me to turn this into a dog metaphor.)
As you may know, I’m a big fan of Chapo Trap House. Granted, it’s just a podcast; granted, listening to a bunch of guys joking and getting angry about this country’s political erectile dysfunction doesn’t accomplish anything; but it helps a little bit. It helps me to feel a little bit less alone – even if it also helps me to articulate exactly why I’m angry about these things, and even if it also fills me with dread when I see how terribly unlikely it is that anything will improve. The 27th episode, “Tomorrow Belongs To Them,” is especially vital (and depressing), so do listen to it. They interviewed Dan O’Sullivan, better known on Twitter as @Bro_Pair, and a damn fine writer; see his recent Jacobin piece, co-written by Jeb Lund (@Mobute), for proof. Anyway. Back to Chapo. The title, of course, refers to this pivotal scene from Cabaret:
I get chills every time I watch. It’s one of the best and most succinct depictions of how something as apparently unthinkable as Nazism takes root (and becomes thinkable). It doesn’t begin with jackboots and guns and the like: it begins with sentimental, feel-good, ideologically horrifying stuff like this. And it’s aided and abetted by the elite classes shrugging their shoulders, getting into their cars, and driving away – i.e., refusing to confront the forces of evil in the battle for the soul of the masses – indeed, laughing at them and holding their noses up at them – and just letting those forces take over. It’s starting here, and I am (obviously) deeply pessimistic – because even though it’s imperative that Trump lose this election, it’s not like the other side has any real solutions. Give Trump-leaning people four years to organize around a smarter, shrewder candidate, and guess how much worse 2020 will be than 2016. None of us should be happy or complacent or satisfied, because it can and will get a lot worse.
Last night, I got into what almost counted as an argument with my boyfriend. He, like me, was a Bernie Bro all along; but unlike me, he’s reasonably happy with the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. We have differing opinions on whether she’s any worse than any other politician out there; we have differing opinions on whether things she did in her time as Secretary of State would, if they’d been perpetrated by another country, be fairly termed (and charged) as war crimes. (And I’m not fucking talking about Benghazi.) Truthfully, I don’t imagine that all that much will change under a second Clinton presidency, not for people like him and me. We’re white. Our employment is stable. Our pay is sufficient. We live in an educated, bustling, small-ish city. We do not live paycheck-to-paycheck. We’re in good health, but we both have health insurance, should anything ever go wrong. I’m not worried about us. I’m worried about people less socio-economically lucky than we are – but their lives will probably stay about as bad as they are now under Clinton II, without getting exponentially worse. So, you know: they’ll still find themselves locked in cruel, abject poverty (with none other than the “good” billionaire, Warren Buffett, profiting from much of that misery). Black people will probably still be locked up in disproportionate numbers, thanks to the effects of the first Clinton administration and the intentions of the second to keep right on criminalizing marijuana (not to suggest that that’s where the problem begins and ends – but it’s a big, easily fixable part of the problem). Overseas, it probably will get worse. I’ve ranted about what I think of her foreign policy before; no need to beat that dead horse again. In short: it’s bad. She has a lot to answer for. Her friends – Henry Kissinger in particular – have even more. She’s not going to ease up on our endless wars around the world; au contraire. She’ll keep proudly trotting out bereaved families while ensuring that there will always be more of them to follow.
That brings me back to the quote up at the top. I am reading Kershaw’s excellent book, and I’m finding it depressing. A friend was surprised to hear that: he finds it clarifying and useful to read about the past, the two wars in particular. He, bless him, is English. The English, as well as most other Europeans, have a much more direct and visceral relationship with the war than we Americans have. During World War II, there was lots of sacrifice on the home front, but none of the devastation actually happened here. We weren’t subject to air raids. We weren’t chuffed off to concentration camps. Our young, cocky country wasn’t razed by tanks and bombs. For most of us (well, our grandparents and great-grandparents and so forth), it all happened Over There. That has continued to be true of every war we’ve been involved in since; and unless I’m mistaken, there hasn’t been a significant stretch of time, from 1945 to the present, when we haven’t been involved in some sort of war. We didn’t learn any of the right lessons from (to date) the worst war the planet has ever seen. I think some of that is because it didn’t happen here. It’s always Over There. Who cares.
But I worry. I worry, for one thing, that the foreign policy Blob running Washington is impossible to control – and there are too many corporations that are too “friendly” with too many political heavyweights for anyone to try to control it anyway. I worry, too, that conditions are ripe here for something truly horrific to happen. Kershaw writes, for instance, about Italy during and after World War I:
Although Italy was on the side of the Entente, it did not feel as if the war was being won. The war had been imposed upon a deeply divided country in 1915 by a narrow political elite hoping after a quick victory for sizeable territorial gains in the Adriatic. […] The majority of the population felt in any case that it had no stake in the existing limited political representation. Italians could drum up no enthusiasm for governments that changed frequently but always seemed the same – and to be looking after the same elite interests. Defeats, material hardship and heavy losses then polarized society and undermined support not just for a succession of weak governments but for the state itself.
[…] Opposition to the war and popular discontent was mostly voiced on the Left, though the socialist movement was itself split between those who rejected the war outright and wanted revolution and the majority who continued to provide patriotic, if unenthusiastic, support for the war effort. Ominously, the Italian government found itself even more vehemently attacked from the Right. The Nationalists extended the base of their support, increased their agitation for territorial expansion in south-eastern Europe and Africa, and, so the Minister of the Interior claimed, sought to gain control of the police and terrorize their opponents. They wanted to sweep away what they saw as sterile parliamentary rule and its attendant bureaucracy, advocating radical social change through a state and economy to be run on quasi-military lines even when the war was over. They were already at the forefront of the local defence formations that called themselves Fasci. Italy’s post-war crisis was foreshadowed.
You get the idea. There are some notes that ring true. We’re not Italy, not yet – but I really don’t think I’m wrong to worry. If you can look at the world and feel optimism, please explain how. I’d love to know.