Posts Tagged ‘Tom Engelhardt’

Most of us are familiar with a grandpa, uncle, or father who eventually turns into a cranky old man during late middle age or in his dotage. (Why is it a mostly male phenomenon?) In the last three decades, Clint Eastwood typecast himself as a cranky old man, building on lone-wolf characters (mostly cops, criminals, and cowboys) established earlier in his career. In real life, these guys spout talking points absorbed from mainstream media and narrative managers, or if they are truly lazy and/or can’t articulate anything coherently on their own, merely forward agitprop via e-mail like chain mail of yore. They also demonstrate remarkably forgivable racism, sexism, and bigotry, such as Eastwood’s rather enjoyable and ultimately redeemed character in the film Gran Torino. If interaction with such a fellow is limited to Thanksgiving gatherings once per year, crankiness can be tolerated fairly easily. If interactions are ongoing, then a typical reaction is simply to delete e-mail messages unread, or in the case of unavoidable face-to-face interaction, to chalk it up: Well, that’s just Grandpa Joe or Uncle Bill or Dad. Let him rant; he’s basically harmless now that he’s so old he creaks.

Except that not all of them are so harmless. Only a handful of the so-called Greatest Generation (I tire of the term but it’s solidly established) remain in positions of influence. However, lots of Boomers still wield considerable power despite their advancing age, looming retirement (and death), and basic out-of-touchness with a culture that has left them behind. Nor are their rants and bluster necessarily wrong. See, for instance, this rant by Tom Engelhardt, which begins with these two paragraphs:

Let me rant for a moment. I don’t do it often, maybe ever. I’m not Donald Trump. Though I’m only two years older than him, I don’t even know how to tweet and that tells you everything you really need to know about Tom Engelhardt in a world clearly passing me by. Still, after years in which America’s streets were essentially empty, they’ve suddenly filled, day after day, with youthful protesters, bringing back a version of a moment I remember from my youth and that’s a hopeful (if also, given Covid-19, a scary) thing, even if I’m an old man in isolation in this never-ending pandemic moment of ours.

In such isolation, no wonder I have the urge to rant. Our present American world, after all, was both deeply unimaginable — before 2016, no one could have conjured up President Donald Trump as anything but a joke — and yet in some sense, all too imaginable …

If my own father (who doesn’t read this blog) could articulate ideas as well as Engelhardt, maybe I would stop deleting unread the idiocy he forwards via e-mail. Admittedly, I could well be following in my father’s footsteps, as the tag rants on this blog indicates, but at least I write my own screed. I’m far less accomplished at it than, say, Engelhardt, Andy Rooney (in his day), Ralph Nader, or Dave Barry, but then, I’m only a curmudgeon-in-training, not having fully aged (or elevated?) yet to cranky old manhood.

As the fall presidential election draws near (assuming that it goes forward), the choice in the limited U.S. two-party system is between one of two cranky old men, neither of which is remotely capable of guiding the country through this rough patch at the doomer-anticipated end of human history. Oh, and BTW, echoing Engelhardt’s remark above, 45 has been a joke all of my life — a dark parody of success — and remains so despite occupying the Oval Office. Their primary opponent up to only a couple months ago was Bernie Sanders, himself a cranky old man but far more endearing at it. This is what passes for the best leadership on offer?

Many Americans are ready to move on to someone younger and more vibrant, able to articulate a vision for something, well, different from the past. Let’s skip right on past candidates (names withheld) who parrot the same worn-out ideas as our fathers and grandfathers. Indeed, a meme emerged recently to the effect that the Greatest Generation saved us from various early 20th-century scourges (e.g., Nazis and Reds) only for the Boomers to proceed in their turn to mess up the planet so badly nothing will survive new scourges already appearing. It may not be fair to hang such labels uniformly around the necks of either generation (or subsequent ones); each possesses unique characteristics and opportunities (some achieved, others squandered) borne out of their particular moment in history. But this much is clear: whatever happens with the election and whichever generational cohort assumes power, the future is gonna be remarkably different.

In the introduction to an article at TomDispatch about anticipated resumption of professional sports currently on hiatus like much of the rest of human activity (economic and otherwise), Tom Engelhardt recalls that to his childhood self, professional sports meant so much and yet so little (alternatively, everything and nothing). This charming aspect of the innocence of childhood continues into adulthood, whether as spectator or participant, as leisure and freedom from threat allow. The article goes on to offer conjecture regarding the effect of reopening professional sports on the fall presidential election. Ugh! Racehorse politics never go out of season. I reject such purely hypothetical analyses, which isn’t the same as not caring about the election. Maybe I’ll wade in after a Democratic nominee is chosen to say that third-party candidates may well have a much larger role to play this time round because we’re again being offered flatly unacceptable options within the two-party single-party system. Until then, phooey on campaign season!

Still, Engelhardt’s remark put me in mind of a blog post I considered fully nine years ago but never got around to writing, namely, how music functions as meaningless abstraction. Pick you passion, I suppose: sports, music (any genre), literature, painting, poetry, dance, cinema and TV, fashion, fitness, nature, house pets, house plants, etc. Inspiration and devotion come in lots of forms, few of which are essential (primary or ontological needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy) yet remain fundamental to who we are and what we want out of life. Accordingly, when one’s passion is stripped away, being left grasping and rootless is quite common. That’s not equivalent to losing a job or loved one (those losses are afflicting many people right now, too), but our shared experience these days with no bars, no restaurants, no sports, no concerts, no school, and no church all add up to no society. We’re atomized, unable to connect and socialize meaningfully, digital substitutes notwithstanding. If a spectator, maybe one goes in search of replacements, which is awfully cold comfort. If a participant, one’s identity is wrapped up in such endeavors; resulting loss of meaning and/or purpose can be devastating.

It would be easy to over-analyze and over-intellectualize what meaningless abstraction means. It’s a trap, so I’ll do my best not to over-indulge. Still, it’s worth observing that as passions are habituated and internalized, their mode of appreciation is transferred from the senses (or sensorium) to the mind or head (as observed here). Coarseness and ugliness are then easily digested, rationalized, and embraced instead of being repulsive as they should be. There’s the paradox: as we grow more “sophisticated” (scare quotes intentional), we also invert and become more base. How else to explain tolerance of increasingly brazen dysfunction, corruption, servitude (e.g., debt), and gaslighting? It also explains the attraction to entertainments such as combat sports (and thug sports such as football and hockey), violent films, professional wrestling (more theater than sport), and online trolling. An instinctual blood lust that accompanies being predators, if not expressed more directly in war, torture, crime, and self-destruction, is sublimated into entertainment. Maybe that’s an escape valve so pressures don’t build up any worse, but that possibility strikes me as rather weak considering just how much damage has already been done.

I have always remembered a striking line from the movie The Dancer Upstairs where the police investigator, who is tracking the leader of Shining Path in Peru in the 1980s, says (paraphrasing from Spanish), “I think there is a revolution going on.” Elsewhere on the globe today, Arab Spring has morphed from a series of U.S.-instigated regime changes into an emerging Arab state (ISIS), though establishing itself is violent and medieval. According to Tom Engelhardt, even the U.S. has a new political system rising out of the ruins of its own dysfunction. Unless I’m mistaken, a revolution is a political system being overthrown by mass uprising of the citizenry, whereas a coup is a powerful splinter within the current regime (often the military wing) seizing administrative control. What Engelhardt describes is more nearly a coup, and like the quote above, it appears to be coalescing around us in plain sight, though that conclusion is scarcely spoken aloud. It may well be that Engelhardt has succeeded in crystallizing the moment. His five principal arguments are these:

  1. 1% Elections — distortion of the electoral system by dollars and dynasties.
  2. Privatization of the State — proper functions of the state transferred into the hands of privateers (especially mercenaries and so-called warrior corporations — nice neologism).
  3. De-legitimization of Congress and the Presidency — fundamental inability to govern, regulate, and/or prosecute at the Federal level, opening up a power vacuum.
  4. Rise of the National Security State (Fourth Branch of Government) — the dragnet complex revealed (in part) by whistle-blower Edward Snowden but plain to see post-9/11.
  5. Demobilization of the American People — surprising silence of the public in the face of such unwholesome developments.

Please read the article for yourself, which is very well written. (I am no great fan of the journalistic style but must acknowledge that Engelhardt’s work is terrific.) I especially like Engelhardt’s suggestion that a grand conspiracy (e.g., New World Order) is not necessary but that instead it’s all being improvised on the run. Let me offer a couple observations of my own.

Power has several attributes, such as the position to influence events, the resources to get things done, and the ability to motivate (or quell) the public through active management of perception. High offices (both government and boardroom, both elected and appointed) are the positions, the U.S. Treasury and the wealth of the 1% are the resources, and charismatic storytelling (now outright lying) is management of perception. Actors (a word chosen purposely) across the American stage have been maneuvering for generations to wield power, often for its own sake but more generally in the pursuit of wealth. One might assume that once personal wealth has been acquired motivations would slacken, but instead they divert in not a few psychopaths to maniacal building of multigenerational dynasties.

Pulling the levers of state in one capacity or another is a timeworn mechanism for achieving the proxy immortality of the American statesman. However, as dysfunction in the political arena has grown, corporations (including banks) have assumed the reins. Despite corporate personhood being conferred and recently expanded, largely via judicial fiat, the profit motive has reasserted itself as primary, since there is no such thing as a fully self-actualized corporation. Thus, we have the Federal Reserve System acting as a de facto corporation within government — but without conscience. Multiply that hundreds of times over and voilà: an American corporatocracy.

The effect has been extrapolated in numerous movies and television shows, all offering dystopic warnings of things to come where people, domestic and alien, are all expendable as power seeks to perpetuate itself. How far this can go before financial collapse, climate change, energy scarcity, or a host of others looming calamities overtakes is yet to be seen. Some hold out hope for true revolution, but I believe that possibility has been contained. Considering how the world has been accelerating toward ecocide, I venture that at most a few more decades of desperate negotiations with fate are in store for us. Alternatively, I find it entirely feasible that the delicate web of interconnections that maintain life in all its manifestations could suffer a phase shift rather quickly, at which point all bets are off. Either way, in no one’s wildest imagination could our current civilization be considered the best we can do, much less the best of all possible worlds.