"We are born crying, live complaining, and die disappointed." -- Thomas FullerThomas Fuller is one of those wonderful, unremembered fellows who made some wonderfully nasty comments at the end of the seventeenth century, when England was starting to get as partisan (after being merely bloody handed) as we are now. Today, people just say, "Sh*t happens, and then you die." Fuller's is, "Sh|t happens, and then you die, and you never got what you wanted on your birthday."
As seriously divided as the English were in 1689, we are worse, because they were united in trying to be nice. We are in a partisan world in a way that, blithe newsmen be damned, has not been seen since the 1850's. This is new. Back in the days of the fire eaters, people summed up each others' whole world views in a single party affiliation, because the parties had positioned themselves to such psychological poles. It wasn't just in Alabama that a person got fired for having a Democratic bumper sticker in 2004. Absent a specific law, judges will uphold the employer's right to fire a dirty commie Obama supporter, too. (I do not wish to be hyperbolic. Please check the link: private corporations and employers, if they can link the political affiliation with anything remotely work like, such as, "I told you not to," can call it cause, as free speech protects us from the government.)
It isn't just that having an Obama 2012 sticker can be provocative, while having a "Re-nig the President" isn't, when any vile thing from the febrile brain of the least of the Fox News viewership ("second amendment solutions") is acceptable but facts themselves, such as the ownership of the .01%, are incendiary, it's that we are overwhelmed, overtopped, and undernourished.
In the prior partisan days, the two sides were defined.
In 1840, one could scream "Damn Lincoln" or "Damn Toombs," and in 1890's one could holler about the "Irish" and point to Typhoid Mary or yell about the Know-Nothings and zero in on their leaders, but who do we blame today? The hyper-partisan English had their "Baxterism" and Winstanley and Filmer and Godolphin.
What d'we got? "The banksters" are terrible, but who are they? There are five banks, and they are setting policies and practices that show up in every branch in America, but they have no name. Who invented the mortgage security? Who invented subprime lending? Who invented the "write down" of foreclosures? What are the names?
"Corporate America" is sexualizing our girls, but who is it? No one went first. No one has a name. Which executive decided that eight year old girls should buy Secret, despite having no body odor, as a perfume? "Cell phones" are employing deceptive practices on their contracts, but "what can you do?" (obviously, Credo is the way to go, if their network gets to you). ISP's and phone companies share GPS and personal data with each other and the government, but there is no name to anyone.
The power is displaced, amorphous, and seemingly inevitable. With no one to complain about, no one to chuck a brick at, it can be ennervating. It can be too much.
There are two unforgivable sins in Christianity. One is mentioned in the Gospels -- slander of the Holy Spirit -- but the other is adduced by theologians: despair. I would argue that there are political analogs. The slander of the civic spirit and political despair are the fatal and unforgivable sins of politics.
"Money well timed, and properly applied, will do anything." -- John Gay The Beggar's Opera, II xiiDespair is an unforgivable sin because the people who are committing it never seek forgiveness: the sinner loses the capacity to seek salvation. (Of course, there is always the intervention of grace, and I'm no authority on any of this.)
Political despair is the equivalent in gravity, and it works the same way. A despairing sinner thinks that he is hopeless, that he can never be better, that there's no point in trying, that he's worthless, and so he goes on fragmented and broken, confirming the prognosis. A despairing citizen thinks that there is no point in making a ruckus, that they hold all the cards, that voting doesn't change anything, that no one will listen anyway, that the status quo is impenetrable, and she makes all of that true in the process.
Political despair rages around us. I have had the sad experience of a line of young people telling me that GPS cell phone tracking was inevitable. Perhaps, they supposed, there might be a way of asking for it to be off after 8:00 PM or something, but that might make the phone more expensive. After all, do we want privacy or a phone from the 1950's?
"Give the people a choice between freedom and sandwiches, and they'll take the sandwiches." -- Lord Boyd Orr, 1967When they learn about RFID tracking and police storage of GPS data, they shrug. "They're going to do it anyway," they say. When they're told about drone aircraft in U.S. air space, they say, "It's not like they're armed."
The despair is not apathy. The amount of fire we see over "illegal immigrants" is proof that the lumpen mass is not apathetic. Instead, when it comes to mortgages, there is "no one" to blame. When it comes to banks generally shuffling profits into capitalizing risk rather than lending so as to continue playing with credit default swaps, there is no person there, no official, no thing to attack. When every credit card in the wallet raises its interest rate at the same time, it appears to be a law like the tides.
The Occupy Wall Street movement seems to have been born in AdBusters, which is a rather unlikely laboratory for a mass movement. A magazine with a miniscule readership -- and I count myself among them -- could do all that, with our "apathetic" youth? No. Neither are the youth apathetic nor our peers confused. It is that we are all bludgeoned into a daze.
The gravest crime is accepting crime as right. Signing up with the smart phone to get at all those cool applications and expecting a loss of rights is criminal itself. (Remember that the "app" is part of the cell phone eating your PDA ("Palm Pilot"), and it is still possible to have a personal digital assistant and a telephone as different evolutionary tracks.)
If political despair is all around us as we accept abuse as the new normal, then where is the source of the evil? In the Gospels, one of Jesus's conservative detractors is faced with evidence. Jesus is performing miracles and healing people, and this guy is desperate to hang onto the status quo; he has to come up with an explanation -- any explanation -- for how Jesus could do good things and not be right in what he said about the Kingdom of God. He therefore said, "Maybe he's doing it because he's filled with a demon." That's when Jesus tells him he has committed an unforgivable sin. Slander of the Holy Spirit would never be forgiven.
Look around. Those who work to lessen harm and suffering, those who seek to feed the hungry and protect the weak are building. Those who seek money are taking away. The civic spirit is the spirit of building up.
Imagine that a person is, let's say, trying to alleviate poverty, and that person advocates federal revenue ("taxes") from those who have the most income ("progressive taxation") to provide food and monetary aid on a triage for the poor. If a person were to call that "the poverty industry" ("leftwing poverty industry constituency" opposed the Newt Gingrich triumph of turning over AFDIC to state grants, which effectively ended all Welfare in the U.S.) and advocate tax cuts for the wealthiest, and an elimination of corporate taxes and estate taxes, then that would be slander of the civic spirit. It would be, essentially, calling good evil. If you then go on to suggest that taking money from the poorest and giving less food to the hungriest will increase the "character" of those people and encourage a "free market solution," then one is either a narcotics wholesaler or a reprobate.
When scientists investigate a very, very old theory -- that ultraviolet light is increasingly trapped in the Earth's atmosphere by the increased emission of carbon dioxide in human industrial processes -- and note that the data is confirming it, they are providing a social admonition, exhortation, and limitation that will enable survival or adaptation of humanity. This is an unquestioned good. Scientific theories are never confirmed, exactly. They become more and more likely with data, and exploring the data on this theory would be wise. Now, imagine someone suggesting that the warnings of global warming were, specifically, an attempt at making money by increasing the ratings of The Weather Channel. Once more, the spirit of the public being accused, quite specifically, of being the spirit of personal enrichment: giving being accused of taking.
When I opposed Clinton's give-in to Gingrich, I was not getting paid by Big Poverty. When I try to reduce my carbon footprint, I have not even watched The Weather Channel, ever. Indeed, the charge made in the slander never has any actual credibility. We have to believe it first and then be grasping for reasons (after all, it can't be easy for a Republican spokesman to figure out why people are complaining about unequal pay for women, when women are paid the same and are happy; there are not many choices, and, being a Republican spokesman, "getting rich" must be the whole top ten list). The failure is the evil.
Why are we so fractured, and why is the chasm between the right and the rest so deep? When a person is motivated to lie about the spirit of others, to deny that civic spirit can exist -- when their minds do not have room for the concept of caring for the group ahead of the self -- then their sin cannot be forgiven, and when we despair, when we do not oppose, we let the flame of the civic spirit go out.