Month: May 2016

Homecoming and Belonging: Junger and Spengler

It’s a truism that globalization is no longer just a matter of commerce and investment, but also of culture and media. We live in a society that increasingly denies any kind of meaningful social or cultural boundaries, and reflexively takes its doing so as a point of pride, as proof of its progressiveness and enlightenment (with varying degrees of justification). The implicit goal is the perfection of a worldwide system, whereby corporations, money, materials, and of course people will be able to move freely, without interference from parochial entities such as nations, customs, religions, or social groupings of any kind.

Of course in reality this “freedom” most often refers not to the personal freedom to choose one’s own forms of meaning or one’s own communities, but the freedom of enormous organizations and impersonal economic forces to subject, direct and channel individuals according to organizational needs–with the highest of these needs being technological novelty and the growth-imperative. It is taken without reflection that the meeting of these needs, in turn, surely redounds to the benefit of the individuals–even if unequally.

Perhaps no man has observed and anatomized these trends as incisively and pungently as did Oswald Spengler nearly 100 years ago, when he summed up Western technological civilization with the term “Faustian”–after the German mythic and literary figure of Faust, a supreme scholar who masters the mysteries of the universe but, failing to find true joy, sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles.

Like its namesake, Faustian civilization is defined at its inmost by a deeply shared mood of striving after infinity, a relentless breaking down of boundaries and limits, and a commitment to unifying and subjecting the world through technological advance. In his short work Man and Technics, which summarizes many of the ideas in his immense magnum opus Decline of the West, Spengler pinpoints the origin of the Faustian in:

“A will-to-power which laughs at all bounds of time and space, which indeed regards the boundless and endless, as its specific target, subjects whole continents to itself, eventually embraces the world in the network of its forms of communication and intercourse, and transforms it by the force of its practical energy and the gigantic power of its technical processes.”

Certainly this description bears an unmistakable resemblance to our present circumstance, one where our glowing and growing cities, with populations often numbering in the tens of millions, can be seen from space covering whole landmasses; where a huge portion of the planet’s available primary productivity is now dedicated to feeding humans; and where there is even talk about naming a new geological epoch after ourselves (the “Anthropocene”).

Yet as much as technological prowess and sheer expansiveness may be the superb achievement of Faustian civilizations, the very name implies that that prowess comes with a sinister hidden cost. Indeed, the fact that infinity is inherently unachievable–hence that all attempts to achieve it must fall back in exhaustion–denies such civilizations the possibility of true contentment, and constitutes the supreme tragedy of their existence. In the end, Nature has its revenge against all the upstart creations of humanity–we must return to earth eventually–but in the Faustian case, because of the huge scales and forces involved, the exceptionally abject dissociation from nature, and the literally infinite gap between expectation and reality, this return is destined to be especially dramatic.

But even before outright large-scale collapse became a worry, Spengler recognized that the de-differentiation and expansion characteristic to Faustian civilization would by itself inflict profound costs at the personal and spiritual level. Many other thinkers have focused on these costs from varying directions and perspectives, coining terms such as “anomie” (Durkheim), “societies of control” (Deleuze), or “the homelessness of contemporary man” (Heidegger). Though these names differ in subtleties of context, they are all in essence concerned with the problem, unique to the past century and a half or so, of living in a world where systems have become megalithic, impersonal, and controlling, and the vast majority of people inevitably end up distanced or alienated from fundamental sources of belonging and meaning. In Spengler’s words,

“…now, since the eighteenth century, innumerable ‘hands’ work at things of which the real role in life (even as affecting themselves) is entirely unknown to them and in the creation of which, therefore, they have inwardly no share. A spiritual barrenness sets in and spreads, a chilling uniformity without height or depth.”

The inevitable result of this barrenness, he continues, is that

“The tension between work of leadership and work of execution has reached the level of a catastrophe. The importance of the former, the economic value of every real personality in it, has become so great that it is invisible and incomprehensible to the majority of the underlings. In the latter, the work of the hands, the individual is now entirely without significance. Only numbers matter. In the consciousness of this unalterable state of things, aggravated, poisoned, and financially exploited by egoistic orators and journalists, men are so forlorn that it is mere human nature to revolt against the role for which the machine (not, as they imagine, its possessors) earmarks most of them. There is beginning, in numberless forms – from sabotage, by way of strike, to suicide – the mutiny of the Hands against their destiny, against the machine, against the organized life, against anything and everything.”

Here, too, it’s hard to miss the relevance to present times, and most obviously and recently, the rage of the followers of Donald Trump; but Spengler’s insight suggests that those followers’ strident statism and hardly concealed disdain for foreign ideas and cultures are not just a mark of economic discontent, frustration with corruption, or the bewitchments of strongman politics–though they are of course that as well. Instead, perhaps the most important ingredient in the recent seemingly-abrupt advance of demagogic figures like Trump (both in the US and many other countries) may be an instinctive revolt against a system of impersonal, atomized, machine-conditioned living.

As the Faustian forms the background and basis for so much of our way of life and thought, it is for most people both difficult to discern it and disorienting if not threatening to critique it; as such, these facets of the problem are normally carefully passed over in silence, or reduced to terms of isolated (hence insignificant) individual grievance or technocratic (hence culturally sterile) policy tweaks. It’s also typical to neatly cap off any such references or reductions with a reassuring paean to the wonders of technology and growth–possibly coupled with a rueful boilerplate admission that these ideals, though in themselves impeccable, may be bungled in the implementation from time to time.

With all this in mind, I was astonished just recently to watch, on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show of all places, a surprisingly candid and probing discussion on a subject that seems unrelated, but is in fact deeply associated with these themes: the roots of post-traumatic stress disorder and high rates of depression and suicide in combat veterans after their return to civilian life.

Hayes’ guest was Sebastian Junger, a no-nonsense war correspondent and author, who was discussing his newest book, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging”. Though I haven’t read the book, he appears to put forward two main theses. His first contention is already remarkable–for Junger proposes that the suffering of returning veterans may owe almost as much to the emotional deficiencies of modern life as it does to injuries and psychological damage in combat.

Junger’s line of thought goes like so: though extremely dangerous and stressful, life in a combat unit also creates extraordinarily strong and intimate interpersonal bonds among the members of that unit. By enduring harsh discipline, dangerous environments, and the constant possibility of death, soldiers stationed together for long periods come to rely on one another and enjoy a sense of shared purpose and mutual concern. This intimacy is so remarkable, actually, because many soldiers have never experienced anything like it in their earlier civilian lives; and when they return to civilian life, they realize for the first time that there is nothing on offer like the kind of personal concern or emotional ties that they came to know in the service.

It is often said that veterans have trouble “adjusting” to civilian life, but I had never considered how much unpacking that single word, “adjusting”, might really call for; like a good mindless Faustian, I had taken it for granted that the problem must lie with veterans’ emotional difficulties due to disturbing memories, or a certain inability to relinquish deeply ingrained military values.

But if Junger is right, there is another aspect, which is that the veterans feel profoundly the loss of that bonding and kinship, and returning home find their eyes newly opened to what is sorely lacking in civilian life. As Spengler might put it, the returning veterans are for the first time clearly confronted by the spiritual barrenness of the Faustian way of life (and realize, in a bitter irony, that they have risked their own lives to defend this barrenness).

In many ways, notes Junger, our current way of life is actually less happy that supposedly less developed societies–something borne out by stratospheric usage of psychiatric medication, for example. For example, in another interview, he states that “Modern society has some of the highest rates of depression. […] As wealth goes up, suicide goes up — they should be going the opposite direction and they don’t and that is because we have lost cohesion.” Conversely, Junger notes that many far poorer societies than the US still manage to be considerably happier, and that times of collective struggle, paradoxically, may even increase this happiness as people band together to solve a common problem, much as the soldier must bond with his platoon in order to make it through another tour.

It is here that Junger plunges even deeper into a second thesis, even more controversial than the first, but closely entailed by it: the inherent value of tribalism.

Tribalism gets a bad rap these days, in many ways deservedly, being seen as a primitive impulse that drives exclusion and violence. But from the foregoing discussion, we must also acknowledge that this disapproval is probably not exclusively based on humanitarian or pacifistic concern. For all its drawbacks, it is also true that tribalism, if only in fueling parochial and local interests, tends to stand against the machine, against the isolation and homogenization of life, and against the consolidation of a megalithic world-system–all trends which the Faustian mentality finds almost irresistible in its rush for infinitely expanding power and organization.

Tribalism remains hard to shake, and to Junger, it’s questionable whether we should really want to, at least completely. Living in fiercely devoted groups of modest size is how human beings got by for the overwhelming majority of our evolutionary history, and without wading too far into the fraught swamps of evolutionary psychology, it is reasonable to suppose that that remains in some sense more ingrained, more natural to us, than the Faustian mega-civilization.

Rather than an immense city of millions, a vast corporation, or a cyberspace of fleshless icons and digitized usernames, we tend to be most happy when dealing with a relatively small band of 30-70 people who are up close, accessible, and united in a common purpose or culture. Tribal unity, again in opposition to the drive for greater size and technical organization, is a fundamental source of belonging and meaning for human beings. It is social rocket fuel, a power that fills people with passion to belong and struggle together, but also to clash.

Of course, few things help sustain tribal identity more than a mutually hated enemy. Yet Junger is not dismissive of acceptance and tolerance in society, nor cavalier about the dangerous side of tribalism; rather he appears to be optimistic that the tribal could be integrated into modern life in some way, perhaps through a national program of mandatory public service such as is found in Israel.

Junger also connects the rise of divisive politicians such as Trump, and an increasingly harsh and contemptuous political discourse in this country, with the disgust and alienation many returning veterans feel. Having fought and suffered and experienced the extraordinary dedication of tribal existence, they are confronted by a homeland not only lacking meaning and unity, but riven with what seem to be petty differences displayed with great ostentation and rancor. The animosity and harsh language used against political opponents, in particular, increasingly do not sound like the dialogue of a people intimately connected in common identity and purpose. “These are the kinds of things you say about the enemy,” notes Junger.

This is not to say that Junger’s ideas don’t rate plenty of skepticism. His view of combat units as places of belonging and noble camaraderie unlike anything to be found in the civilian sphere, for example, or of war as a crucible that creates wonderful meaning for its participants, seem romanticized, if not propagandistic. There is also the shade of authoritarianism that inevitably arises when calls of “unity” are pitted against “disrespectful” free expression. But even if he offers only one piece of a very complex puzzle, Junger has done an important service in daring to point out that the emptiness of so much of what we claim as superior in our way of life–and that a calling we normally think of as harsh and unsparing may harbor a kind of antidote, a richness and meaning that is dying out elsewhere.

If we can rediscover that richness, set aside our tragic quest for infinity, enjoy a locally grounded sense of belonging, all while agreeing to live and let live with our neighbors and the earth itself, that could form the core vision of a post-Faustian world.

As for Spengler, some may point out that his prediction of Western-Faustian civilization’s collapse did not exactly come to pass. But that would be to forget that with the outbreak of the Second World War, shortly after Spengler’s death in 1936, it very nearly did. If the writings and ideas of this strange prewar prophet are coming to resonate with the times once again–however uncomfortable they may be–it may be a sign to pay closer attention.

Things That Go Trump In The Night

Only one party even has an “officially presumptive” nominee so far, but both sides in this acid-trip presidential campaign of 2016 keep managing to undercut even the lowest expectations, like a political game of limbo.

In some ways, everything is going predictably. Hillary Clinton continues to explore the full extent of her powers of anti-inspirational anti-charisma, while Donald Trump continues to explore new depths of Machiavellian brilliance and to revel in the virtuosity of his media necromancy. But there have also been shocking developments.

Just a couple weeks ago, cooler heads were guessing Trump would face a contested convention, and that his nomination would be a disaster for the Republican Party–assuring all-but-presumptive nominee Hillary a lock on the Oval Office, as well as down-ballot carnage and intra-party schisms. At the Correspondent’s Dinner, Obama slyly joked that “we don’t know who will be elected president next, but whoever she may be…”.

But then, as Indiana proved a humiliation too far, Cruz and Kasich bailed–and with the Donald as last man standing, the tone of the commentators quickly turned more solemn. Maybe he has a path to victory after all, however narrow, murmured the wizards at such fine outlets as the NYT and Washington Post.

Narrow, my foot. From the latest polls, Trump seems already to have grabbed the momentum and erased his all-but-presumptive all-but-invulnerable opponent’s lead. He’s essentially tied Clinton nationally, according to both Rasmussen and Reuters; he has also pulled even in battleground states like Ohio and Florida.

Meanwhile, turns out it’s not schism season after all. Paul Ryan and most other “principled” Republicans, after blowing off a little steam, have nearly all rolled over in the name of party unity. When the siren song of authoritarianism rises on the wind, our intrepid Republicans are not the type to let mere principle stand in the way.

But when there are bankers and billionaires to be wooed while working people squirm, our gallant Democrats are loath to turn aside those huddled masses–of cash. Clinton’s campaign revenues have begun flowing not only from the usual mix hedge funds, energy lobbyists, and Wall Street giants (the last with redoubled enthusiasm), but also from supporters of the erstwhile Cruz campaign. That’s not to mention Charles Koch’s recent sly hint that President Hillary might not be so objectionable to his goals after all.

Then there’s the way the FBI investigation into her “damn emails” has begun to suggest something fishy, from the immunity granted to staffer Brian Pagliano, to news that Clinton herself will be interviewed soon, to the mysterious disappearance of a number of critical emails sent by the aforementioned immunized staffer, to the (Republican) FBI director’s rebuke of the Clinton campaign’s description of the proceedings as a mere “security inquiry”, and so on.

I still don’t like the term “crooked Hillary”, but as a counter-proposal, “New Gore” has a nice ring to it. Much like in 2000 (or 2004), the Democratic Party is about to put forward an insider more devoted to turgid, mealy politico-speak and thunderously uninspired campaigning than to victory or principle.

I’ve been generally amazed by the Democratic Party’s blindness to the clear weaknesses and flaws of Hillary as a candidate. Leaving aside her stultifying public speaking style and previous policy missteps, or the fact that her unfavorables are unsurpassed in the nation’s polling history (excepting Trump’s own), her strange lack of conviction or authenticity, as Jon Stewart recently put it, continues to drag.

On the other hand, for those inclined to think Trump’s general incoherence and deceit makes him a priori unelectable, I’d gently remind them that a) those qualities have largely fueled, not hindered, his massive electoral success so far; and b) the last Republican president-to-be seemed almost as ludicrous in his time (our liberal commentators’ razor-sharp mockery sure showed him).

Yes, much though we like to pretend the shadow of bête noire George W. never darkened the sunny panes of the Oval Office, our country did give this notoriously foot-in-mouth Texan the nomination and two presidential terms–largely thanks to blatant lies about Saddam Hussein’s links to 9/11, and because folks felt they would rather have a beer with him.

Elsewhere, I’ve used the term “inverse reform” to describe a condition where a system is so gridlocked and corrupt that it can only react to its problems with actions sure to make them worse. I think this condition is all too apparent to the 2016 campaign.

Trump, peerless in the ability to divine what others want to hear and to wholly believe it just for the moment he’s saying it, is inverse reform personified. I think his presidency would likely be disastrous, and I’ll never support it in any way.

But for all the breast-beating and vitriol over the “Bernie or Bust” people, or Johnny Depp‘s grimly amusing prediction that Trump would be “the actual last president of the United States”, I remain unconvinced that Hillary would be much better. Though she dons the calming guise of the status quo, this guise is deceptive, exactly insofar as that status quo has shown itself to be bankrupt and dysfunctional. As such, she offers little more than a somewhat more conservative flavor of inverse reform.

Through the lens of inverse reform, the historically high unfavorables of the candidates (except Sanders) are clearly no coincidence, any more than the rock-bottom popularity of Congress. The choice of a third party seems less like the act of an addle-headed idealist, than the pragmatic reaction of any voter with basic standards of rationality and efficacy.

It still may not come to that. Though no one is talking about it much, the possibility of Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders “parachuting” in at the last moment is getting more plausible, as the gray mystery-meat of Hillary’s candidacy and dealings grows too unpalatable to the electorate, or even the most clueless insiders, to ignore. Whether it would help as much as it’s needed to, is another question.

Introvert Wanderings: Notes From Chaco

There is something about the West that specially inspires wandering and wanderlust. Maybe it’s the overwhelming presence of the horizon–in much of the rest of the country it’s obscured by a forested flatness, but out West it’s hard to miss, and awakes a deep temptation to go see what lies beyond that sharp curve of Earth and sky. Or maybe it’s the mountains, that seem to carve the land out into separate hidden worlds.

In such a landscape, one very slowly begins to learn a truth about geography–that things like scenery, geology, spatial coordinates, or even directions have almost nothing to do with places at all. A place becomes a place not when your body is physically there, or you know how to get to it, but when it becomes alive–when it speaks. Sometimes it can speak from a very great distance, and without your having visited for years.

I remember my first trip to Chaco Canyon not for its famed Anasazi ruins, but because of where I was in life at the time. We’d just moved from Idaho, and I was incredibly stressed out about leaving; to me, our old home near the Boise River had been an idyll that could never be surpassed (though looking back now, it seems like it had no shortage of blemishes).

I found out my new school had the tradition of starting every year with a huge field/camping trip–something I’d never heard of before. The place this time would be Chaco Canyon, which I’d also never heard of. At the appointed hour, we piled into the buses and were off.

I still remember the surprise of the arrival: that first sight of the canyon’s walls rising up around us as the bus crawled along the rippled dirt road, then suddenly a view of a wide barren plain, punctuated with a huge mesa standing like a sentinel just off-center. I still remember vividly my uncanny feeling in that moment of having arrived on a new planet, a scene from some mythic cosmology I couldn’t name.

For all the stress of the move and fears about fitting in with the new class, that short visit stands out in my mind as a healing. We stepped out of the bus and soon were like kids, clambering over rocks and exploring every crack and cave, explorers on this new globe. We sat on the edges of cliffs and talked for hours, mostly about nothing, content just to be growing together, if only for a couple of days, far from the judgments of oncoming adulthood.

But there was also another aspect. I remember how each of my classmates, set against the rose-tinted rocks and the remains of a great civilization, became wrapped in a mysterious singularity of their own, bursting forth in the colors of his or her own personality for a short time, like the desert’s own wildflowers. Something about the little canyon and its centuries-old dwellings had dropped us into the deepest stream of human life, its glories and its falls, fortune and leave-taking. It set the most trivial things into an epic context, made us better. (Anyway, it felt that way to me.)

Most of my classmates have since gone very separate ways, but Chaco continues to speak to me from time to time. I tend to feel the call to return when there is a major life change on the horizon, or when gripped by some struggle that needs perspective and solace. So I hop in the car and 4 hours later, reaching the end of that same washboard road, I see the canyon open up and the Earth transform itself into that strange other planet, just as it did on that first visit.

I felt that call again very recently, after an incredibly frustrating three years in my life, where nothing seemed to work or lead anywhere, appeared at last to be giving way to some kind of definite future. Almost on cue, Chaco began nagging at the edge of my thoughts, until I made myself set aside a day and a night for the journey.

Instead of the usual minimum-mileage-maximum-speed highway route, I decided to pick a roundabout route, sticking to smaller roads–the “blue highways“. The distances and speeds of the road easily lend the world an artificial smallness, constantly and unthinkingly detaching us from it. In meandering and dawdling, I hoped to limit this retreat into what Jung once characterized as “another reality of speeds and explosive accelerations”.

The road was almost empty, and climbed and swerved through pristine canyons and forests, places where humanity seemed an exotic visitor, and the road more guide than master. The village of C––, nearly a ghost town, beneath vast sandstone cliffs, stands out to me. The remnants of restaurants and gas stations stood rotting and exposed by the highway, so that one wondered how the few remaining people ate or drove. The houses and trailers were makeshift and rusting, scattered for miles across the hilly landscape.

What kept this hundred or so people here, I wondered. Was there some deep camaraderie and belonging among the townsfolk that the ragged appearances did not let on, and which kept them there all their lives more or less contentedly? Did they all know each others’ names, gather on Fridays and laugh over simple pleasures and honest work? Was it that grinding poverty made it hopeless to ever leave, or was it nostalgia, a simple resolution not to abandon one’s roots?

I put these thoughts aside and hurried on through. Everything is young once, I thought–towns included.

I made it to Chaco hours later. The dirt road was worse than I’d remembered, less due to the bumps than to the driveways leading off to drilling pads and waste ponds dotted the road for last few miles up to the park boundary. Yes, our newest technological salvation racket, fracking, had arrived.

It’s hard to think a civilization with any remaining grasp of the sacred could engage in such a process, in such a place. But perhaps our no-holds-barred urge to sustain the high-energy fossil-fueled modern lifestyle of the past 80 years is the closest thing to a sacred goal we can still understand–at all costs, whatever it takes, for God’s sake, keep the lights, cars and A/C going.

(There was a weird irony too in passing a frenzy of fossil extraction on my way to an archaeological site. We can’t stop churning up the past–even if to burn it on the altar of the future.)

The canyon was exactly as I remembered: the mesa standing watch, the low-hunkering cliffsides ebbing into the distance, the little dry wash in the center. The same otherworldliness suggesting a stepping-off point into some other reality. The sun low in the sky, hurling wild colors, deep shadows crouching against the rocks: just over two hours left.

No one knows why the Chacoans started building here in the 800s, but it’s thought that even then, they recognized the canyon as a sacred place. Whatever first drew them to this impractical spot–some say it was trade in turquoise–they thrived for centuries, building dozens of great houses and a network of roads connecting hundreds of outlying settlements.

1200 years later, with basically no personal connection to those pioneers, I can still feel that there is something different here. Maybe the choice of a sacred place is not really a choice. Something in the shape of land, the color of rocks, that can reach out not just across the memory of one person, but across whole peoples and ages.

Maybe the world is really just an incubator for such places, hatching them anew as others fade away.

I chose the Pueblo Alta trail, the same one we followed on my first visit. It passes Kin Kletso, a Chacoan house of 55 rooms. As I stood and peered through one of Kletso’s doorways, I began to feel something that, for all its obviousness, had never fully hit me in my other visits, which was: this was a place where people had lived. Children and elders, passing through this very door, giving it its own augustness through the symbiosis of dweller and dwelling. Suddenly there was depth, a presence, not just rock and mud bricks.

I thought of Buber’s writings about the “I-It” and the “I-Thou” relationships. I felt sure Kin Kletso had just become a Thou.

The trail is exciting because it leads straight up the cliff face, through a rubble-filled crevice that you can climb like a staircase. You emerge into yet another world, one of wide, water-carved horizontal grooves of rock, just above the cliff edge. You follow the edge for a ways, turn north and head up and away, climbing gently over more rocky slopes, till the canyon floor seems remote and small and epic plains appear, as far as the eye can see, beyond the opposite rim.

The sky is inky blue, the wind is lively, and at the far horizon appears a speck of mountains, maybe Mt. Taylor. From forested ranges like these, over 60 miles away, the Chacoans carried enough timber on foot to give birth to a city.

On my way up this time, the land was covered in swarms of tiny golden flowers, waving in the wind, just inches above the cracked surface, like tiny gestures of thanks raised to the sky. As I looked out over the mesas I, too, felt a thankfulness at having been able to make it back, as if seeing an old friend.

Then New Alta came to view, on the threshold where the canyon’s rocks give way to the juniper-dotted steppes that run north into Colorado. New Alta made a dark sawtoothed shape against the sky, more modest than the houses down below, compact in its mystery. Reaching it, I walked among the rubble, the views now extending in all directions. I laid a hand on one of the walls and felt the “Thou” again–a kind of awe that these remains could stand for so long here, in a middle of nowhere that was once a center of everywhere.

Even in such isolation, at Chaco man-as-maker was as irrepressible in building and in dreaming as anywhere else. Whoever these people were, whatever their intentions, they lived for centuries with their god (gods?) in the midst of this awesome space; they built their world, they slept, they worked, they sweated and bled, they followed their customs and rhythms, and for a while it was enough. The breadth of that achievement is still attested by these enduring structures.

Just as no one really knows why the Chacoans set up shop here, no one is quite sure why they left. The best theory is that it was climate change–during the few centuries of its habitation, the canyon seems to have been far rainier and fertile than we now know it. The last big structures, like New Alta, were erected around the mid-1100s, as the first of many epic droughts set in. These likely taxed the civilization to the breaking point, causing its progressive abandonment.

My time was already up: soon the park gates would close. See you, I thought to New Alta, again thankful at having been able to return. Descending the canyon, thoughts of the Chacoans’ last days pursued me. What was that departure was like for the last inhabitants–was it bitter, abrupt, catastrophic? A drawn-out heartbreak? Or was it more like what I had seen in C––, a peaceful relinquishing and a moving-on, a slow turning towards greener lands and new adventures while a few lingered on in their memories?

On the drive back, as darkness fell, I saw the sky was moonless and the stars were hidden. On the radio I heard:

“You are the star tonight.

You shine electric out of sight.

Your light eclipsed the moon tonight.”

I decided not to make the whole journey back in the dark, but to sleep in the car and go on in the morning. For a bit of seclusion I found a winding road–another blue highway–that climbed into the heart of the Jemez Mountains, and soon there was supreme blackness. Not another soul.

The appeal of the forest is a strange thing, especially in how it changes at night–for then what one likes best is the edge of it, not its heart. There were plenty of places to park, little dirt roads leading off into the woods, but the trees were always too close; in the silence and night their congregation became primally eerie, like a maze of quietly leering figures, somehow a threat. I realized that here, too, I was seeing the trees as Thous (I also realized that Buber neglected to discuss was how a Thou can be unsettling, even menacing).

At last I found an empty campsite in a small clearing, and settled into the sleeping bag in the back of the car. Cocooned in solitude, a gentle pattering of raindrops on the roof soon lulled me to sleep.

With the morning sun, the forest that had been so ominous now revealed itself grandly: the orange and black veined trunks of hundred-foot ponderosas crowded round, their sky-high boughs bright with a dusting of fresh snow. A few yards away was a sparkling mountain stream. What had there been to fear?

The drive home held more wonders, and more Thous–simple things, but seemingly able to hold meaning for a whole lifetime. There was a great mountain that hunkered in front of me like a wise giant draped in blankets. A small secluded lake. A small cluster of houses in the woods, remote from everything except each other. I’d like to have such a house myself someday, I thought.

I wonder why I saw and felt so many Thous during this little trip. Is it just what happens when you travel alone and without distraction through places of significance and history, and your mind began searching for any snippet of company in the surroundings? Is it just illusion, or discovery?

The last few years had been somewhat haunted for me, but they’ve also brought realizations and a new fullness–new Thous. Maybe what I like best about places like Chaco is that they all have much to teach about understanding ghosts–how to respect them, and how to set them at peace.

Recently, I accepted a new adventure out East–in the old hometown of my family. I left there when I was only six, but I’m excited to get to know it better. This is another place I thought I had put to sleep, sunken so deep in the past that it would play no more part in my life; now, it is awakened and calling, and I will soon find out what it has to say. It may be that returning to a land where the ghosts of my ancestors are so numerous holds the key to putting the ghosts of recency in their proper place. But I will remember the presence of these Anasazi rocks, these images of remembrance deep in the desert, these strange little journeys into the forest. I think that one day they, too, will come calling again.

Hypnos Takes the Podium

So I watched the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Fine, the pundits are right; the president’s timing and delivery are excellent, the point is taken. Yet it’s strange how the dinner itself has become a major news event. In the hours before Obama took the podium, all the news channels were waiting breathlessly for the speech, complete with timers and countdowns on the screen. Anything, I guess, to make the news more like watching an episode of “24”. It’s gotten so that any event, no matter how distant or basically lighthearted and trivial, becomes an unmissable opportunity to milk another night’s worth of programming and ad space (and also, in this case, for the press to flaunt its coziness with the very officials it’s supposed to be watching critically).

Afterwards, in place of the Epic Countdown, idiotic captions appeared at the bottom of the screen, asking impossibly inane questions like “do you think the president was funny?” Go ahead and vote on the network website, or tweet if you prefer! Here it is, a shining invitation for invisible people leading invisible lives to attempt, for a glowing instant, to feel a zing of purpose and visibility, to have a sense of participation in the great American republic–just click the mouse and watching the counter on the screen tick satisfyingly up by one. If one only forgets how completely devoid of relevance the question is, to say nothing of one’s response, such gestures can seem almost inspiring.

The dinner itself is a strange scene, especially to present so breathlessly to a country so full of strife and disillusionment. It seems almost calculated to foment envy and resentment. We see an immense ballroom, containing a large proportion of the nation’s rich and the famous, the “winners”–exactly that tiny few for whom the country is structured and for whom it makes sense. At each table all are exquisitely dressed, beautiful floral arrangements, and no expense spared on the victuals.

It can be jarring to see how little real adult life, at the highest levels of success (as commonly defined) differs from high school, where the few “beautiful people” hold their special sway while the rest toil darkly in solitude or ostracism, or maybe get a chance to vote in a pre-selected candidate for “Most Likely to Succeed”, “Best Dressed”, or in Obama’s case, “Best Sense of Humor”.

I turned it off after Obama’s remarks, though I understand Larry Wilmore proceeded to “bomb”, mostly by insulting the media dignitaries there assembled–much in the style of Stephen Colbert back in 2006, but this time by also using the N-word to “relate” with the President. Maybe it was bold social critique or a pathbreaking expression of black cultural solidarity but somehow, as with Wilmore’s show itself, I don’t feel like I missed much.

Really, the problem is that the paeans to Obama’s skillful roast is beside the point. Virtually no one has seriously questioned our President’s powers of verbal delivery, or the majestic figure he cuts standing at a podium. The problem, instead, is this: I can think of precious few problems he’s actually fixed or even confronted head-on in his term; in many respects, the problems of the country have only gotten more dire and entrenched since he took office. The years have taught that Barack Obama is not the fighting type, though not a pacifist either. Primarily a vain man, it has always seemed more that he could not bear to sully the fine specimen of his person with scratches or fisticuffs, and so through the years has tended to avoid the deeper causes and to sidestep the ugly battles–in short, the very things that make a presidency transformative.

From his earliest days, and in remarkable contrast to his campaigning persona with its “yes we can” sloganeering, his presidency has been most distinguished by what David Bromwich called its “refined sense of impossibility“–any goal that was not too readily attainable with tools already in hand, or which went too far against the elite-defined status quo, simply would never be attempted.

How many soaring speeches were given that then led to no actions at all, or contained the undertones of their exact opposite? Massive action on climate change as the challenge of our generation (while extolling fracking). Revolutionary health care reform (while leaving all the big players untouched and hiking everyone’s deductibles). It’s hard, given the record, to tell if Obama was an idealist, or only thought himself so, perhaps again out of vanity. True idealists, after all, have a way of grating, of making enemies, especially among the powerful and the entrenched–something this president, even from the days of his fateful yet oddly platitudinous 2004 convention(al) speech, could never quite bear to do.

That’s true most of all, it seems, when it came to the Wall Street fraudsters who nearly wrecked the economy at the beginning of his term. Not only did their ilk promptly come to permeate his cabinet in the same old revolving-door tradition, but they received repeated reassurances of their impunity. Though a few still lugubriously claimed that they weren’t feeling the love, as Hillary Clinton of recent “name one instance money has influenced me” fame herself noted back in the day, their very existence as free men likely had something to do with the record contributions Obama received from the financial sector in 2008. As Thomas Frank put it: “To say ‘the center held,’ as one of his biographers does, is an optimistic way to describe Barack Obama’s accomplishment. Another would be to say he saved a bankrupt system that by all rights should have met its end.”.

But I will say this about our President: his reputation as “no-drama Obama” is almost unbelievably apt. If his was not an idealistic or combative personality, one that could wrestle with the problems and trends of our time and come up with brave solutions, he did at least have a remarkable gift for putting those problems into a kind of enchanted hibernation and sending them mostly out of sight. As if solely by the magical relaxedness of his manner, he seemed able to lull and delay indefinitely disasters that would have promptly exploded in anyone else’s hands–even when his responses themselves were uninspired, short-sighted, secretive, hawkish, rather disorganized, or in general pandered to the well-being of oligarchs and status-quo politics.

A preternaturally calm hand on the tiller was the main thing he offered–but he offered it perfectly, with grand speeches given in a rich voice, a confident-but-not-swaggering masculinity and a folksy charm. In this subliminal sense of providing reassurance through the example of his person and presence, Obama was a master of leadership. A more gifted mesmerist surely has never before sat in the Oval Office. The fact of this, combined with one of the most spectacularly meteoric rises to power in the history of anywhere, often seemed enough to distract from the contrasting hollowness of Obama’s actual powers of “hope and change”.

This contrast lends a suspended, dream-like quality to the years of Obama’s presidency, and reminds me to some degree of the term of his Democratic predecessor. Bill Clinton was also a mesmerist, nearly as gifted as Obama, and perhaps tactically cagier. And yet the difference in the years since 2008, the toxic seeds planted in the ’80s with Reaganism and nurtured diligently by both parties ever since, combined with the knock-on disasters of the Iraq War, have begun to bear fruit too noisome to ignore.

School debt (and many other kinds) became ever more crippling. Financial instruments resumed their growth, and the banks consolidated further than ever. Income inequality rose to levels unseen since at least pre-Depression times. The slow weakening of the nation relative to growing powers like China, both economically and militarily, continued apace. Medical costs remained ruinous, and the healthcare system grew more labyrinthine and dysfunctional, while for the first time a large section of the population experienced a dropping life expectancy. Vital infrastructure continued to decay throughout the land. Little was done to reduce carbon emissions (outside of economic stagnation and tax breaks for vanity electric cars), while fracking attained new heights. Technological innovation showed signs of decelerating, with the breakdown of Moore’s law and a drop in venture capital spending. Executive power continued to grow, and domestic spying moved us steadily closer to an Orwellian surveillance state.

And Guantanamo remains open for business–though at least that way it could provide the pivot-point for one of the president’s consummately delivered zingers against Donald Trump’s management abilities.

In these and many other respects, it’s hard to think of ways that Obama will leave the nation truly better than he found it–notwithstanding the financial crisis, which still fundamentally has not been addressed and, as I have said elsewhere, likely awaits a redux.

As TomDispatch recently opined, the end of the Obama years is witness to a dubious first: the first presidential campaign openly founded on the narrative of American national decline. The specter of decline has been a preoccupation of American culture for some time, and has spawned a motley of cantankerous or unnerving books on the subject; others point out quite correctly that as a relative fraction of the global economy, American power has been in decline since the end of World War II, when almost all the world except America was in ruins. Yet the almost-explicit admission of such decline in Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again!”–as well as Hillary Clinton’s typically stilted rejoinder that “America never stopped being great!”–is still a significant novelty.

I suspect that Obama will not be remembered quite for having presided over the peak of U.S. power or prosperity, but instead as someone who artfully disguised for a while longer the fact that the peak had already been passed, and given over to slow decline. Instead, deservedly or not, I believe the apogee of the U.S. story belongs to the presidency of that other great political mesmerist, Bill Clinton–the moment of greatest power, greatest general optimism and growth, the moment when all the most thoroughly American ideas, such as neoliberalism and techno-utopianism, reached their fullest expression and, for the nonce, seemed unimpeachable (so to speak). It was a sort of tacky dot-com golden age, fueled with the conviction that, in its newly discovered digital realm, the Faustian-American dream of limitless expansion and getting something for nothing could find natural and eternal apotheosis. Anyone could be a newly-minted billionaire, just by inventing a website or an app.

But like all such apogees, the seeds of imminent decline had already sprouted. The Clinton years were riddled with hypocrisies and tensions. Obama’s presidency, while remarkably free of scandal, resembles Clinton’s in its mood–its strange centrist uneventfulness, the way elites were simply allowed to quietly run the show and set the game rules without interference or knowledge by the public, and the way the public seemed not to care. Yet the Obama years already show a diminution in American power and prosperity, a spreading dysfunction (if not decadence) that could not be smoothed over quite so completely as in the ’90s. Volumes could be said about the Bush Jr. presidency, whose abysmal end set a high bar to even a superficial return to normalcy. Yet the nation’s recent reliance on talented mesmerists, while quite telling in its way, is no longer cutting the mustard; the people burn for action, for deeds and fierce words–and without doubt a number of them burn for blood as well.

And so, with the results from Indiana just today, and Ted Cruz’ surprise withdrawal from the race, Trump is now the presumptive nominee. There will be no contested convention after all. Already the GOP is wringing its hands, and there are startling entreaties by conservative luminaries to go so far as opposing Trump’s election–but there are also signs aplenty that the authoritarian compulsion that forms the true backbone of the party will soon overwhelm even the staunchest dissenters. The truth about political strongmen is that brave, principled opposition to them comes a dime-a-dozen–until they actually gain the upper hand. Then the vast majority of these pay-as-you-go intellectuals will turn quietly from dealing their supercilious political in-jokes (and correspondent’s dinners) at Trump’s expense, and align with the new power field–and who knows, perhaps coming face-to-face for a split second with their actual natures in the process.

So the question gets more urgent. What happens when he leaves office, this man of the perfect delivery, this man who embodied a nation’s transcending of a vile past–what happens when the talismanic power of his equanimity field is replaced by the stridency-field of a Trump or the cringeworthy anti-charisma field of a Hillary (who, by the way, is already looking vulnerable versus Trump)? Will a President Trump preside over a Correspondent’s Dinner crowd already notably thinned by the new leader’s notorious contempt for the press (a contempt that forms a strange conjugate to his prodigious skill at manipulating them)?

I find myself groping for mythic analogies to Obama’s role these past seven years. Pied Piper, or Sandman? Hypnos, or Thanatos? History will have to tell. As the monsters of our own short-sightedness move out of soft focus and into hard-edged reality, we may look on Obama’s years as a kind of reprieve–a time of waning illusions, but well-mannered ones at least. Maybe he just did the best he could with a failing and gridlocked system. But you can’t help regretting how much more might have been achieved had this man’s peculiar temperament allowed his genius to extend beyond the flawless delivery of speeches and jokes.