The Rhinocerization of America

I’m in a bit of a state right now. I’ve been dwelling all day on how much trouble this country is in. And then the terrorism in Texas may have sent me over the edge.

To not say anything seems impossible. To ask, as I did the last time we faced a terror attack, if the shooter is a terrorist, a thug or simply crazy is to make a point most everyone who reads this will already understand. To offer thoughts and prayers seems ridiculous.

I’m just profoundly scared about the future of this country, and indeed, of liberal democracy in the world. I believe the moral arc of the universe bends to justice. I believe that morality is deeply rooted in the nature of human beings and in our capacity to reason. But it has always taken struggle to realize our aspirations to the human good and justice. The forces that oppose them are strong. And there are no guarantees that we will prevail or that we won’t go backward for what could possibly be a very long time.

My fear is, in part, the product of our inability to deal with the obvious problems before us. We have no political will to deal with either guns or mental health issues directly. We have no political will to deal with the economic malaise in so many communities, whether they are white or black, rural or urban. We have no political will to address the racial animosity that prevents white working people from recognizing the problems they share with black working people.

Instead, we are governed by an idiot who has become the champion of a radical right-wing movement that welcomes and encourages fear and hatred—of minorities, foreigners, and now, even of women—in order to built support for nationalist and authoritarian responses to it. That movement, in turn, is supporting politicians who not only feed and encourage white male rage but use it to enact public policies that serve an ever richer and more powerful economic oligarchy. Those policies deepen our economic problems and thus exacerbate the racial and sexual tensions that are deeply embedded in our culture.

There is a name for the combination of authoritarianism, nationalism, and oligarchy that animates Donald Trump and his supporters—fascism. And we should not hesitate to call it what it is. And as in the 1930s, our contemporary fascists, for all their pretensions of being focused on our nation, serve an economic oligarchy that is colluding both economically and politically with oligarchs in other countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Russia, in particular, is farther down the road to utterly eviscerating the reality of representative democracy will keeping its forms and thus show us the future the oligarchs intend for us: a powerful political elite that sustains its power by buying off those who might stand in the way of an increasingly despotic government—one that changes the rules of Congressional action, congressional districting, and voting, to embed itself in power.

I’d like to think that our democratic political culture is more deeply rooted here than in Russia and other places where fascism is ascendant. But we have a new way of communicating with one another that is far more useful in telling lies and stoking and reinforcing hatred, bigotry, and prejudice—including among those of us on the Left—than in encouraging attention to evidence, rational thought, and real discussion. Social media appears to be utterly overpowering the old media. And it that old media created the public sphere which grew up along with representative democracy and made it possible. The old media appears to be collapsing under the treat of economic decline resulting from competition with the new media as well as political pressure from a government that licenses it. And yet the old media is unwilling to defend itself, in no small part because it remains determined to present every political claim, no matter how insane or untrue, as one side of two equally valid alteranatives.

It is this, the breakdown of the public sphere, that makes me despair about our ability to address all the other problems. I might have hope if we had some evidence that revelations about who really benefits from the Republicans’ tax plan or about who really benefits from the repeal of the ACA and evisceration of Medicaid could actually lead more than a handful of members of the Congress and public to change their minds. If we could have some confidence that the revelations I expect about collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians would turn some people and political leaders against Trump, I could see a path out of our current morass.

But it is hard to sustain confidence in the idea that truth can set us free. The public that supports the authoritarian-oligarchic radical movement in the Republican Party seems immune to any kind of evidence. And the political leaders of the Republican Party in Congress and beyond have no courage to stand up either to their increasingly insane base or to the oligarchs who are taking advantage of that base in order to add to their own riches.

The work of art that has been in the back my mind for the last year is Ionescu’s Rhinoceros. His play, which portrays the gradual transformation of thinking men and women into fierce animals that repeat empty slogans and do nothing but direct their rage against their “enemies,” is a scary reminder that the capacity for rational discussion in the public sphere is an all too fragile veneer covering some unfortunate features of human nature. Underneath it is the crooked timber of humanity—our capacity to see the world in a way that is totally focused on ourselves and our tribe. That veneer is only preserved by constant polishing, that is, by a commitment on all sides to live up to the ideals of truth and probity, as well as by the faith that reasoning together will enable us to work together to attain a common good. But when fear undermines that faith, and one side in political disputes is willing to say anything, true or false, in pursuit of its political goals, that veneer starts to crack and peel. And then, some of us can be moved by any notion that reassures us and gives us an enemy on which to focus our fears. Rhinocerization takes place when thinking becomes replaced by clichés and stereotypes of our enemies.

Reason no longer moves a human being who has become a rhinoceros. And when too many of us reach that state, power backed by the threat of violence, economic corruption, and fantasy comes to dominate our politics.

We aren’t there yet—not by far. But this dismal picture is an imaginable future in America and Europe, as it was in the 1930s. There are many important political struggles for those of us who seek a just world—against economic inequality, racism, and sexism. But the most central one is to contain the rhinoceros, that is, to preserve liberal democracy itself and the habits of mind and thought on which it depends.

We need to keep insisting on the power of evidence, argument, and reason. And one important way to do that is for those of us on the Left not to succumb to the irrationality we are so quick to see on the Right but ignore in ourselves. We need to fight back against the fascists on the Right, but not by embracing their methods. And we need to stand together which means not allowing disagreements among ourselves to divide us or, even worse, to lead us to demonize those who are on the side of liberal democracy against fascism.


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One Comment

  1. Very good and on point. I’m afraid also. We’ve lost our evidential moorings. Facts are no longer facts. Evidence doesn’t matter. We are experiencing an epistemic breakdown. Arendt noted this as part of the rise of Totalitarianism.

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