The Sounds of Silence:
Reactions to Political Despair
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
December 8, 2010
Hello darkness, my old friend...
Simon & Garfunkel,
"The Sounds of Silence"
By nature, I'm usually an optimist. I've experienced and studied enough
history to understand its cyclical nature and its ability to house enormous
positive/negative contradictions. The worst of times can also lead to the
best of times. What goes around can come around. Every cloud can have a
silver lining. Etc.
But those more positive views are overshadowed these days by a quickly
darkening horizon. Hemingway's "shitstorm" has arrived, with a vengeance. As
with so many citizens dedicated to positive activism, I am politically
discouraged, demoralized, depressed. We want to find solace and hope enough
to pull us through the pit of despair yet again, but instead we run headlong
into a brick wall of voters' voluntary ignorance, a growing authoritarian
fascism, continuing imperialist military policies, an appalling lack of
backbone in our leaders, politicians and pundits who brazenly lie and get
away with it.
This has happened so often in the past several years that we find ourselves
beset by futility, dejection, despondancy. Nothing seems to work to turn our
self-destructive system from disaster.
In short, American society seems to be well and truly f'd, with few escape
routes evident. Consider just seven examples:
1. "RULERS" & THE REAL RULERS
To a significant degree, it doesn't seem to matter which political party is
seemingly in control. The dysfunctional rot is so deep, the habitual
patterns so ingrained, the lying and manipulation so widespread, the
corporate master$ so powerful that meaningful change seems impossible. To
them, a little reform-tinkering around the edges is tolerable, but don't
even think about major structural reconstructions.
Of course, it's precisely the major structural changes that are absolutely
necessary if the U.S. is somehow to avoid catastrophe and emerge back into
the light. Similarly, the world must start moving immediately to try to
ameliorate the worst aspects of human-caused global climate change before
it's too late. Indeed, it may already be too late. CheneyBush, who
effectively turned over the Department of Energy to lobbyists for polluting
industries, wasted eight long years doing nothing to diminish the level of
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
A huge number of Americans know all this in their bones, but feel powerless
to do anything about it. They're just happy to get through another
week,another month, without falling off the economic or psychological
cliffs. Anger and resentment roil beneath the surface, and occasionally boil
over into the public debate, but little more happens than throwing out the
old bums so the new bums can take over. In this case, even if it's evident
that the Democrats are not nearly as bad as the Republicans -- indeed, polls
show that most Americans favor Democratic initiatives -- still the system
almost seems designed to yield little if any real progress. FUBAR is the new
The forces of regression, the corporatist elites and their purchased
political lackeys, used to talk the talk of compromise and "general
welfare." Now, however, they are quite open about their real aim: to take
backwards past the Great Society, past the New Deal, to the Robber Baron
days of the late-19th century, a time when government had no regulatory
say-so over individual and corporate greed agendas and actions, when taxes
on corporate profits were non-existent, when capitalists were allowed (nay,
encouraged) to avoid any restraints on their behavior, when the less
well-off were left to their own devices to survive, or not.
In his autobiography, President Theodore Roosevelt put his finger on the
hidden powers running the county, in this section from his Progressive
"Behind the ostensible government
sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and
acknowledging no responsibility to the people....To destroy this
invisible government, to befoul this unholy alliance between corrupt
business and corrupt politics is the first task of statesmanship."
Then as now, these corporate forces got
the best politicians money could buy. And here we go into that soup again,
with an ideological majority on the Supreme Court supplying the legal
rationalizations for corporate control of our political system, with the
stenographic mass-media offering unrelenting agitprop campaigns on behalf of
the elite's agenda. In an age where there is precious little investigative
journalism to reveal what the government and corporations are actually
doing, is it any wonder that underground outfits such as WikiLeaks step
forward to fill the vacuum?
2. CLASS WAR, SOUNDS OF SILENCE
What's transpiring is classical class warfare, domestically and worldwide
amidst the worst recession since the catastrophe of the 1930s Great
Depression. Capitalism is imploding, and its built-in weaknesses and
contradictions are becoming more and more obvious to ordinary citizens.
The gulf between the wealthiest citizens and the middle/working class is
growing by leaps and bounds, especially so during the past three decades.
The richest grow geometrically richer, more powerful, more convinced of
their entitlement, less interested in and concerned about those beneath
them. Intellectually, the rich know that they would do better in the long
run -- making even more money -- if the poor and middle class had
decent-paying jobs, that enabled them to buy more products and thus generate
demand in a hurting economy
But that's the long run. These guys tend not to consider the long run. (Dubya's
solipsistic answer to the question of what he thought his legacy would be:
"I'll be dead.") The only thing that seems to matter to them is the
short-term Bottom Line. How much profit did I make this month? This quarter?
A key tipping point for this decades-long class warfare of the rich vs. the
working class can be found in President Reagan's decision to break the air
traffic controllers' union when it initiated a strike in 1981. Reagan's
maneuver was an audacious gamble to head backwards in terms of economic and
social justice, and it paid off. The weak, disorganized Left at the time was
unable to mount a concerted, effective campaign against Reagan's
union-busting move, and the public didn't seem to care. The lesson was
learned: going backwards works.
Compare those "sounds of silence" in America then and now with how citizens
in other countries are reacting to the draconian "austerity" policies in
Europe. In Spain and Greece and France and Belgium and Ireland, citizens in
great numbers appear to understand that the "austerity" measures being
promulgated are aimed to hit the lower and middle classes while the
corporate masters are permitted to continue raking in their enormous profits
and bonuses. These class-war realizations have led to millions of European
protesters in the streets, some of them in their anger lashing out against
the banks, politicians and police.
But in America, even as the American Dream is vanishing for their children
right before their eyes, those in the shrinking middle class remain in a
kind of social narcolepsy while even two-job families are having trouble
keeping their heads above water. The conservative-oriented mass-media
propaganda machine has done its job well, and the streets are silent. The
distortions and lies of the extreme Republicans and their media enablers
have led millions of shell-shocked middle-class citizens -- whose incomes
have remained essentially static for nearly 30 years -- to vote time and
time again against their own financial interests. All this while
social-conservative leaders encourage these frustrated Americans to focus
their anger and resentments on homosexuals, blacks and browns, immigrants,
Muslims, the Other, et al.
3. THE SHOCK DOCTRINE
What's going on right now in America and around the globe is in perfect
harmony with what Naomi Klein wrote about in her groundbreaking 2008 book
##"The Shock Doctrine: Disaster Capitalism." (http://www.crisispapers.org/essays8w/klein.htm
Here's a quick summary of her central point: The corporate masters can't
always act the way they really want to in re-ordering society because such
impediments as democracy and government regulations get in their way. But a
societal cataclysm -- whether arranged by the elites or their merely taking
advantage of these major social traumas -- these elites can move much
faster, often devoid of governmental scrutiny, to sweep the slate clean and
start from scratch building an infrastructure and economy that favors their
ambitions and profit margins.
Recent examples: the U.S. after 9/11, the bombing and occupation of Iraq in
2003, the South Asia tsunami in 2004, and the post-Katrina rebuilding along
the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts in 2005. When such traumatic events
occur, creating fear and confusion in the public, all kinds of zoning and
inspection and bidding rules are waived. Often communities on prime real
estate are relocated by governmental edict; fishing villages are wiped out,
but rather than rebuilding them, highrise tourist hotels are constructed.
The massive reconstruction work is handled, surprise!, by huge corporate
entities like Bechtel and Halliburton, with security by Blackwater.
Needless to say, those corporations, in ideological league with Republican
policies, then scratch the backs of the GOP by providing them with constant,
massive campaign donations. It's a closed loop, aiding everyone inside it,
but leaving millions outside having to deal with the negative ramifications
of the shock-doctrine decisions.
But that's "old history," we are told. That kind of thing surely doesn't
happen today. Right!
As Bush exited the White House, he handed Obama a plate piled high with
crises and catastrophes, most of them stemming from the Republican aversion
to governmental oversight of corporate power. No successor could have
handled that situation without paying a hefty political price. Bush bailed
out the financial ("too big to be permitted to fail") giants; Obama easily
slipped into the same policy, and appointed to high positions the same
advisors who were responsible for the crash (Geithner, Bernacke, Summers, et
al.). It was "shock-doctrine" time: opportunities for the wealthy and
powerful to become more wealthy and powerful.
With the economic depression (as was the case later with the huge BP oil
spill in the Gulf of Mexico), the result was to harm ordinary citizens while
building up corporate power and profits. The Wall Street financial houses,
and other large corporations that were bailed out with public funds, are
once again doing pretty much what they were doing prior to the collapse, and
have amassed humungous amounts of cash. Along with the health insurers and
Big Pharma, the corporate giants have figured out ways to work around the
various piddling reform bills that were passed, etc. And ordinary citizens?
Twenty million can't find employment! We're witnessing the creation of a
permanent, badly trained underclass, and there still is no concerted
emergency effort to focus on job-creation, not even by the supposedly
worker-friendly Obama and the Democrats.
4. A TYPICAL POLITICIAN: LOST IN THE BELTWAY
Which brings us to the President. Obama suggested that he wanted to be a
"transformational" president, taking on the powers that be in the creation
of a new, more equitable society. He knew the right things to say to
generate massive support, and he may even have believed a lot of what he was
promising. (I do believe that much of his heart is in the right place.) But
once he arrived in the White House, he reverted to his default position: a
typical centrist, triangulating, "pragmatic" politician, largely in lockstep
with the corporatist agenda.
True, the Republicans made it impossible for him to get much meaningful
reform passed. Devoid of a positive program to offer, their only goal has
been to destroy his presidency and return themselves to power . Obama rarely
seemed willing to fight for any of his initiatives. He could have, like FDR,
taken on his enemies openly and consistently, and with his bully pulpit and
passionate momentum raised a political army behind him. But, as with Bill
Clinton's presidency, too often, Obama seems so hungry for any little reform
he can call a "victory" that he compromises before any battle has been
joined, or else offers some compromise for free without using it for
political leverage in negotiations.
In short, despite the many positive bills he's been able to pass, Obama and
his chief advisors have proven to be novices at the bare-knuckle
street-fighting required in today's halls of Congress and so they are
consistently rolled by the Republicans. His GOP opponents are open in what
they want: full and total power. Obama isn't sure what he wants or how to
obtain it. If he had passion about anything before he became president, he
certainly doesn't evidence it today. He seems content merely to survive
another day, while the other side chips away at his remaining power bit by
5. BLOODY WALLPAPER
Part of the reason the Left is in despondent disarray is Obama's adoption of
the worst policies of his predecessor regarding the two wars he's inherited,
his imitation of CheneyBush in so many ways in the "war on terror," his
unspeakable policies with regard to civil liberties (okaying continued
data-mining of our emails, computer files, phone calls), his continued
amassing of presidential powers without any checks and balances (e.g., the
power to order assassinations of U.S. citizens without any judicial or
legislative input or review).
Effectively, Obama's foundational flaw is an acceptance of the neo-con
philosophy of "benevolent U.S. hegemony" over much of the world. But if U.S.
leaders should have learned anything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
(and Vietnam), it is the limits of Superpower military adventuring in a
world of asymmetrical warfare. America has become a muscle-bound bully in a
world that has moved on from accepting that imperialist/colonialist way of
dominating the globe. Cheney and Bush simply smashed their "hard
imperialism" way to dominance ("shock and awe"). Obama seems to realize that
"soft imperialism" -- the fist wrapped in diplomatic velvet -- often can be
much more successful. But both approaches remain imperialist/exceptionalist
in nature, and the world doesn't operate that way anymore. There's an
enormous price in blood and treasure to be paid for such militarist
By swallowing the essence of neo-con philosophy, Obama has wasted trillions
of dollars in wars that cannot be won. America's opponents can continue such
guerrilla warfare forever, bleeding our treasury and will. Death by a
thousand cuts. Those monies are needed at home, especially so during the
worst recession in 70 years.
The U.S. is now in its 10th year of war in Afghanistan, fighting for a
regime that is thoroughly corrupt and does not have the support of its
people. If this sounds like Vietnam all over again, your instincts are
correct. Better to get out now and pay the momentary political price for bad
policy rather than to have to get out later, in embarrassed haste and after
draining the Treasury of another couple of trillion dollars.
These wars, fought more or less off-budget by a mercenary army, have
continued in stalemate for so long that they have become for most Americans
unseen and ordinary, off to the side of most citizens' daily existence. They
are our bloody wallpaper, just there in the background. The Vietnam War, on
the other hand, was fought with a drafted army, which meant that nearly
everyone at home knew someone fighting and dying in that Southeast Asian
Can Obama alter these foreign/military policies and get the U.S. back on a
more realistic track? Perhaps he could have done so over the past two years,
but he's so politically damaged at this point that he probably will just
hunker down with the same policies and try to ride it out. Another
opportunity lost for a would-be "transformational" president.
6. BEYOND KNOW-NOTHINGISM
It's not just the Republicans' perfidy and/or Obama's timidity that fuels
the despair of so many progressives. What bothers me, for example, is not
even the know-nothing tone of the Tea Partiers and their non-curious ilk.
No, what's even more depressing is the voluntary ignorance of a huge slice
(maybe one-third) of the polity. They choose to ignore reality, to close
their eyes to fact, to deny scientific data. I'm reminded of the CheneyBush
aide who said "when we act, we create our own reality."
Part of that ignorance derives from fundamentalist belief (if I didn't read
it in the Bible, it's not true), part from poor education, part from a
deliberate choice to shut down part of the brain (read: Sarah Palin,
Christine O'Donnell, Ken Buck, Sharron Angle, Carl Paladino, Jim DeMint,
James Inhofe, et al.), part from a political decision to keep the liberal
opposition from defining the parameters of reality.
But regardless of the motivation, when one of the two major political
parties decides to base its policies on ignorance, delusion and denial,
democracy is in major trouble. That decision bothers liberals but it doesn't
matter to the extremist Republicans since they don't really support
democracy anyway. They are hard-wired for and feel more comfortable with
variants of authoritarian rule.
One would have thought that the Democrats would value airing out the truth.
But, when it comes right down to it, they've been secretive, hiding their
misdeeds, making it difficult for journalists and researchers to figure out
how policies are made. Remember I.F. Stone's first rule: "All governments
lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same
hashish they give out."
The current WikiLeaks cables dump -- which day by day reveal the hidden
policies motivating America's dangerous military and foreign policies --
could have been dismissed as "old news" or "raw" speculation or something,
thus diluting some of their impact. But instead the administration, looking
guilty and fearful, went into full-bore fright mode, ordering federal
employees not to look at the cables at work or when at home. Censorship is
always a bad move. They don't want government workers and troops and
ordinary citizens to see how their political sausage is made, and the
greed/imperialism motivations behind American decision-making. Thus the
attempts to block or close down the website, the calls by rightwing
extremists to attack the messenger rather than to plumb the messages, even
going so far as to call for the assassination of WikiLeaks founder Julian
Assange. These are symptoms of a weak, failing culture, unable to deal with
its own history. (And let it be reiterated that had the major mass-media
fulfilled their professional journalistic functions -- to dig, to question,
to investigate -- there might not be a WikiLeaks.)
7. VIOLENCE AND THUGGERY
For the past several years, with most leaders remaining silent, American
politics has been suffused with threats of violence, actual violence,
uncalled-for suggestions of mayhem directed against the President, moves to
remove legal protections from the Constitution, threats directed as
Muslim-Americans or other minorities, talk of secession and nullification
and McCarthyite hearings, Tea Party rallies with citizens proudly bringing
their semi-automatic arms, etc. This coarseness of speech, this thuggish
behavior, has been encouraged by rightwing propagandists and pundits (Rush
Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Matt Drudge, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Sarah Palin,
et al.), and even winked-at by mainstream Republican columnists, candidates
and Congressional leaders.
By and large, this development of a growing native fascism, has been ignored
by traditional political and religious and academic leaders, perhaps hoping
that this movement will go away on its own. But authoritarianism can
happen here, and we're right in the midst of its early growth phase. If it's
not stopped in its tracks now, we can anticipate the full panoply of
rightwing terrorism: paramilitary squads out for revenge or pressuring or
exacting violence against liberal opponents or certain ethnic groups, more
assassinations of doctors performing abortions or teaching family planning,
censorship agents, militias allied with rightist church factions,
witch-hunting Congressional panels, and so on.
Well, let's just end this summary here. The history I'm recounting is too
depressing to continue for very long. We are in the midst of a terrible
moral whirlpool in this country, with dire implications for our democratic
republic, and for us as individuals fighting to right our listing ship of
So, what is to be done? How should liberals and moderates and progressives
respond? Go to bed and pull the covers over our heads? Join a meditative
ashram in the Himalayas? Spend more time venting at the shrink's? In short,
abandon the playing field to the enemy while we flail about and participate
in leftwing circular firing squads?
My answer, as it always is when dealing with political funks, is to prepare
for revolution while fighting for attainable, probably small victories.
Democracy is not a spectator sport; it involves pain, rejection, endless
struggle, two steps forward and one step back, two steps backward and one
step forward, etc. etc.
Action can be an effective antidote for despair. Working on behalf of others
leads to more care and appreciation of one's own life-direction. The
confusion of depression is a ripe time to build, to explore, to be more
creative about our approaches. And above all, to organize, Organize,
ORGANIZE so that when the tectonic political plates finally start to shift,
the Movement is in place and ready to act.
Copyright 2010 by Bernard Weiner.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught
at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor with
the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as
co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).