Sunday, May 29, 2016

Brutal Toughness Arises

Donald Trump says he will abolish gun-free zones around schools and elsewhere his first day in office. He's not the only Tough Guy on the prowl:

The president elect of the Philippines promises to “fill Manila Bay with bodies” in a crackdown on crime. Gunmen patrol the perimeters of mosques in the South. Putin plays the strong man in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Netanyahu in Israel. Hillary Clinton, the first woman to find herself within hailing distance of the U.S. Presidency finds herself attacked from the Right by a verbally brutal man and on the Left by an increasingly belligerent one.  And that’s not to mention the thousands of young men raised in the West who desert to fight against the liberal, Enlightenment democracies they grew up in. Primitive warrior belligerence seem to be on the rise.

"What Rough Beast?" 

Psychiatrist Carl G. Jung was alarmed, in 1930, to hear, from every one of his German analysands dreams about the ancient Teutonic berserker warriors.  On this basis he published an essay, Wotan, which chillingly predicts the triumph of the brutal Nazi regime. The berserker didn't appear to me in anybody's dreams, but in some films of the late 70s and early 80s—films like the uber-macho Rambo series and even in the masterfully crafted Lord Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984). As Sylvester Stallone emerges bloodied but alive after one of the Rambo series frequent blood-baths, I felt the same archetypal chill.  To quote Yeats' "Second Coming" (1919): What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

I seem to have an inner sense (I jokingly call this "Cassandra" after the Trojan princess who accurately spotted trouble ahead). My Cassandra has a disturbing ability to notice dark clouds arising on far away horizons, and watching these films chillingly reminded me of Jung's observations. In the outer world, the "voodoo economics" of Reagan were taking over, and the GOP's dog-whistle racism was in full swing. The country was moving away from the New Deal's "we're in this all together" spirit and headed toward the "every man for himself" mentality we see today on the Right.

My chills do not a prediction make. Donald Trump does not bring Hitler to mind for me, but he is the latest in a long, intensifying line of men (and a few women like Sarah Palin) for whom belligerence is a value, civility, reason and facts the signs of the “loser.” And he joins the rising company of those strong men who praise “shooting from the hip, “usually phrased as “telling it like it is,” which really means “putting some words to the frustrations I feel." Meanwhile, the Enlightenment dream of the free exchange of ideas in civil discourse is threatened on the Left by an often rigid “politically correct” moralism. Allergic to any disagreements, it reacts with moral outrage rather than "say more about why you think that."

Can the Center hold?

The long-term consequences of all this are uncertain, but the effects so far amount to a major assault on the foundational principles of Enlightenment civilization: our sense of a common humanity over against ethnic prejudice; what the 18th century public thinkers called sentiment, or fellow-feeling that opposes brutality and hard-heartedness; the values of tolerance and civility vs. trash-talk and gleeful prejudice; and reasoned debate based on facts and evidence as a more productive way to truth than passionate belief.

Such values form the moderating "center" which fostered the pluralistic, democratic Western world we inhabit—and even significantly disarmed the population. But now it seems as if The Center cannot hold/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity. (1)

What can anyone do?  Hold the Center!  Refuse to give in to the current polarization. Try to understand where others are coming from, even as you disagree with them. Avoid the dangerous luxury of moral outrage so enjoyed by the "righteous" on Left and Right. This country is in the midst of an extended struggle at a crossroads of its history.  These are bulwark against a rising belligerence that may well lead to the blood-dimmed tide Yeats feared in 1919.  Is that what we see already in the smaller incidents, both Left and Right?

My inner Cassandra is worried. 

1. W.B.Yeats, The Second Coming.  See