When I first saw that play so many years ago, those words lingered because I had to struggle to understand them. Almost 20 years later, I finally get it — in all its horror. Maybe I needed the passage of time. Fred Newman was a visionary and he saw the writing on the wall far better than I, back when I was only 26 and didn’t understand politics beyond the limited walls of my own angry and injured psyche. In 1996, there had still been some ability for humans to communicate. We didn’t abbreviate all our sentences (LOL!). At the dawn of the age of the internet, social media was just coming into its own, not yet the all-pervasive behemoth as it exists today. (However, the internet on its way to becoming a major force in politics and social interaction was one of the few things I saw coming better than Dr. Newman was able to.)
I guess what I’m saying is that the 90s were a simpler time and place. The nation had the luxury of being obsessed with a celebrity murder trial and a presidential blow job. Then 9/11 happened and as we know, everything changed. But it wasn’t just 9/11 —the rise of the internet engulfed an entire generation. The day-to-day activity of human interaction and communication became increasingly alienated, not to mention increasingly difficult to navigate for us “dinosaurs” whose generations had done much of their talking face to face, or at least on telephones that were attached to our walls.
When I was in culinary school a few years ago, I was surrounded by young people who were totally immersed in cell phone culture. They would talk to you at the same time they were talking to someone else on the internet. They would talk to you while looking up music, videos, news stories they were interested in — and they never seemed to be all there because they quite literally weren’t. They were much better than I was at doing several things at once, which is pretty useful in the cooking world, but they weren’t able to fully connect with any one thing they were doing because they didn’t know how to do just one thing — it wasn’t part of their culture or even their language.
One day I was hanging out with a classmate, a young man who was truly the best that the culinary arts had going for it. Not only was he smart and skilled and creative, but he oozed rock star charisma in a way that made people stop him in the street, even if it was just to stare at him in awe. I’ll be honest, I was hanging out at his place to smoke some pot and there he was rolling a joint, looking at his cell phone, looking at his laptop and making small talk with me simultaneously when suddenly he just stopped. He stopped and went into a freeze. All the light was sucked from his eyes for about 30 seconds, and I had this terrible thought: “Oh my God, he’s broken!” Because for those 30 seconds I felt I had been hanging out with a robot — albeit a beautiful, brilliant, charismatic robot — that had suddenly short-circuited from overuse. I walked away from that day feeling that even the best and the brightest of what we call the millennials are struggling mightily to stay human and connected in a society that has offered them nothing but total alienation; one that handed them technology in lieu of humanity; one that gave them pills in lieu of compassion, and one that assigned them diagnoses in lieu of a sense of purpose and identity. I didn’t walk away from that experience thinking any less of him. Especially since he taught me more about professional cooking than the folks I was handing my life’s savings over to. He was a decent young man who had sympathy for me being in that school way over my head. Rather, it made me think less of my own generation for not creating the conditions for the younger generation’s emotional growth. We had failed them badly.
It’s that culture of alienation and dehumanization that I’m trying to address because I think it’s a product of a society in which “anything goes” and reactionary forces have all but taken over.
Anything doesn’t go
Yesterday, I removed someone from my Facebook network that I genuinely care about. To make a long story short, I realized that she had interjected herself into a size acceptance thread to assert that fat bodies personified capitalist decay. Now, I have a lot of people on my network who say all sorts of things that make me roll my eyes hard at my computer. But generally I want to show them the respect of staying out of it and focusing on the positive. But stating that fat bodies personify everything wrong with capitalism was a bridge too far for me, because real human beings LIVE in those fat bodies (including me) and human beings can’t be reduced to some convenient symbolism. There were people who were taking a lot of time to explain the hurt and the classism and sexism that her words revealed, but she was having none of it, her ultimate answer was that she was “entitled” to her opinion.
I’d like to examine the privilege that comes out of our sense of “entitlement” to opinions, because I think it gets to the heart of that quote about liberalism winning and therefore paving the way to fascism. We’re now a culture that deems every opinion “equal” and “worthy” even if that opinion is that we should order Chinese food instead of pizza for dinner. Or that under some circumstances genocide is understandable. All the lines have become blurred and we’re left with little more to defend our most reactionary impulses than to declare “I’m entitled to my opinion!” But like our secrets, our opinions merely give the illusion of possessing something that isn’t actually tangible. When we cling to them as a form of entitlement, we create the conditions to shut down all empathy and humanity.
An odd couple
So here’s where I’m seeing the most chilling dehumanization coming from the progressive class — trangenderism and Bernie Sanders! An odd combination to talk about, right? Let me explain…
With transgender visibility growing, there’s been a fair amount of outrage among some feminists, chiefly that they’re under attack by “fake” women trying to invade their most sacred safe spaces for sinister reasons (the very illusion of a “safe space” in an unsafe world is a most dangerous illusion as well). Even one of the most prominent voices of the anti-war movement endorsed this backward reasoning. And oddly, the common line is that these feminists are “gender abolitionists” while trangendered people “enforce reactionary gender roles.” I believe there’s a cognitive dissonance at play when the people you’re taking aim at are putting their lives at risk to challenge the narrow definitions of gender! More disturbingly, in the name of feminism, a common bond is created with the most reactionary forces imaginable in declaring war on people living outside the mainstream! Nobody who considers themselves progressive is “entitled” to the dehumanization of marginalized people while still having the privilege of calling themselves a progressive. Yes, I think it’s just that simple.
Now we get to Bernie Sanders, and oh boy, here’s where I expect to piss a lot of people off. It doesn’t really matter if Bernie Sanders is a real socialist or a fake socialist — crowds of up to 30,000 are lining up to hear a man who at least is putting the word “socialist” into the national lexicon! This means something! Bernie Sanders is reaching millennials, who are not very easy to reach, and there’s something in the HUMANITY of his message — fair wages, environmental sanity, healthcare for all, free education, abolition of private prisons, making the rich pay their fair share — that is hitting a chord in young people AND THAT MEANS SOMETHING GODDAMNIT!!!
None of this is to try to “recruit” anybody into the Sanders campaign, I happen to think there are very good reasons NOT to support him.–Indeed, I know many people who don’t support him and they’ve repeated those reasons literally hundreds of times over the past five months. But the constant barrage of demeaning slurs like “Bernie-bots” and “Sheeple”, combined with the inability to offer a positive or even remotely coherent response to the question of what IS to be done, is worse than useless. It indulges a sense of moral superiority while also participating in the dehumanization of masses of people. Because here’s the thing, if Bernie doesn’t win, where do those people go? Do they just give up? Do they drink themselves to death? Or do they just go back to their world of computerized alienation and occasional malfunction like broken dolls?
Here’s another question — what if Bernie does win? What if he wins and he betrays the people he made promises to just like Obama before him? Then what? Because some of the young people of 2008 who genuinely believed that Obama was a choice of hope and change went on to create Occupy. What might become of this new generation of young progressives if we figure out how to work with them instead of against them?
Progressives supporting the “greater evil”
There is another alternative to Bernie out there who is also doing a helluva job at reaching millennials and that’s Donald Trump. He appeals to the death of humanity and empathy. He has the potential to be a modern day Hitler. I’ll take the call for a more decent and fair society that Sanders’ is calling for over Trump’s vision of “rounding up” immigrants and building a giant wall any day of the week. More importantly, we must connect with Sanders’ supporters because they’re the alternative to the rise of Trump’s supporters. Yet too many progressives are hoping for a Trump presidency, pathetically dreaming that if they make things even worse, the masses will rise up.
The failure of the Left has bought about the triumph of neoliberalism and now there seems to be nowhere to go but the descent into fascism.
There are those who would take me to task for being so negative. If even the so deeply deformed U.S. left is still superior to the ravings of the Walkers and Trumps and Jindals, etc., etc., isn’t it my duty to be praising and validating the left. Such as it is.
But we can only stop this tide, only unite and build and resist the forces of darkness, if we are willing to look straight in the eye at what has become of the progressive movement, and fight like hell to change what needs to be changed. However painful, let alone embarrassing, that may be.
To accentuate the negative …
Thomas Edison said “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” There’s no means of getting from here to there by refusing to not only accept but embrace our failure. It’s only through figuring out what hasn’t worked that we can find something that does. There is this convenient theme on the left that we need, even fervently desire that things get worse. Some seem to even celebrate fascism. The illusion is that this will impel the masses to “rise up” in some dramatic fashion. That is total capitulation. Gives a “revolutionary” aura to complete surrender. We can’t get from here to there by going on endlessly about all the things we refuse to do, because that creates nothing. We can’t reach out to young people by using language that denies them their humanity. No. Those of us who care need to fight like hell against the War on Terror just as much as against the end of the War on the Poor. And we can’t do this without engaging the “anything goes” malaise that cripples our ability to carry on any fight — moral, psychological and social.
There is much more to be said, much more to be changed, but I think engaging the Left’s extreme alienation at every level is a precondition for changing much else.
I’ll end this rant with a final quote, this one from Leon Trotsky in the days before Hitler’s ascension. “Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left!”
—Submitted by Rose Roby
November 14, 2015