Carlin’s irreverent take on our society came to my mind as I was standing in the Buffalo airport last night, waiting to board a flight to Baltimore after dropping off my older daughters with their mother. There, on CNN, were yet another set of talking heads, rambling on about how the latest polling shows that Democrats are sagging in terms of respect for their “leadership.” While I couldn’t actually hear the words over our boarding announcement, I think they were discussing this poll, which shows that between 53% and 54% of Americans disapprove of how Democrats are "leading" in Congress.
Now I’m sure the very bright talking heads on CNN had good things to say about why, nine months into the Obama Presidency, Democrats are “falling” so fast. And I’m sure, sometime today, we’ll see something that will make them look . . . less bad . . . for a few minutes. The reality, however, for the Progressives and Liberals who banded together to create this ruling coalition, is that we’re back to losing the war, and losing it very quickly.
See, the Democrats have run squarely AWAY from the best traditions of true liberal politics, and into the sickening embrace of the oligarchs who currently fund today's political activities. Democratic national leaders (and their sycophantic talking head media “spokespeople”) have left behind the true caring for the less fortunate that motivated Johnson’s Great Society. Democratic “leaders” have run away from the prophetic wisdom of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, embracing instead what Professor Cornell West rightly dubs an imperial nihilism that seeks dominion and money over true Democracy and real freedom (both personal and economic as well as democratic). In short, Democrats have abandoned the long list of their accomplishments – all of which came from the best liberal traditions and all of which stood once in stark contrast to the conservative ideals supposedly championed by Republicans (but from whihc they are also running in search of mammon).
And so the poll numbers show it. Americans may well be dissatisfied with how the healthcare debate is going, and with the fact that we as a nation tortured people under the color of our national “security,” but I would argue that the dissatisfaction runs deeper. As a nation, we’ve bought into the dream that our Democracy will be, and once was, a debate between two opposing sides where policy flowed from the side that made the best, most realistic, case – but also tugged at our souls.
Professor West, in his seminal work Democracy Matters calls us to attend to this malaise, which he posits derives from the twin challenges of that imperial nihilism, and the distractions that are heaped on us to ensure that we, the People, do not notice how badly we’re being screwed by our own politicians. Republican "Culture Wars" that purport to take on abortion, gay marriage, and pre-marital sex are fine examples. After all, in the six years Republicans ruled both the White House and Congress from 2001 through 2007, not one Bill was passed overturning Roe vs. Wade, in spite of dozens of speeches to the Base about its supposed evils.
West notes that this psychic division is most pronounced in our youth, where the real roots of rap and hip-hop (protests of the still oppressive African American condition) are all but lost in the marketing that emphasizes gangstas rolling around in flashy cars with nearly nude women (with no references to overcoming adversity thorugh hard work in the face of real oppression). West believes that the solution to this is Socratic questioning of everyone and everything, and he’s partially right.
We do need to question more, both the assumptions that we make daily, and the drivel that is heaped upon us that passes for journalism. Glenn Greenwald does an inestimable job of this; Tavis Smiley and Bill Moyers are also strong voices crying out against the oligarchs of our day.
But we must do more, and we can do better. Democrats have always failed in their knee-jerk “I don’t want to be the unpopular kid” attempts to become Republicans. We can’t do it, nor should we waste our energy trying. If the current healthcare “reform” debate has shown us anything, it’s that we’ll never win by trying to co-opt the other side.
So let’s stop. Let’s take the Socratic questioning, and ask sternly what America has to gain from Republican efforts to stall real reform. Then let’s embrace our prophetic vision, and reclaim the Left side of the aisle as the place where America’s best moments and most enduring ideals are housed.
Or, let’s just keep our heads down and our voices quiet. Then George Carlin will have been all too right about us:
America has no now. We’re reluctant to acknowledge the present. It’s too embarrassing.
Instead, we reach into the past. Our culture is composed of sequels, reruns, remakes, revivals, reissues, re-releases, re-creations, re-enactments, adaptations, anniversaries, memorabilia, oldies radio, and nostalgia record collections. World War II has been refought on television so many times, the Germans and the Japanese are now drawing residuals.
Of course, being essentially full of S%&$, we sometimes feel the need to dress up this past pre-occupation, as with pathetic references to reruns as “encore presentations.”
We owe it to ourselves, clearly and simply, to see that Carlin’s word do not become the epitaph by which our nation is remembered.