With all of civic life under seige, what's a leftist to do but defend our cozy institutions? / Thomas Hawk
Gary Greenberg,  December 20, 2016

Decent Drapery

A leftist's dubious new fondness for civic institutions

With all of civic life under seige, what's a leftist to do but defend our cozy institutions? / Thomas Hawk
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The first time it happened was a sunny afternoon early in the spring just after Barack Obama’s inauguration. I was fetching my mail from the post office, located in the wing of a house in the center of the village, right across the road from the town green. I was standing at the formica table in the lobby sorting the junk from the bills when a man walked in. I didn’t recognize him; I figured he didn’t live in town.

The man was maybe in his mid-sixties. He was bald, save for unkempt tufts of gray hair around his ears. He wore the local workingman’s uniform: gray collared shirt under a shabby barn coat, green twill pants and scuffed up boots, one of which was held together with duct tape. That was the boot he used to kick the door connecting the lobby to the customer window, which was locked. “Goddamn federal government!” he said to no one in particular. He wasn’t trying to break in, I don’t think, but only to punctuate his outburst.

“Charlene’s at lunch,” I said. He looked over his shoulder at me, as if he hadn’t seen me before, which maybe he hadn’t.

“That’s a long goddamn lunch. Must be nice.”

“Actually, she takes it late so the post office can be open through noon. And then she takes a walk. Look,” I said, pointing out the window. “There she is now.” Charlene was at the far end of the green, just a couple minutes away.

“I ain’t got time,” he said, and stormed out, got in his beater and drove away.

It’s very nice, this culture of tolerance that we’ve developed over the years.

The last time was just a few weeks ago, six days before the presidential election. I was in a Dollar Store a few towns away, waiting to pay. The woman behind me had dishwater blond hair, and the deep wrinkles and deeper cough of a lifelong smoker. Empty-handed, she must have been on line to buy cigarettes. She saw me looking at her and said, “Well, I guess we’re gonna be able to say ‘Merry Christmas’ this year.”

“Huh?” I said.

“You know, the way we have to say ‘Happy Holidays,’ the personally correct.”

“Politically correct?”

“Yeah, politically correct. We can’t say Merry Christmas anymore. But now . . .”

“You know,” I said, “I’m nearly sixty years old, and most of what I hear is Merry Christmas, and it doesn’t bother me in the least. And I’m Jewish.”

Which wasn’t entirely true. The Jewish part was sort of true—I was born that way, but haven’t been in a temple in decades—and the not bothering me part completely so. But people do say happy holidays, maybe more to me than to others; certainly, when they slip and tell me to have a good Christmas, they look chagrined and sometimes even apologize, and I feel bad for them, embarrassed over an offense that I haven’t taken. But I understand the gesture, and I appreciate it, appreciate the worry they have expended over my sensitivities, even if I don’t have them. It’s very nice, this culture of tolerance that we’ve developed over the years. It’s as nice in its own way as an agency that will, for half a buck, take a letter from my hand and place it in the hand (or the mailbox) of someone three thousand miles away just a few days later.

Which is why I found myself trying to soften the resentment of the Dollar Store lady or to soothe the ire of the post office guy by assuring them that those institutions of civic life are not really so bad. And why, in the eight years between the post office and the Dollar Store, I found myself trying to tamp down the rising gorge of my fellow citizens as they complained about the government and all the ways in which it was destroying their lives, explaining why zoning regulations are not a terrible thing (I am the chair of my town’s zoning commission), or why requiring everyone to buy health insurance is the only way (short of the “socialized medicine” they all hated) to make sure that everyone has access to health care, or how our income taxes really aren’t that high compared to other countries, or how most people on disability aren’t really faking it and besides disability payments don’t amount to much compared to the defense budget. I did this as calmly and as rationally as I could, but I was so busy tamping down my own rising gorge, my impatience with the sheer idiocy of their conclusions (if not their sentiments), my suspicion that narrow-mindedness and resentment and bigotry were their real motivation, that I lost track of something dizzyingly weird: that I had taken a stand against a swelling rebellion. I had become a defender of government, of tradition, of the status quo. It took an election to make me see just how upside-down the world had become.

Ever since the fabled escalator ride of June 2015, I’d been telling my wife, my son, my friends, anyone who would listen (a number that decreased as the campaign wore on) that the man in the high tower was going to win, or at least that he had a decent shot. I’d gotten into actual arguments about it. There just aren’t enough stupid people out there, my friends would say. Don’t underestimate the power of fear coupled with anger, and don’t forget the true appeal of the confidence man, which is that he makes people feel like they have always wanted to feel, I would say back. Come live where I live, talk to my neighbors. Read the signs, the literal signs, like the sheet of plywood outside a machine shop on which the owner had scrawled, “I am tired of being called racist and anti-Muslim and homophobic. Hillary Clinton must be stopped,” followed by a bill of particulars in print too fine to see without stopping, but you know what they were.

Of course, I was rooting against myself. I really wanted to be wrong. For once, I was hoping that my pessimism was, as my friends have always told me it was, an indulgence, the cheap thrill of the disaffected. But walking to my car from the Dollar Store, my suspicion turned into a conviction. The spirit of rebellion had so swamped the populace that a woman on her nicotine-fix rounds was shouting victory from the checkout line, and somehow this meant to me that I didn’t even have to stay up for the election returns. Which I didn’t, although I did take a quick look at my phone when I stumbled out of bed at around 3 a.m., and the subject lines in my incoming email—“what is happening” “oh my fucking god”—told me enough. “He won,” I said to my wife when I returned to bed, and neither of us could get back to sleep.

All the next day my patients (I am a psychotherapist) could talk of nothing else. Most of them were in tears; some wept. I had little to offer, other than to say that this must be what it was like to live in France in the early 1790s or mid-1840s or Russia in 1915 or—and I hesitated on this one—Germany in 1933. In an office where I spend my days urging people to take history (mostly personal, but not solely) seriously, all I could do was acknowledge just how stunning it is to behold the juggernaut, to see its wheels turning, even to see where they are heading, and to be absolutely unable to stop them. And yet that is what they, and I, wished to do. As if it was a bad dream from which we would awake and find our old reality restored.

Which, as Dorothy discovered when she woke up, maybe wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe the interchangeable men and women in suits who have occupied the desks of the permanent government, spouting the same lame bromides about incremental change, burying the reformist impulse beneath piles of jargon, resisting the obvious need for clean sweeps, protecting the interests of money—maybe they were also maintaining a necessary stability. Maybe the lockstep of press office and press, the nudge-wink agreement to say this and not that, and to say it this way, to leave on background what happens on background, on pain of ostracism—maybe this was one of the fundaments of domestic tranquility. Maybe the institutionalized hypocrisy of international relations, all that pomp and protocol, wasn’t designed only to make the diplomats and heads of state comfortable, but to keep things on an even keel. And maybe stability, tranquility, the even keel were more valuable than I ever thought. Maybe the whole time I’ve been carping and objecting and agitating for overthrow, I’ve been taking them for granted, unaware of just how much I depend on them, just how much I love the system that I hate. Or at least fear its loss.

What else explains my newfound respect for the slow choreography of relations between world leaders, for the elite who would normally be in line to help a new president run the country, for the curators of information who decide what news is fit to print (or broadcast), for the one China policy? You cant just pick up the phone and call the president of Kazakhstan or Pakistan or any other Stan just to say hi, I find myself saying. Don’t just blurt out your ideas on Twitter. Please, please hire Mitt Romney. Don’t upset poor China. Don’t insult the CIA. Or Boeing.

A drowning man does not care whom he grabs onto, so long as that person is floating.

The formality is a good thing, the mainstream media indispensable, the spooks smart and capable despite the Iraq fiasco, a new Air Force One well worth the $4 billion. In short, countries and companies and traditions and institutions about which I would have given, as my son likes to say, exactly zero fucks (or only enough fucks to disparage) have become salient, crucial, even precious. And people whom I would normally be glad to excoriate as craven servants of money and power now appear reasonable, maybe saviors. A drowning man does not care whom he grabs onto, so long as that person is floating.

This turnabout results in part from the same fear anyone would feel about a bull running loose amongst the Wedgewood. Some of it comes from the loathing that attends the man who yells Fire! in a crowded theater, and does it repeatedly, in every theater he can find, as if what he’s really after is to watch the audience scramble. Some of it, that is to say, is directly related to the repellent, soulless, vengeful person currently holding court in his eponymous castle and soon to move his show to the White House. He will no doubt find that venue’s creaky, ungilded formality insufficiently ostentatious and ill-suited to the tippy-top entertainment he and his wife have in mind should a prime minister or king happen by—a problem he will no less grandiosely claim to fix on his own dime. And to the extent that this is the case, I can only wish misfortune to befall him, and to hope that it is not the misfortune generally suffered by people who ascend to the heights of power on the strength of demagoguery, which is to say the kind of misfortune that leaves countries in flames.

But it is the nature of revolution to turn things upside down. That’s why they call it revolution. I wish this was our revolution, but liberalism is too kind, too benevolent, too much based on the crazy idea that reason can rule us and the world, for that to have happened. Of course, it would have been better had this not been the case, if we had been ruthless enough to make sure that Bernie Sanders ended up holding this tiger by the tail. He is, from all appearances, a decent man, and he seemed to understand the depth and complexity of the problems he wished to solve. At least he understood them enough to know that a revolution was in order. Even so, he would be scaring the shit out of at least some of us, stocking his team with people who shared his goal of dismantling the monster banks and corporations that keep us at once stuck and stable, and, intentions and knowledge aside, he couldn’t possibly grasp all the consequences of dismantling hundreds of years of accumulated power. Unlike the president-elect we now have, he may have been wise enough to understand that he was borne on the wheels of history with only a limited ability to steer them (or to stay out from under them). But that knowledge would not have granted him control.

Because this revolution, like every revolution, belongs to no man, not an irascible Vermonter or a crass New Yorker. It is no more controllable than a hurricane. And like a hurricane, it is born of forces that we can easily see in retrospect. Democracies, as John Adams noted, commit suicide routinely, sickened by the inevitable spread of irrationality throughout the body politic. Capitalism, especially its postindustrial form, doesn’t work. Or, to put it better, it works by not working. Its internal contradictions are so well known that they aren’t even worth going into, except to say that it’s been pretty clear for 150 years that they will eventually undo themselves. Put the two together, and it is only a matter of time. Did anyone ever say that the undoing was going to be easy? Or pretty? Likewise, did anyone draw up an elegant blueprint for what would come next—apart, that is, from Marx’s manifesto-ready heaven on earth? I don’t fault us for not knowing what we don’t yet have the language or concepts to know, any more than I fault Martin Luther or Rene Descartes or Immanuel Kant for not knowing how democracy and capitalism would end up. The only thing I can say for sure is that the wheel is turning, and it appears to be heading right for us.

So forgive me for getting conservative, and I will forgive you. But it’s not because I’ve finally started listening to my brain instead of my heart, as the old saying goes. It’s because I am afraid. And I will get over it, or at least try. I don’t think I’m going to defend the CIA and the diplomatic corps and the rest of the goddamn federal government for very long, except maybe the post office, which I like, and which we are going to need once the internet becomes the surveillance device it’s ready to be. If there’s going to be a revolution, and apparently there is, then I guess we’re going to have to fight for whatever control we can have, with whatever means we have at our disposal, toward whatever end we can make out in the gathering mist. It’s not how I wanted to spend my golden years, but history seems to have other ideas.

Gary Greenberg is the author of four books, most recently The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry. He is a contributing editor at Harper's. He lives in Connecticut. 

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