The Sounds of Silence: Reactions to Political Despair

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:


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 normal.

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 society 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 Party’s platform:

"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?


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.


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."

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.


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 bit.


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 arrogance.

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 land.

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.


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.)


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 state.

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.