Nations go crazy. It’s terrifying when it happens, especially to a major nation with the ability to project its craziness outward. We look back on the psychotic break of Germany in 1933 and still wonder how the then-best-educated population in Europe could fall under the sway of a sociopathic political program. We behold the carnage and devastation left in the wake of that episode, and decades later you still can do little more than shake your head in bewilderment.
China had a psychotic break in the 1960s in its “cultural revolution,” provoked by the mad neo-emperor Mao. He sent cadres of Chinese baby boomer youths rampaging across the land, turned every institution upside down, and let millions starve. Mao’s China lacked the ability then to export this mischief, but enough of his own people suffered.
Cambodia was the next humdinger of a national nervous breakdown when the Paris-educated classic marxist Pol Pot decided to make the world’s biggest omelette by cracking a million eggs. He took everybody wearing eyeglasses, everybody who appeared to have a thought in his or her head, and sent them out to the bush to be worked to death, or shot in ditches, or disposed of otherwise. The mounds of skulls remain to tell the tale.
Lately we’ve had the Hutu-Tutsi genocides in Rwanda, the craziness in former Yugoslavia, the cruelty of Darfur, the international suicide-bomber craze (including today’s blasts in Moscow). Surely, I’ve left a few out… but these are minor episodes compared to what be coming next.
Am I the only one who senses it might be America’s turn to go nuts? I don’t mean a family squabble, like the Boomer-Hippie-Vietnam uproar that was essentially an adolescent rebellion against bad parenting in the national household. I mean a genuine descent into madness, with the very high probability of persecution, violence, murder, and mayhem — all more or less sponsored by various authorities and institutions.
The Republican Party is doing a great job in provoking such a dangerous episode by making consensual governance impossible in a time of awful practical problems and challenges. They’re in the process, right now, of transforming themselves from the party of “no” to the party of no decency, no common sense, no ideas, no conception of the public interest, and no respect for the traditions that they pretend to stand for, like due process of law. In the days since the passage of health care reform, they’ve gone as far as inciting mobs to violence against their fellow congressmen and senators — bricks thrown through windows, death threats made, coffins placed in the yards of their adversaries. One day soon, somebody with a gun or an explosive device, someone with a very sketchy sense-of-self, and perhaps a recent record of personal failure and humiliation, is going to sacrifice himself to become the Tea Party’s first martyr by shooting up a shopping mall in some blue district.
Republican leaders’ avidity to ally themselves with the followers of hate-monger entertainers like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and the Fox News gang is only the beginning of the process that will lead to a political convulsion possibly worse than the one that started at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, 1861. If it comes, it will certainly be a far more incoherent conflict. The guerilla forces of the radical right will not know whether they are fighting for WalMart, or the Financial Services arm of General Electric, or against abortions, or for bigger and better freeways, or the rights of thoracic surgeons to drive families into bankruptcy, or against the idea of climate change, or evolution, or Jews-in-the-media, or their neighbors having something they feel envious about….
In the background, of course, is an economy just barely holding together with political baling wire and duct tape. It has very poor prospects for continuing in the way it was designed to run, on cheap oil and revolving debt. The upshot is an economy now destined for permanent contraction, and nobody has a plan for managing that contraction — which will include awful failures in food production, in disintegrating water systems, electric grids, roadway systems, schools… really anything that requires ongoing public investment. It includes a financial system that cannot come up with capital deployable for productive purpose, or currencies that can be relied on to hold value, or markets that function without interference.
For its part, the Democratic Party has done a poor job of clearly articulating the realities of these things, and in actions like bailouts they’ve given the false impression that the nation can somehow engineer a return to the reckless hedonism of the late 20th century. My guess is that the situation is so desperate now that President Obama and his supporters can’t risk telling the truth about the comprehensive contraction we face.
The health care reform act was a tortured way of dealing with some of this indirectly. It will absolutely lead to a kind of health care “rationing,” but rationing is unavoidable in an economy where there is less of everything that people need, and fewer resources to spread around. The difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Republicans would prefer to see the rationing accomplished by money-grubbing health insurance companies denying coverage to policy-holders who get sick, or by the bankrupting of households (i.e. losers who deserve to die anyway), while the Democrats want to at least try to distribute what we can a little more fairly. The larger failure of both factions to emulate better systems running in sister societies like Canada and France is something that history will judge.
I was in favor of the health care reform act for the reason of that basic difference between the Right and the Left. For all its flaws — and perhaps even the prospect that we are too far gone in national bankruptcy to ever get all its provisions running — I believe it was necessary for our national morale to pass the bill, to prove that we could do something besides remain stuck in paralysis and bickering indefinitely. And it was necessary to smack down the Party of Cruelty, to inform ourselves that we are not quite ready to go completely crazy.
Whatever his flaws, omissions, and failures, I’m impressed with President Obama’s ability to conduct himself like an adult, like a good father, in the face of the most unseemly provocations by his red-faced adversaries John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, and all the other apoplectic opportunists trying so desperately to turn the United States into a high-definition Jesus tele-theocracy of Perpetual NASCAR. As economic conditions worsen — I believe they will — I hope Mr. Obama can discipline these maniacs. I would like to see him start by instructing his attorney general to look into the connection between Republican officials (including staff members) and the threats of violence and murder that were made last week around the country.
James Howard Kunstler is the author of “The Long Emergency,” the novel “World Made By Hand,” and the sequel, “The Witch of Hebron, coming out in September from The Atlantic Monthly Press.