It’s been seven weeks since I’ve had the company of a human being’s corporeal presence for more than four words at a time. What, pray tell, have I done with all this time besides shitting it away (not that I’m even doing that, as for the last two weeks I’ve had a bout of constipation)? For seven weeks I’ve planned and planned and planned and fantasized and fantasized and wished some ostensible ‘great work’ into being which my deeply embedded mania whispers to my ears I have within me to write or compose. How can someone like me ever be lonely with his massive ego for company?
And yet for all this narcissistic aggrandizement, never here have I embarked upon more than a page or five of outline, the high of the brainstorms too stratospheric to willfully bring my focus down to earth and the brutal mundanities of endowing physical form to a presence in my brain so sublimely ethereal. I embarked upon the beginning phases/phrases of half a dozen attempts, but isolation over-plowed it into drought soil.
It was, perhaps still is, a foot crushing work of historical fiction, an inner history, THE inner history, of the Jewish experience with their neighbors, potentially as long and varied as the Bible, populated with Jews migrating place to place from generation to generation, century to century, as they work and wait and work and wait, but always ejected and exiled from every old new land, and so too will we eventually from here. In nation after nation, city after city; some neighbors had to be there to welcome Jews in, some neighbors had to embrace Jews and promote them to prosperity’s apparent zenith, some neighbors had to be there to resent Jewish success, some neighbors had to be there to blame Jews when things went wrong, and some neighbors had to be there to drive the Jews out, to beat and torture them, and eventually to kill them, and surely there must be some god who works his unvoiced machinations upon our world to preserve the lifespan of our improbable community in circumstances through which we would long since be better off dead.
Jewish history is the ultimate epic. For anyone able to set their imagination so loose to capture it all upon a page or screen, the work would dictate itself to the mind. I made what I thought was a decent beginning of it in 2017, yet so rambled I that it captured none’s attention but mine, and rather than speed the plow through history’s length and breadth, I, believe it or not, got it into my head that I could earn readers by borrowing liberally from the life-stories of people I knew in manners for which I have little right. I didn’t even get that far. In autumn 2017, as all at once my life came undone yet again, I scrapped it and deleted from the internet all evidence I’d ever even made a start, except various drafts on a personal blog nobody reads.
We seem to live in an era of hyphenated identities, so for any writer identifying themselves as a “Jewish writer,” such a work can seem a kind of Holy Grail, a work of works destined clearly to be written: not just a James Michener bestseller about Jewish history that ties itself to a fictional town in Israel, but a work of fiction that circles the globe and captures the whole giant wheel… pendulum… spiral… tetragrammaton… of history. And someone, anyone, who can open their imagination to the literally millions of vivid scenes from our endless scroll of history, will be the person to write this book of books, drama of dramas, show of shows, and therein lies the problem.
There is something incredibly un-Jewish about its spirit. Jews exist within a religion that, at least since the Talmudic Sages, expended every effort to accommodate itself to reality’s needs rather than establish yet another monumental imposition upon history, for once upon a pentateuchal time, Jews made history’s ultimate imposition. For better or worse, we foisted upon the world a god sovereign to all humanity; not yet another spirit of a river or valley, but an infinite presence of imperium occupying all space, all time, all being; and year by year over millennia’s course, He established the dominion for which we longed upon everyone, everywhere, every-when. So powerful was our idea of god that he became lord of the world.
A portion of our cup is fire and brimstone, and in every generation, it seems that Hashem is simultaneously the greatest and the worst thing that ever happened to us. He is blessing and grace, he is curse and reproach; the source and salvation of every problem. He, or rather, His absence, is always present.
Nation after nation gets their turn for the bird’s eye view above history’s shitshow, only to be dumped back into existential sewage within a mere generation. It took only one generation between David’s glory to reach the bifurcation into Israel and Judea. It took only one generation from Alexander the Great’s unification of Greece and the accompanying intellectual golden age to collapse into partition and forty years of war between Alexander’s successors. It was only one generation between Rome’s peace of the Ausgustan Age and the tyranny of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero. It was but one generation between the conquests of Muhammed and the Shi’ites who believed Ali Muhammed’s appointed successor and the Sunnis who elected Abu Bakir. Only one generation between the Elizabethan Age in England and the beheading of Charles I. One generation between Bismarck’s unification of Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm’s pointless entry into World War I (and we needn’t remember what came next…). And now there’s one generation between victory in the Cold War and the election of the stupidest head of state in world history.
So why does it keep happening? What is it about humans that even in the best of times, our ability to be satisfied, live in peace with ourselves, accept that this is as good as it gets, is completely absent from our neurons?
In one sense, the answer is obvious. Even at its best, humanity is shit, and even golden ages beset us with all the same struggles and blows of fortune; what makes a golden age golden is that, for once in our lifetimes, we beat the odds. But victory is so much easier than defeat that it’s very easy to get accustomed to believing that we’ll win again, and once we get too well-acquainted with winning, winning ceases to amaze us. We forget just how hard it was to come so far as we did, we forget how chaotic is the world as everyone but us experiences it, and the ways in which the world still isn’t satisfactory metastasizes through our heads like a brain tumor. And so in moments like these when we’re all the freest fate ever allows us to follow our bliss and become our best realized, most unique vision of ourselves; we bifurcate ever more neatly into exactly two individuality-surrendering mass movements who believe that the solution to all the remaining problems of life are obvious, and so deprived are both sides of the oxygen of life’s realities that we honestly believe that this mirage of a better world is just behind the next sand dune. Once upon a time, these two sides were Fascists and Communists; once upon a time, these two sides were Protestants and Catholics; once upon a time, these two sides were the followers of Rehovam and the followers of Yerovam.
For the moment, there’s only true one side of extremity. Republicans don’t just control all three branches of government, all three are controlled by the most dictatorial arch-reactionaries. However much you may loathe both conservatism and socialism, to say that there’s any sort of moral parity between Trump and Sanders, or even Johnson and Corbyn, is morally dangerous in how it gives cover to upper-class twits who have always meant harm, propelled from the wind at their backs by sinister conspirators far more cunning than idiots like they ever hope to be.
But my god… should we lose in November what ghost of the future gets unleashed?
No dictatorship can ever raise itself without raising opposition, whether at home or abroad in absentia, every new generation is birthed in opposition to its parentage, and the opposition birthed by an American dictatorship would increasingly feel as though they’ve tried democracy, and democracy works no better to achieve liberal aims than it works for conservative. From moment to moment it may not seem so, but yes, ‘both sides’ DO grow apace: more militant, more extreme, more deadly. Old conservative regimes were thrown over in France, in Russia, in China, in Iran, in a dozen African countries and well over a dozen around Asia; Americans watching the news attentively saw this show so many times on television they’ve forgotten all the details and only remember the formulaic template of the script: in every one of these countries, liberal democrats thought they could collaborate with the Hard Left, only to end up in front of the exact same executioners who shot the reactionary regime a year earlier.
These firing squads would never be commanded by Bernie Sanders or 99% of his followers, they wouldn’t even be commanded by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or 99% of hers, and I think Ilhan Omar would only nod in vague approval. The Bernie movement was never truly dangerous in itself, only dangerous in what it raised for the future. It simultaneously enabled the Trump victory and enabled its own most militant disciples, both here and abroad. What liberals, or even conservatives, would have to truly fear was never a Sanders or AOC presidency, it is a quadruple rotgut turbo version of the Sandersistas – the type of soft socialists thrown into jail after protesting at Standing Rock or Zuccotti Park, who then emerge from prison beaten into hard communists, or whatever their 21st century equivalent turns out to be.
In the chaos that follows the overthrow of an eventual long-term vulture capitalist Trump or Kobach or Bezos/Brian L. Roberts regime, who would re-establish a permanent state? Would it be democrats of moral backbone who would hesitate to shoot their rivals in the definitive chaotic moment because of their correct notions of due process, legitimacy of authority, and rule of law? Or would it be a fringe sect of expelled grad students, drunk on critical theory and intersectionality, unhesitant to take all those ideal visions of a society of soft-power and melt them into flint hard weapons just as once-fringe Christian sects used to turn Jesus’s message of love into death? None of us have any idea what the future holds, but should democrats and/or Democrats not regain our foothold somewhere around 2020-22, I’m willing to bet that any future progressive American state in our lifetimes, even a progressive splinter state in part of America, more resembles that illiberal latter scenario than the former, because liberal democrats, progressives, social democrats, even socialists, are never willing to make all those ugly compromises to their souls in a moment when nobody’s life is safe. In the winds that blow through a country with a toppled government who can no longer provide its most basic functions like policing and education, even for a couple weeks, the race is to the swift, the battle to the strong; the victor is the ideology with an unbreakable will to power.
But that potentiality is obviously quite long down the road and by no means written in stone. The imminent cataclysm is a world carrying two lethal infections: Coronavirus and Trump, when it can only handle one of the two, and if both remain with us in 2021, the lethal viruses will multiply exponentially. Get rid of Trump, and Coronavirus is over three weeks after he leaves office, and so eventually too will all its aftereffects, at least after some more years that vaguely resemble the last five…. Remain with Trump, and Coronavirus unleashes a mass throng of other lethal filths, most of which have already unhatched from the sewage and grow every day closer to their full Godzilla size.
Not even Trump would willingly throw hundreds of thousands into a viral meat grinder unless he’s been convinced of what every economist knows – that America stands on the precipice of unprecedented economic ruin. Coronavirus is, from its inception, an entirely unnecessary tragedy that probably didn’t have to claim more than a few hundred lives, but after this much incompetent mismanagement, it will hit us all before it ends – there won’t be a single American who doesn’t know someone who died from it. But even that is no apocalypse. If half-a-million Americans die, we will always be devastated by the loss, but life still goes on. The great cataclysm of coronavirus is not the virus.
Even more than 9/11 seemed at the time, Coronavirus seems an end of recognizable America. Certainly 9/11 was more shocking, but shocking because it was an outlier event; all that changed was everything already bad which got worse – just as little changed after the Great Crash of 1929 or the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But there are other moments in American history, a little further down that same road, like Pearl Harbor or Fort Sumter, that were so long-heralded that the only shock was in them taking so long from fermentation to fruition. These moments are the great openings of Pandora’s Box: liftings of a lid that look so solemn through the gaze of the future that their impact is instantly understood, and from which all those those long contained micro and macro-organisms lurking in the sewage un-hatch and secrete their poison.
Whether acting of his own aggrandizement, or acting in the employ of Russia’s FSB (and I have a hard time believing someone as stupid as Trump would know how to do what he does without thorough coaching), Trump somehow knew the location and contents of all the pipes containing America’s rawest moral sewage, lanced the pipes open, poured the sewage into containers and flooded the moral waste into every American town square and city center. The only antidote against toxicity is a dilutive solution containing toxicity’s complete absence: which in this case means a united front of collaboration between principaled conservatives and progressives, principaled socialists and moderates, four ideologies that feel nothing but loathing for one another, all four of whom must be as flexible in their accommodations to each other as water itself.
If Churchill, the arch-imperialist, and Stalin, the arch-communist, could collaborate to overthrow Hitler, then anything is possible. But victory is only possible in a moment when millions realize there’s no alternative to collaborating with all sorts of people you despise, fear, and completely mistrust, and that is only possible if there is a Roosevelt of political talent supervising it all who can assuage all those disparate moving parts of a collaboration otherwise doomed at the creation.
Joe Biden is the opposite of that.
Elizabeth Warren, however, still might be, and if Joe Biden has any political sense at all, he will defer everything in his campaign, his policies, and in 2024 his presidency, to either Warren or some even more talented statesman (though I’d be hard-pressed to find one), and avails himself of her judgement to an exponential extent even from how Bush availed himself of Cheney. Alternately all of this to be a foregone conclusion, but to maintain a fifty year career, someone as stupid as Joe Biden has to do some very smart things along the way.
Whatever is true about Biden (and I seriously doubt the worst is), it’s self-evidently absurd to delude ourselves that he has the political talent this moment requires. 2020 requires a Roosevelt, a Lincoln, and whatever Biden’s virtues or vices, he is so obviously not that; he’s not even an Obama or Jefferson. But our country’s history has an honored place for very good Presidents who did the best they could in a job for which they clearly weren’t meant, yet whose performance far exceeded their natural capacities. Presidents of ordinary abilities like Harry Truman and James Monroe did a damn good job, and eventually realized they were not equal to the enormity of the job, so they ceded the floor to more qualified successors.
Make no mistake, this is an era of death, and will not end with Coronavirus. We don’t know what shape the new era will take, but no country survives this level of chaos without coming days even worse than the ones we experience now. From Pandora’s Box steps horrors we’ve never seen and would be unable to fathom until we have, but we seem to have one last chance to close the box up before truly everything escapes.
And yet, if we don’t close the lid, well,… that would make sense…. Historically, there are just so many moments like this, the moment just before a fall, when like autumn, this much diversity in a society’s ecosphere is not an indicator of a society’s health, but of its cyclical death. Perhaps history, like nature, has no room for any society unless the vast majority of its citizens conform like leaves on a tree to a pretty but vaguely totalitarian consensus of green. Maybe it doesn’t matter what any society believes, so long as there’s an unspoken agreement that the vast majority of us believe in the same things, and therefore get along with each other. Maybe no society actually believes in the consensus according to which it acts, but a society largely afraid of rocking its consensus is one that lives to the next generation. Maybe it doesn’t even matter what any society believes, so long as the society has an overarching belief system from which divergence leads to the outliers experiencing un-draconian but unmistakable consequences.
Prophets like Micah and Ezekiel and Jeremiah were wrong: the reason powerful civilizations self-destruct is clearly not that we neglect God, that much is clear from eras when ideological hubris infected everyone from Martin Luther to Tomas de Torquemada. And God knows, it’s even more clear that civilizations don’t self-destruct because they neglect the rights of the individual, which, at least as we think of it, is a fairly recent phenomenon. The problem, as always, is the hubris of believing that we have a solution, and by thinking we have any solution at all but a temporary one, contingent on life’s always shifting and ambiguous realities. The key to society’s continued life is hedging their bets: always providing some kind of insurance for the speculation nobody wants to hear – what if you’re wrong?
A good society builds through consensus, but a successful consensus doesn’t position itself at the arbitrary middle point between any two points of disagreement, that’s how society after society ends up with a far right that demands ever more while the humane liberal center concedes compromise after compromise. A successful consensus rigorously critiques every side of an argument to find the objective truth as best it can, and through a complex mixture of trust that reason will speak for itself, and pandering to incurious masses and ideologues, goes about the business of always incorporating the maximum possible information so that the consensus which stabilizes a society evolves to reposition itself with every new balance.
The act of living is almost synonymous with the act of evolving. And just as individuals and families do, all superorganisms must evolve: countries, societies, communities, polities. There are constantly new births and new deaths, new communities moving in and old communities moving out, new demographics with new customs that more established demographics must accommodate even as they work to assimilate the new communities; so too old notions must always synthesize themselves with new ideas, because if politics fails to accommodate these evolutions peacefully, then people who love their beliefs more than they love life itself will try to impose their beliefs through death.
(more this weekend)