(This is my column from the latest print version of CounterPunch Magazine.)
Looking at America today, you swing back and forth between two poles, both of them magnetized by despair.
At one pole, you find yourself saying that things have never been as bad as this: we are in uncharted waters, in a foundering ship being swept toward the reefs. And when the crack-up comes, its horrors will outstrip our imaginations, making our cinematic dystopias look bucolic in comparison, as we devour each other in a dying world ruled by psychopaths, gangsters and warlords.
Yet at the other pole, you find yourself thinking that what we’re seeing today is just a continuation — and in some cases, even a diminution — of the horrors and hellishness you’ve seen all your life. Wars, liars, atrocities, hatred, coups, riots — whole cities burning! — injustice, terrorism, plunder and corruption: when have these not been the background of the six decades you’re spent on this earth? And if you have even a passing interest in history, much less a passion for it, then you can extend this malevolent roar all the way back to the beginning of recorded time.
Perhaps, you think, what we’re seeing today is not some violation of the norm in our national life (or human affairs in general); perhaps it’s just a particularly vivid expression of our essential nature — heightened and hyped and made more all-pervasive by technology, yes, but in no way a fundamental break from the past. Perhaps it’s true, as the Preacher saith: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
But then, you turn on your phone, tap into one of the hallucinatory networks of data-harvesting and ad-disgorging that you, like so many, have become addicted to (while telling yourself – disingenuously? – that a conscientious citizen must keep abreast of these for-profit platforms because that’s where our public life now occurs), and suddenly you see … a picture from a snuff film. It’s a man being raped with a bayonet until he dies. You can see his face — a bloodied mask of agony — and the exulting, murdering mob around him.
But you haven’t stumbled down some algorithmic path into the festering, belching pits of depravity that lurk mere inches below the glossy surface of the internet. No, you’re looking at a tweet sent out to the world by a member of one of the most respectable institutions in the land: the United States Senate. The senior senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, a man of intense public piety, who regularly adorns his Twitter feed with Bible verses, had posted — on a Sunday morning, the Lord’s day — a graphic of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. On one side was a smiling Gadaffi in his pomp; the other was the aforesaid shot from the snuff-film video of Gaddafi’s slaughter.
The tweet emerged in the midst of Rubio’s feverish push for regime change in Venezuela, and was an unmistakable message to that country’s president, Nicolas Maduro: This is what happens to leaders who don’t do what we say. A naked, brutal, open, terroristic threat, from the very top ranks of the American establishment.
The shock you feel is like a slap in the face. Even in the Age of Trump, this seems to overstep some boundary. Senators revelling in rape-murder, brandishing gangland-style threats? Surely this is a qualitative difference, taking us into those uncharted waters far from the shores of the past.
But suddenly you are pulled back to the other pole. For you remember another figure on the commanding heights of our society laughing, with deep, hearty glee, at this very same rape-murder. Sitting with a TV interviewer, eager to publicize her reaction, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laughs and exclaims, “We came, we saw, he died!” Ha ha ha! It made your blood run cold.
Then you further recall the brutal threat she’d made years before, running for president, promising to “totally obliterate” 70 million human beings in Iran if that nation, which had and has no nuclear weapons, launched a nuclear attack on Israel, which had and has more than 200 nuclear weapons. The scenario was pure fantasy; but the imagination of this much-admired paragon of our society ran immediately to mass murder.
Your mind keeps reeling backward, remembering that the rape-murder that gave such sick, psychosexual titillation to Rubio and Clinton had been committed by extremists armed and backed by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Barack Obama (along with many other worthies of Western civilization.) And that one of Clinton’s predecessors, the liberal Madeline Albright, had defended the death of half a million innocent children from the sanctions imposed by her boss, Bill Clinton.
From there you keep going back, through all the evils you’ve seen committed in your name, in just your lifetime, back to the one that first fully entered your childish awareness: My Lai. And you know that what we’re seeing today is not a break, but a continuation. Accelerated, yes; the rotten timbers of the foundering ship are now in an advanced state of decay. But the reefs coming up so swiftly are the same ones we’ve been hurtling toward for a long, long time.
But then you turn on your phone and …