America woke up on November 9th to surprise and unease. How did this unlikely candidate win the election? When did the country become so divided? What can we do about it? What will happen if we can’t fix it? And, for almost everyone my Facebook algorithm serves up, is this the start of the end? Should we be afraid, very afraid?
I don’t have answers. But I have been reading about the unacknowledged schisms in America since I started Butler. I found lots of wisdom and challenging questions in all 12 of these books. And if you can watch a terrifying movie about an “average community….
THE WAY IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE
The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country
For them, America’s “extraordinary success” is not because of our square-jawed politicians or our innovative businessmen or our hard-working farmers —it’s our “unique form of government.” Unique in what way? Our form of government is “self-contained” — there’s no Higher Authority, either in the form of God or king. The Constitution acknowledges that people are selfish and generally care only about themselves; it forces us to compromise for the greater good. In short, our 7,000-word Constitution is a radical philosophical breakthrough that’s also rubber-meets-the-road practical.
HUMAN NATURE (USA VERSION)
The Pursuit of Loneliness
Philip Slater’s thesis: One function of a society is “to make its inhabitants feel safe.” Americans devote more of our resources to “security” than anything else. Yet we do not feel safe. In fact, we feel more and more unsafe.
Slater found something strange: global and political fears are less urgent for us than domestic, social fears — even though the domestic fears are of seemingly harmless minorities.
(Translate this into 2016 terms: Why are many of us more obsessed with gay marriage, immigration and abortion than we are with climate change?)
Slater’s explanation: We overreact to domestic “threats” because we have “secret doubts” about the way we live. “It is not what happens abroad that generates hysteria,” Slater wrote, “but rather what appears to be happening within ourselves.”
The Greening of America
Charles Reich described American history not as a progression of events but as a series of shifts in consciousness. He showed how the values of village life that guided the birth of this country (“Consciousness I”) gave way to a Corporate State that brings no joy to everyone who serves it (“Consciousness II”).
The best reason to read “The Greening of America” is for its brilliant and original suggestion of a way out: the radical, idealistic “Consciousness III.” For Reich, political change comes last. The way he sees social and political change, you start with the individual, with yourself. First change the way you think, help others do the same, then the culture changes — and, finally, the system changes.
Our politics today sounds a lot like a debate between a “Consciousness II” Administration (which argues that the federal government can best protect us from an unregulated marketplace and a shredded safety net) and “Consciousness I” (candidates who tell us that the solution to all our problems is a return to a time when men took care of their own business and government barely existed).
Eric Hoffer: The True Believer
The genius of this book is Hoffer’s ability to see beyond individual behavior to patterns of thought and behavior. On page one:
Though there are obvious differences between the fanatical Christian, the fanatical Mohammedan, the fanatical nationalists, the fanatical Communist and the fanatical Nazi, it is yet true that the fanaticism which animates them may be viewed and treated as one… However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing.
What Hoffer is saying: The zealots dreaming of bombing Planned Parenthood are — like all extremists — the spiritual brothers of the Nazis, of bin Laden, of Stalin, of the KKK.
Why does Hoffer make such a blanket condemnation?
All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them… breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance. All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.
Bracing. And there are 180 pages like that.
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” — The Authorized Graphic Adaptation
Each year, on June 27, the citizens of this village — and, we’re told, in others — gather in the square to pluck the folded papers from the box. Heads of families, heads of households in each family, members of households in each family — no one’s excluded. Each villager takes a folded paper. We watch, studying the faces, as they clutch them. As one, they unfold the papers. There’s a problem, so there’s a short, second drawing. The paper with the black dot: It’s held by Tessie, a wife and mother. The villagers gather rocks… and stone her until she’s dead.
THREATS TO DEMOCRACY
The Unknown Terrorist
The novel begins with a terrorist bomb scare — three bombs found in backpacks — at the Olympic stadium. Richard Cody covers the event for his TV station, an easy task, for no one knows anything and all he has to do is dispense fear on cue. After, he goes to a posh lunch in a mansion “refurbished in the contemporary manner of a corporate foyer,” where he trades gossip in that all-too familiar “aggrandizement of self, as necessary as a bull elephant seal’s bark.” Then his boss demotes him.
Who is the terrorist? It’s so not whoever put the bombs in that backpack…
Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy
Fame came to him after a speech he made on February 9, 1950, in Wheeling, West Virginia: “I have in my hand a list of 205 Communists… still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” That shocking revelation was nothing new — a young politician named Richard Nixon had pretty much covered this territory. But putting a number in the accusation and “I have here in my hand” did the trick. As Tom Wicker notes, back then, Americans weren’t used to losing… anything. We beat the Germans. We beat the Japanese. But now the Russians were taking over chunks of Europe. And the Russians had the atomic bomb. Such blows to America, Wicker writes, “could only result from subversion, espionage by the evil empire, and treason — betrayal in high places.”
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War
The subject of this book is government lies — decades of them. These lies caused the deaths of 58,000 Americans and more than 2 million Asians. They bled our economy and debased our psychic currency. Villains? There are plenty. Heroes? They start with Daniel Ellsberg.
Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire
Let me quote the author: ‘Blowback’ is a CIA term that means retaliation, or payback. It was first used in the after-action report on our first clandestine overthrow of a foreign government, the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, when, for the sake of the British Petroleum Company, we claimed he was a Communist when he just didn’t want the British to keep stealing Iranian resources. In the report, which was finally declassified in 2000, the CIA says, “We should expect some blowback from what we have done here.” This was the first model clandestine operation. By blowback we do not mean just the unintended consequences of events. We mean unintended consequences of events that were kept secret from the American public, so that when the retaliation comes, the public has no way to put it into context.
WORST CASE SCENARIOS
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
The Holocaust — the murder of 6 million Jews — turns out not to be the 20th century’s worst story of mass execution.
We know about the Holocaust because people survived it and told us about it.
We know almost nothing about what happened between 1930 and 1947 in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia because almost nobody survived it.
In those years, in those regions, two madmen — Hitler and Stalin — killed 14 million people. Not one was a soldier in uniform. Most never saw a concentration camp — they were starved, beaten, shot and gassed to death. But records are incomplete; the number could go as high as 20 million. And if the German invasion of Russia had gone as planned, Hitler would have starved 30 million just in the first winter.
Eastern Europe was, simply, a killing field.
“Bloodlands” tells us a story we simply don’t know.
Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There
Two French policemen, acting on the orders of their Nazi masters, came to the little village of Le Chambon on a February evening in 1943. Their purpose: arrest the minister, Andre Trocme, who was known to be doing something to save Jews.
That arrest proved a more difficult task than they imagined.
First, the minister invited them in to dinner. The chief of police said he did not have the heart to eat. Then Trocme’s parishioners started arriving, each carrying something Trocme might need in prison. The chief of police sat over his untouched food, weeping. “I have never seen such a farewell,” he said.
He had no idea what else he wasn’t seeing. Hidden in the attic were Jews; in the cellar were more. For years, the Trocme children had been sharing their food with so many Jewish kids that their daily rations were two lumps of sugar, some tasteless beans and one thick slice of bread.
All told, this tiny community took responsibility for the lives of about 2,500 Jews.
Philip Slater: The Chrysalis Effect: The Metamorphosis of Global Culture
When old cultural assumptions are challenged, innovations are not seen as mere novelties but as a social ill, a critical moral infection, and attacked as such by the upholders of tradition.
Slater says we’re now in “the resistance phase.” The old culture kills new cells — the feminist movement, the spread of democracy, the global economy, quantum physics, minority movements, the peace movement, the sexual revolution – as fast as possible, yet innovations continue. And however much it looks that way in American election years, the opposing forces are not Left and Right:
These forces are within the Left, within the Right, within the West, within Islam, within everyone and every institution…. Currently, the world is in the middle of an adaptive process, moving toward a cultural ethos more appropriate to a species living in a shrinking world and in danger of destroying its habitat –– a world that increasingly demands for its survival integrative thinking, unlimited communication, and global cooperation.
What this means for the near future: “more Nazi-type movements… the last convulsive attempt to hang on to the Controller era.”
“Domestic terrorism.” You’ve been encouraged to think that means Muslim jihadists, disaffected immigrants, close the borders, bomb ISIS. The facts: since 9/11, foreigners have been responsible for 26 deaths by terrorism in America. Right-wing home-grown Americans: 48. So think pleasant suburbs. Think white men. Think someone you’d never suspect. Think “Arlington Road.”
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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