NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Poor memory? Hard to say. I’m just glad I don’t remember details of my college road trips to Northampton and my .000 batting average with Smith College women.
That means I can approach stopping by this charming college town as a pleasant diversion with my wife after a family lunch in nearby Worcester. I can escape shadows of feeling lost among the hyper-sophisticated Smithies. Some history deserves to be forgotten.
Moreover, what merits remembering requires reflection and fresh engagement, not just a sense of cyclical dread.
The ugly political morass of 2012 isn’t just Reaganism redux: It’s not just another variation on the “trickle-down” delusion — make the rich rich enough and they will discover how to share — and the economic and political destruction that flowed from chasing that fantasy. Nor is it another dabbling in McCarthyism’s politics of fear and scapegoating.
No, today has its own lessons.
The relentless drive of wealth to grab more wealth — as if a searing near-depression conferred no need for new ideas or community-minded gumption — bespeaks a collapse of leadership and social ethics. JPMorgan Chase’s immediate return to its former high-risk ways, accompanied by whining for government favors, signals a larger collapse of accountability and consequences.
When the greedy buy politicians and promote delusional fiscal and economic policies — social welfare for the wealthy, for example — it isn’t history repeating itself. It’s a future being foreclosed by people who simply don’t care what damage they cause.
When advertisers lie about competitors, it isn’t a 1950s Madison Avenue game on instant replay. It’s falsehood replacing ideas and honesty as political capital.
When people make grandiose claims about “God’s will” and “American values” and demonize others who hold different views, we haven’t just channeled a tragic yesterday and its wars and pogroms. We have poisoned the well of community on which our nation depends today and made a mockery of God and faith.
Those who make political attack ads grounded in distortion and fear aren’t just clever tricksters from Nixonian paranoia. They are evil promoters of intolerance, propagandists for an America that cannot survive its worst instincts.
We need to study today’s public square, not just compare it to former eras. There is a sickness at work today that has its own reality: an unconcern for consequences and a scorn for others that seem disturbingly fresh. The quest for power — bankrolled by an obsession with wealth — has gone beyond the quaint aristocratic pretensions of the Gilded Age, the tragicomic swagger of robber barons pretending to be philanthropists.
We are seeing a vacancy of soul, a victory of narcissism, an enshrining of personality disorder as normal rough-and-tumble. In that mindset, nothing outside oneself stands for anything. No other views or needs have value. In that view, I define reality, and I am entitled to buy a weapon or a congressman to impose my reality on others.
It’s also a victory for helplessness and passivity. In that mindset, if my life has pain, someone else must have caused it, and they need to be punished. I myself am helpless to chart a fresh course. This opens the door to demagogues who promise to do the naming of enemies and the punishing, in exchange for loss of freedom.
We can’t just see yesterday in today and relax into a soothing chorus of, “Oh well. We survived that nonsense, we can survive today’s.” No nation is that strong. We must study today and resist its deliberate march toward demagoguery.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter (at)tomehrich.)
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