Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Trump, Election 2016, & the Twilight of American Culture
I'm listening to cool jazz and drinking a warm cup of tea on the afternoon of November 9, 2016. My thoughts are wandering aimlessly along with the piano keys, and I know only one thing for sure - I need to listen to more jazz. I need to savor more teas and bourbons and wines and craft beers, and I need to learn how to play the piano. I should immerse myself in poetry and literature and art and culture, and I should cherish every possible moment with my wife and children. In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, in which the people of the United States elected as President a man I cannot fathom in the role, I seek to embrace life amidst the whirlwind.
The first inkling I had of the looming dismay and disappointment so many are feeling about ... that guy ... was in my kitchen late Monday evening as I prepared coffee for the morning. It was almost like the moment Aunt Alexandra felt before sending Scout and Jem off to the play that nearly tragic night - it was "a pinprick of apprehension ... as if somebody walked across my grave." He might win. He's going to win. It seemed all too surreal to accept, yet it was worth anticipating the possibility to avoid the unexpected shock and disbelief. Then, in the aftermath of the election when it appeared the result was inevitable, my thoughts immediately turned to an insightful work of non-fiction and social commentary published in 2000. I thought of Morris Berman's Twilight of American Culture.
A prophetic examination of Western decline, The Twilight of American Culture provides one of the most caustic and surprising portraits of American society to date. Whether examining the corruption at the heart of modern politics, the "Rambification" of popular entertainment, or the collapse of our school systems, Morris Berman suspects that there is little we can do as a society to arrest the onset of corporate Mass Mind culture. Citing writers as diverse as de Toqueville and DeLillo, he cogently argues that cultural preservation is a matter of individual conscience, and discusses how classical learning might triumph over political correctness with the rise of a "a new monastic individual"―a person who, much like the medieval monk, is willing to retreat from conventional society in order to preserve its literary and historical treasures. "Brilliantly observant, deeply thoughtful ....lucidly argued."―Christian Science Monitor
Regarding pivotal events like elections, I am generally of even-minded pragmatism. The sky is not falling. It's never the end of the world, and the republic will survive. No single man is larger than the government and institutions of the United States of America. In many ways, it doesn't really matter who wins because all politics is local, and the next day we will get up and turn on the lights and go to work and settle in to normalcy. And, I do believe that still. The lights still work in Greenwood Village, and my children are still receiving an incredible education at wonderful schools located in a safe and prosperous community. However, something has changed, and the reality is that I don't really recognize the larger society in which I live. There are certain behaviors that are truly beyond the pale. They should be disqualifying factors for public service. But they're apparently not. And here we are. In a rather thoughtful, though somewhat characteristically edgy piece in the Washington Post today, our contemporary bard Garrison Keillor reflected on the apparent twilight or sundown of "culture" exemplified by the recent election.
So he won. The nation takes a deep breath. Raw ego and proud illiteracy have won out, and a severely learning-disabled man with a real character problem will be president. We are so exhausted from thinking about this election, millions of people will take up leaf-raking and garage cleaning with intense pleasure. We liberal elitists are now completely in the clear. The government is in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long , brisk walk and smell the roses.
There is more cyncisim, and even arrogance, in that piece than perhaps I mean to promote. But the sentiment remains relevant. Something has gone wrong with basic human decency and the valuing of education and culture, not to mention manners and decorum, in contemporary American society, and I don't like how it feels ... how I feel. Now, Berman and Keillor may be "the liberal elitists" of which he speaks, but I don't quite align with those politics. That said, I do align with education over ignorance and culture over consumerism. And, thus, I feel an inclination toward Berman's vision and recommendation for those who can to continue to be purveyors of culture even if that means a reluctant withdrawal from the society from which it should be emanating. That doesn't mean that I plan to "fiddle while Rome burns" or take a "walk" through the roses while ignoring those in need. But it does mean I'm re-evaluating where I focus my energy - and it will be more on culture and personal growth than it will be on news and politics.
Granted, some will view my reaction and response as that of a snob. And I don't fully reject that characterization, though I'd argue it's an oversimplication of the message I'm trying to articulate. Others will claim my elitism and arrogance is no better than the behavior of the candidate at issue, and I soundly reject that conclusion. For, I am talking about standards of adult behavior and a well-informed world view that are so clearly lacking in the person who was elected. That's perhaps the most disappointing issue - the harsh reality of the mis-guided endorsement. Truly, four years from now, we can be pretty certain that there won't be unprecedented "winning" for the most disenfranchised. There will not be a large, impenetrable wall along the country's southern border. Mythical jobs and prosperity will not have returned to Rust Belt communities. The threat of terrorism from groups like ISIS will not have vanished. But there will be residual side effects of the campaign's negative tenor. And I simply cannot condone that. For I have deep concern and empathy for people who will be threatened by the policies and actions that may come. I'm sincerely worried about people.
Thus, with that in mind, I have realized that I cannot spend the days and weeks and months to come focused on the news and politics of this turn of events. While I've looked at a few pieces of journalism on social media seeking to "make some sense" out of it or explain "what comes next," I don't have much faith in the ability of any of it to make things better. Nothing will clarify and explain this in any satisfying way - for I'm realizing that a significant segment of society reflects and pursues a set of beliefs and values to which I simply cannot relate. And, reading an endless string of commentary about it will do me no good; in fact, it will consume me to no benefit. So, I will not be focusing on those things, but instead focusing on life. There are middle school plays and dance recitals to attend. There are Speech & Debate tournaments and math competitions to experience and celebrate. There are choir, orchestra, and band concerts to see, and there so many opportunities to create and celebrate the positive culture of where I live.
So, for what it's worth, I want to listen to more jazz and immerse myself in culture. And, that's how I am going forward on November 9, 2016.