Return of the Malaise: Up to Our Asses in Alligators

It’s a sad reality of our day that denial and bullshit seem the most useful talents to getting elected and to govern in America.

Bullshit is meant in the sense used by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his popular book titled On Bullshit. He defines bullshit as language with no basis in truth or fact focused on obtaining power. A liar knows the truth and tries to sell falsehoods; bullshitters simply don’t care what the truth is.

Some of the most popular candidates for the Republican Party (think Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman) are classic bullshitters who completely disdain rational analysis. For them it’s OK to say anything, like Perry and others’ denial of evolution and global warming. Reason and responsible history are for the weak.

Even “liberals” like Barack Obama are masters of bullshit. You can’t be elected President of the United States as a “peace” candidate and then run three wars, expand the use of lethal drones and special ops assassination teams and attempt to jail NSA whistleblowers, without being an excellent bullshitter. Obama’s bullshit is less the counter-Enlightenment stuff of Perry and Bachman; his bullshit is the art of seeming to fight for change as he really nestles into the status-quo.

In such a climate of bullshit is it any wonder Americans are living through such unprecedented stress and difficulty? And all indications suggest it will only get worse before it gets better.

Harry Frankfurt, left, Rick Perry and President Barack ObamaHarry Frankfurt, left, Rick Perry and President Barack Obama

The problem is the current raft of bullshitters insist on propagating a master narrative from the 19th and 20th centuries that no longer works for the reality of the nation as it moves into the 21st Century. Master narratives are based on national myths and are found in the nostalgic assumptions of identity that people believe and want to keep alive in the future. The key myth in this context is the Myth of American Exceptionalism that says we Americans are the best of history and humanity — a super-nation at the pinnacle of global political evolution destined by our affluence and narcissistic assumptions of greatness to be the world’s role model and policeman.

Dig a little deeper and read some responsible history and it becomes clear we’re a complex nation — like all humanity, a struggle of opposites like good and evil — founded and sustained by ambition, violence and conquest. Now, in the unfolding 21st century, the whole project is running low on gas. The sense of exceptionalism is becoming more nostalgic, making sustaining the myth more costly and more detrimental to a good future. This means greater and greater amounts of bullshit.

What we should be doing – the smart thing to do for a better future — is to recognize the myth is actually harmful and begin to deconstruct it so we can face our past honestly and pull back from our global militarism and engage in much-needed fixing up here at home. The list is obvious: a deteriorating education system, a shamelessly wealth-focused justice system, a health-care system run by corporate pirates, a virtually un-regulated system of exploitation by capital and, yes, the growing effects of global warming.

It is the rare politician (Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders comes to mind) who has the backbone to raise any of this as an issue. Instead, we get highly entertaining and personable people who bullshit us on how things are tough but the glory days are not over. Then we are told those who complain are actually to blame due to an unpatriotic refusal to be good cheerleaders — or as Spiro Agnew put it, “nabobs of negativity.”

To focus on the negative is to hate America. It’s like the two-year-old who covers his eyes and assumes no one can see him.

The Real Problem Is Us

All this adds up to one difficult fact: The onus of blame for the wretched state of affairs we’re in needs to be shifted from the politicians all Americans love to scapegoat to we the people ourselves. We’re all complicit (some more than others) and we have the government we deserve.


Jimmy Carter tried to break this cycle with his famous “malaise” speech. Mondale tried to be honest about the need for taxes. But the consequent ascendancy of the Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan made it clear what direction America was headed: In a word, toward more bullshit. Reagan was probably the best bullshitter ever to sit in the White House. Instead of a world-view and policies based on the tough realities of a declining America, we got an incredibly scripted and symbol-ridden master narrative that assured American there was no malaise here. No, we were “a shining city on a hill” and taxes were for chumps.

Those that followed — the Bushes, Clinton and now Obama – all learned the Reagan lesson well. None of these Presidents had — or in the case of Obama, has — any interest in making a speech that starts out:

“My fellow Americas, the fun is over. The days of glory and ‘shining cities on a hill’ are over – at least for the time being. We have damage to repair. America and Americans must find a new vision based on the need to conserve our resources and figure out how to live together more peacefully with less.”

At this juncture, the responsible no-bullshit politician would have to add some boilerplate platitudes and say: “When faced with crises, Americans always rise to the occasion. We are a good, generous, cooperative people, and that is what we have to encourage now in this time of crisis.”

Decades ago, the cartoon swamp possum Pogo famously recognized this predicament: “I have met the enemy and the enemy is us.”

I have friends on the left who are offended at this use of the first-person-plural to describe the current state of affairs. What’s this “we” talk? From a marginalized, virtually disenfranchised position, my friends take on an aloof posture and declare the politically right disaster that America has become is not their responsibility. “They” are complicit — not us. Some talk of radical and extreme change and call for an immediate socialist state. Others want a more balanced, more just, mixed economy. Given the frustrations with the bullshit of electoral politics, there is no real map on how to get from here to there.

The veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges eloquently articulates this view in his fiery columns on Truthdig:

“All conventional forms of dissent, from electoral politics to open debates, have been denied us. We cannot rely on the institutions that once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible. The only route left is to disconnect as thoroughly as possible from the consumer society and engage in acts of civil disobedience and obstruction. The more we sever ourselves from the addictions of fossil fuel and the consumer society, the more we begin to create a new paradigm for community.”

Hedges’ view that the corporate, imperial US system has turned its back on its own people is due to the fact it has become impervious to constructive, bottom-up change. It seems so absurdly top-heavy that a collapse like the Soviet Union is not unthinkable. It may not happen that dramatically and it may be seen as just “muddling through” into ever more desperate circumstances for those without wealth and power. The point Hedges makes loud and clear is that people who seek more socialism and less capitalism in the nation’s mix need to band together and look out for themselves.

The Solution is to Go Local

Out of this top-heavy, imploding empire, Hedges’ idea of the left creating “a new paradigm for community” seems a real solution, sort of a leftist alternative to the right-wing’s beloved “states’ rights” – or what the narrator in the opening of the film Blood Simple says about life in Rick Perry’s Texas: “Down here, you’re on your own.”

If as the tea leaves suggest in the future we’re going to be more “on our own,” it behooves us on the left to rely less on the central government that has abandoned us and to toughen ourselves up in a local context. We need to stick together in our communities to protect our families, friends and resources. That may involve the decision to arm oneself. As a matter of principle, I recently went to my local sheriff’s office and obtained a license to carry a firearm. It obviously involves much more than that.

When things come unglued, survival means more than ideology. In a world being shattered by breathtaking innovations in communication, there is no room for purity of “isms” any more – if there ever was. As Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC recently pointed out, the United States is a mixed economy of capitalism and socialism and all sorts of other -isms mixed in. The struggle is to get the mix right, nationally and locally.

Right now, the -ism mix is leaning way too far to the right with capitalism and militarism run amok. It’s like having way too much salt in the soup. We’re out of balance and in need of a good, honest injection of socialism. The point is to re-empower the huge base of the American population and put checks on the rich and super-rich, people like the Koch Brothers who expend billions to bamboozle the lower and middle classes to work against their own interests.

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is an unabashed capitalist, but he is critical of US leadership for failing to re-empower the huge base of the American economy. Because of this, he sees China, India, Brazil and others getting the jump on the United States in the future.

The US expends so much energy and resources on being policeman of the world that it has forgotten the Economics 101 rule that says a consumer society must periodically re-empower its lower and middle classes lest its consumer engine run out of gas, leaving no one to buy the products manufactured.

Outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, a former leftist union leader, understood this and undertook all sorts of programs to empower Brazilians at the bottom of the heap. And because of this, compared to us here, Brazil’s economy is chugging along at a healthy growth rate. Brazil is building a middle class instead of tearing one down like is being done here. Argentina has undertaken some of the same policies and their battered, basket-case economy is on the mend.

China’s potential as a burgeoning capitalist giant scares the hell out of our leaders. And it should, not because of China’s development, but because of our top-down delusions of exceptionalism that have led to a failure to keep apace and to invest in the nation’s population. The irony is, China will beat us because it has a more balanced mix of -isms.

Carter was right; there is a malaise in America, and, thanks to the denial and all the bullshit since then, it’s much worse now. And as this malaise becomes more and more acute, it will require greater and greater degrees of denial and bullshit to counter. Thanks to all the sacred cow, pro-capitalist bullshit, powering the society from the bottom up is seen as a taboo in today’s America.

Our future leaders, whether Democrat, Republican or from some third party, have a challenge. They can either hone their bullshit to a razor-sharp edge and violently hack away enough reality to make room for the myth of American exceptionalism. Or they can start telling the truth and, to borrow E.F. Schumacher’s sub-title to Small is Beautiful, start analyzing and addressing our problems “as if people mattered.”