How did we get here? How did we end up with a lunatic Republican presidential nominee, an eminently unlikeable Democratic nominee and a middle class apparently unwilling to impose its political will on this American Republic as we stagger toward an election like honey bees in a dying hive?
Our version of colony collapse disorder has been perfectly diagnosed in Low Dishonest Decades, the new book by George Scialabba. A Harvard graduate who worked 35 years as a building manager at his alma mater, Scialabba has written some 400 essays and book reviews previously published in The Village Voice, The Nation and The Boston Globe, among others. And in this latest collection of his work, he does not stop with a mere diagnosis. He offers at least a hope for a cure.
Scialabba’s fourth collection of essays, just released by Pressed Wafer in Brooklyn, NY, reminds us of the power and beauty of an artist working at the highest level. And of the importance of the critic-essayist in the battle for the idea of America. The essays collected here wind through one’s consciousness like a river — still, deep, at times dangerous.
The book takes its name from a W.H. Auden poem, September 1, 1939 – “As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade:” — written on the day Nazi Germany invaded Poland, setting off World War II.
This most recent collection of Scialabba’s essays cover almost four “low dishonest” decades, providing insight into American politics and culture from 1980-2015. He plumbs the depths of American thought from the likes of Robert Dahl, Morris Berman, Walter Karp, Thomas Frank, Charles Krauthammer, Noam Chomsky and Steve Fraser, among others. And while these essays were written as book reviews, Scialabba brings to them a power all his own, beyond the reviewed work.
He believes that our experimental republic was conceived to release the force of humanity by means of liberty and cooperation, not to serve a market manipulated for the benefit of the few. Historian and author Rick Perlstein writes in the foreword:
“(Scialabba) believes that achieving freedom, whatever the generals on CNN and the editorialists of The Wall Street Journal say, is a function neither of American arms nor of the sacred workings of the laws of supply and demand but is achieved by human beings exercising their reason, autonomously, from the ground up.”
Exercising that reason may be more difficult than one would imagine. In “Decline and Fall,” Scialabba recounts these facts:
“Fifty percent (of Americans) believe the earth has been visited by UFOs; in another poll, seventy percent believed that the US government is covering up the presence of space aliens on earth. Forty percent did not know whom the US fought in World War II. Forty percent could not locate Japan on a world map. Sixty percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school…the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, thirty seconds attending a play or concert, twenty-five seconds making or viewing art and four hours watching television…(in the late 1990s) Sixty percent (of high school students) could name each of the Three Stooges but not the three branches of the US government.”
So it should not come as a surprise that,
“The central electoral phenomenon of the last thirty-five years has been the movement of working-class and lower-middle-class voters from the Democratic to the Republican Party…“To none of them, however, does it ever seem to occur that untrammeled capitalism may not ultimately be conducive to Godliness, tradition, and community.” That deregulation and corporate behemoths are “laying waste the small-town culture that conservatives claim to cherish.”
Scialabba writes in “Where Has Our Virtue Gone?” of
“the long-term undermining of popular sovereignty of organized money over an atomized, impotent populace. Like the market, the American political system (though not those who actually staff it) commands considerable public legitimacy, even while generating inequality, cynicism and apathy.”
It is easy enough for one to understand how the rich explain away the plight of the politically powerless poor. If one assumes that “The Market” is the country’s guiding principle, then the poor may be written off as simply an unsound investment, unable to repay the “debt.” But the middle class, with its vast potential economic and political power, is another matter. How is it that in large pockets of America the middle class is so easy to control. The middle class pays the lion’s share of taxes, comprises the great majority of the population, and should set the political agenda. The only answer available is that the “One Percenters” expend tremendous capital – financial and intellectual – planning and funding a program designed to retain power to limit use of the country’s resources exclusively for their benefit.
All this brings to mind Hunter S. Thompson’s stated desire to claw out Norman Luboff’s private parts with a plastic fork. Perhaps the Koch brothers and their ilk should receive the same treatment … figuratively, of course. Or maybe they should be shipped to the Middle East instead of our young, lower-income citizens, to fight for their own damn oil money.
Scialabba believes something must be done as well, but he appears much too civilized to employ such methods. Consider this from “After the Market”:
“The responsibility of intellectuals includes not only ‘a ruthless criticism of all things existing’ (Marx), which is what most people on the left are usually occupied with, but also the imagination of alternatives. For if certain institutions or social relations, however apparently undesirable, are necessities of nature, then there is not much point in criticizing them, whether ruthlessly or ruefully. If no plausible alternative can be imagined, then all criticism can do is to show that some practice is incompatible with traditions worth conserving or values worth realizing. This is an important thing to show, but it can lead only to reasoned acquiescence or unreasoning hope, not to action.”
And here we come to the lone disappointment in Low Dishonest Decades. Scialabba, while spending time with the utopian ideas of authors Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, does not stick with the subject long enough. Albert and Hahnel’s work is outlined – more creative work for citizens and more efficient use of resources — pointing out that their vision of an egalitarian society would not require a massive overhaul of human nature. But one is left wanting more about the development and implementation of such ideas. More substance might make the cure a bit easier to swallow, a fact about which Scialabba seems cognizant:
“By now these two have become like theoretical mosquitoes in the darkened room of the American left. Only the most slumberous or strong-willed can ignore their buzzing and get to sleep; the rest of us will have to turn on the light and chase them around for a while.”
Low Dishonest Decades is a beautiful and important work, built during 35 years of caring and diligence. The collection as a whole and the essays individually convey complex ideas in a straightforward way. And through the difficult work of education, openness and the writer’s craft, Scialabba has succeeded in, as the late Alabama Gov. and presidential candidate George C. Wallace was quoted as saying, putting the “hay down where the goats can get it.” Sadly, 44 years later the only difference between a Southern segregationist fringe candidate and a New York City huckster presidential nominee appears to be folksy terminology. This 2016 presidential election, at the least, serves as a call to vigilance for the sake of our republic, emphasizing the importance of the work Scialabba has done.
My favorite lines from September 1, 1939 are:
“There is no such thing as the
State/And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizens or the police;
We must love one another or die.”
There, as one critic has written, the poem becomes an inspiration, “a call to speak out in hope for justice and brotherhood.” And, of course, Low Dishonest Decades in its honesty and elegance does the same.
Make no mistake, possession of a gift such as Scialabba’s, and the willingness to throw everything into its execution, is a lonely pursuit. It requires near-boundless optimism. At his core, Scialabba believes in people. One is reminded of Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty, and of this quotation from late in his life:
“The truth that I have tried to make clear will not find an easy acceptance. If that could be, it would have been accepted long ago. If that could be, it would never have been obscured. But it will find friends — those who will toil for it; suffer for it; if need be, die for it. This is the power of truth.”