Fate’s Blueprint: The New Populism

For us there is only the trying.
The rest is not our business. – T.S. Eliot

They will call it “the new Populism”, comparing Sanders in the early 2000s to Nebraska’s own William Jennings Bryan a century earlier. Bryan was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1896, with his surprise nomination bringing many of his “Populist Party” supporters flooding into the ranks of the Democratic party. Bryan’s nomination was in fact a populist repudiation of incumbent Grover Cleveland and his “Bourbon Democrats” (i.e., the business-allied Democratic establishment). 

Of course, Bryan lost to Republican William McKinley in 1896, but he had become well-known nationally as a fiery public orator, galvanizing his followers with his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, and pretty much inventing the extended cross-country stumping tour (which Teddy Roosevelt copied, Truman also exploited to great effect with his “whistle stop” tour, and which right-wing populist Donald Trump has effectively adopted as his “permanent campaign” approach to the presidency). 

The Democrats put Bryan up against McKinley again in 1900, believing their anti-imperialism stance would galvanize his populist following. And Bryan lost again. 

But by 1904, progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt had been in office a few years (after McKinley’s 1901 assassination), and with his support for anti-trust activism and widespread reforms he beat the Democrats’ new “Hail Mary” conservative nominee (Alton Parker) handily, thus rehabilitating Bryan’s stature among Democrats. Because by this time, the national popular  opinion had swung toward Bryan’s/Roosevelt’s ideas, such that after the 1904 election both parties were embracing the progressive reforms that had been championed by Bryan and his populist zealots for years. (In fact Bryan was once again the Democratic presidential candidate in 1908.) 

As usual, I think history has a lesson for us here – and it’s echoed in the words of T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, in a line I recently heard quoted by a brilliant man and poet at the University of Nebraska commencement. “For us,” Eliot wrote, “there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” With this quote, the speaker was telling the new graduates that unlike in our favorite movie endings, the good will not always be ultimately ascendant or triumphant. But that is not our shame, nor is it even our defeat. As individuals we are not responsible for the broad shapes that form the contours of the tides of history; we are not responsible for the victories of the undeserving. Rather, it is our sole responsibility to TRY on behalf of the greater good—here and now. 

Because sometimes, false prophets and immoral agendas will command the world’s stage despite the efforts of good people to contain them. Power is their only goal, so these people will then do whatever it takes, regardless of law or morality, to consolidate and cement their gains. They will then try to convince us morally inclined nobodies that there’s no use resisting their power, that we are impotent and alone in the dark, that we have lost and they have won. But there is no victory more fleeting than political victory. Immoral times produce their inevitable disastrous outcomes, yes, and then it is left to us morally inclined nobodies to pick up the pieces. But whatever the outcome this time, we will know that we, as individuals of conscience, did what we could to try to make the world a better place for all. That is our only responsibility. 

Our lives and our worth are not defined by the era we live in, they are defined by how we live in our era. Like a batter at the plate or a pitcher on the mound, or a poet with his pen: whether we are successful or not, the job is always the same. To try. 

America

It’s like when a loved one dies. Maybe you saw it coming, trying to prepare, but then it just rushes up into reality and becomes real and undeniable much more quickly than you were ready for: they are dead, and they are never coming back. Rest in Peace.

You look outside the window of the hospital waiting room after the team of doctors quietly leaves – the sun is shining, birds are singing, in the streets people come and go, traffic lights blink on and off. Why? Why does everything insist on continuing when your world is crushed like this? Everything should stop, and mourn with you. Because things will never be the same.

But it won’t stop. The world is the world, a machine, it runs even when we are broken down. It will run and run. Maybe it will do some recognizable things – day, night, winter, spring. But we’ll be different, changed, having lost some part of us we can’t really define, though we know it was an important part. The reality we occupied is gone, killed by a disease we are powerless to fight alone. And right now we all feel terribly alone.

It’s gone. It’s not coming back.

Rest in Peace.

The Trickster and the Fool

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It’s disheartening to see the U.S. – North Korea kabuki theater performed again and again, always to the advantage of the Kim dynasty and the disadvantage of the West. The dictatorship has one unerring talent: the ability to fool American presidents into playing their zero-sum game. It starts with the rhetoric – bombast hurled at the new U.S. leader in hopes it will be returned (worked like a charm this time around). Then the nuclear brinkmanship (the reason for NK’s program being diplomatic leverage), and the ensuing worldwide panic, followed by the “high level” talks that pull all threatened parties into the mix (China, South Korea, Japan, etc.). The cumulative effect of these actions and their media-grabbing headlines is the only one the Kim dynasty is interested in, namely worldwide recognition of the power, legitimacy and importance of the North Korean regime.

But Kim, like the American president, is playing mostly to a domestic audience. The message? “It would be dangerous to remove me during this (never-ending) crisis.”

Americans should (but probably don’t) remember that this all played out previously, in 1994 under the Clinton administration and later between 2006 – 2007, as the Bush administration announced a “path to normalization” with Pyongyang. For both “agreements” North Korea had agreed to demolish its nuclear development facilities (!) and in the 2007 negotiations provided (doctored) footage to prove it had done so. Clinton and Bush were, of course, hoodwinked as today’s evidence shows. The 1994 Agreed Framework and 2006-2007’s so-called Six-Party Talks were nothing but stall tactics. The result is a nuclear-armed North Korea, now with ballistic missile capabilities. Soon they will have a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile, if they don’t already, capable of striking anywhere in the world.

Today, apparently, the regime released three American prisoners , two of them having been scooped up under the current U.S. administration in order to create the leverage Kim is now strategically ceding. This is of course part of the wider, long-range gambit, which also includes a seeming cool-down between the two Koreas. Now the U.S. president will become overconfident. He will strut into the summit trap Kim has set thinking he has “the advantage.” (It’s The Art of the Deal, you know.)

I predict that at the peak of bilateral negotiations, per the dog-eared script, the Kim regime will find an excuse to introduce delay after delay as they produce false promise after false promise, backed by false evidence, their mission having already been accomplished: widespread media coverage of their power and influence, and a U.S. regime that has completely lost face by walking into their predictable, time-worn diplomatic trap. My question bares repeating: How will he react?

This is why the Obama administration refused to even engage with North Korea – they knew from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s experience that there was nothing in it for them. Unless sponsor state China does something about the Kim regime’s recklessness, there is nothing to be done by any other parties short of starting a world war:  China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran versus an isolated United States.

I hope it comes out differently this time, I hope North Korea is serous about denuclearization. But I’ve never seen the sun rise in the West.

Update: When I’m right, I’m right. Also – that was fast.

No Gold Watch

Today I will be honored for 20 years of service to my company. It’s an odd feeling. I don’t think there will be a gold watch, which is good because I don’t really wear gold. When I add up all the compensation I have received, it seems like a lot. But they got 20 years of my life (so far) in return, or at least a goodly portion of those years’ waking hours (and some sleepless nights).

When I started my career, I thought I wanted to be a university professor. Then I discovered that’s like wanting to be a rock star –  beyond the commonplace thing called “talent”, one must also be in the right place, at the right time, have a lot of luck, and know people who can help (and want to help). Not to mention money. I had none of that. I remember distinctly – every PhD program or M.A. level instructor position I looked at had the standard late 1990s attempt at diversification remedy built in: “Women and minority candidates are strongly encouraged to apply.” And I understood that, because faculties were (and are) heavily weighted with the white men who used to get pretty much all the plum jobs. So that didn’t happen.

I’m not bitter – I enjoyed teaching at UNO as a graduate student, and I’ve been an adjunct and might be again. But when I see what’s happening to higher education in the 2000s, I feel relief that I’m not locked into a paranoid system that now seems to be largely a crucible of political warfare and mutual suspicion. Accommodations, intellectual rigor, and safe spaces do battle with right-wing insurgents who want to “target” liberal “indoctrination” (and individual professors) at the university, while a majority of one political party now believes higher education does more to harm the country than help it. Seriously. They believe this.

So I just do what I know how to do, try not to complain too much, and show up every day (or at least the vast majority of days). It’s been a good policy. I am at peace.

Secular Trinity

You live, and you grow, and you change. At some point you realize you’re an adult (for me, around age 25). You feel at that point you are not going to change anymore, although it still remains difficult to imagine yourself as middle-aged (and forget about “old”).

You feel “done” maturing, as if at 25 (or whenever) you will simply lock into place and be the “you” that you are now for the rest of your life.

There’s some anecdotal truths around this. For example, artistic tastes. I believe they tend to form as part of childhood and adolescence, and of course one’s taste matures and is refined by experience. But at some point, usually late adolescence, you have kind of “decided” what kind of art, music, film, philosophy, etc., that you “like” or identify with, and this gets rather chiseled in stone for many people. This is why, for example, Journey and Foreigner are still touring.

(Artists are an exception. They are always looking for the new. But given enough time, even they may lose their taste for the now.)

We’re amazed at how richly detailed our childhood memories are, our adolescent and post-adolescent memories. The time between age 6 and 21 seems a lifetime in itself, a kaleidoscope of change, when recollected at age 50. But the time after that, and all the way up to the present, seems a fleeting moment, punctuated by memories of only the most obvious junctures of change (career start, marriage, children, deaths of relatives, new job, big vacation, etc.). Personally, I can barely remember anything that happened between age 25 and 35, but I have a huge catalog of incredibly distinct memories from childhood and adolescence.

Science now has good evidence that there is a reason we have such vivid memories of childhood and adolescence—our brains are wired to create more permanent memories during these years. It would seem to go hand in hand with our greater ability to learn at a younger age.

And, as science has also proven, as you get older time does literally move faster. At least from the individual’s perspective. Gyp!

I’ve also noticed that physical aging is not a steady degrading of one’s appearance from “youthful” to “codger.” It’s a process with fits and starts. Nature, in her wisdom, seems to be most “interested” in us between the ages of 12 and 40. This makes perfect evolutionary sense if you think about it. And so, I don’t know if it’s by design or just a function of human aging, but it seems I did not age at all, physically, between age 20 and 40. I remember, when I was about 31, I walked into my first college class as an instructor. Some of the students laughed, and as I took my spot at the podium and smiled at them, some of them told me to quit fooling around and get a seat before the instructor arrived. I looked about the same as I did at 18. They ended up being a good class. (And that’s another thing – youth relates to youth. It’s not fair. A lot of things aren’t.)

Why this variability in physical aging, memory creation, and perception of time? I believe it’s because Nature has great use for us between the ages of 12 and 40 – to create and raise the next generation. I’m not saying that’s anyone’s “duty” by a long shot. Every life is valid. I mean that that is our usefulness to Nature, which is insistent that life will succeed, and indifferent to what happens after we help in that task. It is our “golden” time, the time when we are most vital, most animated, and most attractive. It’s all useful to be thus, in terms of evolutionary success. And when we get past that period, we are, I’m afraid, no longer so useful to Nature. We are free to stick around, perhaps to advise, but we’re largely relegated to being observers in the continuous cycle, the generational game that is center stage.

And then, when we aren’t looking, the fun begins.

There used to be an old joke about how when Dick Clark reached age 75 he was going to age all at once. Yeah, he was youthful for a long time. But then he wasn’t. And many are, as I was, slow to age. But to quote my old bud Robert Frost: Nothing gold can stay. Time is, as they say, the great destroyer. Or, if you’re a Jim Morrison fan: No one here gets out alive.

So now I do age. My face is fatter, my hair is thinner and coarser and grayer. My middle is more of me. My skin was perfect, now I’ve got more “character” in my face. I have a crown on what used to be a molar. I’m allergic to everything. My eyes are less bright and can’t see menus in dim restaurants. My body is, in general, less cooperative than it used to be. And I’ll be honest, it gets to me sometimes. All things being equal, it’s better to be young, healthy and beautiful. Right? Sure.

But all things are not equal.

Lately, I have felt a very odd transformation occurring. I can only describe it as being less “me” and more “us”. For my entire life, and largely based on my lifestyle, I’ve been a loner, even an outcast. It was always “me” and “everyone else.” It felt right, it felt safe and contained, and my personal philosophy had a lot to do with the idea of the “sovereign individual,” beholden to no one, bowing to no creed and no nation. I was (and am) a devotee of that famous iconoclast William Blake’s iconic statement: “I must create my own system, or be enslav’d by another man’s.”

That’s changed, at least in part. I would like to say it changed the day I married, but that would be dishonest. I was 28, still in Nature’s grip. I was not done figuring out who and why I am. I had a long way to go, and perhaps that was mutual. I suspect it was, and that’s fine. Nothing important is easy, nothing valuable happens in a moment (well, a couple of things). Building a life – an identity – I find it’s a lifelong process. And once I had decided upon my identity, way back then, it felt sound, but now it has shifted again.

Marriage is complicated, as the divorce and single-parent statistics attest. It’s not always worth it. And, most of all, the future – and our future selves – cannot be predicted, they will come to pass as they do, not as we will them to. So some fail. Marriage is a planned sacrifice of sorts, a giving up (eventually, if the union is successful) of a part of oneself, in order to accept being part of another self. I didn’t really understand this when our drunk minister, Reverend Fred, said the words in October 1990, that we were now “one.” I thought I did, but I didn’t.

Now I do. And not only do I feel I am truly not one person anymore, I’m not even limited to being two people. I can look at my daughter now, hear her words, witness her mature identity growing, and it grows like the acorn into a replica of the old oak. Really. She is a true part of the “us” that we are now, and there’s no competition regarding whom she is “more” like, because in a rather profound way we all seem to be the same person. Of course we are physically independent beings, with as much free will as anyone may have (or think they have). We have our own likes and dislikes, etc. But we do not go it alone, not at all. We are “in it” together, the “it” being life. We share it, as I have never before understood sharing.

No, it’s not readily explained.

But I know this: I’m no longer me, and it’s no longer me against the world. I’m us, and we’re us. And we are a world, within a world. And it feels better than anything I’ve ever felt before.