The Present Emergency
By Christopher Bernard
On November 8, 2016, we witnessed a kind of political 9/11, a Brexit as nuclear bomb. It felt like being given a diagnosis of terminal cancer for our society, our civilization, our way of life, or witnessing the sack of Rome by Alaric.
It isn’t the first time many of us have seen the barbarians swarm over American society: we saw it during the years of George W. Bush, of Reagan, of Nixon, when it came from the right, and during the sixties when it came, for the most part, from the left. It is one reason that, from a very early age, I grew to feel a growing alarm and fear regarding a certain strain in American culture that cultivates and breeds, preens and admires, some of the worst aspects of human nature, in the name of “freedom” to the point of license, of “personal expression” to the point of mutual contempt, of “the common man” at the expense of uncommon honesty and decency—of what I eventually came to see was a hyper, paranoid, poisonous white masculinity that would gladly rip up the restraints and norms of civilization and culture if it felt its privileges, illegitimately labeled “rights,” were threatened.
The howling Yahoo (I think it is safe to call him) who will now lead our country will be such an exact emblem of the dark side of the soul of American culture that it will effectively terminate our reputation in the world for a long time to come, if it does not terminate the world itself. I am embarrassed (though also, being human, a little proud) of the fact that I predicted this outcome, in the middle of George W. Bush’s administration: that the next successful Republican president would be a populist, know-nothing authoritarian, an out-and-out “fascist.” But it is almost shameful to be right about such things.
Like many others, I felt hopeful, indeed complacently, even smugly certain, that Hillary Clinton would win, and I feel, along with much of the country, bewildered and dumbfounded that she was defeated, and defeated so soundly. Like many of us now, I feel very foolish. It is cold comfort that she in fact won the popular vote, by a substantial margin; this is one more proof that we are not a democracy and would be a wiser and kinder nation if we were. It is one of history’s glaring ironies that our constitutional respect for minorities in a democratic society has given the worst minorities among us—the crass, the bullying, the capitalist Hydra—overwhelming power over the rest of us.
More than feeling raw over my own gullibility, which is a minor hit to my vanity (being a vain older white man, I will quickly get over it), I fear for my country, and I fear for the world. I fear that we are well on our way to becoming the Germany of the twenty-first century. I fear that “identity politics”—which the right, as has been its wont since Lenin, has picked up so effectively from the left and now, more cunningly and more ruthlessly, will use against it—will tear this country into pieces over the next few decades such that there may soon be no “United States of America.”
Beyond even that unsettling possibility, we Americans have been, for decades, leading the way toward the destruction of the world’s ecosystem and the suicide of the human race through our collective refusal to face the reality of the ecological catastrophe we, with Americans for two centuries aggressively in the lead, have created, for the sake of short-term gains and the satisfaction of “exceptionalist” delusions and a pampered sense of entitlement.
The nihilism at the heart of the American project—a nihilism that lies uncomfortably close to the idealism that also has long driven us—could not be made plainer than it was on the night of November 8. The humanist (in fact, masculinist) catastrophe, with all of its tragic hubris, that began with the Greeks and became infected with the bacillus of Christianity, with its infatuation with irrational faith, “redeemed sinners,” Apocalypse, and the “end times,” is culminating in the theocratic enlightenment of suicidal reason that has much of the American mind in its thrall—and that we must overcome before it overcomes us.
I believe that we need, above all, a strong infusion into our civilization, culture and mores of those virtues, habits of mind and heart, care and concern and conscience that have long been associated with women, with the female, with the feminine—not “feminism,” which is too often a left-wing attempt to masculinize and weaponize the female to complete the triumph of “masculism” by judging even women by masculine standards and norms, effectively wiping women out, even linguistically. A thousand times, no. Rather this: the valuing (not the pricing), the empowering (not the mere “empowerment”) of woman, of women as women, and not as “would-be men”—and not just through “nice feelings” and “respectful language” (language often needs to be savagely disrespectful to get at the truth, without which nothing else—not love, not respect, not grace—has much value), but through action and deed, habit and custom, ingrained in men and women from their birth to their grave—is what we must do if we are to have any hope of surviving the present emergency.
In the meantime, God help all of us.
Christopher Bernard is co-editor of the webzine Caveat Lector.