“The trick of the reformer is to act as if the values espoused are happening in reality, but leave them as only words. Radicals know, values are more than words, they involve action and sticking to principle.”
On some random day about a year ago I was listening to Adele’s song “Rolling in the Deep”, and I had a very odd, disconcerting thought. It is a thought too long neglected; a thought about hypocrisies in the twilight days of the American Republic, at the moment where the road diverges and a decision must be made about which road to travel. The status quo is trembling as it sputters out. The social contract, which was effectively the class struggle fought to a stalemate entering the post-World War II period and maintained with the threat of communism, has been used to wipe the asses of every politician, bureaucrat and business tycoon making it, effectively, nothing more than a feces covered rag. Forces of reaction and crude, sadistic individualism are mounting the final counter-offensive, ready to be the ones to decide whether or not we should incite World War III and make explicit the neo-feudal private tyrannies that have captured all apparatuses of democratic control over the economic system. And so I sat there with my thought.
The thought snuck into to my head right at the time when Adele sings, “We could’ve had it all”. The thought really had nothing to do with the song, although maybe in a roundabout way I feel like a scorned lover; as I think we all must feel, especially in the millennial generation. Thoughts are weird in that way, they pop up unexpectedly from random stimuli. The thought could really do without most of the song, but while I listened to the chorus I imagined a few words to add to the song as they continued repeating in my head, “But, we won’t be that America.” We could’ve been, but we won’t be. We should’ve been, but decided not to be. Maybe using “we” is a bit harsh, because “we” acts as if some abstract collective made the decision, instead of the powerful, the plutocratic elites. If a “we”, the people, were to make the decision, the country would already be going down a road less traveled.
Either way, what the hell is “that America”? It is the America that could’ve been, but won’t be; a collective democratic fantasy of a more just world done in by reality and our own denial of each other’s ability to produce that world. For we must remember, that while there are oppressors and dominators, the people themselves clamor for their enslavement and distrust each other. Not only do those at the top dictate, but those on bottom follow their marching orders, sometimes with zealous glee. Voltaire’s aversion to the masses may be founded on proper judgment about their mob insanity when whipped up into idiotic fervor due to their enforced ignorance, both by their own hands and the hands of the powerful. America the myth will be done in by what will be recorded as a ludicrous act of suicide.
The America committing suicide is the America I dreamed about when I was a little shit sitting at a desk in elementary school; America the transcendent; America the land of justice, liberty, and equality; America the place where difference is not just tolerated, but celebrated; America the land of peace; America the land of economic satisfaction for all; America, America, America! It was an America based in a myth, a fantasy handed to us children leading us astray from any critical analysis of America as it is. But, it was also a way for society to state its idealistic values, no matter how dissimulated those values became in action. The America that could’ve been is upheld in certain values espoused, yet is wholly unachieved in the real world; because of this, we will always be the America that won’t be, instead of the America that could’ve been.
Unbeknownst to me when I was a little tyke, the values were already fucked even when we called this place America. For we named a place inhabited prior to conquest, not after what it was called by those who were disappeared through one of history’s most genocidal acts. No, instead we, the Europeans and their descendants, proclaimed it to be America during conquest and forever after. The values were already dilapidated the moment the first slave stepped foot on these shores, the second genocidal act, shored up through the creation of whiteness and the bitter hierarchizing of races and ethnicities to create privilege and its subsequent racist intuitional and institutionalized logic. The values were always just idealistic propositions, normative suppositions eaten up by every citizen and in many cases propaganda to strengthen support for revolution and the subsequent nation-state.
The thought only makes sense if you don’t look back to history and see better times. Reactionaries and conservatives beware, because this diatribe is not for those who wish to return or the perpetually fearful of change. The problem, the fucking problem, is that most of the people out there on the street don’t have a damn clue what their connection to history is. Seriously, ask them, just dare to ask them about the Spanish Civil War, the Lowell strikes, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, or any other great moment in popular struggle. Beyond the most likely surprised look representing a “WTF” moment at being asked to know something about history, they will have only silence to offer.
The damned seismic alarm is going off, it’s blaring at its highest octave. Today is the day to discuss the trash heap of history we never seem to deal with; today is the day to talk about progress and its resolute failure; today is the day to talk of tragedy and the farce ahead of us; non-linear history as the battering ram against the false idea of perpetual betterment without conscious action to make it so. And so I write as an act of love for my childhood vision of America, for the virtues I felt then and continue to feel now are noble. I write out of desperation and hope, in comitragic irony, because the America that won’t be is the America that should be.
Andrew Smolski is a writer based in Texas.