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America’s Silent Collapse

One of the curiosities of being chronically ahead of the mainstream is that periodically you suddenly discover that you’re not. For example, over the past decade I’ve putting forth the notion, seemingly bizarre to many, that the First American Republic was over and that we had moved into a post constitutional adhocracy. Lately, however, the idea seems to be becoming increasingly mundane, almost like saying, “Geez, that was a lot of rain we had.”

But when did it shift from being a radical thought to becoming so inevitable? I don’t remember people debating it on corporate TV, writing about it in the NY Times, arguing it in a campaign speech, or analyzing it in a professorial paper. It just happened. The most important development in our nation’s history since the Civil War crept into the room like a shy new guest. And somewhere in between, radical conjecture transformed itself into the norm.

We have moved into a time in which the Bill of Rights is being routinely trashed, the true unemployment rate is higher than anything we’ve seen since the thirties, our corporations are out of control, no one in power seems to care about climate change, and the only presidential candidate in either major party who won’t send you to Gitmo without an indictment and trial is Ron Paul.

What’s critical about this is not just that the new reality has been recognized but that it has been accepted as inevitable without debate, anger, or strong protest.

Some years ago I wrote about such a time:

What was unexpected, both in timing and intensity, was that I would not only live through one of America’s great revivals but during a subsequent era when my country — without debate, consideration, or struggle — decided it really didn’t want to be America any more.

Few even talked about it, but, as a writer and as a child of segregation, I knew that in the silence could be something as telling and evil as words. After all, the language of the old south was most descriptive in what it didn’t say – and what wasn’t allowed to be said.

Much later I would come across the words of a German university professor who described to journalist Milton Mayer what it had been like under the Nazis in the 1930s:

To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it — please try to believe me — unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted.’. . .

Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.. . .

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

William Shirer noted something similar in Nightmare Years:

What surprised me at first was that most Germans, so far as I could see, did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of their splendid culture was being destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that their life and work were becoming regimented to a degree never before experienced even by a people accustomed for generations to a great deal of regimentation . . .

Shortly before his death scene in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz says:

What was it all about? When did it begin? . . . Couldn’t we just stay put? . . . We’ve done nothing wrong! We didn’t harm anyone. Did we? . . . There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said — no. But somehow we missed it.. . . Well, we’ll know better next time.

Are we too late this time as well?

One can’t tell, but the only way to fairly test the matter is to end the silence and loudly describe America as it has truly become – not yet a dictatorship but certainly a land run by those in both major parties whose contempt for our Constitution and normal decency strips them of any pretense of democratic leadership, leaving but the greed, corruption and cynicism of those who honor power and little else.

What is needed at this moment is a far more visible community of those who know this, tell about it, hate it and are willing to fight to recover our land from it. We have to put the issue out where even the Prozac press can’t ignore it, much as the Occupiers have done on economic matters.

Basically, our country is now divided between those who still believe in democracy and those who believe only in a culture of impunity to those with power and devoid of honor. With stunningly few exceptions, the latter includes not only Republican and Democratic politicians but our business leaders, media figures and a surprising number of academics. One need only to compare the role of today’s intellectuals with those of the 1960s to see how far our purported best and brightest have also fallen.

To do something about this, we do not have to forego our concerns for economic, ecological, and social issues, but we must understand and act on the fact that the biggest division in our country today is between those who still believe in democracy, decency and liberty and those who consider America just one big hedge fund that no one can, or cares to, regulate..

It might help, for example, if Greens and Libertarians came up with a joint plan to confront this crisis. Or if Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul jointly formed a movement to give it life. Or if the Occupiers and the Tea Party took a tip from their members in Memphis and Richmond and, despite all their other profound disagreements, worked together on the simply recovery of a constitutional society. As Tea Party member and Marine Corporal Stephen Mark Allen, put it, “Nothing would terrify the establishment more than a united Occupy Tea Party movement.

But one thing is for certain, time is running out. When you have a Democratic President supporting military incarceration without any constitutional protection, you don’t have many friends left. This is not just a difference in ideology; it is two Americas.

And we may not even get a next time in which to know better how to do it.

Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review. He is the author of The Great American Repair Manual.

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Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review.

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