Do you remember when America stood ten feet tall, when America was a political, economic and intellectual giant in a world of pygmies? That was one side of the portrait. The other side meant that America was an oversized and clumsy monster that trampled on buildings, boats and buses. Whether a giant or a monster, America was imbued with the conceit that it could – indeed did – touch the sky, that the country descended from the clouds above to be “a light unto the nations.”
This is a branded medical condition – periarteritis nodosa – a destructive inflammation of the arteries that feed oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body. The symptoms of the condition are remarkably distinct:
- A sense of enormous strength
- Accompanied by an extreme sense of well-being
- An utter faith in each and every action taken
- Incessant talking
- An unquenchable desire for food leading to obesity
- A manic-depressive psychosis.
But is this not also the description of a cryptid, a hidden animal, a mythical creature found in virtually every corner of our planet earth? Bigfoot, the American cryptid otherwise known as Sasquatch, or sometimes Yeti or the Skunk Ape, is easily the most famous. Like all other cryptids, he is a male but otherwise fictional, even though lots of evidence is put forth to substantiate his reality. In spite of the many stories and alleged evidence for his existence, this massive, hairy, bipedal humanoid who stands perhaps ten feet tall remains elusive and mysterious.
Sasquatch lives on the edges of civilization – the Rocky Mountains of Washington or Oregon – and on the fringes of both our imagination and comprehension. He is a paranormal creature. Yet he so resembles the condition of periarteritis nodosa, that it is difficult to insist that he is not an abnormal but rather a real living creature. I suggest the same is true of America – a country that is both very real but ultimately also a country of myth and legend.
We are living through a time when the legend has been disintegrating. The self-destruction began with the conceit of America having won the Cold war as men like James Baker, U.S. Secretary of State, served as a catalyst to the disintegration of another mythical and legendary but also real menace, the Soviet Union in 1991. America became the unipolar power in the world, only to find that power squandered in an amoral attack on the dictator Saddam Hussein under the pretext that Iraq was becoming a rival nuclear power with storehouses of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The two-decade decline culminated with the boastful presidency of Donald Trump, his triumphalism, his logorrhea and his incessant lying that provided one book end to the other, Joe Biden’s stumbles and mumbles, verbal slips and demonstrations of impotence.
January 6th 2021 was not so much an insurrection as an eruption. Though rioters who assaulted police and destroyed sacred property provided so-called leadership, the mob was driven rather than being a driver of any real change. They were reinforced by large numbers of more passive reactionaries and revisionists, ideological rhetoricians rather than men of intention and action. What all the groups shared was a belief in legend and a distrust of institutions and lack of respect for formal authority. The common characteristic of all their symptoms and all their behaviour was an inability to know what was real and what was fiction. And for that failure, they did not look within themselves but at the intellectual and political leadership that had failed to provide this most fundamental level of security – the ability to differentiate between reality and myth.
In the meanwhile, the pandemic continues even though the promise of its abatement is just around the next corner. Confusion arose over long-term effects and collateral damage to those whose medical treatment was postponed, to those additional hordes who became afflicted by opioids and to the many more marriages that disintegrated under the pressure. These problems were either ignored or dismissed as necessary collateral damage. The old bogeyman of inflation has returned driven by both a shortage of skilled labour and the disruptions in the supply chain for services as well as material goods.
And the yellow peril has once again raised its ugly head both in a pervasive rise of racism and antisemitism and in the identification of China as the new world’s threatening monster, an interpretation reinforced by its own mistreatment of minorities, threats against Taiwan and suppression of rights in Hong Kong. Russia mobilizes to browbeat, intimidate and menace Ukraine. Insults and threats cross borders far more easily than travelers.
Polarization pervades both foreign and domestic affairs. And covid has become its blaring symbol as groups increasingly define themselves in terms of identity politics and whether they were or were not vaccinated. Liberals assumed that if you were not vaccinated you had to be an ideological anti-vaxer worthy of being defined as “fringe” and “misogynist.” and “racist.” That you may have held a more universalist sense of distributive justice re vaccines, or a scepticism about claims or sufficiency of proofs, or cast your lot with eminent scientists of alternative strategies to deal with the pandemic, were largely ignored, dismissed and even in some cases suppressed. Instead, the tiny group that carried antisemitic signs and Nazi symbols to the rally in Ottawa were headlined.
In adopting a sceptical posture towards mandate and lockdowns, you may have been wrong, but in the vast majority of cases, you were not a moron or an ideological nut, though, if you are honest, you had to admit that your side was sprinkled with a good number who could be characterized that way. But the battle was not fought on the cognitive level of competing theories, interpretations and policies but on the level of insults and calumnies, branding and misrepresentation.
America is but the most prominent of perniciously polarized polities. Why? Because it is very rich. Because it is deeply democratic so the formation of silos that do not compromise of even address one another is extremely distressing. The reality is that America has set sail in a sea of shoals with whipped-up waves and very dangerous undercurrents.
Barack Obama may have celebrated America as the most successful experiment in creating a multicultural and multiethnic and multireligious society. However, the very portrait belies its ignorance of its immediate neighbours, its own conceit and its fragile susceptibility to disintegration as a consequence of political identity politics. In America, the ethnic and religious rivalries are reinforced by a democratic system that reifies and rigidifies binary choices which always greatly exacerbate a rising insecurity.
Surprisingly, that insecurity is strongly felt among the .1% who control the majority of wealth in the United States but whose plutocratic control is being challenged. At the same time, the strays at the other end of the spectrum who feel left out and abandoned, have become so disoriented that their greatest fears focus on bureaucrats as if they were Sasquatch himself. Government mandarins are perceived as autocrats and the economic predators are protected by the diversion of the animosity. The fact that the marginalized were raised on promises of opportunity, on beliefs in American superiority, on faith in America’s dominant power, shatters their mirrors into much smaller fragments.
Thus, the illusion of a future Promised Land that was purportedly real in the past. Thus, the reactionary revolutions whose numbers are greatly increased by disaffected conservatives and evangelicals who live on the borders of loss of faith. They buy into a new vision of self-sacrifice, but one clearly based on legend rather than scientific verity even as they challenge the credibility of their opponents. Freedom is defined as surrender to a higher power. The marginals and the misfits join with the misfortunate and the monied class to form the shock troops for the misbegotten messages of salvation from the destructive course of their ship of state.
The present has no reliability; the past is legend. What can the future be? An angelic promise propelled by vehemence more than simply anger, by insulting missives and vehement messages, by a manic hatred that seems boundless and builds to militant posturing and even actions. By mindblindness in which minorities become scapegoats on whom responsibility can be reposed. And truth becomes deposited in madmen and manipulators.
In such a system, Bigfoot becomes more real than any grizzly. And ideological liberals not only buy into this arena as the centre of the conflict, but try to enjoin their kissing cousins to the north in the same imaginative world of cryptoids to try to form a counter mass movement of so-called “moderation.”
A recent Washington Post op-ed called on Canada to “confront the toxic “Freedom Convoy” head on assembling in Ottawa and at key border crossings across Canada to confront mandatory pandemic measures. In interviews with truckers, such as one who owns a small trucking firm in the Niagara peninsula and also serves on a local municipal council, these modern voyeurs come across as begging to be heard, as challengers of dogma and as rational dissenters with no “affinity with Trumpists, however much they are claimed as affiliates. They come across as longing for ears to listen and a dialogical exchange rather than being branded as deplorables. They may be wrong in the substance of their views, but they do not come across as maddened in their rhetoric.
Some trucker convoy participants may indeed have a history of white nationalism and racism. And many liberals may be led by and pushed forward by neo-Marxist ideologues. The op-ed advised that, “Canada’s response to the convoy should be a strict line of resistance that doubles down on, or in certain cases at least introduces, commitments to anti-hate resistance, pandemic supports, vaccine mandates and a media policy of refusing to platform, humanize, or, God forbid, glorify the convoy and its members beyond the bare necessity of speaking to their existence and outlining a program for pushing back.”
In other words, do not listen. Resist. Double down. Don’t humanize the participants. Treat all participants as toxic. Denunciation and demonization not dialogue is the message. Yeh to polarization!