Swans Commentary » swans.com May 7, 2007  



The Fourth World


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - May 7, 2007)   There are two enemies confronting the nation.

One, "the clear and present danger," is the fanatical Muslim Fundamentalists who regularly resort to terror and mayhem in Iraq and indiscriminately murder US troops, as well as innocent Iraqi men, women, and children. Many of us feel helpless in regard to that enemy. All we can do is shudder at the carnage they regularly inflict and try to persuade an intransigent administration that their policies are both fatally flawed and morally repugnant.

The other enemy is much closer to home, a very much older enemy and one we have encountered time and time again in America. Let us, for want of a better name, call them the lumpenproletariat -- although this is somewhat misleading as their ranks are filled with members of both the middle and upper classes of American society.

They are the people who placidly construct a rationale for torture of prisoners being kept incommunicado in places like Guantánamo, denied legal representation and never told what crimes they are charged with. The same people who believe there is some vague, theistic justification for pursuing the Iraqi occupation; who see the war in terms of Good and Evil rather than justifiable or unjustifiable foreign policy, and resolutely believe that "God is on our side." People unable and unwilling to differentiate between the glittering generalities of patriotic hype and rational argument which admits nuance and recognizes the possibility of fallacy. They are the people whose response to the calamity of 9/11 was simply vengeance -- without discriminating between those enemies upon whom we were wreaking that revenge or the consequences to ourselves of blind and indiscriminate retribution.

They are the same people who recognize no inherent dangers in the USA Patriot Act, the policy of unwarranted eavesdropping on American citizens, and the corrosion of civil liberties that both impose. They are people who rail at corporate malfeasance and demand that criminals be punished for their crimes but tacitly accept that everyone is entitled to "get away with whatever they can." Underlying their condemnation of larcenists and swindlers is the awareness that they themselves cheat on their income tax, bend the truth in commercial transactions, commit small-scale malefactions that range from equivocation to infidelity, agree that "money is the root of all evil" but accept the fact that its stem cells are hard wired into the American anatomy and therefore "understandable."

They vigorously resist gun control and see no connection whatsoever between massacres such as those at Virginia Tech and Columbine and the alacrity with which psychopaths can obtain weapons. They equate abortion with murder and homosexuality with apostasy. They regularly express moral outrage at governmental abuses but stop short at overt protest or personal risks that might draw them into civil disobedience. Lip service is the most they contribute to causes they feel strongly about, occasionally sending donations to assuage a troubled conscience. They suffer from a curious kind of moral myopia that enables them to see both sides of every question. "Broadminded people," as Bertolt Brecht once observed, "who see three points for and three points against every proposition. The two sides cancel each other out. Three minus three is zero."

They rationalize their growing disgust with the human waste of the Iraq War by appealing to abstract virtues, which they read into shibboleths such as "Democracy" and "Freedom" despite the fact that the democracy that they honor leaves them prey to media manipulation that determines their political attitudes, and corporate thieves who rip off their pensions and blithely throw them out of work when Wall Street declares their profits are falling below acceptable levels. They equate troop reduction and the safe return of servicemen to their families as "defeatism." Their notion of religious freedom is so flexible it can blandly assimilate an endless legion of pederast priests whose pronunciamentos excoriate homosexuals and their desire to form unions based on rights implied in a Constitution that contains as many loopholes as it has safeguards.

They are "quiet and law abiding" where they should be indignant and outspoken; practical and permissive where they should be assertive and reformist; dozy and complacent where they should be indignant and politically motivated. They are the incarnation of Red State ideology who long for nothing more than tax cuts and an imperturbable "domestic tranquility" undisturbed by suffering victims of genocide or natural disasters, the sight of body bags containing someone else's sons and daughters, the stench of refugees routed by dictators and ignored by impassive superpowers whose notion of mercy goes no further than forgiving the debts of Third World countries, which, ravaged by poverty, sickness and disease, cry out for food, housing, and medicine; who see no contradiction in the fact that we complain of repressive regimes that execute dissenters or railroad them into prison, downplaying those abuses for the sake of continued trade and an unshakeable reverence for the bottom line; who accept the totalitarian practices of Egypt, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia because we have developed useful commercial alliances with them and "globalization" is a boon that we are honor-bound to accept because it "stimulates the economy."

They cluck in unison with the reactionary homilies dispensed by bigots like Bill O'Reilly and demagogues like Rush Limbaugh misconstruing aggressive rhetoric for moral strength, jingoism for patriotism. They are the sort of people who used to burn witches, lynch blacks, and demand all dissenters be sent to concentration camps or "back to Russia where they belong." An odor of vindictive primitivism adheres to many of their political principles and they see the world implacably in black and white terms. But there are no flames issuing from their nostrils or horns sprouting from their heads. In mixed company they are placid, reasonable, and frighteningly rational. It is only when their convictions dictate their actions that they become lethal to a democratically-disposed society.

Almost invariably, they are staunch churchgoers and "people of faith." The swelling influence of evangelicals throughout the country coincides with their passionate advocacy of reactionary and repressive measures, and they can always muster patriotic jargon to bolster the tottering image of a morally-bankrupt president. There is a curious symbiosis between their religious convictions and their presence in politics. They claim they do not advocate a theocracy, are merely exercising their right to worship the religion of their choice, but at the same time they lobby, organize, and propagandize for the most extreme right-wing representatives in both houses. They believe they have an inside track to the president -- which obviously they do as, without their support, he would never have been either elected or reelected. Leaders of the country's mega-churches where they abound are in close, sometimes daily, contact with senior members of the administration. (Over 150 members of the Bush administration have been recruited from Pat Robertson's theological "law school.") Their opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights remain fanatical as they choose their friends and adopt their candidates on the basis of how they vote on these (for them) hot-button issues. They cling to Intelligent Design as a desperate wedge to dislodge Evolution. To non-believers, the movement is one of the most frightening developments in many years as it represents enthroned ignorance and of such a density that common sense cannot pierce it. It is dogma "pure and simple," but it is from "purity" and "simplicity" that all dogmas usually arise among people who are temperamentally committed to "the unexamined life."

At odds with both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution, this is the America that is steadily corroding the principles on which the Republic was founded and whose allies include some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the nation. Most of the media are already in their hands, and the giant corporations, conscious of their size and their influence, have always recognized the importance of staying on the right side of what H.L. Mencken used to call the booboisie. They are our ayatollahs just as their politicians are our war lords and the only things that save us from complete domination are the safeguards of certain "quaint" traditions that reside in places like the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence.

Among this lumpenproletariat one will find many of our neighbors, relatives, and fellow-citizens. They are people not only like ourselves but often intermixed with ourselves; indistinguishable from ourselves; our selves when we grow weary of the avalanche of daily scandals that dash our spirits and make us feel we are too puny and powerless to alter the corruptions that regularly flout our sense of justice. They are, in a sense, citizens of a Fourth World -- those who refuse to acknowledge any obligations for the suffering and cruelty that throttle the other Three. Their ranks often include world leaders who have become so inured by the number and frequency of outrages that pummel them on a daily basis and who, rather than "take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them," take refuge in rhetoric and complacency and just "let them slide."

They comprise both Republican and Democratic malefactors who have ripped off their constituents and regularly apologize in weepy mea culpas for "making mistakes" such as embezzling funds, abusing their authority, contravening the law and turning a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a cold heart to the grievances of the people who voted them into office. They are "just plain folk" -- people whose top priority is the preservation of their personal "domestic tranquility" and material comforts and who steadfastly exercise their most treasured right; the right "not to get involved." Who believe that once they have expressed an opinion, identified a fault, acknowledged an alarming tendency, or metaphorically rapped a scoundrel's knuckles, their job is done. They have expressed their self-righteousness and now it's back to business as usual.

It is no longer enough simply to declare that there are "two Americas" or that we are a "tragically divided nation." We have been that before -- during the Civil War -- when it was necessary for one party to trump the other for the sake of preserving the foundations of the fragile democracy we were in 1861. The time is soon coming when we will have to recognize that the incursion of powerful reactionary forces, which corrode our liberty and threaten to overturn basic tenets of our system of justice, have reached such proportions that if we literally do not "take arms against" that raging "sea of troubles," we will simply be submerged by them.

Larger than the lumpenproletariat, greater in both number and potential power, are the millions of silent Americans whose disgust with what the nation has become dwindles into political inertia. The great multitude of people who, being disenchanted with "the conditions that prevail," believe that nothing will ever truly change no matter who gets elected and so, have thrown in the sponge. Judging by the diminutive size of the voting population, more than half of the nation implicitly believes that "real change" is impossible in these United States and, so long as the political infrastructure does not change, neither will its people. Paradoxically, it is these opponents of the Fourth World who may yet save America, if only they could find their voice, or a representative who can transform their muzzled indignation into meaningful opposition.

Our deeply-rooted self-interest combined with our zeal to maintain our domestic comforts, our refusal to let "politics" affect the sanctity of our settled lives, our proclivity to "turn the other cheek," "make allowances," "tune out" the dangers we recognize but haven't the gumption to combat, our eagerness simply to satirize the scoundrels rather than rise up and combat them -- it is these things that strengthen the power of the lumpenproletariat and weaken the surge of reform, which, in the face of widespread apathy, is constantly in retreat. It is bitterly ironic that the most rebellious sentiments of our nation today are in the sallies and wisecracks of entertainers such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rather than in a boisterous throng of demonstrators clamoring for political change. As a nation, we have been seduced by the op-ed mantras of the people we admire for giving us an emotional "out" -- an opportunity to align ourselves with rousing sentiments that, by proxy, "express our opinion" and in so doing, delude us into believing we are making a difference.

The lumpenproletariat is coated with the thick hide of those Americans whose ignorance and apathy will never be outvoted or dislodged. They are the Somnolent Majority and they are more dangerous than the outspoken bigots or demagogues because they are more plentiful, and the future (they believe) belongs to them. The Great Silent Majority are mute because they are dumb, complacent because they are craven, and dangerous because they are unreformable.

"The only crime is ignorance," said Nietzsche, and more than half of America is marching along in a pathetic procession complacently beating their toy drums.


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Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 7, 2007