One of my best friends from childhood, Greg, is descended from Czech Jewish aristocracy. His grandfather Frank served as a cavalry officer for Emperor Franz Josef’s Austro-Hungarian forces in World War I. Following his service, Frank was united with his wife, Irene, in an arranged marriage at the pinnacle of Prague’s high society. They had a daughter, Evy. And they socialized freely with Christian and Jewish elites alike, as was customary at the time.
One day, in the mid-1930’s, Frank confessed to Irene that he had been feeling ill at ease. In neighboring Germany, Hitler had risen to power on the strength of a nationalist message of economic renewal tinged with hate. While as yet there had been no hint of any plans to export Nazism to other countries, a chill wind had begun to blow. And Frank had begun to detect, among his friends in Czech society, a subtle but unmistakable air of acceptance.
Frank confessed as much to Irene. She promptly told him he was crazy. These are our friends. This is our life. We could not be more respected, more an integral part of this community.
Some time passed. And then one day Frank arose and said, “My love, you have never been more deserving of a vacation. There is nothing you love more than a week at spa in the Alps. The staff and I will watch Evy. Go. Enjoy yourself. I insist.”
Irene departed, and enjoyed a delightful week.
Towards the end of her stay she received the following cable:
MY DEAREST WIFE
ENCLOSED YOU WILL FIND A TRAIN TICKET TO PARIS, WHERE I AM PRESENTLY, ALONG WITH OUR BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER, AS WELL AS ALL THE VALUABLES WITH WHICH I COULD INCONSPICUOUSLY TRAVEL
SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO GO BACK TO PRAGUE YOU WILL FIND OUR HOME BOARDED UP AND OUR SILVER GONE IT IS BURIED WHERE NO ONE BESIDES MYSELF SHALL EVER FIND IT
WON’T YOU INSTEAD JOIN ME AND YOUR DAUGHTER HERE IN PARIS BEFORE WE SET SAIL ON OUR JOURNEY TO THE UNITED STATES WHERE WE SHALL BEGIN OUR LIVES ANEW
And join them she did.
And that is why I have a friend Greg.
* * *
Those of you who know me understand that I am being a bit hyperbolic. By recounting this story in this terrifying national moment, am I counseling my friends and family to flee?
Do I think that fear should dictate our actions, going forward?
But was it not an acute sensitivity to fear that shepherded Frank and his family to safety?
To what degree should we trust our fear? Does it blind us, obscuring the truth? Or does it give us X-ray vision, allowing us to see through the opaque veneer of our denial?
Here is one data point.
During this election cycle I’ve written only one other blog post from a place of real fear. It was on September 27th, the morning after the first debate. I woke up drenched in a puddle of anxiety, and wrote:
maybe we can’t be free of trumpism until it actually rules the roost for a little while. maybe, in a frighteningly unfortunate but dramatically sound kind of way, we’re not going to be able to scrub off this stubborn crust of american intolerance until it takes a turn at the wheel.
maybe the mere looming threat of a muslim ban won’t scar us enough to teach us a lesson — just as the child doesn’t truly learn from the teapot he doesn’t touch. maybe to move past this thing, this clog lodged in our chest, maybe we’re just going to have to cough this fucker up and see what it looks like in out in the open, in its fullest form. maybe — to really turn the page — we’re going to need king joffrey for a little while.
Then I went to work and curled up in my Twitter feed and wolfed down some buttery warm goodness from the good old MSM, who convinced me that I was crazy. She had “won.” She had kicked his ass, in fact.
Today, a few friends of mine — who are smarter than me — are disgusted by the “end-of-the-world-is-nigh” jeremiads that are currently flooding our news feeds. Here lies the Great American Experiment, 1776–2016. These friends of mine urge balanced thinking, guarded optimism. They take pains to point out evidence of centrism on our President-Elect’s resume.
I want to trust my friends. I want to walk a hardier, “keep calm and carry on” path.
And yet I cannot help but be influenced by the fact that I only glimpsed the outcome of this election at the moment I was most afraid.
So, fuck it: today, while the fear is still fresh, I’m just going to write from the heart, and try to put into words what I think is really going on here: what I believe to be the core story of Election 2016. Forgive me if this analysis, like my inclusion of the Grandpa Frank story, feels over-the-top. Not to worry! I’ll have crawled back into my rosy cocoon of denial before long.
I wrote in an earlier post about racism being the spine of the biography of this country. I believe that today more than ever. But what I have been thinking about these past few days, even more than racism, is capitalism.
Our country embraced slavery for one simple reason: because the moral downside of slavery was deemed to be less valuable than its capitalistic upside. This calculation was America’s thesis statement: the slope along which we launched our societal trajectory.
capitalism > morality
This fundamental inequality, more than any other factor, was our nation’s founding charter. The Constitution we drew up some years later was lovely, to be sure, like a flute solo dancing above the staff. But c > m was our bass line: our true north.
We made a great show of rejecting our English monarch, and the straitjacket of his mandated religion. But deep down, we had chosen a god of our own.
Over time, our society evolved, somewhat. In the mid-1800’s, the people of the North came to believe — whoops! — that slavery’s moral cost might actually be greater than its economic benefit. The people of the South disagreed; 500,000 people died in the quarrel; and a new equation was written into our constitution:
morality > slavery
But this new statement was merely a codicil to the original: not a replacement. Our founding charter had not changed, and would not change. c > m remained our country’s guiding principle, as long as, you know, we kept the ball in bounds. So, you know, slavery gets outlawed, the lines of the playing field are redrawn; helmets are placed on the player’s heads; a word of caution is issued by the referee. And the game rolls on.
This post-Civil War moment is a critical chapter in our story. It provides us with not only with a direct parallel to the events of today, but with a crystal ball for the days ahead.
Here is the key:
No penalty shot was awarded to the freed slaves. America’s ruling class determined, beyond a shadow of a doubt, in blood, on paper, and in their hearts and minds, that the slaves had been cruelly and criminally exploited by our economic system. But no system of reparations was ever put into place. Emancipation was deemed reward enough.
Let us instead look forward! our rule-makers agreed, looking around for meaningful dissenters, and, finding none, they launched v2 of American Capitalism, a.k.a. the Industrial Age, a.k.a. the American Century.
Capitalism v2 ran not on the fuel of African slaves but on the paid labor of the American heartland, men and women of the factories and farms and mines. These were people who believed so strongly in the American Way that they willingly, without hesitation, shipped off their sons and daughters to their deaths to defend it.
And for awhile v2 ran great: as beautifully and efficiently as a v1 plantation.
But as with all things, v2 started sputtering and buffering and crashing, not because of a moral reckoning or civil war, but because capitalism simply outgrew it, like a maturing athlete who senses his body’s ability to grow bigger and run faster. Sensing a new left lane in the digital age, American capitalism ditched its old-fashioned heartland diet of burgers and biscuits and gravy, replacing it with a new, globally-sourced diet of kale salads and protein shakes (and perhaps a few PED’s: credit-default swaps and subprime mortgages.)
Without so much as a fare-thee-well, out went the good and brave midwestern American workforce; in came the robots and microchips and Foxconns.
Welcome, capitalism v3! Of thee we sing.
But surely, of course, we will take care of our rusty old analog v2 parts, the unemployed, frightened, decent men and women who fed our country with the fruits of their labor, and fed our wars with the lives of their children.
Surely we will not forget you, the good people whose blood, sweat, and sacrifice built the American Century.
Just like we took care of those v1 guys.
Right, v1 guys?
Didn’t we, um…
The smartest take on this election season — and many people intuited this the moment it was released — is this one:
The pitch-black joke of this brilliant sketch is v1’s discards saying to v2’s discards: Welcome, friend. Pull up a seat. Ain’t like you’re goin’ nowhere. Might as well get comfortable.
The real story of this election is the v2 discards’ primal scream: their epiphany that they are not merely suffering, but dying. They scream not from a place of racism or sexism or xenophobia, but from a place of real, personal jeopardy. And the history of American capitalism tells us that in their scream they speak the truth. As the old joke goes, the definition of a paranoid person is someone who has just figured out what’s really going on.
That they voted for the man least likely to help them, a man constitutionally incapable of helping anyone besides himself, is ironic, tragic, and quite potentially catastrophic. But in the big picture, it is probably beside the point.
The point is that our nation’s history now appears that it is being written not by Thomas Jefferson but by Mary Shelley.
Our country’s founding charter, c > m, has grown into a monster that we no longer control. America’s genuinely great democracy (and it is truly, historically great) is shackled to this ravenous beast of unbound capitalism, probably to the death. This beast ate and discarded the slaves and then it ate and discarded the heartland industrialists and it will surely eat the tech-crunchers and app-smiths next, when v4 starts rearing its head, somewhere in Guangdong Province.
This beast we gave birth to is no more likely to reopen the textile factories of Ohio than it is to re-enslave the workforce of the American plantation.
And the very notion of a Republican-led Congress presenting even so much as a stiff breeze of opposition to the forces of American capitalism is beyond laughable: it is the polar opposite of the truth. Our new Republican-led government is owned by these forces. They are one, the ring and the Dark Lord.
And I would love nothing more than to be laughed at some years hence, to have these words thrown back in my face, to be ridiculed for making mountains out of molehills.
And I am sorry to you, my friends and readers, for adding one more tab of fear to your already-fear-clogged browsers.
Unless, of course, as it did for Grandpa Frank, your fear spurs you to take concrete action.
Perhaps not flight — just yet.
But some kind of action that neither succumbs to nor discounts your fear.
And just so’s I don’t end this dour post on a note of pure bleakness, I should end by saying that I myself am taking action. Right here in the good old U.S.A. I am staying put, and working to shore up my little corner of the world, a tiny piece of real estate that I can actually shape and influence and defend and protect.
I may be calling on a few of you to help me, in this regard. But more on that down the road apiece.
One quick postscript.
My friend Greg never met his Grandpa Frank, who died before he was born. Nor did Greg meet any of Frank and Irene’s loved ones from Prague, as virtually all of them perished in the WWII extermination camps, notwithstanding the increasingly desperate letters that Frank had sent to the authorities in a frantic effort to secure their escape from the Nazi inferno.
As for Irene, she never forgave Frank for forcing her to leave their life in Prague. Frank spent the rest of his days with sleeping quarters in the basement in their modest, unstaffed house in Long Beach, his wife cruelly, if understandably, having drawn the subconscious conclusion that it was better to blame her husband for her riches-to-rags story than to acknowledge the moral emptiness at the heart of the world.