Last year in the US we set a new record (since the CDC began compiling these numbers) for drug overdose deaths of despair, 92,000. Depression that leads to suicide is sometimes described as rage turned against the self. There is certainly a loss of hope before someone slips the needle into their arm, takes just one or two more highly addictive pain pills, trying to make the psychic pain stop.
There are certainly reasons for great concern, despair and anger, even if we can’t always be sure of the direct cause of either of these destructive emotions. The news is more and more nightmarish, more and more a reflection of Trump’s vision of American Carnage, of our current dystopia. Our planet is heating up, polar ice caps are melting faster than predicted, sea levels are rising, devastating climate catastrophes are increasingly regular occurrences — and, not long from now, there will be tens of millions of climate refugees with no food and no place to go. Poverty rages in even the most prosperous countries; the disparity in wealth here in the USA is as great as it was right before the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Health outcomes for Americans, who pay the highest rates for medical insurance/care anywhere in the world, are mediocre, tens of thousands of us die preventable deaths every year. In spite of our country’s great wealth, our infant mortality and maternal mortality numbers are up there with much poorer nations. While tens of millions suffered during the worst months of a pandemic, American billionaires, sometimes capitalizing on this widespread misery, increased their wealth by more than a trillion dollars. A trillion dollars, a thousand billion, looks like this $1,000,000,000,000.00. It was generated for a few hundred of America’s richest in about a year.
We watch all this horror and injustice more or less helplessly as politicians, well-paid by various industries, and serving at their pleasure, wrangle. If you are on the left you are angry that, in our current political culture, with corporate moderates (and some rigid extremists) firmly in charge of the political process, no progress can be made to fix any of these longterm, worsening problems — no matter how pressing the emergency is (think daily American gun massacres). If you are on the right you know exactly who to be angry at — the fucking liberals of the overbearing nanny state who keep failing to fix anything, despise Liberty and Freedom, hate the Free Market, are making things a hundred times worse for everybody and who should just keep their mouths shut and go back to the shithole countries they came from if they hate our freedom so much.
We are not alone with a front row seat to this maddening power-driven shit show. Worldwide nations are roiled by angry demagogues, many gain control of populous nations, speaking directly to the boiling rage of their most agitated citizens. Hindus are roused to stop taking shit from Muslims, Muslims from certain countries are banned from flying into other countries, rage against Mexicans is stoked, rage against immigrants, rage against homosexuals, urban elites, rage against an imaginary cabal of powerful Satanist cannibal “Democrat” pedophiles, rage against so-called cooler heads urging us to talk to each other honestly, based on the best facts we can get, if we hope to solve mutual problems.
The rage is real, we can all feel it sometimes, as well as the deepening despair the inability (or unwillingness) of our elected representatives to act together to address any of this causes daily. We are, as they say, outraged regularly. The outrage is weaponized. What makes you feel a little better? Guy in a MAGA hat likes it when a libtard gets called out, enraged, humiliated, it makes his day. Anyone not wearing a MAGA hat gets a bit of schadenfreude when some MAGA person makes a fool of herself, gets called out, makes it worse trying not to apologize in a way that will hurt her fundraising. Does this meaningless sideshow help us solve any of the vexing problems that we all face? Rhetorical tic, that dumb question, obviously the sideshow is a fucking sideshow to make us forget what is really going on.
I’m going to Physical Therapy to try to get my arthritic knees to work better, have less pain, get back into better shape. The guy who runs the place has FOX blaring on a TV in the exercise room. The other day I was on the stationary bike and he sat next to me and asked if I’m a fan of Larry Kudlow. I told him I don’t know much about Kudlow, asked if he was a Queens boy (we were sitting in Queens, a block from where I grew up, near where he grew up, less than a mile from Frederick Christ Trump’s former mansion on Midland Parkway). He didn’t know, though, now that I mentioned it, he detected a little New York accent in Kudlow. “He worked for George W. Bush, and for President Trump,” he informed me. Within a few seconds we established that I am not a fan of Trump, and that the owner of the thriving PT practice is a conservative. He doesn’t like everything about Trump, and he didn’t agree with some of the things he did, but believes that Trump definitely did some good things as president, he said.
I determined to remain pleasant and decided not to ask how big a tax break he got from The Donald. I asked him instead if he thought Trump was the best leader of the conservative movement. He was coy in his answer. I said “leave aside everything else, just the fact that his university was shut down for fraud, and he paid a $25,000,000 settlement right before the election, and that when he was president his charity was shut down for fraud. Doesn’t that tell you maybe you should want someone more trustworthy to lead the party?”
He wasn’t sure, he smiled as though maybe I had a point, didn’t say much. I decided to try one more question. “Can we agree that there is a criminal justice problem in the country, in addition to disparities of wealth determining the outcomes of cases, that black and brown people are many times more likely to wind up in prison than whites?”
He could not totally agree, or actually, well, what he said was “isn’t it nice that we can have a pleasant conversation about politics, even though we are on different sides politically?”
I agreed that it was, not bothering to point out that he had no answers to either of the questions I’d asked him. That is one of my perennial problems with talking to people on the right, those who avidly watch FOX and similar outlets and get their worldview set out for them every day. No answer to direct questions, only parrying counter narratives, often boldly false ones.
During the Cheney/Dubya years I tried to resolve a long email debate with a onetime friend of my father’s, radically leftist when I knew her decades ago, who’d had a “political awakening” (and a religious conversion, the blonde midwesterner was now Jewish) and now was a politically “independent” extreme right-winger. She had initiated the conversation about politics because none of her former liberal friends would talk to her any more and she wanted my honest feedback, as an old friend, to see what common ground we could find. She also hoped, by the sheer strength of her irrefutably moral position, to convert me to her way of thinking (this she did not announce at the start).
The discussion had been infuriating and exhausting, because she had an instant right wing talking head non-answer to everything. The racial disparity in arrests and sometimes deadly police violence against people of color? She shot back an angrily written piece, by a then “hot” right wing provocateur, about how blacks murder each other in atrocious numbers. How did this answer my question? She’d sent it, she said, to open my eyes about the propaganda I’d been exposed to that made me think police regularly use force on blacks for no reason. Clearly, she’d changed her view of America’s most persecuted race since her days singing protest songs and marching for Civil Rights, and living with a fellow Mensa member from Haiti.
Toward the end of this agonizing exercise I asked her one question, about torture. I may have gotten this idea from David Bromberg, a singer and multi-instrumentalist Sekhnet and I both like.
In every show he does a song inspired by the Rip Van Winkle story, a guy wakes up after being asleep for twenty years and doesn’t recognize the world. Bromberg, during a musing instrumental interlude, makes a few political remarks, he’s a progressive-seeming fellow with a good sense of humor. This night in Town Hall, as he fingerpicked a background to his remarks, he began musing about some of the worst things Cheney/Bush were doing  a guy in a military jacket rose behind us and called for him to stop with the politics and get back to playing music. Bromberg looked at him thoughtfully, said “we torture people now? We torture people?” and went back to singing.
I wrote her something similar, it may have been a two part question. Why are we at war in Iraq, a country with no connection to al-qaeda and no WMD? How do you justify torturing people, many of whom had nothing to do with terrorism, people who had been turned in by personal enemies for large cash rewards?
Iraq she’d have to get back to me on, she wrote (she needed to research the issue). As for torture, what we were doing to these terrorists was not torture, it was fully justifiable and certainly not deadly, we were just standing up for ourselves, speaking to them in their own language, to protect us all from having our throats cut in our beds — as one right wing friend of her’s predicted would happen to me one day, to shut my big, liberal, New York Jew lawyer mouth, a Muslim jihadist would break into my house and cut my goddamned throat, in my bed, because people like me are friends of the terrorists but terrorists don’t care about any of that, they’d slit my throat in a second.
If the crazy old bastard had said that to my face, of course, I might have been tempted to shiatsu massage his sweaty mug with my knuckles. I don’t do that kind of thing, and it has been a long project of mine to learn to avoid reacting with anger, but, seriously? That is an answer to my question about how the greatest democracy in history justifies endlessly detaining and torturing captured Muslims?
If you can’t get a serious answer all you can do is remain pleasant until you can walk away. Not very satisfying, for someone who hopes to solve problems and come to an understanding, rather than agree that we can never agree because we are loyal to radically different views of the world. Infuriating, in fact. The fury is the heart of the entire right wing exercise (as the enraged right-wing always says of the left, and Blacks– whew! so fucking angry!). The beauty of emotion-driven righteousness is — no thought or a working through of actual facts is ever required of you.
“You call me childish? I know you are, but what am I? Make me! Make me!”
So the rage is out there, and it’s very real, and potentially very destructive, as is despair. There are good reasons for anger and feelings of hopelessness, when, as a friend sang the other night “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” and added that Biden was just cleaning out the ashtrays and burying the bodies, that business would proceed largely as usual. I agreed that in terms of the Department of Justice’s actions so far, it certainly seems to be the case. You want real change? You have to stop shopping at the same store that keeps selling you the poison that’s killing your family. But it’s the only store in town, an aggravating, maddening problem.
That Trump’s predictable cruelty and petty vindictiveness makes Dubya Bush (America’s second worst president — and arguably a war criminal) look like a decent guy always reminds me of the no-brainer hypothetical about who would you rather live under, Hitler or Mussolini? No contest, give me the bragging, strutting, blustering Italian fascist any day, if those are the only choices. The only people who pick Mr. Hitler over Mr. Mussolini are, literally, very fine Nazis — on both sides, on both sides!