Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!
—Allen Ginsburg, Howl
There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
—Mario Savio, speaking on the steps of Sproul Hall, 2 December, 1964
Researchers have established—by humane means, it is devoutly hoped—that your average frog deposited in a saucepan full of tepid water over a heating element does not in fact suffer itself to be poached. The amphibian will, if unimpeded, seek to remove itself to a cooler medium. Nevertheless, the metaphor persists because although it rests on a foundation of faulty physiology, it seems to express a truth of psychology, or sociology, or political science: we are apt as human beings to be insensitive to incremental changes, and but imperfectly responsive to the large-scale cumulative effects of these. Our froggy friends will put some distance between the hot water and themselves. We will variously fail to notice that the water has got any warmer, or to deny that warming has occurred, or that there’s anything wrong with hot water, or we will assert that hotter water is an excellent development. I’m not planning a rant about climate change here, incidentally, although these responses certainly apply. The tendency of water to boil, we are told, is an inevitable condition of the world that we are powerless to change. Oh, and look, wonderful and cunning new consumer electronics deliver us a lewd, violent, particolored popular culture at a million frames a second, so who’s got time to worry about the fucking water? Pay no attention to the energy consortia setting up shop on top of your aquifer.
I’ll be sixty-one in a month. For about as long as I’ve been paying sustained attention to public affairs, U.S. presidents have been assuring as, as though stating that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, that “America’s best days are yet to come.” When I hear that said these days, even by a president to whom I am disposed to cut some slack, why it makes my blood just, um, boil. I want to take that president, or any such president, and…ah, but how unwise it might be, tomorrow if not today, to have typed the rest of that common figure of speech. Pattern recognition software and artificial intelligence have become sophisticated enough for the NSA (which I will use going forward for the entire “security” apparatus of our swollen surveillance state) to draw some automated conclusions should this entry, by its nature a public utterance, happen to traverse their servers. So no, I’m not here to wring real or metaphorical necks, nosirree, but I do wish that going forward our elected Caesars would cut it out. The country is an empire in senescence and decline. Its treasury has been looted, its infrastructure has been allowed to rust out, its tame media (and oh, what a loathsome collection of servile courtiers the press corps has become there in Byzantium-on-the-Potomac!) is being devoured by oligarchs. The social safety nets, such as they were, have been shredded (too bad about those 401(k)s, but thanks for playing. Ka-ching!), the surviving, bloated banks are all “too big to fail”—or to prosecute, apparently—and of the two principal parties, one is underwritten by brigands playing with brownshirts and the other by responsible, incrementalist brigands. Oh, yes, and the Bill of Rights has been eviscerated. Don’t tell me that America’s best days are yet to come. Just don’t. Because unless you’re, say, Mitt Romney’s kids, those days aren’t coming, buckaroo. Not for you.
What’s that you say? I should cheer up because gay marriage and recreational pot are now legal in some jurisdictions? Bite me.
Standard disclaimer follows, in short and longer versions.
Begin short version: Middle-aged white men have been saying that the world is going to hell since forever. I know that. It does not necessarily follow that the world is not in fact going to hell. Short disclaimer ends.
Begin longer version: I am aware, painfully aware, of the tendency for old farts to decry the declining state of the world, which once was young and green at just around the time—by jove, now I think of it, at just around the time that we were young and green as well. Also, regardless of whether we are today fifty or ninety, the very best popular music that has ever been performed or produced was released in a narrow window between approximately our fifteenth and twenty-second birthdays, following which it fell into a terminal decline that has brought us the insensate caterwauling with which the airwaves are afflicted today. I get it. My own lamentations about the sad state of the world must be evaluated in the light of many centuries of tut-tutting from the senescent and embittered.
I am aware, too, that at mid-century there will be men and women in their sixties who will look back on 2013 as a vanished golden age of comity and prosperity and real music. I hope that they frame the comparison in terms we might chuckle at, rather than along the lines of “and we ate real GMO produce then, not the roots and grubs we gather at night when we dare venture out of the bunker.” Be assured, though, that if such a dystopia lies in our future, the political leaders of 2053 will be there loudly asserting that the continent’s best days still lie ahead of it.
So with these disclaimers and stipulations out of the way, my observations of the route we’ve traced from, say, 1970 to the present day can be summed up in a pithy two words: it stinks. Things got worse (a further and specialized disclaimer relating to specific then-disenfranchised classes may be found as paragraph four of “On American Mid-Century Middlebrow,” or you can take my word for it), and life got harder—and I’m taking Nixon as the baseline here—and beginning with Reagan’s election in 1980 the nation descended into a period of oligarchic reaction from which I do not expect it to emerge in my lifetime. A third of a century into this dark age we have contrived in this country (let no one say that American ingenuity is dead!) to devise a society that combines some of the gamier elements of anarchy and authoritarianism while signally failing to deliver the putative benefits of either scheme. Longer disclaimer ends.
We now go about our daily lives under constraints on our conduct and scrutiny of our public behavior and private communications that few American adults alive in 1970 and to the left of J. Edgar Hoover then would have had any difficulty in recognizing as a quasi-totalitarian dystopia. Millions of workers submit to random drug tests as a condition of employment. Human flight, a glorious dream for millennia, we have transformed into a pointless public rite of petty humiliation, the notional purpose of which is “security” and the actual function, civic abasement. The pernicious term “enhanced interrogation” (“Verschärfte Vernehmung” in the original German) has entered the public discourse, and that torture as public policy and whether or not to employ euphemisms to describe it is even a topic to be contemplated is a measure of how depraved that discourse has become. The recent NSA revelations, and the savagery of the Obama Administration’s response to the leaks suggests that the permanent National Security State is an equal opportunity employer and the deft wielder of whichever instrument the electoral process hands it. Because I’m pretty sure that most of the people who voted for Obama in 2008 weren’t voting for the tightening of the state’s grip (I voted for Obama in 2008. In 2012 I voted for The Guy Who Wasn’t Mitt Romney. I wouldn’t take back either vote, but I’ve, you know, scaled back my expectations). It appears that Erich Honecker did not live and die in vain.
To introduce a term like “totalitarian” into discourse today is enough to elicit a certain amount of eye-rolling from the Serious People, partly because the term is also tossed around by some authentic foaming-at-the-mouth, knuckle-dragging fuckwits but largely because we’ve all gone about our business for the past several decades immersed in our private concerns or hypnotized by the shiny objects du jour (white Bronco! White House blowjobs!) while the subassemblies of today’s police state were designed, tested, deployed, refined in the service of the “war on drugs.” Many saucepans, many frogs. Some were boiled, some were burned. Hypermilitarized urban police departments field SWAT teams better armored and packing greater firepower than Charlie Company had at My Lai. And then, of course, there came the Avignon Presidency, also known as the Cheney Shogunate, and the events of 11 September 2001, which represent, it is universally acknowledged, an atrocity without precedent in the annals of villainy, an unparalleled level of suffering and destruction visited upon a blameless nation—to the side that owns the cruise missiles, asymmetric warfare will ever seem an unsportsmanlike proposition. And all those subassemblies of repression required just a few turns of a screwdriver, a little torquing of the odd bolt, to put together into the sinister, monstrous apparatus that looms over us today. And friends, I’m here to tell you that the machine is never coming down. Not in your lifetimes and not in mine. The ratchet of state authority is set ever to advance, never to relax, and we will have occasion to observe in the coming decades that the term “terrorist” is almost infinitely elastic. Ask the guards to tighten your restraints, ladies and gentlemen. It’s going to be a long, bumpy night.
Update: This just in. I defy anyone to read the linked article and tell me with a straight face that Ben Franklin would have been, you know, totally on board with this use of the post.