December 04, 2010

Papering Over the Void

Law professor Ronald Dworkin has a short note in the current (9 December 2010) issue of the New York Review of Books on the midterm election of November. Marveling at the American voters’ ability to self-destruct by handing the GOP a landslide victory, he points out that their real dissatisfaction with the government—articulated most energetically by the Tea Party folks—is the feeling that they are losing the country, and they are desperate to take it back. “All their lives,” he writes,

“they have assumed that their country is [sic] the most powerful, most prosperous, most democratic, economically and culturally the most influential—altogether the most envied and wonderful country in the world. They are coming slowly and painfully to realize that that is no longer true; they are angry and they want someone to blame.”

“Our requests and demands are more and more ignored in foreign capitals,” he goes on; “our vaunted military power suddenly seems inept: we are unable to win any war anywhere.”

All this was very interesting for me to read. In The Twilight of American Culture I argued that we were in a state of collapse and had no real future as a nation—a provocative, perhaps even aggressive notion at the time. Ten years later, this argument is, at least among American intellectuals, no longer that controversial. Indeed, it’s becoming a truism, and Dworkin represents nearly mainstream thinking on the subject. I just found it satisfying to see it in print, with no editorializing about it: the US is finished, and that’s just the way it is. History did not work out in our favor; what could be more obvious? Let’s call a spade a spade, and not try to put a positive spin on it, for chrissakes.

If this is now being articulated clearly among the intellectual class, it is nevertheless being felt subjectively by a great majority of American citizens, as Dworkin points out. Although objectively speaking, they cannot reverse the decline, they nevertheless are pissed as hell about it, and are lashing out in a futile attempt to reverse history. It’s a purely emotional reaction, without an ounce of intelligent reflection behind it; but then the latter has never been America’s strong suit.

Just coincidentally, while I was reading that issue of the NYRB, I was also reading the work of the Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani (or as the Japanese would write it, Nishitani Keiji). Nishitani wrote a book in 1949 called Nihirizumu (Nihilism), which was subsequently translated into English as The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism. In the postwar period, Nishitani was concerned about what he regarded as the emptiness of Japanese culture, and regarded the various manifestations of the latter as “mere shadows floating over the void.” Nishitani, who died in 1990, was of the Kyoto School, a city associated with medieval Japan and the world of craft, meditation, and religious traditions. The “centering” of the latter was giving way to the commercial chaos of Tokyo, the world of Sony and Mitsubishi and the economic frenzy of modern Japanese life. Nishitani felt Japan’s only hope was to recover its traditions (of course the Japanese paid no attention to this, and are now in a major economic tailspin); he did not feel that either the American or Soviet model could solve the problem at the core. He wrote:

“Today non-European powers like the United States and the Soviet Union are coming to the fore; in any event, they are the players who have stepped on to the stage of history to open up a new era. But neither ‘Americanism’ nor ‘communism’ is capable of overcoming the nihilism that the best thinkers of Europe confronted with anxiety, the abyss of nihility [sic] that opened up in the spiritual depths of the self and the world. For the time being they are managing to keep the abyss covered over, but eventually they will have to face it.”

As we all know, the USSR had to face it in 1989-90; the Leninism and Stalinism of the previous seventy-odd years were, in Nishitani’s words, “mere shadows floating over the void.” America, for various reasons, had a more impressive run: about 400 years, I would say, of doing something very similar, if with a different ideology. Its crackup began around 1971, and has proceeded in a much slower manner than that of the Soviet Union. But there is no papering it over any longer, as both Dworkin and the Tea Party understand (if in rather different ways). The hollowness that haunted us from the beginning is now terrifyingly present; the Void, like Mephistopheles, has come to collect its due. As in the case of the USSR, there is no stuffing it this time around, and Mr. Obama has proven to be representative of our emptiness, not a remedy for it. He’s nothing more than a logo, a guy who is all dressed up with no place to go.

So now Russia has become a kind of wasteland, governed by crony capitalism and KGB-style autocracy. Our own wasteland will probably take the form of crony capitalism and American Idol vapidity. Orwell in the one case, Huxley in the other, might be another way of putting it. But there is finally no hiding from the reality of all this. “The wasteland grows,” proclaimed Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra; “woe to whomever conceals wastelands!” Wise words, sure to be ignored by the American public and government alike.

©Morris Berman, 2010