That Was My Future

“Governments should strive to restore to men that taste for the future which religion and the state of society no longer inspire, and they should, without exactly saying as much, teach daily in practical terms that wealth, reputation, and power are the payment for work, that great success should come at the end of a lengthy period of waiting, and that nothing lasting is ever gained without difficulties.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

One of my favorite memories of childhood and early teen years is the image of the future as seen by Popular Mechanics in the late Fifties and early Sixties. As a recurring theme, the future was glorified for its clean cities, happy, healthy families, and the self-guided cars. 

Ah, the cars! They were blessed with automatic guidance systems so that Dad could take his hands off the wheel and turn around to the kids in the back seat who were playing a game together (nicely!), while Mom smiled approvingly. The family would arrive—on time—to their programmed destination, a gleaming skyscraper or, alternatively, a pleasant wooded valley for a picnic. These cars, as I recall, had only one flaw, but it was one that simply could not be overlooked. They were visual variations on what was later to become the AMC Gremlin, one of the most perverse cars of all time for many reasons. That mistake can be forgiven but how can the good people at Popular Mechanics have thought that our metropolitan highways would be anything but stupefyingly clogged?  I thought of this recently as I  inched through traffic on my way to the first class of a new semester. It took me as long to drive seven miles (45 minutes) into Washington, DC as it takes to drive almost forty miles to another campus just north of Baltimore. 

Understanding what this moment in the Great Timeline of History really means is beyond us. It’s beyond us in a curiously literal fashion in that the meaning of this moment, seen from a certain angle, is no-where, and it won’t be anywhere that makes sense for quite awhile. Of course, if you adopt another perspective on this, the present is not no-where but now-here, to be reveled in if not understood. These are not just word games; it makes all the difference in the world how we think about the present with regard to the future. For example, if the future is an eternal recurrence of the present, just more of the same, the appropriate response might be satire, as in Engel’s remark in a letter to Marx that Hegel seemed to be directing history from the grave, “once as grand tragedy and the second time as rotten farce.” 

Stephen Colbert, the faux Republican comedian and favorite spokesperson for the political theatre of the absurd, understands this. He understands it so well that he’s willing to put thousands of dollars into a campaign for the presidency that parallels, but does not converge with—at least not yet—the “real” Republican primary campaign. Watching the current survivors of this fracas is instructive. As I write Rick Santorum has declared himself the winner of the Iowa caucus, Rick Perry has quit the race, Jon Huntsman bailed out the previous week, and Newt Gingrich continues to savage Mit Romney at the knees. The tragedy is that these are the kind of people who want to be president; the farce is what they are willing to do to get the job. 

I saw a photo on the front page of the New York Times the other day, a shot taken backstage of one of the Republican debates, moments before the candidates took their places. In the rear of the photo can be seen three or four stony-faced onlookers, aides perhaps, while in the foreground Rick Perry joshes Rick Santorum, putting him in an elbow-grip and leaning in close with a tight smile like a preacher about to clamp the guilt-cuffs on a prodigal parishioner. To the right of the photo, bathed in a Rembrandt spotlight, the two alleged statesman of the event speak together. Mit Romney, his back straight, his fixed smile gleaming, his hands gesturing expansively, makes a point to Newt Gingrich who is positioned with his back to the camera. Gingrich is hunched over with concentration, perhaps trying to hear over Perry’s raucous laughter and Santorum’s sharp response. The tableau reminds us that candidates are actors in a traveling road show, fellow evangelists in a long-running gospel revival paid for, produced, and packaged by groups with unlimited funds and a few simple demands. 

After all the name-calling, the low blows, the viciousness, and the outright lying, one of them, probably Romney, will stand up, wipe off his sword, and march off to battle the incumbent. The ability to cut and thrust, grapple and disembowel—and then to emerge, winner and loser together, all smiles and a thousands points of light, makes one’s head spin. I grew up thinking that it mattered what one believed in and acted upon, that you shouldn’t be wielding the sword to dismember your opponent and then denounce him for not beating his sword into a plowshare. 

But such bald-faced hypocrisy is not the talent of the Republican tribe alone. Robert Hughes writes that  “Propaganda-talk, euphemism and evasion are so much a part of American usage today that they cross all party lines and ideological divides.” Even so, naiveté has its benefits: we continue to believe that calculated sins were probably ignorant mistakes long after others have written off the whole political process as a bad joke. That naiveté grows into hope with time and conscience, and hope will not be fooled. The future we looked for in the past is here and it’s nothing like we imagined. It’s not as bad as some made it out to be and it’s certainly not as good as Popular Mechanics painted it. That future never really existed anyway. If you take a much longer view and if you realize that change is incremental and slow—until the fault line snaps and looses the tsunami—then what matters is that consistency and integrity will have their day, though you may not live to see it. Yet at some point we all look back and realize how much has changed, how much is still the same, and how much is still to come. 

More and more these days when I am tempted to regard the present order with horror, I appreciate Orwell’s comment that “Contrary to popular belief, the past was not more eventful than the present. If it seems so it is because when you look backward things that happened years apart are telescoped together, and because very few of your memories come to you genuinely virgin.”

We should save the word “tragedy” for the genuine article: the suffering of those in earthquakes, tsunamis, and war. The political battles and campaigns that we are watching right now can be viewed as comedy when seen up close. But let’s not forget that the means often become the ends because through constant use they have come to define us.

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