A View From Rocco's: The Advent of Their Discontent
(January, 2008, not published)
In this column last year I outlined a number of reasons why I believed that I was experiencing my first post-Enlightenment Advent. As I wrote that piece, there still lurked in the back of my mind the fear that I could be wrong; that perhaps the old, lying, self-deluded, Renaissance-Reformation-Whig monster might still have some kick left in it, guaranteeing that wretched beast more of a future than I at first thought possible.
Chatter here at my neighborhood cafe since September has done wonders to dispel many lingering fears on my part that the Enlightenment goose might not yet be well cooked. The customers crowding round the espresso bar this Advent are talking like slaves ready to break their chains. They are much more angry at the Cultural Revolution that the Gang of Philosophes unleashed than they were in 2007. They are also much more willing openly to enunciate their conviction that they are suckers on the losing end of an enormous and long-lasting con game. And, finally, although very happy to see the Republicans depart from office, they are in no way hopeful that the Change Administration, with its attempt to create a Hegelian synthesis from out of the Bush thesis and the Clinton antithesis, will make their lives any better. As far as the crowd at Rocco's is concerned, this is really and truly the Advent of their Discontent.
One notes this the minute a customer opens his mouth. My father, born in 1916, the son of a poor Sicilian immigrant cigar-roller, sold newspapers on the south side of the main branch of the New York Public Library from 1926 through 1932. He told me that he knew that times had changed when the phrase that people greeted one another with also underwent a major transformation. When the Depression hit, instead of asking how one felt, conversations began with the much more charged question: "are you working?"
"Are you working?" has not quite replaced queries concerning health here at Rocco's. Since last September, an analogous "has it hit you yet?" is the standard morning icebreaker among customers waiting for their first espresso. This is followed by an even more pressing "how far do you think it will go?"
I personally know a considerable number of people--East Side, West Side, and all around the town--who have recently been "hit": either by losing their jobs and moving away or seeing their pensions reduced by half on what were thought to be "sure-fire" investments, far beyond the reach of the current unpleasantness. Although my tenured position is pretty safe, adjuncts at my university are in big trouble as well. Many courses were cancelled this month because students, freshmen in particular, were hesitant to pre-register. They are apparently deeply concerned about their ability to pay next semester's tuition. And the traditional classes, like ancient history and literature, topped the list of the academic victims of economic fear.
Last year, most of the neighborhood restaurants and stores selling non-essential commodities that were still doing relatively well were prospering because of foreign clients exploiting a strong Euro and powerful English pound. That source of cash has now virtually dried up. My English friends from Oxford days who arrived here last December to do their Christmas shopping at Macy's are hurting possibly even worse than we are on our side of the pond. Irish defaults on mortgages are skyrocketing daily, cutting out the chance of Dubliners spending New Year's Eve at a fancy midtown pub. Italian acquaintances locked for months into holiday trips to visit New York are e-mailing me regarding cheap motels in bad sections of Queens and Jersey City. Some of the storekeepers on Bleecker Street have even begun to remind me of proprietors of shops in Athens or Istanbul. They stand in their entrance ways begging customers to pop in for a purchase, or maybe simply just a chat about how miserable they are.
Admittedly, regular economic dislocation is part of the modern industrial capitalist system, depression is nothing new, and the attendant lamentations and woe of those affected by it are all too predictable. None of this in and of itself portends a revolt of the masses toppling the Enlightenment magicians and moonshine peddlers who have pushed us into the heart of darkness from their centuries old thrones. What does do so are two other factors figuring into the daily, rebellious cafe dialogue alluded to above: the sense of being played for suckers in an ever more transparent con game, and cynicism regarding hopes for any meaningful change on the part of the dominant powers-that-be.
Surely no one needs to be reminded in great detail why people feel "conned". The spectacle presented by the dying Administration's demand for an unquestioning mad dash from Adam Smith to Socialism the minute that buddies from Goldman Sachs were in trouble, combined together with the calls for caution, lest "failure be rewarded" when tens of thousands of ordinary blue collar jobs lacking clout in Washington came on the line is an unseemly stimulus to fury. It makes even the most timid of the Rocco's crowd eager to hurl those who babble on about the virtues of the "natural", unregulated market off the Tarpeian Rock--for high treason to the American worker and the American family. So angry are people here about what is perceived as a deadly systemic disorder that no one is particularly outraged over the actions of the Governor of Illinois. "What's the big deal about selling a Senate seat?" one close friend asked me just yesterday. "After all", he continued, "crooks galore will be competing to buy the creep and pay back his investment once he gets to Capitol Hill. It's obvious that the whole country is on sale. It's nothing other than one gigantic fur-trapping colony".
It has been intensely interesting to me to hear that almost no one depositing his two cents into the daily Rocco's dialogue has any hope that "things are going to change" under the new President either. The opposite is true. Almost all those who enter these august precincts believe that everything is going to continue along exactly the same track, and that Obama, who is entering office with the aura of a New Deal miracle man, is going to find the expectations too hard to fulfill and fall with a Hoover-like thud. This, too, contributes to the gloom surrounding the Advent of their Discontent, but in a way that gives us enemies of the Enlightenment a chance to present our very different understanding of man, society, and economic life.
I am not competent to judge whether Obama's fall from the heights will be connected with a new Depression. That there will be such a plunge is inevitable though, because all of the hoo-ha over "change" that lay at the center of his campaign was always nonsensical and bound, eventually, to be revealed as such. I noted as much in an article in these pages called The Libido for the Thesis many months ago. Unfortunately, talk in conservative circles in the weeks leading up to the election made it seem as though this mystical, Obama-led "change" really did have some substance to it. The change talked about therein involved the ushering in of some new tyrannical age of Islamo-Communism. Its imminence was symbolized by constant repetition of the "Hussein" part of the president-elect's name.
I have to confess that I found these concerns absolutely baffling and deeply demoralizing. I could not get myself worked up over Obama's future tyrannical activity, with Guantanamo and the instruments of torture of Bush & Company on immediate and often proud, patriotic display. I found it difficult to treat Obama's embrace of a quite common principle of progressive taxation, favored by innumerable Catholic thinkers in the past, as though it were Marxist in character---especially while Republicans were telling me I could not pause one second before accepting the nationalization of much of the banking industry. And although I myself was "philo-Islamic" enough to hope that an oppressed Palestinian or a maimed Iraqi baby might see a change with the Senator from Illinois, it quickly became clear that he, too, was ready to "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran", and even obliterate the whole country if a single dandelion were touched in Tel Aviv.
In fact, all that "change" comes down to in the contemporary American system is the option for the electorate to determine whether it wishes a different political party than the one currently in power to have the honor of obeying AIPAC and doing away with the rest of the world in the interests of Israel. The Americans deemed the Republicans worthy of this privilege for the past eight years. They now have granted the Democrats the chance to prove their merit in this highest of tasks. Who would possible want more change? The very suggestion that there was time left over merely to contemplate changing something else would open itself up to the charge of fomenting anti-semitism.
Yes, I am of course aware of the pro-life issue, and the fact that the position of Obama regarding abortion is horrible. It was for this reason that I could not vote for him. Nevertheless, I could not bring myself to believe that an obligation not to vote for Obama was matched by an equal obligation to vote for a party that has suckered Catholics into thinking that it would "clinch" the pro-life victory, while it brought shame upon America in every other respect.
I did not see real change coming from a John McCain who would appoint more justices like Scalia, whose grounds for "conservative" actions are as Enlightenment-based as they come and serve merely alter the means by which the pro-abortion position wins the day. More importantly, I could not bring myself to believe that the long-term good of the pro-life cause would be served by: 1) arousing xenophobic fears regarding the dangers presented by miserably poor Moslems migrating from a hopelessly divided Islamic world, for the benefit of an overbearing and viciously anti-Catholic Israel which does daily, self-conscious harm to the cause of Christendom; 2) ignoring the Republican Party's recent callous disregard for all born human life, through warmongering that calls out to heaven for vengeance; and, 3) acting as though international promotion of an economic and social order based on the kind of "freedom" and greed that causes people to want to abort their children to in order to gain more discretionary income comes without evil consequences.
How much Obama will bring about an awful change for the worse on the abortion front remains to be seen, but opposing his positions and policies on this issue is a crucial task for the future. Still, whatever happens, it does not warrant thinking that a McPain-Palin victory would have ushered in the Millennium. They, too, are representatives of the Enlightenment mentality that we oppose, one step behind Obama on the important issue of abortion, but on the intellectual and spiritual track that leads to the same destination in the long run anyway. Spout out the individualist, Protestant, Americanist line of a Sarah Palin, and well-intentioned though she might be, there will be self-contradiction and hell to pay before very long at all. I only wish that John McCain would have been elected president simultaneously in some parallel universe in order to see if there were any real difference whatsoever for for any traditional cause, the pro-life cause included, after four years under his rule as opposed to that of Obama. I sincerely doubt it.
Anger in this Advent of Discontent at Rocco's is more palpable, more bitter, and more vocal than it was a year ago. But just as last year, it is still not a fully self-aware anger. It is anger at the Enlightenment that is really stimulating both friends at my Stammtisch and passers-by at the espresso bar: the Enlightenment's reduction of the meaning of things to purely material concerns; its empowerment of the strongest wills to do whatever they wish; its claim that Progress is just around the corner, so long as slightly hands dedicated to the same unchanging trajectory are placed at the helm of the ship of state.
We Catholics can never be made happy by the misery of the people around us. Nevertheless, we can feel joy over the fact that an Advent filled with discontent can lead those suffering from it to begin a hunt for a new means to obtain contentment. We Catholics know that real contentment can only come from acceptance of the Christmas message and rejection of anything that stands in its way. Our full joy should come from guiding the discontented to the foot of the creche; our discontent from failure to do so.Lacking in support and ever more transparent in its commitment to the Triumph of the Will, the Enlightenment is a spent and dying force. Unfortunately, it still holds the formal reins of power in its hands and is capable of effecting global damage before drawing its last breath. Our only short-term chance for Catholic survival is to hope that those among the "enlightened" strong who hold the reins of power for the sake of greed can cancel out the influence of those among the "enlightened" strong who hold the reins of power for the sake of serving Israel. Our only long-term chance for Catholic survival is to make the unselfconscious discontent against the naturalist Enlightenment a conscious one and enlist the believers-in-waiting in our--in their--army. That can only come about it we remain fully Catholic in our hearts, souls, and mind. As far as I can see, at this juncture in time, that means three means: continuing the fight for the whole of the Tradition, with the fight against abortion high on the list of our concerns; praying for the conversion of President-elect Obama; and, last but not least, not encouraging the delusion that John McCain and Sarah Palin were somehow a Catholic answer to all our problems.
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