As an outspoken, Clinton-resistant Bernie supporter, I’ve been feeling the pressure to get behind Clinton like a knife in my forehead. Since the California primary, I’ve posted my share of contradictory, frenzied Facebook missives, all the while knowing in my heart what I will do on Election Day and why.
This is the story behind my belabored, fatalistic decision to vote for Hillary Clinton*. It’s a story within a story within a story that begins in 1976. At the age of nine, I read Anne Frank’s diary, and my world fell to pieces. Gazing out hauntingly from the book cover, Anne’s dark eyes were proof from the grave of what humans are capable of when they are in the thrall of a noxious, grandiose myth.
It was nearly impossible for me to believe that this ordinary girl from a well-off Jewish family that could have been my own had been destroyed. Heartbroken and desperate to make sense of her story, I devoured every piece of Holocaust literature I could get my hands on, only to be further crushed by the scale of the slaughter, the depravity of the Nazis and the willingness of the German people to go along.
I developed phobias — Hitler was still alive and peering in my bedroom window at night. I was sure I could see him, his teeth sharpened like a vampire’s, and there was nothing my parents could say to reassure me that Hitler was long gone and that the Holocaust could never happen again.
I didn’t have faith in their reassurances because I had, in my obsessive reading, taken note of the many Jewish families who could have escaped but waited too long. They experienced a steady escalation of violent antisemitism and heard eyewitness accounts of mass graves filled with Jewish bodies, but they couldn’t bring themselves to believe that worse was in store.
“Get out now!” I cried out across the decades.
I’ve been holding a vigil, watchful for signs of fascism and nihilism ever since. This is where the second story begins.
I went to college in Manhattan during the late 1980s, a grim period of high crime, crack addiction and streets teeming with homeless people. The Reagan era was in full swing, busily dismantling the social supports that had kept capitalism from self-destructing since the New Deal and redirecting federal funding to the building up of a nuclear arsenal that could annihilate life on earth many times over.
My eighteen-year old psyche absorbed another blow: The adults in charge had clearly made a dangerous mistake in electing Reagan, a cold warrior whose “better dead than red” ethic could trigger nuclear Armageddon. Reagan’s grandfatherly demeanor didn’t fool me. Actually, it scared me more because it meant that the authoritarian madman was invisible underneath the appealing veneer of a strong yet kindly simpleton peddling “morning in America.” Hitler couldn’t seize power in 1980s America, but Reagan had done so by breathing new life into the moribund myth of American exceptionalism and trickle down capitalism.
Get out now!
The story of hubris
This is where the third story comes to the forefront. It’s not my personal story, but one that began thousands of years ago, when modern agriculture launched humans’ technological ascent and population explosion. To make a long story short, with the exception of a few scattered indigenous peoples, modern humans hold certain truths to be self-evident, chief among them our exceptionalism as a species.
The nihilistic and hubristic belief that we are separate from and in control of the rest of creation shares much in common with the myth of the Thousand Year Reich and is equally delusional. Nazis took the practice of “othering” to a nihilistic extreme, utterly oblivious to the fact that a nation cannot long sustain itself on a program of imperialist expansion and intensive state-sponsored repression and violence. It took eleven years, not a thousand, for the Nazi regime to cannibalize the homeland to the point of collapse.
We commit the same cognitive error but in slow motion when we cannibalize Mother Earth and all of her creatures, from the rainforests of Borneo to the sweatshops of Bangladesh to the fracked farmlands of Pennsylvania and the inner cities of Baltimore and Chicago. Comfortable in our homes, the ecocide and exploitation going on all over the world are always somewhere else, something happening to “others”, unfortunate perhaps, but necessary, unstoppable, overlookable.
Like the Nazis, we imagine ourselves continuing on like this forever — if anything, we foresee even greater material indulgences and medical miracles on the horizon. Soon, we’ll be genetically programming embryos, a breakthrough the Nazis could only dream of. Maybe there will even be a breakthrough that allows for all those poor Third World people to live like we do, an app perhaps.
There is serious talk of immortality — the Thousand Year Human.
Hubris is very, very dangerous. In our high-tech society, it lures us into temporarily buffering ourselves against many of the natural consequences of our destructive activities. When we contaminate our drinking water, we “purify” it with chemicals. When we pollute the air, we take medicine for asthma and heart disease. When we strip topsoil of its fertility, we replenish it with chemical fertilizers. When we have Zika-infected mosquitos in our state, we spray them with a pesticide that winds up killing millions of honey bees. When we overheat the planet, we can genetically engineer drought-resistant crop seeds, narrowing thousands of years of biodiversity to a handful of plant species controlled by a handful of multinational corporations. What could go wrong?
Hubris makes us believe we can sidestep the laws of nature indefinitely and, thus, there is no need to exercise caution in the adoption of new technologies — the more, the better, always. If technology causes harm, the solution is more technology.
To make matters worse, we are conditioned to predict our fate in purely individualistic terms — our pot may be coming to a slow boil but we can always leapfrog over the slower, duller, weaker frogs on our way out.
Hubris, steeped in a strong brew of hyper-individualism, is our undoing.
All over the world, we see virtually every social, economic and environmental indicator trending in the wrong direction. IPCC scientist Terry Root doesn’t even tell the public how bad things really are so as to avoid inducing paralysis. For anyone paying attention and willing to overcome the powerfully seductive denial reflex, it’s obvious that things are falling apart and that we don’t know which Jenga block will make the whole tower collapse or when. But soonish is a good guess.
And soonish means that we don’t have another four or eight years to waste under the leadership of a POTUS whose world view is premised on hubris. We can’t afford for the 45th POTUS to be someone who, like the first forty-four, uncritically embraces the all-American version of the story of human exceptionalism, which goes like this…
A brief storybook history of the United States
The United States is a shining city on a hill that will fulfill the human dream of ascending to such dazzling heights of technological and material wealth that it will, like God, remake the world in its own image. We are an exceptional nation, forged by rugged individualists who created something out of nothing and now we, their descendants, can bring the rest of the backward world along with us on our final ascent to greatness.
If anyone gets left behind, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough. We’re a meritocracy in which the best rise to the top and nobly extend charity to the losers. Life is a contest because humans are inherently competitive and it is this competitive drive that inexorably propels our ascent.
We did some bad things in our early history but bygones are bygones. People who dwell on the past are backward-thinking whiners. Technological advances ensure everyone a bright future in which we are served by robots or perhaps even merge with them to create a hybrid humanoid life form.
Only a fool would seek to restrain technology, for it allows us to feed the world, stamp out disease, and create a global economy in which every human on earth can, if they work hard enough, live as we do. Spreading our way of life across the globe is our highest calling, and economic growth and free trade are what enable us to do so. Those who stand in our way are antagonists who can and must be vanquished, for their own good.
If anything goes wrong, we’ll invent a solution, seizing the reins of the climate itself if it comes to it.
So the story goes. It’s a story that’s never expressly told but that every child raised in the United States knows from a young age. It’s a story in which humans, especially US-born humans, play the starring role as the favored species who, in the religious version, are granted earthly dominion by God or, in the secular version, earn dominion by dint of our superior intelligence. It’s a story driven by an imperialist belief that our way of life represents the pinnacle of human achievement and that our highest calling is to export this way of life to the rest of the world.
Queen Hillary and the magic mirror
When I find myself unable to celebrate the prospect of the first woman POTUS, it is because she is just like the protagonists of our national fairy tale who, intoxicated by inflated notions of our rightness and luminosity, are willfully blind to the looming end of civilization. Every day they gaze into the magic mirror, which assures them they are the fairest in the land and helps them identify and geo-track the competition for swift destruction.
The only POTUS I could get behind is one who understands that civilization as we know it is in its endgame, and the only question is whether we as a civilization learn, as novelist Roy Scranton so poignantly puts it, “how to die in the Anthropocene” or whether we deny our predicament until it’s not only our civilization that’s gone, it’s our species.
Hillary Clinton and the plutocratic establishment of the United States believe the Anthropocene can be technocratically managed. Their concern is not the end of civilization but the preservation of US and corporate hegemony for as long as civilization stands which, they presume, will be forever and a day.
Clintonites don’t want to wipe out bees and polar bears and forests and coral reefs and butterflies and don’t want to poison farmworkers with pesticides and lace drinking water with fracking chemicals and don’t want people to be poor and don’t want Pakistani children to be killed by drones or Palestinian children by mortars, but they’re willing to tolerate — and rationalize — inequality and ecocide and cancer as the price we pay for the material comforts that are the hallmark of our species’ and our nation’s greatness. If we are to remain the fairest in the land — and we must — sacrifices must be made, such as the half million Iraqi children whose war-related deaths were, per Secretary of State Madeline Albright, “worth it.” In the legal world, there’s a term for that kind reckless disregard for human life: manslaughter.
Corruption impels Clintonites to betray the 99% for the 1%, but hubris enables them to believe that their mission is noble and that they’ll get away with murder, that terrorized/radicalized Arab youth, the global dispossessed and Mother Earth herself won’t eventually cast them off. That makes them, in the end, just as nihilistic as the Nazis, even if their motivations are not so much destructive as delusional. As I wrote at the outset, people are capable of grave moral transgressions when in the thrall of a grandiose myth, in this case, the myth that we are too smart to fail.
New Story Rising
There’s a different story in the making. In this story, humans are a different kind of smart, the kind of smart that encompasses social and ecological intelligence, the kind of smart that has learned (or, in the case of indigenous peoples, always has known) that hubris is deadly. Humans are no more favored than any other life form, light-skinned no more than any other hue, men no more than women, straight no more than queer, young no more than old, Americans no more than any other nationality.
In the new story, we build local, living economies that allow us to sustainably meet our basic needs using the material and labor resources available in our bio-region. We get our food from community gardens, community supported agriculture and farmers’ markets. We build our homes using locally available materials. Local enterprises fashion our clothing, housewares, bicycles and medicinal herbs and we can barter or use local currency to pay for them. Nonlocal items like cars are shared. We generate our own clean energy. We crowdfund local businesses with zero-interest loans and keep our money in public banks that can finance clean energy and other infrastructure projects. The healing arts are predominantly preventative and natural, with recourse to high-tech modalities only as a last resort. We accept that we cannot live forever and choose death with dignity over endless end-of-life medical interventions.
The new story isn’t a plug-and-play utopian blueprint (the preceding paragraph notwithstanding) but is being crowdsourced piece by piece. The pieces will be woven together organically over time by people who see the old story ending in catastrophe. We don’t know yet exactly what it will be like or how we’ll get there. The new story is germinating just as the old story is senescing.
What the new story needs most of all in order to take root is breathing room. We need policymakers who slow down the climate clock and who care for the people too wounded to get by without help, people written off as “losers” in the meritocratic mythology of the old story.
Hillary Clinton will provide some small, inadequate measure of assistance to the growing masses of victims even while she continues to pander to the very forces of their destruction. She’s oblivious to techno-capitalism’s looming dead end, because it contradicts the story of human infallibility, and she’s too cynical to believe that a post-capitalist future is possible. But she won’t (overtly) suppress dissent or work to attack, disrupt and destroy progressive people’s movements or to terrorize and ruin the lives of immigrants (at least, not as aggressively as Trump surely would with a helping hand from ALEC, the NRA, and white nationalist hate groups). That doesn’t give us much breathing room, but it’s something.
I won’t belabor the Trump-Hitler comparison here, but read this if you harbor any doubts about the nature of Trump’s personality disorder and intentions. This is a nihilistic man punch drunk on ego and power, hungry for violence, all in for cutthroat competition, incapable of self-reflection, one hand on the nuclear button and the other on Mein Kampf, capable of the unthinkable. What he cannot create he will destroy — such is the nihilist’s endgame.
That, in the end, is why I’ll vote for Hillary Clinton — because she isn’t Donald Trump. I will vote for Clinton and, if she wins, I will not be excited or happy, not even a tiny bit.
And yes, of course, I’m weary and wary of lesser-evil voting. Hannah Arendt put it best when she wrote, “[T]hose who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil…. Acceptance of lesser evils is consciously used in conditioning the government officials and the population at large to the acceptance of evil as such.” The only antidote to Arendt’s admonition is to fight like hell to hold the lesser evil victor’s feet to the fire — once she’s in office, being less evil is no longer enough. Grassroots resistance must be steadfast and fierce.
I’m less focused on the glass ceiling over Hillary’s head than the cardboard boxes over the heads of the people sleeping in my neighborhood park. We’re in a struggle now to determine whether we’re all in this together or whether it’s every woman leaning in for herself. This is the defining moral question of the 21st century, the outcome of which will shape the nature of human experience for a long time to come, assuming it doesn’t foreclose a future altogether.
If it sounds like I’m motivated by fear, that’s only because I am. But unlike the specious, race-based fears that are Trump’s stock in trade, the fears I have are based on observations of actual conditions, events, and laws of physics and biology. It’s not ideal or inspiring to be motivated by fear but, sometimes, it’s necessary, like when you’re being charged by a wild boar. This is one of those times.
I’m terrified of the irrevocable damage Trump would do to people and planet. I’m also scared of Clinton. Unless she appreciates the nature and magnitude of the ecological and humanitarian crises already upon us and begins radically expanding the limits of what’s politically possible, all the liberal half-measures in the world won’t save us. It’s already too late to hope to hang on to many of the things we take for granted.
I realize that, if you haven’t yet come to terms with the direness of our predicament, this is hard to swallow, and every drumbeat of our culture assures you that what I’m warning of will never come to pass and that you should ignore me and go back to your regularly scheduled program, go back to catching Pokemon, go back to the mall. If I hadn’t had my own head ripped precociously from the sand forty years ago, I’d be at the mall too, or lip syncing Katy Perry at the Democratic Convention and, even for all my self-professed realism, I too find myself distracted by the trivial, narcotizing errata of everyday life, the “first world problems” and escapisms that are in infinite supply. We are all, on some level, me as much as an angst-ridden, beaten-down Trump supporter, bewildered, frightened and disoriented by the changes and threats that are afoot, changes and threats that we can feel even if we can’t correctly identify them.
Despite the dreadful cocktail of foreboding, uncertainty and ambivalence that threatens to drown me, I do hang on to a life raft of hope. Anne Frank wrote, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” It is ultimately this truth, this hardwired love for each other and for all beings, that will nourish the new story and make it blossom, creating a new society out of the ashes of the shining city on the hill. Anne’s faith in us cries out across the decades.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to Charles Eisenstein, David Bosworth and Daniel Quinn whose works have inspired my thinking.