Home » People & Culture » 2016: The Rot at the Core

2016: The Rot at the Core

What can be said about 2016 as it winds down? Certainly, something has gone horribly wrong. What could it be?

I believe that ultimately what has broken us apart is a destructive selfishness which has metastasized into a cancer.

Even Carrie Fisher was taken from us this horrible year.

Even Carrie Fisher was taken from us this horrible year.

For most people, this will be remembered as the year when so many artists and celebrities who shaped our lives passed on. While that is regrettable, it’s worth noting that as Baby Boomers age we can only expect this to accelerate. This is merely a reflection of our own mortality, something which no one ever wants to face eagerly.

That, alone, could be a mirror for understanding our own problem with our “self”.

Politics, as a concept, is nothing more than the art and science of human interaction. Where “politics” is considered a dirty word, “office politics” or “domestic politics” illuminates the meaning of the concept well. A world that is ever closer in so many ways is a world which is more political all the time. We come in contact with people we do not understand and even do not like all the time. The behavior of other people seems alien and possibly hostile. Why do they do the things they do?

Because people are people, but cultures are cultures.

Where we are all individuals who react more or less the same way to the same stimulus, the cultures we come from give us different pressures. Motivation for some behavior is never clear to someone who is not from that culture. This may seem obvious when talking about Islam versus western Liberalism, but it is also true when talking about the gap between American “liberal” versus “conservative”.

It becomes far too easy to ascribe purely evil intent when cultures come into close contact with each other. This is only the start of the retreat into a destructive selfishness, however.

Narcissism is essentially normal in today's America.

Narcissism is essentially normal in today’s America.

What went terribly wrong in 2016, in my view, is that worldviews in general have collapsed into a singularity. Politics naturally starts with the self and its perspective, but it cannot end there. Through the last year all politics became personal and narrow, all answers became easy and poorly defined. Everything became selfish.

Take, for example, the rise of “fake news”, the crisis of the moment. False stories have been around as along as gossip, which in itself has always been the primary form of news among humans. What is new in this equation is the ability to craft and share these stories in a format which has some formal look of authenticity despite containing none. Yet even that is not the real problem. The process of sharing them involves first believing things which conform to a worldview that is entirely selfish in perspective and then a deep need to force that view on the rest of the world, desperately seeking additional validation.

Fake news is growing in fertile soil. That is the problem.

It is easier to blame a cartoon than to blame ourselves, generally.

It is easier to blame a cartoon than to blame ourselves, generally.

All of our politics has collapsed in this way. On the right, where selfishness has often been lauded as a virtue, there is nothing left but this. Spirituality, respect, and even decency appear to have fallen away in a world now defined by a desperately narcissistic President-Elect. But the left offers little more as an alternative. A progressive future will not be delivered by a desperate need to blame the mythical “1%” for nearly everything or a belief that a few tweaks to the narrowly defined oligarchy. Both the past and the future have collapsed into a terribly narrow sense of right now, a politics of instant gratification.

The net result is that everyone is a victim. Nevermind that they are victims first and foremost by themselves and their own lack of interest in stepping outside of their own skin for a moment.

What is the way out? This is a nation defined by self, which is to say a populism which commands that all politics must start with people. Our catechism teaches that we are creatures of basic rights first and foremost, and everything goes from there. But how do we define Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Hapiness in a way which allows us to move forward?

Any sense of "self" which does not open up all the parts of "self" has the potential to be poisonous.

Any sense of “self” which does not open up all the parts of “self” has the potential to be poisonous.

Increasingly, I can’t help but break down the concept of Self into something like “chakras”, or basic elements which must work together for good health. At the base there is the belly, which must be full and given proper nutrition. Up from that is the heart, which needs passion to beat vibrantly. Next are the lungs which must breathe deeply as eager arms act to build and create. Above that is the head which has to be focused and clear so that the senses do not overload it and tranquility can rule. Lastly there is the world beyond and above, the greater purpose of any kind which drives it all.

The last year has been full of noise which has dulled and misdirected all of these parts of self. Our politics is not only selfish, it is based on a sense of self with is always buzzy and bizzy and never satisfies the needs of any useful part of self in any way at all.

And so we have passion disconnected from rational thought or even reality itself. We have a greater purpose which serves nothing. We have work which is unfulfilling and unrewarding in every sense. And through it all what we, as a people, do better than anything else is keep shoving things into our bellies and stare in amazement that we have become fat and lazy.

It’s not just that we are selfish. It’s that we have no useful vision of self to start with.

What went terribly wrong in 2016? To say that everything has gone wrong is too easy. But there is little doubt in my mind that there is a deep rot at the core of this reviled thing we call “politics”. What that simply must be, in a nation where the individual as at the defined heart of all politics, is a cancer which has replaced “self” and rendered it utterly dysfunctional.

This cancer has not yet killed us, but it is certainly set to.

15 thoughts on “2016: The Rot at the Core

  1. It started when we allowed politicians to serve themselves instead of serving the people.
    We no longer have control over them. The only reason we do not have term limits is that when the Constitution was written the average life expectancy for a human was 40 years old. Death limited government service.
    But it wouldn’t matter now anyway because State and Federal governments have wrested power form the people. Thomas Jefferson defined a Democracy as a political system in which periodically half the people vote to take away the rights of the other half. At present we no longer even have that. We do not have a Democracy. We have a Political Hierarchy.
    Bloated, corrupt and self centered.

    • Yet we retain the mechanisms to do something about it – as soon as we stop believing the bullshit. As soon as we stop believing our own bullshit.

      I do not disagree with you. But the operative word in what you said is near the top – “We”. That’s what is in extra large fancy print at the top of the Constitution itself, after all. Until we start thinking like that we are indeed doomed, IMHO.

  2. In a general sense, this is true, but Jo Cox was murdered trying to help people.

    I would also point out that there are more democracies today, more nations today, than there were 150 years ago. How many people foresaw the fall of the British Empire? 2016 could be a blip in an overall trend. We don’t fully know what direction the UK will take post-Brexit. We don’t fully know what a Trump Presidency will mean, either, as circumstances could limit his plans and/or strengthen his position to go even further than he originally planned. I’d say that Trump was advocating a politics of the collective, rather than the politics of the self. There was a ‘Green Surge’ in 2014/15 for The Green Party of England and Wales which fizzled out after the 2015 general election. Also, its hard to say the 2016 Trump victory is a ringing endorsement for populism when Clinton got three point five million more votes.

    Clinton, although, speaking a lot about collective groups was talking about experiences based on body and identity. 2016 could just as easily be the start of the identity politics revolution. Politics doesn’t have to stay the same as it was 10 years ago. There is the Women’s Equality Party in the UK. #BlackLivesMatter, although founded in 2014, is based on identity and on a ‘feeling’ of racial prejudice from police using disproportionate force. The police are not a mythical 1%. That 1% is very real and act with very serious consequences due to the direct use of disproportionate force, with what must feel like impunity. Looking at the statistics of recorded incidents and crimes etc, it would seem that people of a non-white heritage are the victims of disproportionate force. Obviously its not that simple, but the feeling is just as real and can be easily exaggerated by an echo chamber. The same applies to 2016 being a bad year. The UK has made progress, like the United States, has legalised homosexual marriage. The UK has adopted the international definition of anti-Semitism. The Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner regularly speaks out against hate crime. Migration is also a part of this issue of identity and how we identify with other people in society. The English Defence League claimed that the non-Muslim identity was unique to England and that being a Muslim is not compatible with ‘Englishness’. The EDL also suggest that non-Muslims are the (only) victims of the terrorism. Social class still exists, as a relationship to the productive capital of an economy, but things are less obvious. Its also the case that it means less to from a specific class background, even if social mobility has declined – people don’t identify themselves as being working/middle/upper class. There might be reasons for that: real or imagined.

    Politics is more about power and how that power is organised (or not organised, as the case may be). I’d say 2017 will start a more uncertain year than 2016 did. The French and German elections will leave the Eurozone and wider European Union glued to the election results programmes.

    There might be a greater rise in this sort of politics because its the politics of affluence – the bread and butter issues of wealth creation, the role of the state in the economy have been sorted (or at least the framework in which these issues are discussed). There are other movements, like environmentalism, like international development etc. They tend to be on the left (as a progression from the climate change etc centre) of politics, but the policies of security tend to be on the right (as a reaction to threatening events) of politics.

    However, it was interesting to hear a person involved with #Occupy speak about the limitations of protest being the basis of a wider social movement. Yes, there is an argument for saying that the politics identity . Its happened before, but that was identity of a collective (most often expressed as nation and/or race), but previously, its led to an exclusive definition of identity, but identity can be inclusive too. What is new, is that the previous identity politics is not the identity of the body, the identity of the feeling, the identity of the self, the identity of individual.

    I do think people matter, but that’s because people change our experience of the world. It was a person that came up with the idea of a camera/smartphone. There are also bad things happening, caused by people. I know there are ideas behind actions, but ideas expressed. Perhaps it would be better if we all went back to the state of nature where there was life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (assuming all people are born free, equal and good – I know, it might be the right assumption, but its still an assumption). However, its not cultures that cause social tensions. I can believe its more to do with a wilful lack of understanding of cultural differences and, a lack of appreciation for the shared cultural values and interests. There is too a lack of acceptance that there are multiple identities and that they can all apply on their own and together at the same time (think of it as inductive, rather than deductive, logic).

    The fake news as its lead to one shooting, already. The right to offend, as well, doesn’t mean you have to go and offend others (as if it were some kind of duty). I’ve read some articles on The Huffington Post website. On one occasion I had to ask myself, ‘How is this, that John McDonnell was NOT going to speak at an SWP/Trade Union event, even news?’ I didn’t even know the event was happening until I read the article. There’s crap news, as well as fake news.

    • A thoughtful response. My sense is that Trump, Sanders, Brexit, etc, represent a wake-up call that was not otherwise going to be heard by the political establishments. Will that call be heard by the political party establishments? I don’t see much indication of that so far. (Certainly not from the DFL in MInnesota!).

      I continue to be surprised that people aren’t blaming the US destabilization of the MIddle East for the whole “refugee” crisis thing.

      Overall, there are many wild cards in 2017 and it will be an interesting year.

    • There is a lot here to comment on. I want to start with this:

      “I can believe its more to do with a wilful lack of understanding of cultural differences and, a lack of appreciation for the shared cultural values and interests. ”

      I accept this. The noise of a bizzy world has become deafening as it closes in around us. Far too many people have crawled into a fetal position with their hands over their ears to drown it all out. That’s your crap news, fake news, fluffy news, and other plain gossip that simply drowns out anything useful at all.

      Very few of us are in any position to make sense of what is happening. There’s no reason to think that we ever will be able to intellectually, either. Like previous steps in modernity, such as the Industrial Revolution, there has to be a period of normalization where we all gradually accept it. Coping mechanisms come from the guts and the heart, not the head.

      Politics is indeed about how power is organized. Our systems in the developed free world are based on the premise that most of it has to be distributed. The responsibility that comes with that is overwhelming at times. A retreat into authoritarianism is actually rather rational in a way – just tell us what to do and keep us safe, please. It’s far too confusing to do anything else.

      You raise many, many good points. All in all I think the main effect is simply overwhelming.

  3. Erik, you seem in a pessimistic frame of mind. Will just say that what we are seeing in 2016 is the chickens coming home to roost. The consequences of long-term failures of thought and policy, that will take a long time to correct. We are going to need to hang in there…..

    • This is as pessimistic as I get. You are right in that this is just the culmination of decades of work by those who want to enslave one way or the other.

      The problem is a simple one. Barataria is about my role as Sancho Panza, trying to keep the world out of trouble until it regains its sanity. The world has believed its own bullshit for far too long and honestly believes the windmills are dragons. I am not doing my job. The world is in more peril than it was when I started.

      We do need to hang in there. It will be hard.

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