Democratic Underground

The Turning Tide

April 23, 2005
By AP Short

Every writer, no matter how obscure or unsuccessful, has a few pieces of other people's work floating around in his head at all times; tiny perfect pieces of immortal truth, the sort of things he aspires to produce one day in the distant, misty future.

I have a few for every medium; a song lyric here, a poetic stanza there, most of them hopelessly pedestrian, archaic, and unhip. When it comes to prose, though, there is only one passage that I come back to with great frequency. I have to look at it now and again just to keep going, to understand that all the pain and fear I've lived with all my life actually make sense, that everything fits into a universal order, vile and savage though it may be. It is the kernel of everything I aim to describe about the world - a glimmer of hope cutting through a fog of crippling sadness and despair.

And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting--on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right sort of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark--that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

- Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" 1971

All of this happened before I was born, of course. My parents were still in college at the time, and neither read these words. My father learned the name Hunter S. Thompson last month, when I told him that another one of my idols had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Though I doubt they sensed it on any conscious level, I was brought up awash in their subconscious mourning of the final failure of their generation to blast through the limits of the staid cultural legacy they deplored, but to which they were, ultimately, bound.

It was a weird trip, to be sure, and it took me twenty years to bring this ancestral yearning up to the surface where I could wrestle with it on my own terms. By then I had survived - though only just barely - the disgusting, plastic decade of Ronald Reagan, and the various depredations of my upbringing in that vast, featureless spiritual ghetto, the American suburb.

Whenever I write on the subject of my childhood, the finished product always betrays a certain bitterness that I find troubling - bitterness is not precisely what I am trying to convey. In the end, I achieved the only real success I had ever been interested in, emerging from that strange institution wounded but unbroken, like Chief Bromden heaving the control panel through the asylum window and ambling off to Canada. I admit I sometimes lament that I missed my chance to be a McMurphy instead, spouting acid-soaked philosophy in some hippie bar in Berkeley at the height of the Freak Power movement, the revered philosopher king of a pitiful, dying nation... But anyone who thinks McMurphy is the hero of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has spent too much time with the Cliff's Notes, written by men with neatly trimmed beards and jackets with leather elbow patches. If you want the truth, read the book. McMurphy dies. The Combine gets him. If that's a moral victory, I'll take defeat.

Surely, man, there is some point to all this depressing yammering? Let's get to it!

Perhaps there is. Those of us in that enigmatic 18-30 voter demographic (from which I am scheduled to emigrate in the frighteningly imminent future) have spent our entire lives enduring the massive right-wing backlash to a progressive social movement whose fruits we never tasted. The grave insults to conservative sensibilities that were the civil rights movement, the collapse of the Vietnam invasion, and the fall of Richard Nixon are just chapters in history books that our teachers never quite had time to cover in high school.

Meanwhile, the social legacy of the 1960's has been completely swallowed by the corporate machine. These days rebellion is churned out on assembly lines like so many Fruit Roll-Ups; individuality is a commodity to be purchased from the Gap, General Electric, Verizon, or Volkswagen. Worker's unions are weaker than they've been since the Robber Baron era, and churches, once a thorn in the side of state power, have been largely coopted as distribution networks for coarse propaganda. For the first time in recent history, a second-term Republican president sits atop comfortable Republican majorities in both houses of congress. Real wages are back on the decline as corporate profits and executive compensation continue to spiral skyward.

It is a dark time for the rebellion. Yet it is hard, for this optimist at least, not to see some signs that the triumphant conservative movement may have suddenly and unexpectedly reached its zenith. Many of the developments in recent weeks, taken individually, could easily fit into the old script of rampant fascism on the march at home and abroad, but taken as a whole they begin to look at bit like the whitecap of a wave that may just be ready to break.

One of the strangest and most interesting developments was the election this week of Cardinal Ratzinger as the new pontiff. Ratzinger's election wasn't a surprise, of course - he was, after all, a prohibitive betting favorite going into the conclave. What was a bit of a stunner was his choice of names - Benedict XVI, following in the footsteps of the stridently antiwar Benedict XV. Conservatives in America rejoiced at the selection of the anti-gay, anti-abortion Ratzinger, but contrary to the wild imaginings of many liberal American Catholics, no theologically progressive Cardinal had anything more than a flyweight puncher's chance of being elected Pope. Ratzinger is widely considered an ally of the neoconservatives based on a memo he wrote denouncing Marxist "liberation theology" in Latin America in the 1980's, but in reality Ratzinger's hostility towards popular social movements and his love for autocratic political regimes has been greatly exaggerated, as has his anti-Kerry interference in the 2004 election.

Were Benedict XVI's election the only strange blip on the sociopolitical radar, I would think nothing of it. But all across the conservative landscape there are rumblings of unrest. Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who not three months ago looked like a man mounting a whispering campaign for Vice President in 2008, is suddenly no better than 50-50 to retain his own seat in 2006. Tom Delay's problems continue to deepen, and when Karl Rove recently decided that the thing for the White House to do was to come out in full-throated support of the embattled majority leader, he must have been more than a little flummoxed at the reaction he got from Bush, who sent Rove out to make the announcement himself, with no one else in the picture at all.

Just as war appeared ready to break out over Bill Frist's attempt at cancellation of the filibuster option for judicial nominations, the GOP battleship sprung an unrelated leak this week when Richard Lugar lost control of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting and stranded John Bolton, Bush's nominee for UN Ambassador, in a three-week limbo from which he may not ascend.

It had been a long time since Lugar hit a serious bump in the road, and he did not take it well. Fear blossomed on his face as he listened to first one, then three Republican Senators conclude that they could not vote for a man with so many unanswered allegations pending against him. Lugar, too, is up for reelection in 2006, and while he's probably in no danger from the Democrats, if he winds up losing Bolton he may well face the primary without the backing of the party's big guns. Money men do not smile on losers and wimps, and Lugar's performance after Voinovich derailed the nomination certainly did nothing to inspire anyone's confidence.

Inside the most devoted core of the conservative movement, none of these developments seem to have raised much alarm. Attacks on Tom Delay, the faithful reassure one another, are merely a sign that the Democrats are desperate, much like the insurgents in Iraq, whose daily, well-coordinated attacks on U.S. targets must surely mean they are almost routed. The fight over the filibuster, these folks assume, will surely cause the Democrats to finally be outed as "The Party of No," fulfilling the nightmare that allegedly motivated the New Democrat coalition to urge its members, with considerable success, to vote for the atrocious Republican bankruptcy bill. The rank-and-file true believers in the Republican Party have succumbed to the malady that afflicts all championship teams that have remained on top for too long - they've started believing their own press.

Like the hippies in Thompson's account of the countercultural revolution of the late 1960's, conservatives are rejoicing over these dubious triumphs less because of any tangible advantage that might plausibly result and more because they have developed a crazed emotionalist sense that "whatever we are doing is right," that they are winning as a matter of divine providence. Reality cannot touch them. It's the feeling that prevails at the peak of a particularly intense bender, and anyone who has experience with such phenomena knows what's next: The Crash is on the way, followed by the unthinkable task of picking up the shattered pieces of a defunct reality and moving along with life.

Alas, unlike the mild-mannered acid freak who bursts into tears minutes after his moment of unbridled ecstasy at the sound of rain hitting a tin roof, the aging Nixon men and hard-hearted Cold War enthusiasts currently running the country like it's their own personal Wayback Machine are going to do their level best to make all of us pay up when the bill comes due. They have not come all this way to see the great wave of American conservatism crash harmlessly into the sands of meaningful democracy.

It's worth noting, before we get too excited, that all of this could be a product of my optimistic imagination. I believed strongly that Kerry would stomp Bush in 2004; I was taking bets on Bush getting three points right up until the first returns started coming in. I thought the Dems even had a shot at picking up the Senate, and figured they certainly wouldn't lose any ground in the House. My estimation of the basic strength of the Democratic position has been consistently higher than objective reality would later indicate.

Still, through it all I have retained a certain intuitive sense that this era, occurring as it has amidst the ascendancy of a generation never to know Vietnam or Woodstock or Altamont as anything other than stories from a bygone age, has endured nearly as long as it can before the tide must naturally begin to turn. We are overrun more than ever with maniacs obsessed with gay sex and money and death, but the signs of change afoot are more and more encouraging.

Indeed, the biggest challenge facing the progressive movement today may be that after wandering so long in the wilderness, our beliefs and objectives (and, apparently, our opinion pieces) have become so disjointed as to be practically incoherent. If we are lucky enough to be witnessing the disintegration of this terrible juggernaut that has rampaged through our society for forty years, we must remember to take time out from toasting our good fortune to retrench.

But not today, O Reader; I have rambled on long enough. It turns out there was no point, after all, just a few inconsequential coughs erupting from my dying childhood. Whether some wistful reactionary will look west from the Oklahoma panhandle in ten years and muse about 2005, the high water mark of the conservative revolution, I cannot really say, and even if I could, no one would believe me. For the moment, though, we've got them on their heels, and if you believe the history books, weirder things have happened.


In Memory of Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005

Visit AP Short's blog at

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