Suicide by Democracy


Suicide by Democracy: The Appeal of End-Times Candidates

Firstly: the world is ending.

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The world as we know it—the one hospitable to both human life and the myriad flora and fauna that sustain us—is just about certainly on the way out. And despite the cryptic polemics of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, very few of us actually feel fine about any of it. The existential menaces we face as a species look a bit like Black Plague era danse macabre wood engravings: the Reaper lurks at every corner, and none shall be shown mercy. Maybe by some miracle, 99.9% of all climate scientists have been dead wrong, and the ones suspiciously bankrolled by ExxonMobil will be vindicated. Bully for them, you’ll think, when our overuse of antibiotics amounts to your whole damned face and brain gushing out pus. Or when extremists bring their jihad to your doorstep. Or their guns to your church or school. Or when Vladimir Putin’s Neo-Soviet Russia unleashes a nuclear hell even Khrushchev and Nixon had the good sense to avoid.

We know it—we’re chasing the dodo. Maybe we haven’t yet explained it to ourselves as such, but the angst radiates from within our bones. It’s in our shortness, our loudness, our apropos paranoia, our readiness to bark hate and kick refugee children in the stomach. And oh, yes, secondly: it’s an election year.

Our United States is a Jeffersonian Democracy, after all—for all its faults, we’ve still got one of the finest systems of governance humankind has yet devised. We grant ourselves the privilege of electing—freely choosing!—our despots, and do so on the pretense that we’ll be serving eviction notices to the executive branch in no more than eight years. And so the business of electioneering is left to those who can best sniff the wind of their electorate. Ted Cruz knows people clap when he vows to “carpet bomb” ISIS (and as euphemisms go, “Kill every Arab man, woman, and child” would have been no less subtle). Bernie Sanders’ appeal to young voters saddled with insurmountable debt is just about lifted from Robespierre’s playbook, complete with the vague insinuation that billionaires’ heads will roll. They know we’re an agitated people, and promise us blood. And when petitioning to retain their seats in 2020, they’ll have better delivered that blood to our troughs. Their jobs depend on it.

Another presidential hopeful and looming footnote in American affairs, Marco Rubio, opined at a November GOP debate that “We need more welders and less (sic)philosophers.” For the sake of his narcissistic, self-serving agenda, he’s right—a voting bloc populated by the gainfully employed, if ignorant of worldly issues, is certainly all well and good. Beyond this, however, is an implied truth from Marco that shivers the spines of both philosophy buffs and educated patriots alike: You philosophers, with your weird appreciation for freedom-loving secular saints like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, with your strange understanding of commodity fetishism as only Karl Marx could explain it—you scare the crap out of me. I could never attain my rank as leader—with you as my subordinates; effectively, my dumb feudal serfs—if you had any damned idea the way this country was honestly designed to work.

So what good then are the philosophers to us? For the purposes of this article, we might begin by referencing an extraordinary piece that recently ran in the New York Times by Princeton professor and Iraq War veteran Roy Scranton, appropriately titled, “We’re Doomed. Now What?” In heartbroken fashion, Scranton laments the impossibility of all seven billion of us homo sapiens sapiens living one reliable minute more on a mother planet whose back we’ve broken. It’s a bit like the work of Youngstown State University’s Christopher Bache, who in his similarly-themed Dark Night, Early Dawn, at least threw in the rosy promise that while many of us will surely die—and soon, very soon—some of us might live. It’s also a bit like Richard Tarnas’ masterworkThe Passion of the Western Mind. Tarnas’ book is a magnificent refresher on all that we, as a comically self-absorbed culture, have lost in the past 3,000 years. We’d thought our flat terra firma was the center of all things, and that celestial bodies existed but to swirl around and dote on us—wow, what crap! We’d thought ours was a singular epoch of singular importance; we hadn’t yet discovered dinosaur bones, the ambivalence of the quantum world, the insignificance of our whole damned galaxy in the face of an infinite universe (or pardon, multiverse). And just as our unshakeable faith in science robbed us of our souls, our gods, and our purpose, we quickly discovered: our clever-ape status as scientific-minded things granted us the power to destroy our home planet five times over. Vader at least knew enough to focus that rage at a disposable Alderaan.

Tarnas’ work is hugely useful in explaining exactly how we reached our point of desperation; in fact, with his proposed post-Copernican double bind, he makes an excellent case for how we, as a culture, a people, a species, are like an adolescent teetering on the brink of lunacy. But the Scranton piece does Tarnas one better by invoking the name of one Friedrich Nietzsche, history’s quintessential pissy little overthinking emo-type. Specifically, he speaks of Nietzsche’s fixation on matters of will. And any summation of that haunted theme would effectively read like this: when we’ve got no other genuine options—when in less than one minute from right now, our wee solipsistic beings might be eradicated by the grand nuclear fireworks of Russia, or China, or Iran, or North Korea, or by the second-stage work of terrorists, or some crippling biological agent, or an asteroid, or God knows—we won’t take our sure damnation lying down. Which is to say, we’ll leap at the guillotine—we’ll assert our autonomy in the only pathetic way we’ve got left. We’ll commit a species-wide suicide at which the lemmings will marvel. Willfully so; anything less would be slavery.

Man and woman votingSo in effect: it’s an election year, and we are a democratic society. Our leaders are not hoisted upon us willy-nilly, but chosen, just as we’ve got it within us to choose who wins The Voice or The Apprentice. We actively seek these things from our elected officials. To give it but a brief eyeball appraisal, it seems we’d prefer no less than a worldwide seppuku. The left channels classist rage, while the right prefers to pick dumb, impractical, unwinnable fights with every brown-skinned other on the planet. These proffered solutions are stupid at best, and we know it. But we know we’re good and screwed, don’t we? We’d shrink away from such conscious acknowledgements in feigned outrage, to be sure, but look within yourselves—a bumper sticker reading Onward, into Damnation! would likely choke you up with notions of America’s can-do spirit, yes?

Few of us have palatable options left. We’ve got very lucid ideas as to the inevitable horrors that await. In Stalinist regimes, no subject can pretend to be the captain of their fate. But we can. The appeal of those candidates who coyly but nakedly offer us a final exit is not a thing to be sneezed at. Because we, in these United States, enjoy a thing no other cornered animal does: the personal agency to suicide freely. Now get out there and vote!

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