The Purity Index in Contemporary Politics, or, Fundamentalism by Another Name

“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”

—Mae West

There’s a hoary axiom that fascism lives in America. Accordingly you can point to your fascist of choice—Nixon, J. Edgar, or Cheney. They’re all weak options as fascism requires socialized corporatism which differs from the balder forms of hatred practiced by the above. Against this I’ve always preferred the poet Kenneth Rexroth’s rationale for poetry, for the very act of writing it—he said he wrote against “the Social Lie, the Economics of Mass Murder, the Sexual Hoax, and the Domestication of Conspicuous Consumption.”

I woke today and found I was still imperfect. But I know I’m suspicious of the very things Rexroth placed in opposition to poetry. I’m still incomplete as a man. I wave my broken umbrella and feel too often I’m in a covert like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man. That’s generally how it is when you’re imperfect but striving for purity of heart, which means poetry.

The Social Lie is a pact if you will. Rexroth:

“Since all society is organized in the interest of exploiting classes and since if men knew this they would cease to work and society would fall apart, it has always been necessary, at least since the urban revolutions, for societies to be governed ideologically by a system of fraud.”

I. F. Stone put it this way: “Every government is run by liars. Nothing they say should be believed.”

Stone’s employment of “every” is excellent as the United States government is no exception. Indeed, one may argue democracies are especially susceptible to grand lies. So what does a contrarian do?

Stone again, declaring his ars poetica:

“To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can to bring healing perspectives to bear on their terrible hates and fears of mankind, in the hope of someday bringing about one world, in which men[and women] will enjoy the differences of the human garden instead of killing each other over them.”

Jesus. I woke today and found I was still imperfect.

I try to write the truth as I see it.

I believe American society is often organized in the interest of deriving unfair benefits from its under classes. I think much of our political rhetoric is fraudulent. With rare exceptions our leaders have sought to engineer for their cronies the removal of wealth and resources from the general body.

I love Stone:

“All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.”

We are not a free country. We have more political prisoners than any other nation on earth. We have more mentally ill people in jail than any other country on earth. We have more children of poverty in jail than any other nation on earth. We have more upward tilt of our national resources than any other advanced nation. We allow national standards for clean water and air to be dismantled. We watch as our roads and bridges become unusable. Such things do not happen in a free nation. Some of these things “do” happen under fascism, but not all.

America is (as many Sanders supporters justly point out, an oligarchy.) I.F. Stone would argue it always has been. What’s great about Sanders is he refuses to smoke the same hashish most of Washington partakes of.

Yet there’s a problem with Sanders and it’s essentially the same problem with Trump—both employ (though quite differently) an outsized rhetoric of purity. Both say “we won’t smoke the same hashish they smoke in DC” and both say the government is corrupt, stocked with liars, liars who in turn screw the general body.

Purity knows nothing of realpolitik.

Stone wrote of Goldwater:

“It was hard to listen to Goldwater and realize that a man could be half Jewish and yet sometimes appear twice as dense as the normal Gentile.”

Goldwater was a purist. So are Sanders and Trump.

Such a position makes it highly unlikely either can govern the nation.

The nation is of course structured according to Federalist principles which require what’s often called “give and take” and which Rexroth would call “the social lie” and both terms are correct insofar as many middle class and poor citizens no longer believe in governance—cannot believe in it—for the politics of material extraction and perpetual war has left them poorer and with zero faith.

Which is of course the antithesis of realpolitik. Faith in government as a means to further articulate and provide solutions to problems is utterly necessary for negotiation and agreement to occur.

Neither Trump or Sanders cares much about this, and in turn they’re both perfect representatives for their respective voting blocs, each of which believes that realpolitik is just more government hashish, or, worse, that any nuanced position (whether it’s about foreign policy or the minimum wage) is a cop out.

Hillary, according to this script, is a war monger; cares not a whit about the poor; once voted to increase border security in Texas and is therefore in league with Trump on the proposal to build a vast wall; she served on the board of Wal Mart and must be attached at the hip to Sam Walton; gave speeches for Goldman Sachs and must be as corrupt as Bernie Madoff.

Trump’s followers believe everyone in America who isn’t Trump is stealing their cheese. The difference with Sanders voters is minimal, though not as kind. Sanders after all wants to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice…to borrow from Stone.

Always ask who can govern. Neither Trump or Sanders will likely be able to guide the nation.

Never confuse your understanding of the Social Lie—which for Rexroth meant the endlessly repeated but largely untrue narrative that all men are created equal; that Americans are a peace loving people; that private satisfactions like sex or the ownership of property will sustain you…no, it’s far better to understand the nature of the nation’s illnesses, to demand more of government; to insist that those who govern make the system work.

I do not believe Hillary Clinton is perfect. This is what the Bernie supporters I know both in public and on the internet don’t understand, for their version of politics is about purity, which among other things means free of adulteration or contaminants. To the best of my knowledge such a view, or demand of a political figure is akin to most forms of fundamentalism.

Bernie voters have accused me of being for the war in Iraq. Not true. Read my blog. They’ve accused me of being for the endless expansion of the military industrial complex. Not true. They’ve accused me of being for torture. Again not true. My limited life as a modest public intellectual proves it.

Still purity is what the Sanders and Trump believers have. My argument is it’s all they have.

Voting for Hillary does not mean I don’t agree with I.F. Stone or Kenneth Rexroth.

It does mean I believe a woman president who might actually be able to work with the government we have will be a step in the right direction.