And the seasons they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time.
We can’t return we can only look behind from where we came.
And go round and round and round in the circle game
(“The Circle Game, Joni Mitchell).
Live long enough, and things that seem past, re-emerge in a different form but similar essence. In the words of Joni Mitchell, we look behind from where we came and end up at the same place on the circle. That’s what I have been feeling like lately.
Since the election of Donald Trump, I have this strange sense of déjà vu, a feeling like I had been here before. Even before #45, I had seen and sensed things were reflective of an earlier time. However, the recent discussion and eventual passage of the Tax Reform bill sealed it for me. This bill was nothing new, it was just a revival of the “trickledown economics” of the1980’s presidency of Ronald Reagan. The same rhetoric and same promises were made: “If we just give business and the wealthy more tax breaks, they will raise wages and create jobs, and America’s economy will begin growing again.” And it did – for the top one-percent of the people. The stock market boomed, and the GNP rose, but the average American saw his/her wages stagnate, jobs leave for other places, and the disparity between the wealthy few and the rest of us grew exponentially, leading to the huge disparities that still exist today. Paul Ryan and the other proponents of this current bill promised the same thing Reagan did, and the same thing GW Bush did in the early 2000’s, and in both cases a few people got very rich and the rest of us got little to nothing. As a recent New York Times report indicated under the Reagan bill the average American’s earnings actually decreased. What’s to say it will be any different this time around?
Realizing this déjà vu with the tax bill brought to mind other similarities. For instance, I came of age in the midst of the Vietnam War, the first televised war, the first war the U.S. actually lost. A war we now are discovering thru shows like the PBS Vietnam documentary was a war where soldiers and citizens alike were deceived into thinking they were fighting for a righteous cause, when in fact it was a lie. Today we find ourselves slogged down in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria where the cause is said to be just, but the purpose and outcome are murky. Soldiers come home having experienced incredible horrors, and for what? Who can say?
I think about 1960’s and 1970’s when the Civil Rights Movement and then the Black Power Movement brought into the national spotlight the gross inequities experienced by African-Americans. Yet while we celebrate a Martin Luther King Day of Service, we forget that MLK, like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Huey Newton, and many others, were on the FBI’s list of most dangerous individuals, lived under the constant threat of state-sponsored violence, and in some cases died by that violence. Fast forward to today and the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged to call to account those officers of the State who routinely use violence against African-Americans, and like the heroes and she-roes of the past, Black Lives Matter is routinely villainized and blamed for the very violence they protest.
I think of living under threat of annihilation. Until 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, my generation lived under the constant threat of nuclear war. We had war drills in schools and were led to believe that all manner of arms and weapons were needed to fight the threat of the dreaded communists. At any point we knew a button could be pushed, World War III started, and we would either die in a nuclear holocaust or struggle to survive in a nuclear winter. Today, we live under the threat of global warming. Just like the military-industrial complex assured us that we would be protected from war (albeit marginally), we hold out the vain hope of some technical fix to this fundamental human problem of a too big carbon footprint. Not only that but now North Korea boasts an arsenal that can reach our mainland, while #45 and his minions talk about nuclear war as if it were the solution rather than the problem.
Finally, I am reminded that in 1974 President Richard Nixon resigned in the disgrace of the Watergate break-in, a ridiculous attempt to tilt the election in his favor against George McGovern. As the special prosecutors circled Nixon and his advisors, he grew increasingly paranoid and belligerent, and eventually stepped down a broken, foolish man. Today, we find ourselves with another investigation with another special prosecutor looking into another election-rigging scam involving a presidential campaign aided by the assistance of outside powers. This president is equally belligerent and at times sounds paranoid, and all are wondering what will be uncovered and where this will eventually lead.
I am not suggesting that the outcomes of the past inevitably destine similar outcomes in the present. Nor am I saying that the achievements won and the challenges overcome in the past are null and void or insignificant. There has been progress, but it has been circuitous at best, and in some cases we have either chosen to ignore or just don’t know the lessons of the past. One of the advantages, and in some cases the curse of living 60+ years, is that what seems new and unprecedented to some, is just a remix of an old song sung before. While this return to old patterns does not leave me hopeless (because we did come through these challenges), it does make me wonder if we have really learned anything in that previous era. As the Spanish philosopher, Jorge Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In so doing we go round and round and round in the circle game.