The Strange Inspirations of Nation-Building

NVA

East German soldiers of the Friedrich Engels Guard Regiment marching to relieve guards at the Neue Wach memorial. 

A social media conversation with a few friends this morning served as a reminder of how truly fascinating the study of nation-building through the adoption of flags, symbols and other devices and practices often proves to be.

In an attempt to solidify identity, national founders or, as the case may be, satraps acting at the urging of their conquering puppet masters, often reach far down into the memory whole, resurrecting symbols and traditions long forgotten or, in a few noteworthy instances, long repressed.

In resurrecting the dignity of France following its defeat, humiliation and conquest by Nazi Germany in 1940, Charles de Gaulle, founder of the Free France movement, employed the Cross of St. Lorraine as a sort of French patriotic counterweight to the Nazi Swastika.

One especially remarkable example of nation-building involved a decision in the 1950’s by the German Democratic Republic – East Germany, as it was commonly known in the United States – to  reaffirm a controversial chapter of German history. At the urging of it’s Soviet hegemons, East Germany’s rulers resurrected many Prussian military traditions, which had formed the foundation of Nazi Wehrmacht’s uniform and martial traditions.  This represents an especially remarkable volte-face when one considers that the Nationale Volksarmee (the East German Peoples’ Army) was conceived as the “instrument of power of the German working class.”

On the other hand, given the regime’s desperate internal and geopolitical situation, the decision wasn’t that surprising.  After the Workers’ Uprising of 1953, the Soviets and their East German surrogates were frantic to shore up support for a regime that had become hopelessly discredited in the eyes of millions of East German citizens.  This became an even greater priority after its Western counterpart, West Germany, officially known as the Federal Republic of Germany, undertook its first tepid steps toward a national army.

There was little support among the East German and Soviet elites for returning to the iconic Stahlhelm, but the Soviet M-40 helmet, employed by other Soviet-dominated East Bloc national armies, was considered off limits too.  As a compromise, the Volksarmee’s distinctive new steel helmets were actually based on a 1944 Nazi prototype which were never employed beyond the experimental scale.

On the other hand, the traditional Prussian field-gray uniforms were restored, with surprisingly little deviation from the earlier Wehrmacht uniforms.

Arguably, the most remarkable borrowing of all was reflected in one of the most noteworthy of East German state rituals:  the Changing of the Guard at the Neue Wach, known at the time as the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism.  This was roughly the equivalent of the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

German Guard Change – NVA Wachablösung Wachregiment Friedrich Engels DDR.

Compare this to the changing of the Guard at Adolph Hitler’s Reich Chancellory in 1936.

Changing of the Guard at Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, 1936.

Remarkably, in building its own national defense force, West Germany moved largely in the opposite direction, abandoning of many early of the Prussian practices that distinguished the old German army.  The Bundeswehr (Federal Army) helmet was closely modeled on the U.S. M-1 helmet, while retaining the leather suspension system that characterized the earlier Wehrmacht Stalhelm.  And while the uniforms retained some historic German features, they were also patterned after other armies within the Western Alliance.

Moreover, to underscore the democratic underpinnings of the new Bundeswehr, much of the parade drill was revised to reflect more informal American traditions.  For example, Bundeswehr soldiers stood at attention with their hand slightly cupped in the American fashion rather than rigidly extended.

Incidentally, the history of the Bundeswehr is brilliantly recounted in “Germans to the Front: West German Rearmament in the Adenauer Era” by David Clay Large.

The profound differences between these two post-war German armies is reflected in the October 3, 1990 turnover of the East German military base on Prora, located on the Baltic Sea island of Rugen, to the West German Bundeswehr.

The Last Appeal – Or How the NVA Became the Bundeswehr.

The spit and polish of the Nationale Volksarmee, which undertook its final military parade and affirmation of East German nationhood at the Prora base on the afternoon of October 2, offers a remarkably sharp contrast to the Bundeswehr, which took possession of the Baltic Sea base early the following morning.

 

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California and the Future of American Unity

California-flag

Photo: Courtesy of Cullen328

Who could have imagined 30 years – heck, even a decade  – ago that one of the avatars of American liberalism, none other than Governor Moonbeam, Jerry Brown, would end up sounding a lot like George Wallace?

Brown is leading what Freedom Center writer Daniel Goldberg describes as a Confederacy of Climate Secessionists, one in which Brown and the governors of New York and Washington will  “unilaterally and illegally enter into a foreign treaty [the Paris Treaty] rejected by the President of the United States.”

Jerry Brown is even adopting old-style American constitutional language, referring to California both as a nation-state and as a sovereign state entitled to act in its vital interests. I mean, really: How many times have red state governors been accused of the most heinous motivations for expressing similar observations? And can you imagine the cries of outrage from the MSM and Big Entertainment if the governor of Texas and an alliance of governors of Southern and Western states conducted their own foreign policy?

But, of course, we must not forget that any statement should be regarded as morally enlightened so long as it comes from the left.

All joking aside, though, this represents a remarkable development and one that was predicted a decade ago by a progressive and very prescient decentrist scholar named Gar Alperovitz.

A decade ago, Alperovitz wrote a column for the New York Times citing the remarkable comment of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that characterized California as more than an ordinary American state.  And in all candor, California really is more than an American state.  It does  possess global, economic, cultural and demographic and technological influence far out of proportion to many other American state. And, yes, in a very real sense, it has transcended what we normally associate with an American state.

And that led Prof. Alperovitz to wonder if Schwarzenneger had put his finger, whether consciously or not, on a “fatal flaw in America’s constitutional formula,” namely that a country the size of the United States no longer can be effectively governed from the center.

“The United States is almost certainly too big to be a meaningful democracy,” Alperovitz contended, essentially anticipating one of the issues that influenced the Leave vote in Britain.

And he’s right.  Ponder this for a moment: Among the economically advanced nations of immene size – Russia, Australia, Brazil, Canada and even China – the United States is the only one in the world where the population is roughly evenly distributed from one end of the country to the next.

Some other fun facts: Germany could fit comfortably within the borders of Montana, while Texas, which, incidentally, possesses the 12th largest economy in the world, is larger than France.

We are an immense nation-state – indeed, immense in a way that other nations of the world aren’t.  We are big and sprawling and, frankly, increasingly ungovernable, in a way other nation-states, with the exception of Russia, aren’t.

“What does ‘participatory democracy’ mean in a continent?” Alperovitz asked.  “Sooner or later, a profound, probably regional decentralization of the federal system may be all but inevitable.”

Alperovitz cited research by Harvard economist Alberto Alesina of Harvard and Enrico Spolaore of Tufts, whose findings underscore how hard it is for nations the size of the United States to address the needs of their dispersed populations.

And we are increasingly approaching an impasse.  Our bigness and unwieldiness is underscore by our increasing cultural divisions – a fact driven home in the 2016 presidential election, when 84 percent of American counties, mostly located within the vast heartland, rejected the candidate overwhelmingly favored by elites within the nation’s wealthy bi-coastal urban enclaves.

Yes, the hypocrisy of leftist elitists such as Jerry Brown frequently irk red-state conservatives like me. But by asserting his state’s sovereignty and quasi-nationhood, Brown states a real and, for some, unpalatable truth about American federalism.   And in doing so, he may have rendered all of us a huge favor.

Jerry Brown has reordered the debate about state sovereignty.  In a real sense, he has rendered such arguments respectful again.  And he has also underscored that our present centralized model is no longer up to snuff. We are simply too economically and culturally diverse to be governed from Washington any longer.

That’s why I’ve argued for more than a generation that sooner or later we Americans will have to embrace something resembling Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision of a Union of Sovereign States.   We will have to find  some way to stay ahead of the fissures that are increasingly becoming evident within our federal system, much as Gorbachev tried to do with this plan for a looser, post-Soviet confederation.

What I mean by that is a continental arrangement that affords states – or, as the case my be, regions with strong historical and cultural affinities – more control over their internal affairs, while still enjoying the benefits of a common economic market and defense.

Roughly a generation ago, the late George F. Kennan offered a compelling visions for such a new constitutional system.  It’s time his warnings were heeded.

California has often been characterized as the bellwether state.  It’s assertion of state sovereignty has been a long time coming, but it should come as a surprise to no one.

Until now, talk of the sovereignty and quasi-nationhood of American states has tended to derail political dialogue rather than to enhance it.

But as growing numbers of Americans will discover over time, the re-embrace of the sovereignty and quasi-nationhood of states may be the only way to fend off a major constitutional crisis within the next few years as the red American heartland and the blue coastal enclaves grow further apart and as this vast nation proves increasingly unwieldy and ungovernable.

 

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Invoking the “S” Word (Secession)

 , Texas Tribune. 

I’ll be frank: I don’t take a very sanguine view of the future of the United States.

I no longer think that Americans are even capable of summoning the improvisational genius or idealism or whatever is required to bridge the increasingly deep cultural chasm between the blue-state coastal enclaves and the red states in this country. These divisions are  intractable. They resemble the cultural divisions that beset this country in the 1850’s and that ultimately were “resolved” by a bloody 4-year war.

Conservative writer and editor Rod Dreher, who conceived the highly debated and controversial Benedict Option, recently offered a rather compelling, not to mention, chilling, 14-point explanation for why he believes that the country simply can’t lumber on indefinitely.  They explain rather concisely why I concluded more than a generation ago that some form of devolution, likely secession,  would ultimately supply the only viable solution to this country’s pathologies, which only grow worse with the passage of time.

Speaking as a conservative, I’ll be the first to agree with Dreher that Donald Trump presents his own unique challenge. He certainly was not my first, second or even third choice for president.

Yet, the implications of American liberalism present us with an more ominous and immediate threat. Liberalism is now under the effective domination of an ideology, namely identitarianism, which advocates the end of the American experiment in pluralism.

As Dreher argues, this newest iteration of leftism is not interested in working out any sort of pluralistic modus vivedi with the right, even maverick elements of the right. It’s set on total political and cultural domination.

Indeed, as Dreher contends, what drives the left is an abiding hatred of the other, namely the traditionalist heartland, populated by the great unwashed masses who, largely out of a sense of desperation, elected Trump as president.

Liberalism has always functioned as a sort of secularized version of Christianity, as he observes.  But as America’s Christian legacy recedes and liberalism cuts away its final moorings to this faith tradition, we are witnessing the emergence of an ideology that increasingly evinces a ravenous, Jacobinesque quality, one prone to consume its own, as the recent upheaval at Evergreen College demonstrates.  (Small wonder why millions of voters, including yours truly regarded the recent election as the Flight 93 election.)

Nature abhors a void – and so does politics and culture, in a manner of speaking. With the decline of Christianity, something else invariably MUST be improvised to replace it. The left is determined that the emerging secularized religion of identitarian politics will supply this replacement.

The left sooner or later will impose this new religion on the rest of the country through its vast political patronage system (i.e., MSM, Big Entertainment and higher ed) and through the federal court system, which now wields a measure of power that the Founders would have found inconceivable. We came perilously close to this tipping point last November following a Hillary victory.

One must understand that our present centralized national model, compliments of early 21st century progressivism, essentially represents a sort of compromised immune system through which a pathogen is capable of spreading very rapidly. In effect, the identitarian politics that have given rise to the increasing levels of intolerance and even violence on elite college and university campuses will be woven into the reigning ideology of the United States within the next few decades.

As I’ve pointed out ad nauseam in previous postings, sooner or later, most heartland Americans will eventually come to the conclusion, albeit grudgingly, that some form of devolution, including secession, will offer the only real prospects for preserving the last vestiges of American freedom.

Let’s just hope that this realization comes soon enough.

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A Dystopian Future or Just Business as Usual?

robot-wars

Poster advertising a 1921 Italian movie that depicted the first war among robots.

I reflect back on the 1980’s as a good decade, but many science fiction writers of the time didn’t.

As a recent article in The American Conservative observes, the 1980’s turned out providing a congenial context for a grim, dystopian vision of science fiction, one that followed in the wake of technological advancement.

There is no place in this reality for Star-Trek-style optimism – no sublime quests for global government or space colonization leading to interplanetary federations – far from it: nation-states are superseded or supplanted by corporate behemoths and human destiny becomes increasingly tethered to computers amid a world blotted by urban decay, anarchy and anomie.

So many films come to mind: Alien and Mad Max, which were released in 1979 but were close enough to classify as Eighties genre science fiction; Outland; Blade Runner; Escape from New York; and Terminator.

And to think that this turnaround from the heady optimism of Gene Roddenberry  to tedious pessimism only took a decade!

Reflecting on this creative volte-face, I’m reminded of the third season Star Trek Original episode “The Savage Curtain,” one episode among several in which humans, with a little help from the half Vulcan Spock, demonstrate human singularity to a curious, highly advanced extraterrestrial species.  The ETs in this episode are known as the Excalbians, who lack the ability to distinguish between good and evil and wish to learn this concepts by locking the Kirk, Spock and McCoy in a desperate struggle against a few of the most evil humans and humanoids of Federation history.

One scene in The Savage Curtain especially expresses this optimism of the original series: the one in which a reconstituted Lincoln, created by the Excalbians from Kirk’s memories of the 16th president to serve as a sort of emissary to humanity, refers to Lieutenant Uhura as a “charming negress.”  Immediately recognizing this as a faux pas, Lincoln apologizes, only to be assured by Uhuru:  “But why should I be offended, sir?  You see, in our century, we have learned not to fear words.”

That’s is precisely what I cherished the most about Star Trek and other science fiction series: They often pointed the way to a future in which tech and the insights that grew out of it would empower humanity to look beyond the hostilities of the present to a future in which most, if not most, of these would be resolved.

Consider the yawning psychological chasm between that optimistic scene from 1969 and the dystopian science fiction that followed scarcely a decade later.

Even so, the dystopian visions of 30 years ago speak more than a few essential truths about many unvarnished facts of life in the 21st century:  Balkanization, lawlessness, social anomie, rampant obesity (I’m one of them), and a rising tide of ignorance despite our species being afforded, compliments of  the digital revolution, a surfeit of information of which previous generations scarcely could have conceived.

Yes, we still have a lot of work to do. 

As the recent incidents at Middlebury and Evergreen State colleges demonstrate, we have drawn no closer to a Star Trek future in which humans are so well integrated and actualized that they are no longer susceptible to rhetoric deemed threatening or hateful.

Technological innovation, in that respect, isn’t drawing us any closer to universal understanding, much less, a future that could be considered even faintly utopian.

I’m reminded of a jarring image posted on social media a few years ago of the collapsing, flooded-out Carnegie Library in Detroit – all of the recorded knowledge of man wantonly discarded and consigned to the corrosive elements of nature. I think about Lincoln and other intellectually hungry youngsters from a century or so ago who walked miles or labored for days or weeks to acquire a clutch  of coveted books – the works of Shakespeare, the King James Bible or Montaigne’s Essays – anything that could be read and mastered to acquire a rudimentary grasp of language and common knowledge.    

Still, I can’t bring myself to counterrevolution or to counterrevolutionary – not yet, at least.

I note what Joseph de Maistre and his intellectual heirs, Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger said about the baneful effects of progress.   There is a case for bemoaning the technological ascent of humankind and the concomitant loss of primitive values that once characterized our species. But this ignores one of of the basic characteristics of our species: that we are technological creatures by nature.  Technology and humanity have been melded in symbiosis from the start – intimately – and there have been disruptors throughout history that have only contributed to the acceleration and intensification of this nexus. And from what I’ve gathered through my reading, this connection is simply unbreakable – so bound up with the human condition that it can never be reversed.

Consequently, some ultimate merging with technology seems all but inevitable to me. Indeed, scientists recently estimated that humans essentially will lose their stewardship to AI within the next 45 years. Within 120 years, artificial intelligence will have acquired all the skills once considered exclusively to humans.

This has often led me to wonder if singularity is the ultimate purpose of the universe – in other words, if some highly advanced intelligence created this universe and possibly many, many others to determine how long before naturally evolved organic life merges with or is overrun by so-called artificial life.

We do at times seem to be regressing rather than progressing as a species.   But I, for one, am still not convinced that we’re being led inexorably into a future that could be even vaguely described as dystopian – a troubled future, in some respect, yes, but dystopian? Again, I’m not convinced.

Great thinkers throughout history have lifted their gaze to the future and conjured up all manner of calamity, and many, if not most, of these ultimately have been resolved long before they exacted their toll.  

As Matt Ridley relates in The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, some of the world’s most astute thinkers once imagined that Europe was on the brink of starvation as supplies of quano, the principal source of fertilizer at the time, depleted. Then Fritz Haber stepped in with the Haber-Bosch process.

Once again I’m reminded of something worth sharing: one of the observations the dour Calvin Coolidge once offered regarding long-term optimism.

“If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”

Sound advice.  Largely for the simple reason that we are technological creatures, human have proven enormously resourceful at several critical times throughout our history.   And that is why I think that his likely will turn out the way that it generally has: troubled and a long way from utopian but a far, far cry from dystopian. 

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The God of the Human Exoskeleton

conch2

Photo: Courtesy of Cheesy42

In my previous piece, I asserted that God is embedded in what I describe as the Non-corporeal Human Exoskeleton (NHE) –  for lack of a better description, a structure that human beings have evolved over eons and that permeates all facets of our existence.

I’m indebted to futuristic writer Kevin Kelly for much of this insight.  Kelly envisions a similar process occurring with technology – what he calls the technium – which has grown in tandem with human evolution.  Indeed, the technium has undergone such a rapid evolution that it now may be on the verge of attaining a consciousness that surpasses its human counterpart.

Several times throughout the book, Kelly states explicitly that technology – that is to say, the technium – comprises a sort of exoskeleton.  Cooking, for example, essentially has supplied humanity with a second stomach.

I simply carry Kelly’s argument a step further: Virtually everything that we have achieved comprises this exoskeleton, though much of it – language, ethics, morality, law and religion, for example – is intangible.

In response to my previous post a friend asked if this God, this embedded God of the human exoskeleton, resembles the deistic god of Franklin and Jefferson. Or does it resemble more a formless, nonrealistic God of a nontheist thinker, such as Don Cupitt?

All we can state with certainty is that there is been some kind of human hunger for the transcendent since the beginning of time. We want to know our purpose for being here, our sense of value as human beings, and the ultimate destiny of ourselves and our relatives. In many cultures, this yearning for transcendence has been personified in gods or, comparatively more recently in our history, a single God.

Likewise, it appears that through language, we have essentially uploaded this through a sort of cloud, which I consider roughly synonymous with the exoskeleton I described in the previous essay. In other words, we have used language and the relatively more recent invention of writing to share our evolving notions of transcendence – God, if you will – with future generations of humans. Mind you, this cloud started out quite primitive. Consequently, our evolving views of God occurred slowly, painstakingly, and were disrupted by all manner of human upheavals – war, famine, disease, etc. – throughout much of history.

Even so, the remarkable thing to me, as I point out in the previous essay, is that our views on transcendence, as they have been uploaded onto the cloud, have become so refined over time that they have begun making increasing and more nuanced demands with each generation. We are compelled to act in certain ways because of this embedded transcendence. 

There is another interesting characteristic associated with the NHE  that is worth sharing with my readers.    A couple of weeks ago, I pointed out to a beloved cousin that she, donned in an evening dress, could travel through a time portal to 19th century to attend an evening party among the British nobility without raising nary an eyebrow. That’s because she is lean, long-limbed and very blond and fair-skinned. She looks like a descendant of the old Norman French-derived ruling stock that ruled the fortunes of Britain well into the 20th century.

I, on the other hand, would look like an anomaly because of my dark eyes, thick truck and rather proportionately short limbs. That’s because I resemble far more a British peasant than a member of the ruling class. Yet – and here is the other fascinating side to all of this – if I traveled through time to a British dockyard dressed in a stevedore’s outfit, I would have a hard time fitting in too, because even though I resemble more a peasant than an aristocrat, I have a soft, pliable face and hands as well as a full and highly functional set of teeth. I also happen to be overweight. Consequently, it’s likely that many of these dockworkers would confuse me as some sort of spy dispatched by the management to observe their levels of efficiency and output.

And why is that? Why do I have soft, pliable skin and healthy teeth, despite the fact that I’m likely descended from generations of British working stock? Why would I likely be perceived as a member of the management rather than as a common stevedore?

It can be attributed to quite a few things: advances in farm production; breakthroughs in water treatment; industrialization; democratization and the subsequent empowerment of the laboring classes through public schooling and the increasing access to higher education that followed; immense technological advances, particularly indoor heating and air-conditioning; a host of cultural changes, including an emphasis on daily bathing and hygiene; and, finally but no less significant, huge strides in the medical and dental sciences.

That is one of the things that got me reflecting on how human beings have constructed a sort of non-corporeal exoskeleton that has transformed us in ways that we can’t even begin to recount adequately. And the remarkable thing is that we not only benefit from this structure but we also are in dialogue with it.

And adding an another compelling layer to all of this, the strong case could be made that this exoskeleton may be on the verge of acquiring some sort of rudimentary consciousness. And in order for us not to be consumed by this exoskeleton, we may deem it necessary to undergo some kind of technological transformation that enables us to merge with it.

In a very literal sense, we may end up not only merging with this exoskeleton but also with God – or, to express it another way, with the projection of God that has been uploaded to this exoskeleton over eons.

I suppose that is why it is difficult for me to label myself an atheist or even an agnostic. Our hunger for transcendence – God – has played too integral a role in human existence. By becoming deeply embedded in our exoskeleton and, in the course of which, by making demands on us and teasing out those qualities that define our very nature as human beings, God has played an indispensable role in our evolution as a species.

 In that respect,  Tillich’s famous phrase that God is the very “ground of our being” strikes me as a bit of an understatement. Through our exoskeleton, we are connected with God to a degree that transcends Tillich’s characterization. We are not only anchored by God but we are also suffused by Him to a degree that surpasses words.

Granted, one could make the case, perhaps that strong case,  that the God embedded in the human exoskeleton is merely a human projection, uploaded across eons and refined over time. Yet, how can we characterize something as integral to human existence and development as a mere projection?

Could it imply something even more significant?

Perhaps we will gain some clearer picture of all of this through contact with intelligent extraterrestrials or even as we merge our consciousness with our exoskeleton.  By then, perhaps, we will discern some kind of convergence evident throughout the cosmos.

As trite as it may sound within this context, all I can say is stay tuned. 

 

 

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And God and the Non-Corporeal Human Exoskeleton

conch

Photo Courtesy of Kathy.

Borrowing from futurist Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants, I’ve been formulating the view that humanity has been in the business of constructing what I call a NHE (Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton) for eons. What I mean by this is that as conscious beings and largely through language, we have built a sort of protective ecosystem comprised of a great many things – technology, ethics and morality, and, yes, religious faith – that has sustained and nurtured our species for hundreds of millennia.

God, or, to put it another way, our unrelenting quest for transcendent meaning, is embedded in this exoskeleton. And bear in mind that this exoskeleton has become so refined and complex over the eons that it makes demands on us. Moreover, in a very real sense, our exoskeleton has teased from humanity many unique qualities – qualities that define and set us apart as a very unique species. Indeed, without this exoskeleton operating throughout human history and making demands on us and teasing out certain traits, our species would never have advanced very far beyond the level of chimpanzees, though, to be sure, the case could be made that our simian cousins have developed some sort of primitive exoskeleton of their own.

If we ever manage to contact another intelligent species somewhere in the cosmos, we may turn up evidence that evolution possesses some remarkably convergent qualities. Perhaps we will discover that much like Homo sapiens intelligent species throughout the cosmos have spent many eons constructing their own non-corporeal exoskeletons. We may discover that they have used this ecosystem not only to develop and impart technology from generation to generation but also to build conceptual frameworks that impart psychological and spiritual meaning.

In other words, their development may bear a remarkable resemblance to our own.

Perhaps we will conclude after all that God is a very real thing, though not in the way that millions of people of faith have previously viewed that concept.

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The Graduate: An American Classic

The-Graduate2A friend’s recent social media post about the late Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, a fierce critic of the dehumanizing effects of communism and Western consumerism alike, reminded me of my latest viewing of one of my all-time favorite films,  The Graduate. Like millions of movie aficionados, I’ve watched that film countless times,  and it never loses its luster or its brilliance.

Its brilliance is expressed in many different ways.

Despite the film’s being widely regarded as a comedy, it’s psychological effects leave a searing impression with the viewer – or, at least, should.

Benjamin Braddock returns home with everything a young man could wish for in the late 20th century: not only a bachelor’s degree, which was still considered something of a novelty in the late 1960’s, but also one from an elite Eastern institution. And in the course of distinguishing himself both as a scholar and an athlete he has also earned a full scholarship to pursue a graduate degree, presumably at another elite Eastern institution.
Yet, he returns home miserable and disillusioned, struggling with feelings of normlessness, if not an incipient sense of nihilism.

Adding the first layer of incongruity in the film, Benjamin struggles with all this anomie amid the post-war opulence of sunny California, the bellwether state in the bellwether country of the world in the 1960’s – a  materialist Mecca where Western consumerism had attained its pinnacle and where the values of this emerging society were expressed and practiced in its most congealed form.

Indeed, I’m struck by how the makers of The Graduate never lose sight of the sleek, chic techno-culture that was setting down deep roots in the 1960’s.   It remains a palpable, almost cloying presence throughout the film, beginning with the sleek airport terminal where Benjamin is carried through the concourse via a conveyor belt.

The Braddock house is remarkable for its timelessness, especially its spacious, posh kitchen, which even after 50 years could pass muster in any 21st century neighborhood.

Benjamin works through much of his psychological angst in a bedroom equipped with a lavish, well-stocked fish aquarium, further underscoring the bleak sense of artificiality. And during a graduation party his parents stage for him, an older man stresses to Benjamin the lucrative fortune to be made through the manufacture and sale one of the materials integral to all of this artificiality: plastics.

This banal sleekness is carried over into other scenes and locations throughout the film: the Robinson bedroom where Mrs. Robinson first attempts to seduce Benjamin, the hotel room in which he finally succumbs to her wiles, and the mainline Protestant church where Elaine is married.

The Graduate is one of a handful of films that serves up a harsh commentary on the sterile, soulless consumer society that was emerging in the 1960’s.

But, of course, the most incongruous element of all is the antagonist, Mrs. Robinson, the burned out, cynical alcoholic wife of Mr. Robinson, the business partner of Benjamin’s father

I’m always struck by what an enormously complicated and compelling character Mrs. Robinson really is as well by as all the factors that account for her pathology. Based on the dialogue we learn that she was an art major whose passions apparently were quashed by an unplanned pregnancy, forcing her into a passionless, unfulfilling marriage with Mr. Robinson.

She is a middle-aged version of Benjamin, afforded every material luxury, though thoroughly cynical and even enraged – a confirmed nihilist.

What drives her desire to seduce Benjamin?  The stark sense of her fading beauty and mortality? An obsession with recapturing her forlorn youth? A sadistic desire to drag Benjamin the rest of the way into the nihilistic darkness that envelopes her?  Or a combination of all three impulses?

Her inconsolable sadness and her solicitude for her daughter, Elaine, are her only redeeming traits.  She initially seems protective of Elaine. She fears her being trapped in hopelessness and cynicism that permeates her own dreary, purposeless existence.   But when she discovers a genuine attraction between Elaine and Benjamin, she seems willing to destroy everything, even if this means alienating Elaine and depriving her of any prospect for happiness.

The Robinsons finally resolve to marry off Elaine to a medical student with the hope of repelling any attempt by Benjamin to win her back.

The wedding segment of The Graduate is jarring.   As Benjamin disrupts the ceremony, beating on the balcony plate glass and driving the Robinson’s to let loose with streams of profanity, Elaine is finally and fully confronted with the banal existence that awaits her.

She flees with Benjamin, after he miraculously fends off the hostile wedding party, wielding a cross as a weapon that he eventually improvises to seal these hypocrites within the sterile, banal confines of the church and their empty faith.  It makes for unusually powerful and riveting symbolism.

“Hoist with his own petard” is the Shakespearean quote that comes to mind.

And of course, one presumes that after all this success, Benjamin and Elaine will start life anew with a wholly new, improvised playbook.

But after they settle into the back seat the bus  amid the bewildered stares of travelers, gloating fades into grim visages, and the viewer is served with the stark reminder that for every generation,  despite its best efforts to begin anew and to avoid the failures of the previous one, reality invariably sets in.

“Til human voices wake us, and we drown.”

That is the enduring lesson of The Graduate.

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