THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?: The Death of the American Dream

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) by Horace McCoy

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          In the United States there is a great self-perpetuating myth that hard work and tireless exertion can lead to wealth, success, and prosperity for all. As an anesthetic to the monotonous daily grind of work-eat-sleep, certain distracting entertainments are dangled in front of the eyes of the working class, along with the promise of greater material gain for their continued efforts. Their will to live is soon usurped by their will to possess, which is intrinsically tied-up in the compulsion to work. As a result, labor becomes an end in itself: not that which sustains life, but that which promises prosperity —  a promise that is necessarily just-beyond-reach, as those who control the means of production must ensure that workers continue to strive for that ever-elusive golden ring without actually achieving it. Thus, the working class is defeated in their efforts before they even begin, born into circumstances that ironically reward those who labor the least by virtue of their inherited status, and wear down those who work the hardest for the smallest degree of potential gain.

          It is this circuitous grind that Horace McCoy explores in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, one of the most important works of existential fiction to come from the United States, employing a 1930s dance marathon as an allegory for the horrific, self-destructive competition that capitalism engenders in workers. The novel begins telling us exactly how events will end: narrator Robert Syverten is on trial for the murder of Gloria Beatty. He admits guilt and throws himself on the mercy of the court: he was only doing Gloria a favor, he states.

          Robert and Gloria are down-and-out Hollywood performers in the 1930s looking to make money as they strive for their dreams. They decide to enter a dance marathon — a grueling, weeks-long event in which promoters promise contestants cash for out-lasting one another in bouts of dancing and speed-walking derbies that continue for hours at a time. Contestants are given mere ten-minute breaks for food and brief rest, hardly time enough to recuperate from their hours of work.

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Jane Fonda and Bruce Dern in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1969)

          Like a real-life version of The Hunger Games, wealthy patrons in the stands can “sponsor” contestants, giving them money or other advantages, which pits contestants against each other — sometimes violently — for recognition. While the rules seem straight-forward, it is clear that the organizers are pulling strings behind the scenes, changing rules and making up new ones as the contest wears on. Their only goal is to promote the madness by exploiting the young couples for maximum profit. The $1,000 prize is dangled in front of the contestants, but ultimately there are no winners —  only downtrodden young couples in varying states of loss and grief.

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Horace McCoy

          As the marathon progresses, couples find themselves competing in special events and derbies that have no prize attached: they do it merely because they have gotten into the routine. Trapped in a system that promises them an ultimate prize at the end, they feel compelled to work overtime for no immediate gain in the hope that they will attain their ultimate reward at the end.


She shot the pistol and we were off.

Gloria and I let the racehorses set the pace. We made no effort to get out in front. Our system was to set a steady clip and hold it. There was no special prize money tonight. Even if there had been it would have made no difference to us.

The audience applauded and stamped their feet, begging for thrills, but this was one night they didn’t get them. Only one girl, Ruby Bates, went into the pit and that was only for two laps. And for the first time in weeks nobody collapsed on the floor when the race was over.

But something happened that frightened me. Gloria had pulled on my belt harder and longer than she ever had before. For the last five minutes of the derby it seemed she had no power of her own. I had practically dragged her around the track. I had a feeling we had just missed being eliminated ourselves. We had just missed. Late that night Mrs. Layden told me she had spoken to the man who had checked us. We had made only two more laps than the losers. That chilled me. I made up my mind then that from now on I had better forget my system and open up.

–Horace McCoy


          McCoy’s novel is a brief, stark critique of an exploitative system that destroys the will to live even as it promises prosperity. Ironically, the contestants enter the marathon as a means of survival, only to find the contest is the very event that is most hindering their struggle to survive. Robert and Gloria soon understand that the marathon becomes their only purpose in life — one that is so dreary and unending that it offers no purpose at all. The only thing that remains for Gloria is to ask Robert to put her out of her misery. As his guilty verdict is handed down by the judge at the end of the novel (a verdict that McCoy clearly telegraphs from the opening pages: this is a system in which we are all condemned from the very beginning), Robert speaks his defense as the last lines of the novel: “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

          It is no coincidence that McCoy sets the novel in Hollywood, a land in which the dreams and desires of a nation are manufactured as myth to be sold to a population desperate for hope as a distraction from their meaningless cycle of despair. Like its literary cousin The Day of the Locust (published by Nathanael West four years later in 1939, and also set in Hollywood), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a Depression-era shot across the bow of the mythical American Dream — the failed promise of a capitalist system that thrives on promoting a prize it can never deliver. Eighty years later in the United States, the novel stills feels as honest and urgent as it was in 1935.

LIFE GOES ON: Fiction as “United Readiness” in the Face of Economic Injustice

Life Goes On (1934) by Hans Keilson

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          How do we face the harshest economic adversity, even as we understand that the cards are stacked against us to the point that hard work does not necessarily lead to success? What motivates us to continue when we realize that working just to stay afloat is impossible? When we’re born into a capitalist system that only benefits those who already have money or privilege — and even then on a system of credit that forces the wealthy to exploit the lower classes just to maintain their own inherited status — how do we push back in the face of such overwhelming hopelessness, unable to repair our own lives, much less fix the system?

          These questions are impossible to answer, even for those of us who aren’t facing the dire and immediate existential crises of the poorest of our neighbors. I would never claim that fiction can give us complete or satisfactory answers to these questions, but I do believe strongly that fiction might work to help us better understand the most vulnerable in an unjust economic system. For those who are struggling with these questions on a daily basis, fiction might even function as both a life boat and a beacon, offering a refuge and at least the possibility of charting a course out of the abyss. 

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Hans Kelison

          Hans Keilson’s highly-autobiographical novel — published when he was just 23-years-old in 1933 and burned by the Nazis a year later — is the story of one small family of merchants being slowly squeezed into financial ruin by the economic downfall in Germany between the wars. Albrecht (a thinly-veiled version of Keilson) and his mother and father struggle under crippling debt to borrow enough money to keep their small store stocked. Since their customers are also strapped for cash and borrowing on credit, the family finds themselves in the same dark hole as everyone else: they borrow items from bigger shops, selling them at a loss, and purchase items on credit that their customers in turn buy from them on credit, thus ensuring that no one can ever dig themselves out of the hole, no matter how hard they work. As this happens, those who already have enough money to survive continue to prosper — sometimes through shady means, such as burning their own businesses for insurance settlements — which only makes it more and more difficult for the impoverished workers to find jobs. Everyone purchases on credit, including those who are relatively financially secure, and no one has the money to pay back the loans, much less the interest.

          The novel is ultimately about Albrecht’s transformation from naive schoolboy to college-educated working man, earning money as a struggling musician as he comes to embrace the leftist politics that might unite the working class against this endless cycle of exploitation and labor strife. It is a sobering, melancholy read that presents a realistic depiction of economic hardship, offering no brazen solutions or false hope. Indeed, the novel ends with Albrecht and his father continuing to struggle in Berlin, but finally acknowledging the need for solidarity with workers, as opposed to going-it-alone in the spirit of independent entrepreneurship, which had only succeeded in isolating the family from their community as everyone’s finances continued to sink, including their own. The message is clear: we are stronger when united, if only to help each other carry our shared burdens.


In front, at the head of the procession, is a solitary man, and the rest follow behind him in well-organized rows of four that swell to a larger and larger demonstration. Workers, the unemployed, impoverished middle-class citizens, students — women and men — all marching at the same pace, and even though the man in the first row doesn’t know the man in the tenth row, doesn’t even know who he is, they are marching together. A mighty will streams out from them, a united readiness: they know why they’re marching.

— Hans Keilson


 

          Even before the novel was banned and burned, the publishers required Keilson to change the ending to be more ambiguous so as not to stir the wrath of the burgeoning Nazi regime. As a result, the marching workers are not explicitly described as striking Socialists, but Keilson leaves enough for the reader to understand that even though the writer was censored, the workers won’t be: “they know why they’re marching.” So do the readers. And, apparently, so did the Nazis, who banned the book, anyway!

          The novel stands as the quiet protest of a young writer who understands that literature has the capacity to document injustice and transform the attitudes not only of those who live through difficult times, but also the generations that follow. We can only begin to lift ourselves — and each other — by first sharing our stories. His novel is a living document that still speaks clearly to anyone struggling in the 21st century with employment, economic inequality, and social injustice. As Keilson wrote in his 1983 afterward: “Literature is the memory of humanity. Anyone who writes remembers, and anyone who reads takes part in those experiences. Books can be reprinted. The fact is, there are archival copies of books. Not of people.”

          Keilson is grounded in a realistic hope to the very end, suggesting that books can only go so far in preserving memory. It’s up to those of us who are living to carry on the lessons and traditions of the men and women whose memories are preserved in literature. Their stories live not just in the printed word, but in how we share their experiences, burdens, and joys, and in how we take up their causes during our own lifetime, announcing our own “united readiness” to join the march.

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE: “There Are No Neutrals Here”

It Can’t Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis

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          In the past year, Sinclair Lewis’ novel about the rise of fascism in the United States has had an unfortunate resurgence in popularity as Donald Trump has increasingly dominated American politics and has, inexplicably, become President-elect. The novel is selling out in bookstores and remains one of the top-selling classic American novels on Amazon.com. Theaters and libraries presented a nation-wide simultaneous reading of a stage adaptation of Lewis’ work in October of 2016, almost in preparation for the unthinkable that might (and did) occur on November 8 of that year.

          But was it really unthinkable? All the signs were there. Americans were sick of career politicians, even if they were extraordinarily experienced. Their fear of Muslims, immigrants, and blacks was real (in their own minds), and horribly exploited by Trump, who used the most vulnerable of our citizens as scapegoats to distract from the genuine problems of labor, economic inequality, and an unfair justice system. He utilized and abused Twitter in a way that revolutionized how campaigns are run.

          And in doing so, the one man who most represented precisely the problems, challenges, and pitfalls facing modern America became the man Americans elected to fix those problems, not through policy suggestions, genuine ideas, or even hopeful rhetoric, but on a platform of nativism,  xenophobia, fear, militarism, and anti-intellectualism. Trump became Sinclair Lewis’ nightmare come to life. Those who have read Lewis’ novel understand that it can happen here because it always was here, long before Trump was ever born, much less descended the Golden Escalator.

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Sinclair Lewis

          Lewis’ novel was wickedly satirical. Unfortunately, that satire has become somewhat prophetic as we enter 2017 and continually push the boundaries of absurdity in American political discourse. The folksy, homespun Buzz Windrip seems clearly modeled on Huey Long, with touches of Eugene Talmadge, Theodore Bilbo, and Father Coughlin thrown into the mix — all of whom Lewis name-checks in the novel. In my early-20s I was fascinated with Depression-era demagogues (and read Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, naturally), so I was very familiar with all these names. Readers might benefit from some background study to understand the 30’s political climate that fostered these types of populists. However, while the book is firmly rooted in 1930s politics, there are significant parallels to the modern day that will resonate with readers in 2017. The fictional Windrip represents a unique type of American fascism that values equal parts P.T. Barnum buffoonery, Will Rogers schtick, and militarism. If this sounds like a recipe for Trumpism, then perhaps you’ll understand why this book still has a great deal to say to 21st century Americans.

          Into this fire, Lewis drops Doremus Jessup, a classic Twainsian Don’t-Tread-on-Me Connecticut Yankee — independent, skeptical, liberal, practical, and a bit curmudgeonly. He refuses both fascism and communism as dangerous collectives. His guiding worldview is pretty much “mind your own business and let others do as they please.” Yet he’s forced into action when Windrip is elected, giving Lewis free reign to satirize everyone form the dolts who fall for Windrip’s rhetoric to the housewives-turned-underground revolutionaries who rage against the machine.


Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Boeotia, could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.

–Sinclair Lewis


          Lewis begins each chapter with a quote from Windrip’s fictional book Zero Hour, but suddenly stops quoting about halfway through the novel, just as Windrip attains power. At that point, the novel becomes less about the rise of fascism and more about the way in which average people choose their destinies. Indeed, Windrip’s message is only the spark. The true horrors occur when regular people begin to make decisions (or refuse to act) based on collective fear. And here is where Lewis’ novel takes on prophetic form: not in its chronicle of how a fascist-leaning politician rises to become president, but in how Lewis imagines the American people would respond. They each make a decision to fall into line or to resist; to fight or to flee. Each more outrageous word and action becomes normalized, until Windrip’s own ignorant rhetoric fades into the background. At a certain point, even Windrip himself becomes irrelevant; the events he sets in motion move to a point beyond where he might stop them, even if he wanted to (which he does not). Americans like Jessup are forced out of their indifferent attitudes or politically neutral position and must resist. In the words of the protest song “Which Side Are You On,” written by Florence Reece and popularized by Pete Seeger: “There are no neutrals here.”

          When Lewis writes (ironically) “it can’t happen here,” he’s not talking about fascism so much as the overly-militarized, patriotic, and nationalistic groupthink that already is here, and which can so easily lead average citizens to accept or embrace fascist ideologies. (The SA-styled military unit patrolling the borders before an all-out war with Mexico is called the Minute Men [MM]. Again, this sounds all-too-familiar to modern American readers.) As we enter the Trump Era in the United States, sadly, the novel has become required reading for all Americans, even if its message falls on deaf ears, and might very well be too late to make an impact.

ALL THE KING’S MEN: Shotgun Politics and Transferral Blame

All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

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          Between the ages of 10 and 13, I went to LSU’s baseball camp every summer in Baton Rogue, Louisiana. They had just attained the status of college baseball powerhouse in the mid-90s under coach Skip Bertman, and the camps were packed every year with eager youngsters hoping to glean a bit of magic from the storied program. One year we heard a motivational speaker — the kind of guy who gives pep talks to professional and college athletes — give a speech on Responsibility. He began by asking, “What’s the national pastime?” “BASEBALL!” we all yelled. “Wrong,” he barked. “The national pastime is… transferral blame.” He then went on to describe how the greatest hindrance to success — from the ball field to the boardroom — is blaming others for our failures and pitfalls, a universal trait that spoke strongly to any 11-year-old who gives myriad excuses for not turning in homework or doing chores. It was the kind of speech that stuck with every kid sitting in the stands at Alex Box Stadium that day. As I grew older, I began to accept “transferral blame” as more than merely buzzwords in a cheesy motivational speech aimed at tween boys, but as a useful tool for understanding American life.

          Nowhere is the national pastime of transferral blame more starkly on display than in American politics (where so many participants, from politicians to voters to media personalities, often seem to have the mentality of tween boys), most notably in the form of psychological projection. We project our complex, multifaceted problems on easy, vulnerable targets, and then expect one politician — upon whom we project our ideal, unrealized desires — to wipe them all away (both problems and vulnerable scapegoats) with one mighty blast of bombastic rhetoric. Back in Louisiana, we called this “shotgun politics”: just aim, pull the trigger, and hope that some of those pellets from the spread find the mark…any mark at all, good or bad, consequences be damned.

          It’s no surprise that one of the great American political novels of the 20th century was born in Louisiana, land of shotgun politics, home of transferral blame. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, written when he was a professor at LSU and surely based on the politics of Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long (despite Warren’s half-hearted attempts to distance the novel from Huey), is largely about the damage we do to ourselves (and to each other) when we stubbornly insist that our actions are meaningless in the larger scheme of things, and when we refuse to acknowledge our complicity in the rise of corruption, and even violence, in the political system due to our own apathy. Or, even worse, when we cynically work to undermine a broken political system instead of working to fix the problems. It’s far easier to load a shotgun and stand by idly as it’s fired than to speak up and stop the ham-fisted moron who is intent on blasting away. 

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Robert Penn Warren

          It’s a lesson that many of us learned in the 2016 election cycle (and not only the United States), and it’s one that we could have avoided perhaps had we heeded Warren’s warning in the form of Jack Burden in All the King’s Men. Burden is an intellectual, cynical, former academic and current journalist whose apathy and cynicism leads him to cover — and eventually work for — the populist politician Willie “Boss” Stark.

          Burden soon works as Stark’s hatchet man, digging up dirt on political enemies, including his father-figure, Judge Irwin. Stark’s brand of amoral politics — in which ideas and deeds exist independent of truth or fact, which are never concrete realities, and should always be manipulated as a means of some larger political end — initially appeals to Burden’s nihilistic worldview. We all wallow in the dirt, Burden rationalizes, and all dirt is equal. Therefore, a respectable judge’s bribe and a governor’s attempt to cover it up — isolated moments of failure in lives of otherwise moral public service — are on par with the rampant corruption and amorality of Stark, whose entire career has been dedicated to the obfuscation of truth and the slinging of dirt.


“Dirt’s a funny thing,” the Boss said. “Come to think of it, there ain’t a thing but dirt on this green God’s globe except what’s under water, and that’s dirt too. It’s dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain’t a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt. That right?”

–Robert Penn Warren


          All the King’s Men shows us what happens when our moral compass has become so distorted that we think, “All politicians are corrupt. All corruption is equal. Therefore, all politicians are equally corrupt, so our only option is to elect an outsider who best knows how to manipulate the corrupt system in order to destroy it.”

          Does this sound familiar, American voters?

          But the lesson of  All the King’s Men is less about the rise of Boss Stark and more about the fall of Jack Burden, an Everyman who should have been smart enough to know that not all crimes are equal and that we are all interconnected. Words and ideas, like actions, can have a far-lasting impact that goes beyond our own cynically detached circumstances. When Burden’s world comes crashing down, he only has himself to blame. Stark might fire the shotgun, but Burden did the loading. And when that happens, one can’t merely stand back and say, “Well, I can’t be blamed for the result of the blast!”

         And yet, this is precisely how authoritarians operate with impunity. When we don’t take responsibility for our actions, then the authoritarian can work without objection, resistance, or responsibility. His minions can do the dirty work while claiming plausible deniability. And they will, with rationalizations like, “I don’t agree with everything he says but…” (Translation: Don’t blame me!), or “Well, other people might vote for him for unethical reasons, but ALL politicians are unethical, and that doesn’t mean all of us voters feel that way…” (Don’t blame me!).

          And then we have the ultimate transferral blame, in the form of those who stayed home during election day: “I didn’t vote at all/voted third party.” (Don’t blame me!) In a sense, we are all to blame for the Willie Starks of the world, in one way or another. He is a monster of our own creation. 

THE IRON HEEL: “Fear the Coming of the Oligarchy”

The Iron Heel (1908) by Jack London

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          While presidential administrations have often been overwhelmingly represented by the elite classes, Donald Trump’s cabinet will be the wealthiest in our nation’s history, which is stunning, considering the concentration of wealth seen during the Gilded Age, as well as in the administrations of Harding, Eisenhower, Kennedy, et al. With the loosening of corporate restrictions and the easing of governmental oversight that will inevitably follow, the Trump administration runs a serious risk of fostering the type of corruption not seen in the United States since the Harding administration. Unfortunately, that type of pocket-lining might be the least of our troubles. With Trump’s push towards unchecked capitalism, protectionist trade policies, isolationism from international diplomacy, and an ultra-militarism that calls for a nuclear arms race via a Tweet (I can’t even believe I’m typing those words), we face a world order in which nations blindly pursue their own economic interests with no international diplomatic means to curtail the damage. On the home front, Trump has signaled that he will continue to disparage the press, refuse the White House press corps basic access, and (at worst) actively work to dismantle long-standing first amendment safeguards.

          A nation run exclusively by the wealthy, who are actively creating economic policies that benefit themselves, with an expansive military at their disposal and the power to manipulate elections, is precisely the dystopian vision presented in Jack London’s The Iron Heel. Written in the form of a manuscript that is discovered 700 years in the future, the novel is a dire warning about an out-of-control centralized government with militarized police that crushes labor to protect corporate interests. The Oligarchy, as London frankly terms the ruling power, is the American capitalist military-industrial complex gone berserk, with North American governments falling in line behind far-right corporate interests to form one massive, oppressive state. The only thing that stands in the way of this dystopian nightmare is the socialist resistance, in the form of labor unions in the United States (or what is left of it) and European socialist nations. (Considering the state of Europe right now, perhaps London was a little too optimistic in that regard!)

          As the Oligarchy consolidates power, the socialists still naively believe they can win at the ballot box. Only Ernest Everhard, the doomed leader of the revolutionary resistance, understands that the Oligarchy has crushed civil liberties and voting rights to the point where elections have become moot. He recognizes that a revolution of the working class is the only option. The people still refuse to believe their eyes, and insist that the Oligarchy can be defeated politically. (I am reminded of that famous declaration of denial from Sinclair Lewis’ novel of the same name: “It can’t happen here!” But those words are always spoken too late. It already is here.)  By the time the workers begin to fight back, it’s already too late. The struggle will continue for hundreds of years.


Thus the summer of 1912 witnessed the virtual death-thrust to the middle class. Even Ernest was astounded at the quickness with which it had been done. He shook his head ominously and looked forward without hope to the fall elections.

“It’s no use,” he said. “We are beaten. The Iron Heel is here. I had hoped for a peaceable victory at the ballot-box. I was wrong. Wickson was right. We shall be robbed of our few remaining liberties; the Iron Heel will walk upon our faces; nothing remains but a bloody revolution of the working class. Of course we will win, but I shudder to think of it.”

And from then on Ernest pinned his faith in revolution. In this he was in advance of his party. His fellow-socialists could not agree with him. They still insisted that victory could be gained through the elections. It was not that they were stunned. They were too cool-headed and courageous for that. They were merely incredulous, that was all. Ernest could not get them seriously to fear the coming of the Oligarchy.

–Jack London


          London’s novel is divided into two parts: the first half documents the political philosophy and rise of Ernest Everhard, with long speeches and conversations detailing London’s socialist views. The second half of the novel documents the violent revolution against the Oligarchy, which has an oddly paced spy subplot that seems an amalgamation of Conrad’s Secret Agent and the works of H.G. Wells. We get interesting predictions of a war with Germany (headed by a crazy tyrant), modern guerilla-style warfare in the cities, and even aerial bombing (via hot air balloons) with incendiary weapons.

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Jack London

          London’s framing device includes a scholar who has discovered this manuscript 700 years in the future and is writing footnotes describing the absurd institutions of the early-20th century. The resulting footnotes read like Ambrose Bierce definitions (one of which is quoted in the novel, so clearly London was inspired by Bierce). An example:”lobbies — a peculiar institution for bribing, bulldozing, and corrupting the legislators who were supposed to represent the people’s interests.”

          The Iron Heel remains starkly relevant in a Western world that is on the precipice of turning hard towards the extreme right. It is recommended for anyone interested in London, early-20th century American literature, or revolutionary fiction, but also as required reading for Americans living in the Trump era. At what point do we begin to fear the coming of the Oligarchy? When Trump’s economic policies begin to squeeze the lower classes, when his social policies begin to place the blame on vulnerable minorities, when the GOP’s political gerrymandering turns elections into farces, and when international diplomacy is eschewed in favor of a global escalation of military might, will we be in any position to reverse this abominable course, or will we already be too late to act?