This morning I read this tweet from Fairfax journo Ross Gittins:
My first thought was, a new kind of human being has emerged. One without empathy. This is why we don’t care anymore. Our species is devolving.
For someone who only yesterday re-watched Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, my first thought rather remarkably disregarded history. Visconti’s film charts the moral and physical decline of a wealthy German steel manufacturing family between 1933 and 1934, contiguous with the Nazi party’s rise to power. It is an unrelievedly dark work that plumbs the deeps of most depravities, and it left me needing an afternoon ocean swim for the cleansing properties of sea water and sunlight.
Visconti’s film is hailed as an outstanding examination of moral decadence, sexual neurosis, narcissistic self-centredness and political opportunism, a string of descriptors that can be well applied to the US President and his Republican Party, and to not a few of our own politicians.
(If you don’t think the desire to control women’s reproductive health is symptomatic of sexual neurosis, think again.)
The movie put me in mind of the Trumps, and the current White House battles for power and position, the best analysis of which (so far) is to be found here at Vanity Fair. The immediate difference is at the moment we can still sneer in mocking disbelief at the Trump tribe’s incompetence and stupidity, whereas nobody in their right mind would sneer at the Von Essenbecks and the Nazi party. It is, however, perfectly imaginable that at the time, such people were regarded as idiots by those who would later suffer immeasurably at their hands.
Trump is still largely seen as a buffoon rather than something far more sinister, however, he is a buffoon with the ability to unleash nuclear weapons, and he appears to have willingly conceded unfettered power to his military hawks. They don’t have to ask him before they blow stuff up.
Thinking of the differences and similarities between the Von Essenbeck family and the Trumps leads me to speculate that as well as having lost much of our ability to appreciate the beauty of compassion and concern (that human talent being derogated by the neo-fascists as “elitist”) we have also become diminished in our capacity to identify and acknowledge the corroding powers on the human spirit of darkness and terminal decay. It’s likely impossible to become desensitised to horror without incurring an equal desensitisation to the sublime.
I think my reaction to Mr Gittens’ tweet was wrong. A new kind of human being has not emerged. The human being without empathy has always existed. The narcissistic, self- centred, sexually neurotic, morally decadent political opportunist has been in existence for as long as human civilisation. To think otherwise is to disregard history, and to disregard history is to ensure its repetition.
It is true that we used to care if people were starving, and now perhaps we do not care as much. It’s also true that before we cared there were periods when we didn’t care, and this periodic lack of care for others is nothing new. That doesn’t excuse it. There is no excusing it. However, it’s worth remembering this cyclical nature of compassion because we have, more than once, got ourselves out of not caring and back into caring again, and we probably need to remember how we did that, so we can have some hope of doing it again before it’s too late.
The most alarming difference between the Nazi Party and present day Republicans is nuclear weapons, from which there is, for most victims including the planet, no coming back. Once they are unleashed, we are most of us damned.
By the way, I note that the Trump family portrait bears an uncanny resemblance to the Von Essenbecks’ excesses of style.