The following article was written for the New NY 23rd by Anne Markel, a friend of this blog. It is posted with her permission.
In his latest Facebook posts, Tom Reed’s repeated use of a certain new hashtag tells us a couple of things about both the man’s ideology and his understanding of history (in addition to showing that he’s probably put a new social media coordinator in the payroll; that much will become clearer when he files his next quarterly financial reports). Tom’s “renaissance moment” has, of course, to do with his financial interest in getting fracking underway in the Southern Tier, a two-pronged financial interest, as he both owns mineral rights to land in Tuscarora, and has been the beneficiary of some very generous campaign funding from the gas and oil industry. That those folks expect payment in kind is just one of Reed’s problems with accepting such largesse, but I am sure it is one that is at the forefront of his thinking.
But what about his use of the word renaissance in this context—why not #TapAmericanEnergy or #MakeAmericaSecure or some other tried-and-true Republican phraseology? The use of the word does class the joint up a little bit (despite the Francophobia that was running through the halls of Congress not that many years ago). Perhaps Reed doesn’t understand the origin of the word? What is clear is that he doesn’t understand its real meaning. Just as they say that youth is wasted on the young, so education would seem to be wasted on the cocksure.
The term Renaissance as used to describe the era that came roughly between the 14th and 16th centuries first appeared around the middle of the 19th. By then, historians could look back over those centuries as a whole and begin to see the patterns emerging—every age is a reaction to the age that came before—that were a sloughing off of the superstition and ignorance that had so enveloped the Middle Ages. Our Renaissance forebears were nothing if not intellectually engaged and curious: they re-read the classics, they expanded universities (which had themselves been founded firmly in the Middle Ages), they remade architecture into something airy and lofty, they invented humanism. They sailed and explored and mapped the world. The invented telescopes and turned their attention to the stars; the emphasis became less on the afterlife and more on the current world they inhabited. Literacy rates improved, and life expectancy.
Now, as a medievalist and a folklorist, I am still firmly in love with the medieval world…and I am glad that I do not live in it. On the other hand, there are some very real parallels between that time and our own. Today’s income gap is the Middle Ages’ feudalism; the capital-c Church has been replaced by the capital-e Energy industry; even the rampant illiteracy of those centuries past has found a new form in the anti-science, anti-intellectualism so prevalent among so many in the GOP. Religious fundamentalism has replaced, in a weird way, religious superstition. Entrenched career politicians exercise their own kind of Divine Right, and trickle-down economics form the basis of their personal royal treasuries. The specter of punishment in the afterlife for the sins of this one has morphed into a more literal hell-on-Earth for people in need, with the punitive idea that poverty is a result of laziness or some other moral failing, and that the poor are where they are solely through fault of their own making.
Tom Reed’s false #Renaissance does nothing to vault over these problems, as the real Renaissance did, but instead tells us that more of the same is surely the way to go. Had any of the same worked by now, there would of course be no conversation to be had here. But the policies that Reed would enact—slashing social programs, energy production at the cost of both environmental and human health, more for the rich, less for everyone else—do not work, have not worked, and have been given their chance. In his insistence that this is the way to go, he shows only that his arrogance takes the place of his intelligence, and that his concern for self-enrichment trumps it all. It’s actually difficult to think of a precise antonym for the word renaissance but a google query leads first to the word sleeping. Which is as good a word as any to describe what Reed’s vision would mean for progress: it would go directly back to sleep. In keeping with the French construction, we come up with the word r’endormi. #ReedR’endormi.
What would a #RealAmericanRenaissance look like? Well, much like the last Renaissance, with an expansion of education, a renewed interest in and emphasis on the viability of the world we inhabit; progress, not regress, in the areas of science, medicine, technology. A renewed familiarization with the past—keeping us from being doomed to repeat our mistakes—and along with that, a renewed appreciation for the writers, artists, photographers and others who help to document, explain, and explore the world, and in so doing, sometimes give us fresh ways to think about ourselves. I’m a big fan of the WPA and the work it generated, both in the sense of getting people employed again and in the sense of the products those people created that still inhabit our world today. To reboot such a program would not put fat money into the pockets of profit-driven energy, banking or other interests, but it would be more truly a rebirth, granting a fuller realization of the potential that now sits untapped. The Renaissance was a time of creativity, insight and intellectual courage, all attributes which, sadly, our own man in the House lacks. His courage is of another kind (what the French term les couilles; you can look it up) and it’s the kind that hopes the rest of us will content ourselves with his rhetoric while he gallops after his personal wealth, taken at the expense of everyone else’s.