Ultra: “We’ve been here before.”

A couple days ago my mom suggested that I have a listen to Rachel Maddow’s new podcast: Ultra. I was cautious with the suggestion since, though I love Rachel Maddow (that’s Maddow like “shadow” and not like the Dow Jones), her brand of intellect stresses me out.

To be clear, she is a gifted researcher and writer. What stresses me out AND impresses me is her willingness to dive directly into the pus-oozing, slightly green, social wounds of the day. I appreciate it and I always learn from this bold wading into really unsavory topics because it’s good for us in the long run; it’s just that she’s always revealing some kind of festering rash on the ass of America (and/or the world) that ultimately I knew was there and yet I’m still trying to ignore.

However, she’s a compelling storyteller and there’s always a component of puzzle-solving in her method, as she starts at point A and takes the most non-linear path to B that might exist…but everything she does—every rhetorical tool and left turn taken from the path—she does for a reason. The conclusions are always completely satisfying. I’m still thinking about her last podcast “Bagman” and I think she published that in 2019.

Rachel Maddow presents history of America that we should know but don’t

This could basically be the subtitle of everything she does, including most of her MSNBC shows. If anything, she’s a continual reminder that Americans of the United States variety generally suck at knowing our own history aside from the “golden glow of ages past” version we tend to fall back on.

Ultra is no different.

I’m not going to summarize the story here—go and listen to the damn thing…it’s free (aside from very funny WhatsApp commercials) on any podcasting platform. But what I will say is I’ve taken a kind of odd solace in the episodes that have dropped so far.

It’s not so much a spoiler as a recognition to say that this is a story of a plot, born within the US government and including actors from your favorite institutions including the Catholic Church, Congress, (and more!), by Nazi sympathizers, to overthrow Democracy (and democracy) that very nearly succeeds.

Sounds familiar, yeah?

It does, and that’s my solace. Ever since Jan 6, 2021, I’ve had a ratcheted-up kind of anxiety that only comes from a change in worldview so profound that in that very moment I know life will never be the same. I know I’m not alone. I also know a lot of my concern is how often the word “unprecedented” gets applied to everything thereafter. How do we navigate waters we’ve never seen? How do we explain beliefs we’ve never known?

The good news (sort of) is that Ultra tells us, “we’ve been here before.” The implied good news is that we, collectively, weathered it. America (of the US variety) survived and what came after was years of thriving. Our better collective selves stayed the course and got us back on track.

There’s only three episodes out thus far but the solace in this story for me is that I know the last chapter. FDR goes down in history as one of the most beloved, greatest political leaders in history. Hitler loses. Authoritarianism is beaten back. Democracy remains.

But there’s an inherent warning which I also find solace in: this history as we know it doesn’t happen without the right action from all players in the American Pageant (which I’m pretty sure was a history textbook we used in high school and I’m just realizing why it’s called that right at this moment).

It’s in our collective hands to continue to act in ways that protect the values we hold dear: democracy, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (so say our forebears better than I could myself so I stole it).

Warning to Catholics and Institutionalists Everywhere

Perhaps the most striking thing for me in these initial episodes and early in the story is just how much Catholicism and those who are power hungry in government have the ability to take us ideologically off course if we let them. We let them by wielding their power to 1) frame the narrative 2) lie unchecked 3) believe blindly and 4) believe they have our best interests in mind.

To Catholics out there: listen to this podcast and think about how elements within the Church may be aligning us ideologically with political systems NOT promoting liberty, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness. Catholicism, as a system, can easily run in parallel with authoritarianism—it’s the way the Church is set up as an institution. But Jesus wasn’t an authoritarian. How’s a great time to remember Catholics are Christians…and to act like it.

To Americans of the US variety: remember our system is precious. We are the great experiment. But we have to vigilantly protect it or it’ll be lost. We don’t have to stand for stupidity, we don’t have to stand for corruption, but we also have to send the right people to serve in those institutions who are actively not trying to break them.

This is on us now. History will repeat itself in the right way if we act now and know what’s on the line.

Toward, but not beyond, ne plus ultra

I was curious about the title of the podcast. “Ultra” in today’s slang has kinda been replaced by “uber”: we’re “uber-tired” or “uber-angry”. The word itself is Latin meaning extreme or radical, on the fringes of. Which did make sense but in looking this up I found a phrase I’d never heard which made me think.

Ne plus ultra was a common Latin phrase that literally means “go no more beyond”—it’s the ideal of the highest peak possible…there is nothing higher. But in Classical Latin texts, a more ancient version of this phrase served as a warning, read as a command, and, it’s said, marked the literal ends of the Western World, in myth appearing on the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar, as though to say “don’t go there.” The warning is to remind that that point is the end of civilization.

I thought this an apt turn of phrase for us today. Let us consider ultra, figure out how to deal with them, so that we can get to but not go beyond ne plus ultra.

May I never live to see beyond ne plus ultra.

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