THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
Divide, Decline and Fall
In the abstract, we know that all civilizations eventually decline, but we don't expect to witness our own demise play itself out in real time. This year's election has forced us to confront a shocking reality that no nation expects to face: not merely that America is failing, or that we are "on the wrong track", as the polls blandly surmise. We have awakened to discover that we are simply not one nation, nor even the nation we thought we were.
In retrospect, the signs were obvious and everywhere: rising inequality, entrenched poverty, perverse media, persistent racism, uneven education, debased culture, unchecked consumption, deteriorating health, pervasive violence, overcrowded prisons, a poisoned landscape — among other injuries to the social compact. We have not defined deviancy down as much as we have expelled it beyond the reach of ordinary meaning, leaving ourselves without the bonds of shared ideals or standards. In our zeal to promote and protect our parochial interests, we have lost the ability even to agree on the terms of debate. The "bubbles" in which we live, both ideologically and, increasingly, geographically, prevent us even from feeling compassion at times towards those outside our own sphere, but who likewise suffer in varying degrees of severity from the consequences of what ails us. During the primaries, for example, a tow-truck driver refused to assist a group of people whose van broke down on the way to a rally for a candidate of the other party. This he declared proudly on the Internet. In our sad and loathsome descent into online anarchy, we are left to question not only the veracity of the tale and the true identity of the teller, but, moreover, to ponder the degree to which unsubstantiated anecdotes ought to influence our opinions.
Still, whether we see the tow-truck driver as a hero or a fool, the story's verisimilitude is striking: true or not, it might as well be. We bemoan the abandonment of considered facts in favor of calculating fictions, but fail to realize that in the ancient practice of storytelling it is the invented story that has always resonated most powerfully. The publishing industry has been prophesying its own downfall for decades, but novels are still written and fly off the bookshelves in great profusion. We seek our truth in the comforts of a steadying tale, more and more from movies and television which, tellingly, are truer to the oral tradition. The shaper, of John Gardner's undying imagination, has always kept us in thrall.
But when we are in thrall to so many different and irreconcilable stories, can we call ourselves a people? Is that not what our unending election has devolved into, a shouting and shoving match to determine which set of identities gets to claim the mantle of the "real" America? This is not a recipe for greatness, or even survival. It is a guarantor of further dissolution.
And so we find ourselves with a standard-bearer who was the not the first choice of even most of those who voted for him, but who can be certain to proclaim his vision, loudly, as representative and supreme. We have now a dilemma of the chicken and egg variety: how much do leaders actually make their country, and how much are they just products and reflections of the country that made them? In autocracies, it is impossible to deny the outsized, and typically malign, influence of the personality at the head of the state. (An obvious case in point: the recently deceased dictator of Cuba.) In a democracy, however, the scale should come down firmly for the latter view: for better or worse, we get the candidates we deserve. But we are about to see how much populist demagoguery the people will actually tolerate, and we will also find out just how far the balance has shifted away from classical liberalism towards historical absolutism. The gathering of the powers of the executive over the course of the last century does not give cause for optimism, though the emboldening of popular activism over this same period could very well serve as a counterweight to entrenched political power, as it has done at earlier times of crisis. Whether the diffraction of points of view and the loss of national consensus turns out to be a source of strength or a fatal weakness remains to be seen.
Popular uprisings against power are nearly as old as civilization itself — and were almost always failures. But the protest movement as a viable means of fomenting change took a dramatic turn in the latter half of the last century when it started to rack up some significant successes. It is beyond doubt that the freedom from social convention that we experience today would not exist but for the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Issues of race, gender and sexuality still plague us, and the forces of reaction are always eager to turn back the clock, but compared to eras past we inhabit an almost unrecognizable society. People are able to live as they wish to a degree that was simply not conceivable as recently as 40 or 50 years ago. (For evidence, see Loving.) It is no accident that the incoming president and many of his supporters are deeply nostalgic for the 1950s, precisely because it was the last decade in which the social order felt intact to them. Forceful denunciations of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia are resented by those who believe they are guilty of nothing more than wistfulness for a bygone era. From some perspectives this is a fair complaint, but motives cover a wide range of obliviousness, from unrepentant bigotry to hopeless naivete.
Perversely, the incoming president is as great a beneficiary of the sexual and economic revolutions of the last half century as anyone living. Unchecked lechery and avarice were long the special province of the wealthy and powerful (i.e., those who could get away with it), but so, to a great extent, were refinement and sophistication. The gilded throne was nominally accompanied by at least the trappings of nobility. No longer. The social and economic changes that swept through the country in previous generations are widely believed to have left us deeply divided, and are arguably the primary sources of the polarization that defines so much of our politics and our culture today. But this divide will not be bridged, or even explained, without a far deeper understanding of how very different a country we have become as a result, and an acknowledgement of the unforeseen consequences of social upheaval.
Much as the left has been loath to recognize the moral confusion and mere vulgarity that were unleashed by the sexual liberation (some would say depravity) of the 1960s and 70s, so the right has been equally blind to the ethical collapse and sheer rapaciousness of the economic uprising (some would say depravity) that followed in the 1980s. Both of these movements were provoked by a widespread sense that something was fundamentally wrong: in the first instance, that moral close-mindedness and long-simmering injustices demanded resolution, and in the second, that the economic ship was listing and badly needed a correction. However, the current of history draws both the deserving and the undeserving into its wake. Rights and opportunities for women led to sexual freedom, which came at the risk of sexual license. Similarly, economic growth was fueled, in part, by deregulation, which came at the cost of unfettered greed. The unavoidable flip-sides of self-realization and expansiveness are selfishness and excess. In both cases, we continue to live with the fallout of a society in which "anything goes" has not only become normalized but is often handsomely rewarded in many spheres of activity. The more committed the advocates for change, the more they suffer from a deficit of outrage, except against the committed advocates of whichever revolution they do not favor. Each sees virtue in their own self-expression, but only self-indulgence in others, and at the expense of the greater good. Perhaps even more damaging is a deficit of shame, which permits us to forgive almost any debauchery and self-indulgence on our own side even as we condemn it roundly on the other.
If the election and its outcome are only symptoms of all that has gone awry, the political ramifications must be confronted nonetheless, because they are severe enough in themselves to do irreparable harm. When someone is brought into the emergency room and stops breathing, the doctors don't stand by and watch the patient die because "it's just a symptom of some deeper problem." Nonetheless, if we only treat the symptoms, then the best we can hope to achieve is (merely) averting a catastrophe. We should aspire for something better. We should rely on the crisis of the moment to correct our trajectory and increase our velocity as we aim toward a more self-respecting future.
It would be hugely helpful, in envisioning that future, if we could rid ourselves of the false notion that there is a "right side" of history, and that those whom we brand as being on the "wrong side" are not worthy of our consideration as fellow creatures. There are no assurances for human society, no default mode that favors tolerance and good government over dogma and despotism. "The world" that we bemoan when life does not go our way is only what people make of it at any given time. There are no communal imperatives, no inexorable trend towards progress. The path forward is as likely to be marked by regression and barbarism as by advancement and enlightenment; indeed, if history and heredity are our guides, then the default mode for homo sapiens is tribalism and narrow-mindedness. These are not alien vices to be condemned in only some of us, but inherent traits that bedevil all mankind. If we take away only one lesson from the past year, it should be that one person's progress often feels to someone else like decline. If we suppose that sense of loss to be exaggerated or imaginary, we are obliged to seek out those who feel this way and convince them otherwise, rather than demonize half of the nation as traitors and enemies of civilization.
It is still possible that tending with care to the many ills that afflict us may enable the particular problem of our broken politics to be corrected as a matter of course. No nation that is satisfied with itself and its position in the world is capable of delivering a self-inflicted wound as hideous as the election of 2016. The ugliness that it revealed was quite apparent before November, so that hoping for one result over another is beside the point. Wherever we have strayed as a nation, we didn't just suddenly arrive here on Election Day. Let us address the political misfortune as we must, but let us not allow a passing desperation to distract us from the urgent task of repairing our far more debilitating social and cultural deficits. Washington does not decide if we are decent and civil to one another, or if we leave the world better than we found it. It is within our own power to overcome our prejudices, ignore the dark voices, and approach strangers with an open mind. No laws are required to induce us to pay our employees fairly, hire without bias, and follow not just the letter but the spirit of our agreements. Justice is not solely the purview of government, and doing the right thing need not require the constant leaden threat of lawsuits and prosecutions.
If we were true to our ideals — if we were genuinely just, honorable, ethical and, dare we say it, exceptional — then our decisions at the ballot box would reflect this superior countenance, rather than the deformed image that is staring back at us right now. Let us model our imperfect behavior on our professed principles, and become more like that country of our dreams. The crisis of leadership that vexes us in this hour of need will then resolve itself.
December 3, 2016
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