THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
There Will Be No Reckoning Here
"What is to become of us...this great country and this accursedly little people?"
– Frederick Law Olmstead
We are the same nation that we were before Election Day, but this is not as comforting a thought as it ought to be. The results of one vote do not change our essential character, but what is that character exactly? Are we still the same people who flocked from all corners of the country to Lower Manhattan after September 11, 2001 to help rescue our fellow citizens, and who proudly displayed the Stars and Stripes from every porch and window? It certainly doesn't feel as if we live in that America any longer. Are we the same ones who twice elected as president a multiracial activist and constitutional scholar? Or are we ones who then elected a malicious narcissist of surpassing ignorance, who turned a blind eye when black citizens were gunned down by the police, or when immigrant children were wrenched from their parents at the border and locked in cages? We didn't used to believe that ends justify means, or make excuses for all of the cruel consequences of the raw exercise of power. Or did we?
It does no good to suggest that other people are responsible for the excesses and indecencies that have accumulated in recent years, to excuse ourselves by saying that we didn't vote for things to be this way. Either we are one nation, responsible for and accountable to one another, or we are not. Of course there are extremists and demagogues among us, as there have always been, who prey upon the moderation of others, as they always have. Those of a thoughtful and rational bent are always at a disadvantage against the ruthless and the generally paranoid. In addition to being reluctant to seek and wield power for its own sake, true believers in democracy and the art of persuasion continually find themselves on the short end of conspiracy theories, and therefore constantly in the position of having to prove a negative. No one can assert definitively that a cabal of pedophiles is NOT running the federal government, or that Jewish financiers are NOT forever scheming to take over the world, or that an international conspiracy did NOT steal the presidential election for Joe Biden. Logic cannot prevail against such fantasies. "The politics of resentment are impervious to facts," observed Frank Rich more than a decade ago.
The best one can do against torrents of lies is to refer to Christopher Hitchens' dictum: anything that can be stated without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
The disenfranchised and the powerless have always been susceptible to outlandish explanations for their downtrodden state. Even those who do not objectively fall into the category of have-nots are sometimes, for one reason or another, attracted to charlatans who reduce a world of unfathomable complexity into a set of simple propositions. Who among us does not struggle to understand why the world is one way and not another, particularly another way that is more to our liking? Who has never been tempted by easy dichotomies: good and evil, us and them, victims and scapegoats. These have always suited nicely, because they can be applied, simplistically, to almost all human conflicts. Let he who is without bias cast the first tweet.
Insanity, which is defined colloquially as repeating the same action and expecting a different result, afflicts not only the deluded followers of liars and con artists, but those who oppose them, as well. If one supposes that all we have to do is vote, obey the law and follow the path of righteousness, and that the arc of the universe will then indeed bend towards justice, one is playing directly into the hands of those who are interested in nothing more than power. The decency of some of the people is continually exploited by the greed of the others. The American experiment, fraught though it has been with all manner of inhumanity, has been an anomaly of social progress in the otherwise dismal history of humankind. The experiment may still fail. Indeed, the last fews year leave us wondering whether the America we thought we lived in ever existed at all: an America of basic decency and compassion, in which the loudest and most incendiary voices always burned themselves out eventually. Perhaps the well of decency has in fact been dry from the beginning, and that it is the progressives who are in fact the ones who have been deluding themselves all along.
"When our kings are in conflict with our constitution, we change our kings."
– Winston Churchill
In "The Queen's Gambit", a Netflix series, a young girl learns to play chess from the janitor in an orphanage, where she was sent after her mother's death. The janitor is a stern but determined teacher. In one of their early lessons, he takes the girl's queen and her position on the board is apparently hopeless. As she prepares to make another move, he grabs her firmly by the wrist and stops her.
"You resign now."
"That's right, child, when you lose your queen that way, you resign."
"Yes. You have resigned the game."
"You didn't tell me that in the rules."
"Its not a rule. It's sportsmanship."
"I want to finish."
"You've got to finish."
"No. You lost."
"The game is over."
Typical of a sore loser who is not yet self-disciplined enough to exercise grace, she then curses him with words she has heard others use but, at the tender age of nine, clearly does not understand. For the moment, he banishes her from the room, but in time, she learns her lesson and returns. As fiercely competitive as she is, she goes on to become a studiously gracious champion.
Others will never learn. One may as well expect sportsmanship from a crocodile.
"When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled 'made in Germany'; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, 'Americanism'."
– An uncredited New York Times reporter, 1938
The political analysts who continue to ponder the President's tactical errors in the 2020 election campaign — for example, denigrating mail-in voting that may have actually helped him with rural conservative voters, lowering expectations for Joe Biden by questioning his mental fitness, and turning down an opportunity to debate before a vast national audience — are entirely missing the point. He never had any intention of even trying to win the vote. For four years in the White House, he did nothing to expand his base, because he clearly didn't think he needed a majority to win again. All he required to secure his re-election (or so he thought, and apparently still does) was a pliant federal judiciary, a pack of Republican lapdogs in Congress and in the state legislatures, and, if push came to shove, armed supporters in the streets to intimidate voters and create chaos. To paraphrase the commander-in-chief himself: democracy is for suckers.
The most enduring shock and disappointment of this miserable era will always be the abandonment of responsibility by so many of us: why in the world would Americans ever put up with this despicable behavior? Where are all of the rural American archetypes who would not tolerate a bully in their own neighborhoods, and would beat their own children for telling a bare-faced lie, and would sooner cut off their own arms than boast of their successes, let alone ceaselessly? How can such people not only excuse, but celebrate, the desecration of every value they professed to hold so dear? Even if we suppose that those who show up at rallies or marches represent only a tiny fraction, and the most disreputable representatives, of the so-called base, what about the rest? What about the tens of millions who live a quiet, decent life and eschew violence but enthusiastically vote for someone who is the epitome of indecency and conscientiously foments civil unrest?
Are we just kidding ourselves to believe that such people ever actually existed? Perhaps we were taken in by the aw-shucks characters in the movies, the kind played by Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart. Maybe we just needed to believe that a minimum level of goodness pervaded the country, otherwise the evils we had to witness and atone for would have been too great to bear. Yes, we told ourselves, we have committed some unforgivable crimes — from the decimation of native populations to the horrors of slavery to the internment of the Japanese Americans during WWII — but underneath it all we were basically a good people, and capable of change. But what if we were wrong about that? What if there was nothing whatsoever preventing us from sinking into the morass of inhumanity which has destroyed so many other nations at various times? What if these dreadful episodes were not the exception but the norm? By focusing on a few horrendous acts we overlook innumerable others: lynchings and massacres by the thousands, and incarceration by the millions, made possible by unjust laws in every state (at one time) designed to stymie and destroy the lives of people who weren't white and Christian. How can we honestly say of racist and religious atrocities that "it cannot happen here" when it has in fact happened here, over and over again?
If we no longer feel comfortable in our country, it is mainly because we now suspect every person we meet of being an "other", someone who will readily explain away extremes of belief and behavior. The question remains whether this is truly something new, or whether the era we are currently enduring has merely brought the differences in our respective world views into starker relief. In a new documentary based his book The Soul of America, the historian Jon Meacham reminds us that the country has been through this before, in even more frightening ways. The Ku Klux Klan once marched openly in the streets of downtown Washington. The American Nazi Party held a rally in Madison Square Garden. The Jim Crow era blighted the lives of millions of black Americans for decades, and led to the death of many. McCarthyism cast a long and dark shadow on American life and still leaves its traces on the body politic (the late senator from Wisconsin and the outgoing president from Queens even used the same disreputable lawyer). Though Meacham means to offer perspective and thereby convey optimism, it's not clear that the response in some viewers isn't an even deeper despair. We did survive these terrible episodes, and in some instances our laws and institutions were strengthened as a result. On the other hand, however much progress we seem to have made, the undertow of racist and political savagery pulls us ever under the waves. Progress is never guaranteed.
"If things were so great, they would never have changed."
– "True Detective"
In the days after the election, the weather turned uncommonly mild here for early November. Warm, sunlit days folded early into quiet, windless nights. Soon after dark, Mars appeared above the eastern horizon, where it had been for several weeks, with Jupiter and Saturn in their own celestial dance to the west. We lingered in the gift of spring-like evenings to watch the dome of stars perform their daily turn above our heads. There was a strange comfort in remembering that the heavens are eternally oblivious to the bluster and blather of the creatures who scuttle down here on the surface of our little world. We welcomed this random respite between past and future storms and conflagrations, hoping without good reason that these few peaceful days were a harbinger of quieter times to come.
November 22, 2020
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