My love of this country is more felt than thought, more emotional than analytic, but eventually I always come back to Lincoln. Listen once more to the last paragraph of his first Inaugural Address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Now the chords have all become discordant and the angels are nowhere to be found. This is what it feels like: imagine a camera clipped to a motorcycle following a road up and down for thousands of miles, a stark, embedded line, as vivid as a brand applied to raw flesh. This road is a wound, and it twists and shifts, doubles back on itself, divides neighbors, families, friends. Along this wound tens of millions of Americans stand across from each other, hoping that their righteousness will prevail, that those opposite them will go down to defeat, even if it requires a little blood. Most wear fearful, hostile expressions. When I let myself travel this road, I see the slow death of our democracy, and the country I love being crushed by cynical billionaires who have rigged Congress to siphon more and more wealth into their accounts, by old, bitter judges, by barely closeted racists, by howling propaganda networks, by science hating, cretinous politicians. I seethe with a barely contained fury when I think of them. I think that nothing will change them, and that they have no pity and no conscience. I think that only a cleansing will suffice.
My mirror image stands across from me along that same terrible wound, and he sees the slow death of this country as it is consumed by a grasping, terrifying underclass of brown and black brutes, a criminal caste, barely recognizable as human beings; by a President who neither looks nor speaks like him and whose voice and mannerisms make him seethe with anger, by a President he regards as weak and whose policies have given comfort to those who he believes are lazy and irresponsible. The President wants his guns, his psychic bulwark against an attack on his home, the prime symbol of his independence and safety. He believes that the President has made our enemies bold and that nothing will change him or those like him. He thinks that they are thieves and cowards. He thinks that only a cleansing will suffice.
What underlying forces spur on this tearing apart, this grinding political misery that may persist for decades?
Begin with Globalization — implacable, impersonal, pitiless, Darwinian, a force that commodifies everything and that pursues profits through the heart of any society, any family, any class, any physical environment. Profits are more important than children, than clean air and water, than love of country. With the exception of the few winners who know how to ride or serve Profit, all other salaries are driven down or jobs exported to third world countries where very low wages and vile working conditions prevail. Thus, in the United States, no one knows how to create middle class jobs that will last. The lack of jobs or availability of mostly lousy jobs creates anxiety and rage, dampens reason, adds fire to resentments, infects the wound.
Democrats offer infrastructure work as a solution — reconfigure the electrical grid, rebuild schools and bridges. Everything I read indicates the necessity of doing so, but after that ten year bulge of work, what then? They have no long term ideas.
Republicans offer the free market as a solution, as a divinity really. Lower taxes enough, step out of the way, eliminate regulations and the best among us will create companies and jobs will bloom. They have essentially won this argument — both parties have been following this path, but their plan has only succeeded in transferring wealth to an investor class and to the highly skilled entrepreneur or to the specialist in technology. The gap between the investor class and the men and women who work for a living has never been greater. Real wages have been flat for 40 years. The Republicans have no ideas about how to build wages for those who work for a living. They seem not to care.
The rapacity and ingenuity of global capitalism has helped make possible a second force that we face everywhere — in our phones, at work in our IPads and laptops, at home on thousands of channels of TV. T.S. Eliot wrote that “Humankind/cannot bear very much reality;” I wonder what he would make of the 24 hour shrieking of our media universe, this creator of trivia and spectacle and an unblinking disseminator of blood, savagery and horror (but not tragedy — tragedy takes time for consideration and time is another commodity to be dominated by the market). Our minds and emotions are not built for constant noise, for an unending scream. Overwhelmed, we batten down against the storm, we retreat from facts and embrace myth. We harden our hearts — we drain them of pity. Overwhelmed, we go mad.
When has economic loss, dislocation and distress not produced a retreat to the familiar and the controllable? When has it not created a free-floating fear of anything or anybody seen as a threat? We have been lucky twice when existential threats appeared. Where are our potential Lincoln’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s now? Perhaps democracy cannot survive global capitalism and the ubiquitous, million voiced media.
Because so many believe government as an entity to be sinister or incompetent or corrupt down to its core, increasingly, many also believe that we are responsible only for those we can actually, physically see — our blood relations, close neighbors, best friends. No one else matters. We are becoming a people of clans and tribes. Our idea of ourselves as a nation is decaying. The terrible line, that awful wound, is pulling apart, rifting, more blood is pooling along its edges, infection has set in. Will the others standing across from me become enemies? If that happens, what hatreds will be loosed among us? I have never seen such a vigorous, pure meanness stalking the land. Not during Vietnam. Not in Nixon’s time. What divides meanness from cruelty, cruelty from savagery? My greatest fear is that we are going to soon find out and that the most defenseless will find out first — children, the poor, and wild places. What happens if the wound grows to be mortal?