This country, in its media and governmental incarnations, on-line and in the 24-7 news cycle of talk shows, feels like a civil war before the cleansing and killing begin, before the roads clogged with refugees, before the warlord gangs seize control of turf and food and weapons. All the voices feel like howls.
But in my fortunate life, when I go to breakfast, see lots of people at work, talk to friends in my community, venture into the real life of face-to-face meetings, the howls disappear.
I do not know what I am seeing anymore.
The centrifugal forces behind our disagreements — abortion, race, income inequality, globalization, the rise of propaganda outlets and shills, the internet’s atomization of knowledge and opinion — are offset by the centripetal forces holding us together (so far) — geography, inertia, the Constitution, memory and tradition, a set of myths (the “Shining City on the Hill”, Lincoln’s idea of a “mystic Union”, the Gatsby idea of reinvention, the rule of law — a myth only in many communities in this country).
So we are kept intact, but still, one part of life feels as if we are watching the storm descend. On all those screens we can see trees being uprooted, outbuildings flying apart. What else explains this disconnect and this anger?
Roger Cohen believes that “there are plenty of theories about this anger …. but what it comes down to is that a lot of people are pretty sure they’re getting cheated. If you think the world has screwed you, you get mad.
They notice that the attempt to squeeze the last cent of profit out of any operation has also squeezed the last trace of sentiment out of what passes for human interaction. They see that technology serves relentless efficiency, and somewhere in that efficiency life gets joyless and existence precarious. They note that good unions, retirement benefits, manufacturing jobs, overtime and health care get eliminated or curtailed in pursuit of that last cent.
They observe how put-together types with attitude and little qualification can make a bundle buying and eviscerating solid companies that actually produce things or setting up consultancies that trade on connections at the money-influence margins of politics. They know that if something goes wrong with the rigged system the losses will get “socialized.” Regular schmucks who work a shift will pay while insiders walk away. That’s how things have been since the 21st century began. The fix is always in.”*
This life in America is not a novel. There is no narrative arc at work here. We do not know how this ‘falling apart’ or the culture of the ‘fix’ will turn out. No happy endings are guaranteed, and as I write this, the pipeline in this Congress is beginning to fill with Bills that will deny millions Healthcare, destroy schools, poison air and water, further deny voting rights to the young and to brown and black people, shut down the study of climate change, ruin wilderness. Soon, in real time, in real life, we may be hearing those howls rise to a crescendo. What follows the howls when the full brunt of misery begins to smash the lives of those you know? When it comes blasting into your life?
*Roger Cohen, “The Madness of Crowds”, The New York Times, February 28, 2017