Watching the disintegration of American polity from an ocean-and-a-half away is excruciating.
The metaphors are all hackneyed. Not one of them will do. One thing is certain, however: we are way past watching milk spill, past dumpster fires, past train wrecks – and we are fast approaching the “Simpsons parody of a Bosch painting” kind and degree of mayhem.
If Terry Crews were to launch an 11th hour independent candidacy in character as Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, one would not smile. In fact, one might be tempted to vote for him. I would be tempted to vote for him.
Connecticut – where I vote – is going to Joe Biden. Other citizens in swing states have more difficult decisions to make. Out there, this business is real. I don’t know what I would do – not that I’d ever write about it – but I know there is no universe in which I’d vote for the grotesque buffoon currently disgracing the office and the nation that elected him.
In a jaded and dyspeptic mood, I might say the choice with which major parties have presented the American electorate is like one between a fast-acting and violent poison, and a slow-acting subtle agent: between cyanide and a dioxin, say.
If one must have one or the other, it makes sense to prefer the slow-acting agent in hope of finding a remedy before too much damage is done, but one must have eyes open to the choice – such as it is – and it does well to begin the search for an antidote well in advance of scheduled exposure.
So much for the election.
When we chose Trump in 2016, I pooh-poohed the doomsayers. It struck me then, that we were in one of the fevers that seize us from time to time, and that American institutions were equal to the task of holding the line against the momentary failure of popular sense. I also recall noting that we were about to test their strength, and find out just how robust American institutions really are in the first quarter of the 21st century and the rough midpoint of the third century of American independence.
Different measures yield different results, but no institution – no matter how solid – can permanently supply a corrupt and decadent civility.
There’s a great deal of talk about polarisation of the national discourse and acrimonious tone in public counsels – all true – but the solution too often proposed is a retreat from contentious issues or an exclusion of opinions and the people who hold them from the civic conversation.
In a word, we all want to secure the public square by restricting the circle that circumscribes civic conversation.
Four years ago, it seemed to me that our unwillingness to contend with each other had brought us to the edge of bizarro-world.
This year, in a September essay for Chapter House, I asked readers to consider when was the last time they had a frank exchange of views – one that perhaps led to some probing and clarifying questions, but never saw any adversarial confrontation – that ended in mere gratitude for the chance to understand one another?
Four years ago, we were having a very hard time arguing with one another. These days, we can barely talk to one another on a good day. We need to find our way back to each other.
That isn’t exactly a straightforward proposition, but the way is neither so long nor so fraught with danger as one might think. Social media come in for a lot of the blame for our dire circumstances, but I’m not sure they aren’t at least as much what we make them to be as they are shapers of our character.
Let me tell you a story.
I don’t really “do” social media – not the way some folks do, whose work in those spaces is more readily appreciated than emulated – but I do spend some time on Facebook and not too long ago I posted a gif of a teenaged girl successfully landing her first kickflip. The aspiring skater exploded in a riot of joy. I captioned the post: “Here, be happy a minute.”
Lots of people were.
The friends and acquaintances who liked the post have places all across the spectrum of opinion: from “Attila was a softie” on the right, to “Lenin was a sell-out” on the left, and every place in between. These friends and acquaintances were of different ages, sexes, races, creeds, walks of life.
None of that came up, though.
It was just a bunch of people – strangers to each other, mostly – together delighting in the delight of a young lady at her own hard-earned success.
I hope you will not take it as moralising when I say that this is what folks who know what they’re talking about mean when they speak of fellow-feeling and things like “the common good” and idem sentire and moral consensus as the ends and bases of society, and condiciones sine quae non of ordered liberty.
“My dear friend,” Plato makes his Socrates call the litigious Euthyphro (on the steps of the king-archon’s court, where Euthyphro had gone to denounce his own father for murder, while Socrates was there to answer a charge of “corrupting the city’s youth”).
A little later in the dialogue, Plato makes his Socrates ask Euthyphro, “What are the subjects of difference that cause hatred and anger?” Socrates offers a series of binaries: the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad. “Are not these the subjects of difference about which, when we are unable to come to a satisfactory decision, you and I and other men become hostile whenever we do?” Only, in the whole lasting of the dialogue the interlocutors do not reach agreement.
Enmity is averted only by departure, perhaps, but that was not my takeaway as I read the dialogue most recently. This last time, it occurred to me that they were talking all the way through.
Social crisis occurs when people who should be fellows are confronted with their own ignorance of what makes their society legitimate, and suspend or refuse each other conversation until they can establish the grounds of their fellowship.
The establishment of such grounds, however, is precisely the purpose of public discourse. In other words, to be a nation and a people is to be in conversation – to be in society is to find ourselves and each other engaged in it – hence our refusal to disengage with the conversation that constitutes us a nation and a people is our society’s only available legitimacy.
“Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection,” said Lincoln in his first inaugural – and though only a very few believed it would come to it, we know how costly was our failure then, in treasure and in blood.
While we talk, we are friends.
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