Of the Moment
Late October, 2002

We take a moment from our reproduction of editorials by W. J. Cash on times past, to reflect, two years on from the election of 2000, on times present. Where are we as a society? Where are we going? Where have we been?

Ten years ago, there seemed to be a renascence of thought in the United States. For the first time since the early seventies, people were talking, even debating--and on genuinely substantive issues for a change. What is wrong with us and what do we need to do to make it better? What are our common goals and how do we achieve them? Perhaps that was in response to some painfully obvious problems, the decade old plight of the homeless, the decade old AIDS epidemic, increasing cancer rates associated with smoking or smoke-filled public environs, the near-depression level economy fueled by soaring national debt and ever-increasing annual deficit spending to match warhead with warhead, soaring crime rates, formerly middle class people with college educations or better being driven to the margins of society, racial tension reaching its highest levels since the sixties, the end of the nuclear age as any imminent threat to our well-being, increasing fears of global warming bringing on a new ice age in the not too distant future, a meaningless war with Iraq which wound up leaving the dictator in power and a lot of people waving little American flags. All of these things coalesced perhaps to force open our minds to question again, and to question rationally.

We debated. We thought. We came up with no solutions because we recognized again, but for the first time in awhile, that there is no solution. There are only problems and ways of making those problems less acute, less dangerous to us collectively and individually. But there are always problems.

And things rapidly changed in 1992 and beyond. Iraq and other troubled sovereignties around the globe were kept in check or, in the case of Haiti and the former Yugoslavia, turned into something better. The economy turned and not only improved but soared to unprecedented levels in a new age of prosperity, siliconized prosperity perhaps, but prosperity nevertheless. Murder and violent crime rates plummeted. Cigarette smoking dropped precipitously. People who never dreamed of becoming wealthy suddenly found themselves with all their material dreams satisfied. Computers arrived in most homes. The internet provided a freer means of obtaining and providing information from a wider variety of sources than ever before. We even got to view from within our living rooms the most direct form of our democracy played out daily, real cases in real courtrooms. That in turn spawned more debate, and heated debate. But it was informed debate and it was healthy. Things got better. We seemed to develop a new identity, a renewed self-image as a collective people. It was amorphous to be sure--democracy always is--but nevertheless, a spirited, positive feeling which was fairly pervasive, even among those not terribly affected by the New Prosperity. A democracy. And it pervaded regardless of party affiliation.

But then, as quickly as it began, we imploded.

It isn't perfect. Oh, said some, rattling their copper as they went, we have to make it perfect and now.

That's always the rub, isnít it? The poison poured into the ear?

The end started, it seems, in early 1998 when some self-congratulating little reporter for Time, crawled out of his unholy shell to tell the world about the President's daliences with a White House intern, snickering the while, but insisting upon the gravity of the mission, to uncover the sinister personal immorality of the President--and the chase for the story was on. What a tragedy. He is a brilliant man--but--but, he is, sadly, flawed. We have our somber duty. The eager voices of divisiveness ate it up, both in the press and in the Congress. Careering politicians were born, names we had never heard surfaced as great blades seeking truth--truth about fellatio in the Oval Office. So noble the task, so tawdry the subject, but we have to know the truth about this, don't we? Where did it occur and when did it happen? Who knew what when and what lies were told? The yellow page press--all of the press--ran wild with the story. Like mad dogs and peasants baited by the carcass of a king. They saw. They conquered. They came.

The transcripts were printed in full in the daily press. Not even the Warren Report got such coverage. Not even the Watergate Transcripts. This was news like never before. Fellatio in the White House.

The public, for the most part, stood by wide-eyed and told jokes in the quiet places, yawned, went back to work and continued to support the President, less openly, a little red-faced, but still in there judging him by his job performance, not his personal conduct. We forgave a Supreme Court Justice recently, didnít we? We are all pretty much suffering from defects of one sort or another linked to our humanity, aren't we?

The people who already hated the President continued to hate him. The people who sort of went along with him before, liked the way he played sax that time on tv, but didnít really care for his views much, found excuse not to like him any further.

Nothing much of substance changed through it all. The President survived impeachment handily, would have probably won re-election to a third term if permitted. Half the Congress and its voices of divisiveness wound up looking foolish. The chief voices of division are now on the sidelines, out of office. Gone with their wind. Banished by the voters. And rightly so. The supporters of the President continue to support the ex-President. The haters continue to hate and the ones who found excuse to dislike vent their dislike vicariously on the ex-Vice-President or the ex-President's wife now in the Senate. And quite irrationally.

But something seems to have happened in that time since early 1998, something profoundly dispiriting to the society. We have reeled as a nation, not dissimilarly to the way it was in aftermath of the assassination in 1963.

We lost confidence in our way of life, perhaps. Worse, we lost respect for our system of finding truth--or even for the notion that there was any truth to seek, any noble task left worth any sacrifice. We lost respect for our courts, for our sacrosanct Fourth Estate, for our elected leaders, for ourselves. We imploded.

But unlike during the sixties, when the effect on society was similar, we have no dispiriting, divisive war to blame, no tragic loss of leaders on which to find excuse, and properly so, to go easy on ourselves.

We have been listing this time in a relatively calm sea. No great war abroad. No pestilence. No great destructive force of nature. No unusual hardship at home. Yet we are listing. Listing of our own causes--or lack thereof.

We are bored. We watch television news and follow the latest shooting, the latest child abduction, the latest corporate scandal. Though we complain of the vapidity of it, we watch like Pavlov's dog. There is nothing else to watch. We demand more. We silently hope for the next shoe to drop so we wonít be bored another day. We congratulate the police until we are blue in the face. It was the police after all who cracked the case and kept us safe from ourselves. "Where did we go wrong?" the tv people ask. And inevitably their answer resolves into tougher laws, tougher enforcement, the "unfortunate" need to curtail our liberties. That's what their sponsors want their producers to say and so they say it to keep those fat paychecks coming to their bank accounts for doing nothing more than engaging in average parlance, sometimes informed parlance, but usually not so. For, after all, it is Mr. Nielsen who is Commander-in-Chief. The tv said so.

The folks who constantly see signs of Armegeddon in everything which occurs out of the ordinary, a snowstorm in spring, a cat meowing too loudly at night, a warm knife which won't cut butter, come rushing to the fore to say it is our collective immorality, or the evil ones plotting against us, the dividing line breached and the battle fronts finally and conclusively drawn and joined. Us versus them. We know what's right. Let's go get 'em. Up the hill, boys, and into the breach. Fire at will!

And so, sadly, they do, these troops longing for Armegeddon. And the police are called out to look for them--in their white van or their black Chevy. The chase. The quarry. And heroically, they are found napping. And we thank the police breathlessly as the tv people again lead us along by the hand, all us poor stupid fools out here in the hinterlands who can no longer think for ourselves.

Why, they are the brightest aren't they? Why else would they be on our tv's? Let them do the thinkin'. They think so deeply. Should we prosecute them in D.C., Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, Washington, Mozambique? Well, Virginia and Alabama are sure to fry 'em both. There. That's the solution. Fry the creeps. Send 'em down south.

Ideas? Why, we think of ideas. Should we have a death penalty? Of course, the Bible tells me so. So does Mr. Nielsen. Done deal. Should we be opposed to abortion? Of course, the Bible tells me so. Should we read the Koran? Obviously not. Anti-Christian. Ergo, anti-American. Should we be polite to our neighbor? Why yes, up to a point anyway, until they start getting uppity. Should we then shoot our neighbor--or at least scare them a little by walking by with a gun? Why, sure, the Bible says so and so does my Constitution. I am the well-regulated militia, after all, and he, or someone enough like him, took my eye and tooth and I want his for mine. Don't ye know?

And what don't we do? We donít make sure our neighbor gets a pat on the back for just being a human being. We don't engage our neighbor in a simple conversation if he does something we find annoying. Instead we call the police, let them resolve the conflict before the conflict occurs. The people on tv told us to, after all. We donít make sure that we are aware of what is going on in the broad sense in our society, the collective sense. Our microcosm is a hard enough thing with which to deal, after all. More concerned about my neighbor and what he might be doing over there in silence. Building a bomb? Who knows? We need to know and now. To hell with all of that "unreasonable search and seizure" stuff. That was then. This is now.

We surely donít think. We eschew debate, real debate. We want everything polite. No dissent. Dissent is bad. Mr. Nielsen doesn't approve. No sarcasm, certainly. That's anti-American. We want a more civil Congress, a less strident press. We certainly want that press to say only things with which we agree and which are obvious to everyone before they read it or hear it. We want just nice, old-fashioned, good-natured cordiality. Ice cream social on Sunday 'neath the gazebo with the parasols a-twirling. Like it was in the good old days of the Revolution, the Civil War, World War II. Those times. Remember? You remember those times. We saw them in the movies or read about them in some best selling novel written just a few decades after the fact. Everything was in black and white back then. We knew who the enemy was. I saw it in the Matthew Brady's in that documentary with the sweet music. The one about Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Courthouse. You remember, don't you?

Life should be sterile and safe--even if it means giving up some of our liberties. Too much freedom is a dangerous thing. We know that. Remember the sixties? You remember. So free it was. Wasn't it? And look what happened. Horrible, orgiastic. Murderous.

How did we get here?

If we start with a simple concept, not on an individual level, but en masse, the notion that our collective mind is out of whack, in denial, lacking in a well-grounded, realistically achievable self-image, we at least reach a basis for a beginning to effect something better--not a solution, for there is no such thing--never was. Our Founders knew that lesson, knew it well from the bloodstains on the trees at Lexington and the torn flesh left across Bunker Hill. That's why the thing can be and has been many times amended--but only after careful collective debate throughout the land, not by whimsical caprice on the winds of a popular referendum of the moment. Not by the whimsical caprice of a gun.

If we analogize the societal mindset at work today in the United States to that of an individual, we come up with a pretty unsociable, detestable person, don't we? This is the person, spoiled as they are, when he or she experiences hardship of any sort, who wants to wallow in self-pity, congratulate themselves for being a good person despite some pretty probative evidence collected over time to suggest that they may not be perfect after all, nail mercilessly the perpetrators of the perceived evil against them even if the individuals nailed are not precisely the ones responsible, embrace violence, unmitigated violence, and restrictions on others with different values, as the means to achieve the ends of retribution for these perceived ills inflicted by the others and to insure personal safety, using one's superiority in wealth and connections to offices of power to set upon the poor and the defenseless so as to feel that a sense of justice has been accomplished, the while patting themselves relentlessly on their backs to say what a great patriot, a great moral person, a great champion of freedom he or she is. May not be the smartest but sure enough the dangedest, most persnikkety, and toughest, and with the biggest and best gun of all of 'em. And then to stultify in its most insignificant forms any level of dissent. Something like a Chevy chase.

A very detestable hypocrite, this person would appear to be when posed against an unvarnished scene in backdrop. Not some Daniel Boone conquering the wild prairie with his long rifle in days a century gone. But one espousing values to which he or she is willing only to adhere when the sun is shining brightly and all is well in Inverness Castle. Let it be disturbed a little and this person races to rationalize the reduction of those values to a pinhead in crosshairs: Win!

The ashes and dust have been cleaned up along the Battery in New York City. And the 3,000 dead are buried and properly mourned to the extent they can be. But our society, our republican democracy, we posit, hangs perilously in the balance, listing evermore to and fro from boredom, seemingly unable to right itself back to a center position of strong self-worth without hapless brag or blind rage to acquit a perceived wrong, not yet toppled, but closer to it than we have seen in any recent time. Perhaps a time not unlike the early fifties, searching for some identity in the wake of a changed and changing world, when a fellow named McCarthy held sway for a short time, and then another, a protégé of a sort, a fellow named Nixon, made it more palatable for awhile afterward to do much the same sort of thing less stridently and with the hint of a grin, but with the same disastrous result for democracy.

And so the orange and yellow leaves indicate that we go to the polls to vote again in a few days. That is, we have that opportunity. We donít carry guns as we go. We donít go under the compulsion of one nor do we stay away prevented by one.

May we hope therefore that more than 50 per cent of us exercise that right for a change.

And may we find somewhere more candidates in the independent, conscientious and articulate spirit of Paul Wellstone. And may we respect them and pay heed to their warnings while they are still living.

And let us also hope that we remain partisans to our causes, our rationally thought out causes, and strongly so. The hue and cry heard in recent years, "less partisanship and bickering", is a recipe for boredom, collective insanity, denial, loss of self-image, and ultimately, from the repressed dissent which accompanies it, the need to vent in open warfare that innate human desire to disagree, whether in Iraq or in a Chevy in Maryland and northern Virginia.

That is not to say we cannot be collegial in our time-honored bickering. But whoever heard of a true college without bitterly partisan debates, after which everyone went down to the tavern or eatery and chuckled about it in post mortem of their re-equalized egoes? Far better that than attending wakes for the fallen who will not return after the self-righteous squelched the debate with sentiment and sent the young off to fight for a cause soon forgotten or never known at all. What is this cause, this time? What was the cause inside that Chevy?

Then, too late for too many, but not for the rest of us, November comes around.

May our chases be only toward ideas, to make it better.

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