It’s always difficult to write a monthly column early in a November before a president is chosen; the ideas and thoughts that seem important in the days and hours slipping by now are sure to seem past due once the message is picked up by readers. And in this moment one might add that the readers cannot tolerate one more word, spare one more gray cell to the subject that seems to have settled like a dense and poisonous smog over the lives of innocent citizens. Spare them, goes one thought of mine.
Another strain of thinking is urging me to realize this moment may be the last chance for those citizens to consider with honesty what must be reckoned with: we did this to ourselves, and we deserve this ordeal.
Think back now to when you first realized the dread that has stalked you. For some, it was quite early in the cycle. I remember writing some columns arguing that personal character and public behavior could not be separated, that one informed the other, and that value of experience is only relevant as a standard for judging one’s self, not someone seeking power and influence over us.
Other people came more slowly to their dread, and in many cases their realization started in laughter and ridicule: “Who could be so stupid or craven, or devious to fall for that line of promises,” they thought, or chuckled among friends who shared the dismay of their opposites’ decisions.
And this was the first revelation of the misery we’ve created, because the prospect of one or another character emerging as the representative of roughly half the citizenry was strengthened by the ridicule of the other half. Most Americans live with undisguised disdain or resentment of the half they believe opposes them. Most Americans, it follows, feel justified in punishing those they pretend would deny them some privilege. Of course it’s irrational, but the facts now prove it’s viable.
And why, or how, did we come by this grudging resentment? Conflict, competition, adversity are basic to human nature, and in the long view of history they must be considered advantages to progress. Civilized society over many centuries established the means to safeguard human life (by law), property (by regulation), and freedom (by education, by etiquette, and by custom), so that conflict was minimized and competition was channeled toward ingenuity, not resentment.
In the course of my lifetime, our civil personae seem to have changed. We exploit the limits of legality, propriety, and civility for personal gain, and call this success. We challenge the justice of established principles in order by exploiting their insufficiency in narrow instances. And we undermine truth by redefining terms and ideas according to theories or fads.
All these things are done in a spirit of avoiding conflict, of imposing equity or agreement. Instead they become the kindling of wider conflict.
There is another effect: forcing individuals to think and work and live within ideals and principles that are imposed rather than developed isolates us from each other and from the civilization in which we live. And so, while we console ourselves with better technology and greater prosperity, dissonance grows between each individual and the civil society. It’s harder to generate understanding for our fellows, to raise sympathy for their fears or frustrations. We lose respect for laws and institutions. We disregard principles. We want more for ourselves, and care less for the consequences.
Many readers will come upon this column after Election Day and will have already expressed relief that it has come and gone. Some will be gratified that their side has won, and some more will be relieved that at least it is over. Others (and their number will grow) will be outraged and resentful, and ready to fight on. They won’t mind for the ordeal to continue as long as their opponents are vanquished, humiliated. Regardless of the Election’s outcome, nothing much will change.
The ordeal we have been having for 18 months reveals the defects of our civilization, and maybe its demise. The ending this month will be the start of a new phase of hostility and public discord, with degraded institutions being used to justify the pitiful impulses of greedy, callous, and resentful characters. When we learn to demonstrate and encourage personal honor, social restraint, and kindness, we may recognize once again a civilization we realize now we’ve lost.