This piece is about the cure and the disease, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but I need to present something like reasonable context for using that particular language, the identification of contemporary events as diseased, not that the events of the past week have failed to slam the reality of a nation in peril down our throats. I follow the news, shudder, and retreat to books seeking reassurance that there is some abiding commonality in humanity somewhere. These are ugly days, but I’ve seen some remarkably encouraging days in the course of a lifetime; I’d like to think we might find our way to decency if not to kindness. So, I read.
I recently read The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America to friends; it’s an important book, devastating and challenging. King’s first thought was to entitle the book, Those Pesky Redskins, an impulse he barely contains in wryly presenting the continuing disenfranchisement in America’s incomplete genocide. Like Killers of the Osage Moon, King’s account is a painful read; justice is not served and will not be served. King’s outrage is understated, unadorned description of callous mendacity delivered in plain language. Inescapable past, inescapable legacy of injustice, inescapable evidence of systemic inhumanity.
That’s pretty much a fact.
I found the cure is in the disease concept in The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce. The difference in tone between the two books is obvious, and it is odd that one should speak to the other, but there is a moment in The Music Shop in which things have gone terribly wrong. Desperately wrong. No way back wrong. Desperate times call for desperate measures; a character attempting to rebuild the world in which she lives suggests that the cure for a friend’s hopeless discouragement is in honoring the loss that has broken his spirit. The cure, she believes, is in the disease.
There’s enough disease to go round. I’d like to think there’s something in the nature of our collective illness that could be restorative, and yet…
It’s been a tough week as the presumptive appointment to the Supreme Court has shown himself to be yet another blustering, entitled bully, certainly a liar, possibly guilty of assault. Bad enough, but the partisan fury with which his behavior is defended reveals the bald self-interest of politics and party. My spirit is not quite broken, but with each day’s revelations, hope is harder to summon. The disease I see in this country is malignant, virulent, venomous, and deadly. Contention is one thing; warfare is an entirely different experience.
Contending forces have been in play here from the start, which is testimony to the difference between this experiment and the history of other nations, almost all of which came into being as accidents of geography or topography; our founding was intentional and intentionally celebrated institutionalized contention, checks, balances, made possible under the rule of law. Contention is not easily managed in the best of situations; toss in irreconcilable convictions and dangerous atavistic forces, racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, and contention gets truly ugly.
The idea back at the start, remember, was that the will of the majority would serve the greatest number, preventing the acquisition of absolute power by the wealthy and powerful. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Wealth and power aside, the rule of a majority has proven to bring some unexpected complication. Travelling the new nation in 1826, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that the greatest threat to democracy might finally come at the hand of a tyrannical majority.
“The moral dominion of the majority is based as well on the principle that the interests of the greatest number must be preferred to those of the few. Now, it is easily understood that the respect professed for this right of the greatest number naturally increases or decreases depending on the state of the parties. When a nation is divided among several great irreconcilable interests, the privilege of the majority is often unrecognized, because it becomes too painful to submit to it.”
De Tocqueville wasn’t wrong and was proven prescient within fifteen years of the publication of his analysis. The abolitionist movement, preeminently a cause championed in the free states, accepted nothing less than the abolition of slavery in the United States. Abolitionists saw slavery as an abomination, a crime against humanity. The slave states believed themselves to have been accorded the right to conduct themselves as the majority in their state decreed. A last-ditch bitterly negotiated effort to keep the Union intact, the Compromise of 1850, protected slavery by enacting fugitive slave laws, brought California into the Union as a free state and postponed civil war for a decade. But only for a decade. The free states could not allow slavery to continue; the slave states could not allow free states to dictate morality.
The election of Donald Trump startled those of us who had become used to the notion that progressive humanism, inclusion, and social justice were priorities held by the majority of people in the nation. It turns out that we were wrong. There were folks at every point along a continuum, from eager partisans of nasty Trumpist tribalism to moderate conservatives, for whom the social order had changed too quickly or too radically. The election was a referendum on progressivism, the same sort of referendum brought to Great Britain with Brexit. Our situation is the more dangerous because, at the heart of the divide, is not globalism or even immigration, but the question of abortion. A voting majority, supported by a court largely seated by that majority, ruled that women could legally seek an end to pregnancy; the minority found that an abomination and a crime against humanity, its implementation tyrannous. Both convictions claim the moral high ground, and as was the case in 1850, there is really no room for compromise.
Majority rules, and today that means a majority in the US Senate, voting on principle or with regard for the political reality that brought them to Washington, will confirm the appointment of a judge who will accede to the dismantling of Roe v, Wade. Although there are any number of conservative judges more than ready to carry out that function, some in the Senate, perhaps a majority, will vote to confirm the appointment of a man who has revealed himself to be lacking in the qualities of temperament or character expected of a jurist in the highest court. They will vote to confirm because they can.
There have been other voices in the past who have spoken when holding power in victory: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…”.
The wounding disease, I think, is malice. The cure, charity. Today, the odds seem to favor malice, but we are charged to finish the work we have been in all along, the only chance we may have to bind up our wounds, and that will take a truckload of charity, charity I’m not dredging up very successfully this week.