For the months following the election, and again for the weeks right after the inauguration, we saw a brief surge of political involvement and activism on a scale not practiced since we got out of Vietnam. People were angry; they were marching — and it was beautiful.
Even today there are protests, with people out in the icy cold carrying signs and chanting slogans. Republican lawmakers going home during the February recess have met with angry mobs at their scheduled town hall events — scheduled and arranged and orchestrated opposition, true, but doubtless sincere.
But involvement is less every day. The numbers are dropping, and it’s easy to see why. Some are finally accepting that they lost the election, and they’re going home to live their lives again. Many have taken all the vacation time they’re allowed and then some, and you’ve got to work in order to pay the rent each month. What’s left, in large part, is a small but fiery core of the young, what’s developing into a durable subculture of trained and practicing student protestors who move like Gypsies from one cause to the next.
The rest of us are just tired. Tired of CNN and the rest of broadcast journalism, which constantly trumpets the worst news with fanfare and commentary, which when not enough is happening invents horror stories about what might be about to happen. Tired too of being told to march, to show our strength, to call our Congressmen, and at the end of the day we see nothing but ranked minds closed against us, unwilling after all this time fighting to admit that we may just have a point.
And so we think, in two years they’re running again, and we can vote them out and hopefully get in someone who will do some good. But the older among us remember doing that before, which is how we got where we are in the first place. And despair sets in; what’s the point of going on, of even worrying about it if we can’t fix things, if we can’t bring change?
This is natural; the human psyche only has just so much energy. We were not designed to stay wound tight all the time; we cannot sustain that perpetual revolution called for in the pamphlets of Marx and the speeches of Che. It’s not in us to manage that, nor should it be. Where once we lived as hunters and scavengers, we now live in cities; we’ve become civilized.
The human race has been bred away from atavism for centuries, to a point where violence is anathema to us and sensitivity has become strength. Our cultures have been designed — engineered, you might say — so we’re forced to work less and less and permitted the leisure time and the materials to craft, to invent, to create. Our founders fought wars so their children could build, so their children could be doctors and lawyers, and their children could be artists and composers.
Granted, it hasn’t worked quite as planned. Oh, we’ve created all right; some may scoff at this, but a pinnacle of modern civilization was achieved not by a new symphony but instead something far more grand, an immersive art form of music and speech and pictures that moved; we could watch The Lord Of The Rings in theaters and at home, and it was grand and moving and glorious. What would our founding fathers have thought of Star Wars? Of The Avengers? Of, God help us, The Walking Dead and Fifty Shades Of Grey?
And yet this art form, while sometimes glorious, is shallow and insincere except at its best — as indeed is most art; this is what makes a ‘masterpiece’ stand apart, and it’s the reason not every Rembrandt is a masterpiece. We’re publishing more books than ever, but ever fewer people read them — and, to be sure, one in ten is a Harlequin and as many and more are “Twilight” or “Fifty Shades” or worse. The movies are wonderful and the orchestration intense, but probably the greatest, most moving, most unique new American art form was jazz, born in the fires of war from soul and R&B, which rose from the most intense human misery imaginable. Which is an amazing principle of human existence: The most beautiful art is born of suffering.
And let’s be honest: We cannot expect great art to come out of the election of President Trump. While post-election stress has been a very real and measurable thing (notwithstanding the exaggeration of this sort of self-serving therapist’s ad in Psychology Today), it’s not in and of itself a great social crisis on the same order as the Depression or the Great War or slavery.
It is a part of a far vaster social disorder, that which I believe will one day be known as the great problem of our age. We are emerging into a post-industrial world while carrying the baggage of that former era, and we really don’t know where to go from here. This is graphically illustrated by the popularity of the election promises to bring back manufacturing jobs, when it is a mark of the very advancement of our society that we’ve exported most of those we couldn’t automate.
We are in an age of vast wealth, but it is being spread about far more than ever before. Despite the complaints of those who object to income inequality, true wealth in the form of consumer goods, food, housing, healthcare, clean water — these are all far more universally available now than ever before in all of human history, and that trend is on the rise. But this elevation of the condition of the poorest comes with a cost, the which is indeed exacerbated by income inequality: Because the goods are more spread out, the burden of supply is felt by those who would formerly have been upwardly-mobile. The merely comfortable are now losing sight of that dream that would lead to wealth. Social class is stratifying and congealing, and as a result culture is once again beginning to stultify.
Which brings us full circle. For, when our young emerge into the workforce and see finally that lack of opportunity that is the hallmark of modern society, is it any wonder that they protest? Is there truly any surprise that there are angry marches and riots? All else aside, they lack gainful employment due to the economic conditions; it is a very real and palpable social problem which presents them the very opportunity to protest.
This is not a new problem; it’s been with us all along. It was this same problem that led to revolution, and then to slavery as a consequence. It was this which gave rise to a century of modern warfare in Europe and the depression that followed, that led to the rise of America as a world power and its subsequent decline through decades of brushfire wars to today — and the core difficulty is never truly identified, much less addressed. By its nature we do not solve it but make accommodations and enact temporary fixes, and our culture profits, for it grows through the continued struggle.
“These are the slums of the heart… These are the new people, and we are making no place for them. We hold the dream in front of them like a carrot, and finally say sorry you can’t have any. And the schools where we teach them non-survival are gloriously architectured. They will never live in places so fine, unless they contract something incurable.”
-John D. MacDonald, “The Deep Blue Goodbye”, 1964
You wouldn’t think to look at us that most of us in this society hate our way of life. We plow forward working two jobs, intent on our smartphone chats and tweets and on Facebook, never lifting our eyes beyond the immediate future, never addressing what it is that truly drives us and where we’re likely to end up. Those with the leisure lack the wisdom and discipline that comes from experiencing the value of income and applied education; those without have no time to contemplate because they’re too busy working.
But we are most of us decidedly unhappy, just as Thoreau said. This can be readily seen if in no other way than by who we elect and why. We seek change but we seek it blindly, all unknowing, understanding only that we don’t like what is — but, like a fish in muddy water, we are so surrounded by the grit and slime and detritus of our lives that we cannot even see it; we lack the perspective.
We must as a culture take the time to examine this problem, to truly come to grips with it. That is the great task of our time. And we must not be fooled by the lure of the simple solution, those voices shouting that “Capitalism is the problem”, or that “The rich are too greedy”, that “The Man wants to keep us down”. It’s all too easy to fall back on the simple when the truth is unbelievably complex, that what we truly need to do is redesign and recreate our culture to match our new society, the one that’s ever-changing from technology and social advancement yet so static that it stagnates.
While we’re examining and then confronting the general ills of civilization, we must not neglect the immediate. There are indeed real and very urgent social issues, and now more than ever we need to consolidate and make our voices heard. Some battles we have lost and a few won; many yet remain ahead. And we must fight these small fights while we yet grapple with the vast and complex, for the former will grant us the perspective to understand the latter.
Above all remember: We’re here for the long run. This is no sprint nor even a marathon; we’re here to hike the Trail, from Georgia to Maine and back with backpack and tennis shoes. Don’t overdo it; don’t burn out. Take some time to rest between fights, to recover your strength and vision. Choose the best place for you to be, the best cause to champion — and then go do it. In your struggle will be born the culture and society of the future.
May it be a better one.