Giving way to free-falling despair only leads to the abyss. And we’re not there yet.
Evanston RoundTable, Sept. 30, 2020
Add the firestorm over the Supreme Court nomination to the seemingly endless list of crises the nation is facing.
In case you’re not keeping score, there’s also the daily toll of pandemic deaths, the west coast inferno, urban violence, the economic meltdown, retail apocalypse and global warming. And let’s not forget a possible constitutional (or even military!) crisis from an uncertain outcome on election night.
So where does that leave us? Is this it, the much-anticipated end of days? Has Yeats’ rough beast finally made it to Bethlehem after a century of slouching?*
Seems like it. Lawn signs, those highly reliable bellwethers of local sentiment, are popping up with messages like, “OMG PLEASE MAKE IT STOP 2020.” No question, this year is shaping up as a contender in the worst-ever sweepstakes.
And of course the final indignity: winter. The weather will turn gray and cold, the streets icy and impassible. We’ll be forced to burrow inside again like mole people.
Before throwing in the towel, however, it’s well to remember there have been worse—yes, far worse—stretches in American history. Imagine the dire outlook from 1861 to 1865: a civil war waged for the soul of the young republic, in which more than 600,000 Americans ultimately died and a large part of the country left in ruins.
Or 1933: global economies shredded, lives shattered, the capitalist system in disrepute and the fearful prospect of dictatorship—which both columnist Walter Lippmann and Eleanor Roosevelt told FDR he might have to assume—a possibility in America and an eventuality in large parts of Europe.
Or 1963: the shocking murder of the young president, of which Norman Mailer wrote, “It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security. If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd.”
Or 1968: urban riots, campus protests, thousands of body bags and two assassinations that suggested a country at war with itself.
Or 9/11: nearly 3,000 deaths in the worst terrorist attack on American soil.
The point isn’t to rub our collective noses in it, but to point out that, despite the present hardships, the world continues to turn. We always manage to bounce back, even after the traumas of 1865, 1933, 1963, 1968 and 2001. The country invariably recovers from wars, depressions, recessions, and social and political unrest, sometimes even pivoting to long stretches of peace, prosperity and great intellectual and cultural ferment.
Not this time, naysayers are saying. It’s all coming to a head, especially if the election goes south.
Nah. Our constitutional protections are solid and will endure, as they have for centuries. Despite all our problems—and yes, they are serious and need fixing—America is still a great place to live, especially Evanston.
Perhaps this attitude is naïve. Perhaps it’s complacent, privileged and even dangerously misguided. Perhaps. But it’s better than giving way to free-falling despair. That only leads to the abyss. And we’re not there yet.
So step back from the brink, people. Stay calm, stay active, stay well. The beast hasn’t arrived yet.
The Second Coming*
By William Butler Yeats (1920)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?