Rough Beasts

I write in my sleep. It’s hardly restful. Since I mostly remember what I write, I’m never quite sure if I’m really asleep.

Recently, I’ve been haunted by the nocturnal question of whether things in America are deteriorating or whether I am ageing and just living through another cycle of the more or less steady-state human condition. I worry that we re-living the beginning of the last century when the halls of government were awash in the money of powerful men until Teddy Roosevelt, himself wealthy and powerful, began his signature trust-busting and brought the monopolists of his day to heel.

I’m afraid we’re reliving that past now that free speech and money are one and business is free to spend virtually unlimited amounts of money engineering elections, bribing congressional officials, inhibiting regulation, profitizing government functions, and managing tax policy.

President Obama, for all his good intentions, is not Teddy Roosevelt. He is a centrist when, as Yeats said, “the centre cannot hold.” And I wonder if we’re now beyond the reach of good intention.

I worry too about what eludes us, the slow cultural shifts that shrug off corruption and the corrosive impact of a two-tiered criminal justice system in which the doctor feel-good loses “privileges” for selling drugs and the rich teen suffering from “affluenza” gets therapy while the barrio kid gets 25 years. I’m alarmed when a working family loses their home in a mortgage crisis brought on by financiers who may lose one of their several homes – but get a raise.

Many who were once in the robust middle class now count themselves among the working poor. The self-absolving interpretation of Jesus’ phrase, “The poor will always be with you,” gains credence in the land and we accept growing poverty as a new normal, or worse, the just desserts of the indigent and entitled.

Our own attention spans shrink. We read headlines and watch “segments” on TV. Long-form news and books, however, detract from entertainment. We stay au courant but miss the gradual deterioration of our democracy, the predicate of which was once that we are all equal under the law.

It’s easier to lay blame elsewhere. We dig in our heels. We blame progressives, tea partiers, foreigners, one another. Conflict becomes entertainment and yet it’s our democracy that’s at risk. And we are its guardians.

Business, markets, and trade are indeed the nutrition of a good democracy but their profit is created by the labor of millions of citizens. If their voices are lost in the halls of government and only the whispers of wealth and power amplified by money are heard, then we have indeed lost the center. And in the words of William Butler Yeats, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence in drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

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