Monday, November 28, 2016

Did Inertia Carry This Election?

                What got me out of bed this morning surprised me for a split second.  It was the words of Irish poet William Butler Yeats, written in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I and on the eve of the Irish revolution.  Only three of his words, to be precise:  What rough beast….  Here’s Yeats’ poem, which some of you will remember from college English.  Yeats’ prophetic words shake me, maybe more now than they did when I was twenty.  The “better angels of our nature,” to use Lincoln’s phrase, seemed to be sitting this election out while the beastly elements raged.  I can’t but think that the people who elected this candidate were voting from their angry gut, not their hearts.  They couldn’t hear their hearts for all their accumulated anger and hurt, and all the campaign snarling. 

A few days after the election I was surprised to learn that the actual winner of the popular vote wasn’t even Hilary Clinton, but the fictional third candidate chosen by everyone who didn’t vote, or voted ineffectively.  According to an Electoral College map posted shortly after the election, this “third candidate,” who gathered all the Non-Trump/Clinton votes, won the popular majority in all but four states.*

I can’t decide whether this is good news, or terrible.  Was it inertia that actually elected DT?  It would be interesting to know if that "third candidate" bloc also splits closely for Clinton, as did the voting bloc.  I suspect it splits less evenly, and that the number of generally disillusioned voters far outweighs the non-voting fans of the winner.  It can be hard to admit that in a two-party democracy such as ours, not voting counts de facto for whoever wins.

                Inertia is a hidden enemy, easy to miss in the distracted, angry fray.  The non-voting bloc has always been there.  It’s estimated at about 45% of the voting age public on average—we’re used to that.  Americans rank fourth from the bottom in voter turnout in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s list of 35 developed democracies.  We’re just above Estonia and just under Luxembourg. Nonvoters include those who don’t make it to the polls for reasons of disability, illness, and economic hardship—these are not the ones I’m referring to.  The inertial bloc consists of the sub-group whose choice has to do with anger, cynicism, disillusionment—things we all suffer from at times. 

This morning I was struggling with the little concrete gnome who sometimes sits on my chest repeating things like What CAN you do, really? and You missed your chance and It won’t be good enough/It’ll never be perfect . . . .  Insidious fellow, a skilled hypnotist:  If I listen to him, I become him.  Today he was silenced though, thanks to W.B. Yeats:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, 
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?  

Those lines seared into me as an undergraduate, perhaps because I already had a template in place. Poetry, including much of the poetry of the Bible, imprinted my consciousness from an early age.  I attended Sunday school in a quiet, polite little Methodist Church in rural Texas, where I received a certain lexicon of religious imagery.  This was a few decades before the rise of religious fundamentalism began to displace American Protestant culture.  So there was “the mark of the Beast” in the New Testament, and there was William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger burning bright” in my third grade English book.  Both were symbols I couldn’t articulate then, though they made my wayward hair stand up.  Now, I can say that the Beast is the distillation of the worst we can imagine coming to power, the Thing uniquely capable of bringing out the worst in us.  And Blake’s Tyger, a “Christ image” we learned in college--the fired, inspired ichor of All-Powerful Good.  Perfect and terrifying, it’s perhaps best captured in art.** 

               Thank goodness poetry comes back to me now, when so much of what Yeats called “the ceremony of innocence” seems sunk out of sight in our post-modern chaos.  Why did Yeats say mere anarchy, I wondered as an undergrad.  Because anarchy is just a wrecking ball, it doesn’t require organization, forethought, consideration, reflection, or ethics.  It doesn’t even require intelligence.  It requires us not to struggle with our consciences.  Mere anarchy is the easiest thing in the world.  If it’s now loosed in an all new way, we may just have the hardest task in our history before us. 

                It worries me that the perky media voices, speaking in the same old tones as if everything were normal, will lull us into more inertia.  Three generations of voters are children of the media age, if we date from television’s arrival in most American households in the 1940s.  Increasingly short soundbites have for years been eroding our attention spans.  So if we’re feeling that something is rotten in this state of affairs, that something must be done--again, thank Goodness.

   I’m not sure what I will do yet, other than stay awake and speak up. 

                We are now in a situation that will test our character as never before.  If we thought we had a basic external structure, however flawed, that more or less supported the Greater Good--now we don’t know what we have.  As the days tick by, the outlook isn’t brightening.  Normalcy, as we thought we knew it, may be a thing of the past, and everything we do matters now more than ever.  That Everything has to be from our best selves, our consciences, our highest social ethics.  It has to be non-violent.  It needs to effective, not just the “squawk about it” Paul Simon laments.  

We need our conviction.  We need all the light we can find.  We don’t need anger, which only clouds judgment.  Rather, we need our hearts and minds working together.  We need to be in touch with our gut, yet able to step back.  We need our poetic sensibility.  We need to know what we’re made of, and how to stand up for it in ways that build rather than fragment our social fabric.  We are being judged harshly right now around the world, by peoples who far out-number us.  We are still the freest people in the world.  Though widely hated and ridiculed, we are still seen as the world’s best hope—or we have been, perhaps until now.  What we do from this point will determine the survival of that ideal. 

Let us not be found inert and awash in a toxic tide.

*  If you go looking for this map now, you won’t find it.  It’s apparently been removed, but it was posted for a few days and friends told me about it.  If you saw it, please let me know. 

 ** See the Tyger masterfully reimagined in the first story of science fiction anthology Metatropolis: Cascadia, ed. Jay Lake. On Audible.