Dying is Easy. Living is Harder.
I dreamed a few nights ago that I had been tasked with destroying the entire world.
It was on my calendar, scheduled for one evening after dinner. I spent that day at the mall. Not shopping, just sitting in the atrium, surrounded by potted plants and watching people come and go. Killing time, you know. Fighting boredom.
I wasn’t sure I’d go through with it. I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t. Time would tell, I figured.
At the appointed hour, I was ready. Someone handed me the detonator for the doomsday device. It looked like the key fob to your car. I won’t keep you in suspense: after a brief delay, I pressed the button. It was what I was supposed to do. The fact that the bomb existed was sufficient proof that setting it off was not unthinkable. In the end, I guess, it seemed easier to press the button than not to press it. Not pressing it? I’d need a reason for that. I didn’t need a reason to blow up the planet. That was my task. It’s what everyone expected me to do.
Nothing happened, however, when I pressed the button. I pried open the remote control and looked inside. It was empty.
Suppose I ask you to come up with a metaphor or image to capture how you feel every morning when you glance at the headlines. Or when you allow yourself to reflect on everything that’s happened over the last several months. Drowning in a cesspool, maybe?
For me, it feels like being lost in a thick fog. Occasionally I glimpse the outline of another person. I rush to her. Touch her on the shoulder. She turns, and I can see the expression on her face. It’s the expression of someone who’s suffering. Someone in great pain. The next person just glares at me. He’s enraged, though I don’t know why. Mostly, all these mist-shrouded strangers have blank looks. They’re deep within themselves. They’re lost in this fog, but the miasma is not just outside them. It’s inside, too.
That’s what it’s like for me.
I happen to be reading a thick collection of 19th-century letters titled The Children of Pride, edited by Robert Manson Myers. It came out in 1972 and won The National Book Award. Before, during, and after the Civil War, the Jones family of coastal Georgia kept up a steady correspondence among themselves and with their extended family and friends. The Children of Pride runs to almost 1,500 pages of letters, plus another 300 pages of notes on the people whose names appear in them.
They’re lovely people, the Jones family. The patriarch, the Rev. Charles Colcock Jones Sr., was widely admired as a man of benevolence, conscientiousness (more than was good for his health, in fact), and virtue. He and his wife Mary (who was also his first cousin) had the sort of marriage that anyone would want, full of tender love and mutual respect. Their three children were devoted equally to their parents and to each other.
And then there’s this, from a book titled The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States, written by that very same Rev. Jones and published in 1842:
From childhood we have been accustomed to their slovenly, and too frequently, their scanty dress; to their broken English, ignorance, vulgarity, and vice. What in them would disgust or grieve a stranger, or truly afflict us if seen in white persons, we pass by with little or no impression, as a matter of course;–they are Negroes. Their character is held in low estimation, throughout the United States … Whatever is idle, dissolute, criminal, and worthless, attaches to them.
What if, instead of me, it had been the good pastor who was given the detonator, and then assured that, in keeping with biblical authority and guided by the opinion of all decent people, he should press the button and hasten the arrival of doomsday?
Do I really need to ask?
Your mind is its own universe, that’s what I’m saying. It’s governed by its own laws. Just as light travels at 186,282 miles per second — pointless to ask why — so it was that in Rev. Jones’ mind, slavery appeared perfectly natural, justified, inevitable. The laws determine what lies within and beyond our contemplation and comprehension. And anything is possible of contemplation and comprehension, within those limits. Anything at all. Including slavery. Including genocide. Including not deciding not to annihilate the whole world.
Like you, I desperately want to understand. How did we get here? Who are these people who voted enthusiastically for a genuine monster, a dangerously ignorant and unhinged man? What does it say about us that we share a country with them? What will happen to all of us in the years to come?
Economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case are the authors of “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century,” PNAS 2015 112 (49) 15078-15083, and a recent update titled “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century” for the 2017 Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. From the latter:
What our data show is that the patterns of mortality and morbidity for white non-Hispanics without a college degree move together over lifetimes and birth cohorts, and that they move in tandem with other social dysfunctions, including the decline of marriage, social isolation, and detachment from the labor force… Ultimately, we see our story as about the collapse of the white, high school educated, working class after its heyday in the early 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline.
“Forget your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap,” Kevin Williamson wrote of the white working class in National Review. “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.” … [I]f National Review says that their towns deserve to die, who are Democrats to stand in the way of Trump voters who used their ballots to commit assisted suicide?
So hold the empathy and hold on to the anger. If Trump delivers on his promises to the “poorly educated” despite all indications to the contrary, then good for them. Once again, all the Trump naysayers will be proved wrong. But if his administration crashes into an iceberg, leaving his base trapped in America’s steerage with no lifeboats, those who survive may at last be ready to burst out of their own bubble and listen to an alternative. Or not: Maybe, like [author Arlie Russell] Hochschild’s new friends in Louisiana’s oil country, they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether. Either way, the best course for Democrats may be to respect their right to choose.
Go ahead, he’s saying. Press the button.
A long time ago, I was traveling by bus from North Carolina back to my hometown in Georgia. At night.
There’s something about buses, don’t you think? A raffish quality. A seductive seediness. Think of the doors opening and closing with a long hiss. The smell of perfume and cigarettes. The fat man clutching a bag of oranges in his lap. The sound of gravel under the wheels when the bus stops in yet another Podunk town in the middle of nowhere.
I nodded off and slept until the bus pulled into the depot at Florence, South Carolina. It was very late: 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.
Pause a moment, and try to put yourself in my place. You’re 18 years old, a high school senior, on the threshold of a different life in a place as yet unknown. You have no idea who you are, not yet. For the time being, it’s all about unfinished homework, locker-room sweat, cheap beer and front-seat fumbling on the weekends, intimations of something lying ahead that is bigger and scarier than you want to imagine.
The bus pulled into the parking lot of the Greyhound station. Still groggy, I looked out. Everywhere I looked were black people. Well past midnight, inside and outside the depot, in sickly yellow light, was a thronging mass of black people, most of whom seemed to know each other.
I might have been dreaming, but I wasn’t. It certainly felt like a dream. What were all these people doing here in this dead hour of the night? I didn’t see another white person. Not one. I was the only one. I had fallen asleep in the chilly, metallic air of the bus, and now I was stepping out into the breath of a South Carolina night in which I had no certain place. To which I did not yet belong. I was alien to it, and it to me. I was a transient, a stranger. I had the impression, for the first time in my life but thankfully not the last, that the center of everything lay somewhere else. Maybe here, among this milling crowd, somewhere in this phantasmagoric scene — but certainly not where I had always believed to be, namely, in my own heart and mind.
Listen to me for a moment. The only way forward?
Try to see yourself through that frightened woman or angry man’s eyes. The fog swirls, and you emerge in shadowy outline. Friend or foe, she wonders. Menace or rescue? You hold up your hands, palms outward. You step forward. “Tell me,” you say, “what it’s like.” But before she can tell you, the fog returns, she’s lost again to you, and you to her. So you wait, deciding every minute not to press that button. Making the effort.