It is customary for news organizations to endorse a candidate, or at least suggest a direction for the future. As this news organization has pledged to a “non-partisan” mission this is the latter, not the former.
Afterall, barring last second surprises (which are likely to surprise no one) everything that can be said has been said about the candidates, and the parties. Plodding through another round of circular arguments drowning in what 2017 National Book Award winner and author Annie Proulx described as a “shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data” adds nothing.
At this point, additional gnawing at the divisions merely adds poison to the roots of our collective tipping point into social psychosis. No one will be converted because they’re being bitten by claims of a moral high ground. There is no high ground to ascend to if it means you’re leaving others behind or damning them because they don’t know better.
There is only the shared ground.
And yet, spiteful speeches fill ears, and eyes, and mouths. They fill worried dreams. It has been said that we stand at an electoral precipice: ascension for some, desolation and dissolution for others. As such, in the sacred retelling of troubled times like these there is a tearing of the heavens, a rending of sacred cloth.
There is no middle ground. The center has not held. It is frayed, and it has broken. The binding threads of our united states are burning away. You may not want to believe this but what is that smoky smell in the air?
As we anxiously watch the small flames of civil uncertainty, editorials point to our “better angels” a hopeful phrase lifted from Abraham Lincoln’s March 4, 1861 first inaugural speech, his plea to a dividing nation. Notably, despite this eloquence 39 days later, on April 12, 1861 the U.S. Civil War began.
Even so, if not Lincoln’s “better angels” to call upon as we drift towards the unknown, then what?
In 1929, the Italian writer, politician and political theorist Antonio Gramsci was in a fascist prison, writing about another period of drift “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters” later published in the Prison Notebooks. Gramsci was writing of an interregnum, a gap filled with uncertainty between two worlds. From prison, Gramsci was describing Europe as it tore itself apart in the years prior to the cataclysm of World War II.
Today’s election also appears to be an interregnum, an uncertain time when the identity of the future is at stake. And the stakes in these closing days to the election, are wrapped tight around a winner-take-all presidential contest, with the losers be damned.
In today’s uncertain times, one certainty is monsters are surrounding us. Monsters riding the data tsunami, monsters frothing somewhere in cyberspace, monsters whom use to be neighbors, or friends, or family – with no angels in sight. The ideologies of this election are so entangled in personal identities and amplified by a digital tribalism they are tearing at the fabric of the nation. Thus, the ideological differences, and those who carry their flags, are viewed – on both sides – as monstrous.
Monsters are threatening because they represent a threat to mortality and morality. They are abominations. As such, in these divided states of America, MAGA hats are red devil horns worn by Nazis and BLM protest signs may as well be spikes covered in gore carried by cannibals.
These are the conspiracy creatures which populate the online mindscape, twisting the reasoning of adults like the boogeymen in the closet of childhood once did.
As of today, the election rides along, yet unresolved, on the dual horns of dread and uncertainty. As the clock winds down, it is certain bruising and trampling will happen for both, but neither party knows for certain which will get gored in the gut. This uncertainty of result, but certainty of loss, is a recipe for anxious existential dread for all. We are in it.
If there is certainty anymore, it is one side will be exhausted and exhilarated but spared. The other side gored again, and again, and again.
Because that is, is it not, what monsters do?
With no better angels in sight. What will happen next?
It is not especially comforting that Lincoln’s sentiment to unity arrived at the very end of an invocation for peace – which failed. Is that the best we can do?
What’s more, during the Civil War it was the rather more straightforward states of a nation, divided by principles and geography, which were at each other’s throats. Today, it is 320 million states-of-mind, digitized into an incongruous mass of perceptions and layers of time: the nation as it was, as it is, and as it should be.
No wonder we cling to the loudest, if not the most truthful, measures of clarity. Small wonder how, like the Civil War’s blue versus grey uniforms, today’s most patriotic zealots claim the fabric of the nation’s flag is baptized in a single color. It is either the sacred red of blood or the blue of clear waters – nothing else. In effect, if the rallying flag for the true believers of each side is disturbingly two-dimensional and monochrome, the saving relief for both is the cartoonish simplicity is at least legible amongst the chaos.
At their most charitable, these divisions in perception are described as a series of morally similar principles – fairness, safety, truth, justice, etc…- that are simply ranked differently. A stereotypical example of this difference in principled prioritization has conservatives ranking the principle of safety (law and order) higher than a progressive’s ranking of fairness (equitable justice) and vice versa. Thus, we are singing using the same scales. Our discord is merely that we are singing in different musical keys.
However, even these charitable stereotypes which broadly dump people into progressive and conservative buckets also ring suspiciously off-key. To experience the discordant spaces between these ranked priorities is to enter a gulf as wide – and impossible to traverse – as the Grand Canyon. Pointedly, the gap crossing between pro-life and right-to-choose – or any other topic of principled difference – is so fraught that no sane citizen tries. Only warriors of each respective true faith, make the leap. On social media, and increasingly in personal encounters, these leaps take on the frantic nature of warfare, probes into a nightmarish no-man’s land.
As such, like actual combatants the true believers and idle dabblers, leaping into the public discourse no longer share a moral standard of behavior. Instead, there is all matter of attack, lying, screaming, trolling, driving vehicles into crowds, stuffing logic, words, and emotions down each other’s throats while playing to the home crowd whether paying homage to alternative realities, or invoking moral exasperation.
Try as we may, these principled differences are bounded by moral barbed wire, as political leaders hint at near genocidal consequences, and the muddy battleground is littered with emotional triggers and mines. Too many identities – and a few bodies – are now entangled in this tribal ideological warfare. As warriors of the Right and the Left, even tactical retreats involve firing behind us – to enact indiscriminate damage – at the Libs, at the Cons.
Today, as had happened by Lincoln’s inauguration, the actual shoving has already begun. Then, seven states had already seceded from the Union. And the shoving then, as it has throughout history, did not end well.
Today, as we squabble and claw at each other in this in-between space, to the rest of the world and those who remember the not so distant past, the election feels like collective murder-suicide. As the former Trump advisor, Fiona Hill commenting on the United States’ erosion of standing in the world noted “We are increasingly seen as an object of pity, including by our allies, because they are so shocked by what is happening internally, how we are eating ourselves alive with our divisions. You know, we are the ones creating all this.”
We have created a political world – as we have in the past – where we eat each other, and ourselves, alive. Monsters.
The political mindscape of self-righteous division is not the only place where monstrousness appetites have taken hold. Humans are consuming the planet. In Sir David Attenborough’s A Life on our Planet: My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future the recent documentary of the famed nature historian, he notes simply, “Humans have overrun the world.”
Attenborough’s searing personal attestation is a factual account of wildness scrapped clean. In his lifetime the world’s wilderness plunged from 66% to 35% as the human population rose from 2.3 billion to 7.8 billion. Amidst the avalanche of data on “the dreadful damage wrought by mankind” Attenborough and others noted these sobering data: 90% of fish are gone. Humans comprise 33% of the mass of mammals on the planet. A further, 60% of mass is of animals we raise to eat. A mere 4% of the total mass is “mice to whales.” 70% of the birds on the planet are domestic, mostly chickens. Humans cut down 15 billion trees per year. In the past 13 years, 1.2 million square miles of wilderness, the size of Mexico, was heavily modified for human use.
Again, if there are monsters, they are us. What, after all, do monsters do? They eat indiscriminately, without conscience. The wildness of the world chewed to pieces. We are, in this reckoning, devouring our own future. Attenborough facts are startling, but they are abstractions. Helpfully, he buoys these facts with visceral videos and personal accounts of formerly wild places gone the way of plow, giant swirling balls of liquified plastic, concrete, fire, and radiation.
It is reasonable to intone “I wasn’t there! I didn’t do it. It was before my time! I am not responsible for this discord nor this historical destruction. I am not a monster!” It is reasonable, but not true.
Do you recall the wild places of your own childhood? The frogs of youth, the fish in the stream, the bees, secret green and stone places – do any remain? Odds are high that those places once wild and ruled by quiet rivulets, peeping eyes, feather, sap and root, sun and rain are changed. In the United States less than 5% of the land is wilderness. Many small places of childhood wonder are modified, reordered into suburban subdivisions, mining pits, roadways, industrial parks, single crop fields, or some other “efficient” landscape converted to human use.
The point is this, inasmuch as this election has gripped us, a far more pressing existential challenge is the continued loss of what first made us all – the wilderness. Depending on your political perspective, our identity as a nation may, or may not, survive as anyone hopes following this election. It is hard to know what will happen next.
On the one hand, true civil strife is visible on the horizon, however stepping forward into that horizon is a journey only a few would relish. On the other hand, tipping points in complex situations, are, by their nature veiled and social uncertainty is ascendant.
What is more clear is that neither the wild world, nor we, will survive in any recognizable form, another 75 years of excuses over its obliteration. Not the left, the right, nor middle – and likely none of our children’s children. We are all, by bite small or large complicit and responsible. Each of us, in our turn, are the monsters eating the world. Still unconvinced? Is there then no evidence before us today, that half of the country nearly sees the other half as monsters?
If there is anything good to be taken from this time of division, could it be that we see the dark depths of the nation’s past, and ourselves, brought to the surface? Acknowledging that we are all mutually monstrous, or potentially so, is not meant as an indictment, nor an indication of original sin. It is meant rather to humble our outrage, to ground our shared identity in a relationship with a shared national creed and responsibility for a shared tiny blue planet.
In 1861, Lincoln’s hoped for better angels failed to stop the monstrosity of civil carnage, and yet, that war did end. A future racial reckoning in the United States was also born which we are witness to again. The world population had just crossed over 1 billion and the wilderness still reigned over most of the world.
In 1861 too, the world’s first nature reserve, France’s Fontainebleau State Forest, was set aside. It was also near that time Henry David Thoreau said “In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World.”
In the coming election, whether win, lose, or protracted civil unrest, we’re all due – all of us – for a personal and collective accounting to the wilderness. As Attenborough noted, if we don’t act to “re-wild” the planet it will survive, but the human race will not.
As such, inasmuch as this election is a blinking red sign that we are again, as in Lincoln’s time, at a nexus of identity and an uncertain image of the near future – it is not the deepest tap root. Like a maze filled with funhouse mirrors the uncertainty of this time makes it hard for anyone – monsters or angels – to move on to something new. Whether on the winning side or the losing side, hope ultimately requires clarity of purpose.
Once the election finds its feet and is settled how sad would it be that at the end of all this history, this anxious convergence, we not see any new direction – no noble purpose – for moving forward together?
After all, we have already created a shared mental landscape populated by political and moral reckonings of our own making. And many are dissatisfied with the continued mindless appetite for mutual political loathing. It is clear the planet is exhibiting a more pressing existential mission for any person willing to turn towards. In whatever form this elective rebirth of the nation takes, the re-wilding of the world remains on the ballot now and forever.
Lincoln called to a search for the better angels inside people then, and us now. Yet, the better angels shied away then, as they may do now, as long as a tribal clash drives the search.
Instead when looking for angels for a future, let’s look to the wilderness. Let’s look to the mini-wild places in our backyards and in this community and larger wild places too.
Let’s look in these rare places to find our wild angels of hope.