It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times
A perceptual divide is feeding a national one in the United States today. Reality is endangered, as is the nation’s future. Dickens’ observations and Greek history hold the key.
The most famous words in Charles Dickens’ most famous work of historical fiction, A Tale of Two Cities — the best-selling novel of all time — could have been written today. In full, it is illuminating:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Set in the 18th century and written in the 19th, the opening salvo outlines jarring contrasts on either side of the English Channel — in Paris and London—during the French Revolution.
While Dickens was writing about historical events, it applies just as powerfully to our current paradigm. However in contrast to the time of the Ancien Régime, disagreements among sovereign nations are often less pernicious these days than those underlining the ever-more divergent realities overtaking individual minds who often share a home, a neighborhood or a nation.
2020 was the year of infinite fragmentation, during which shared narratives and realities finally raised the white flag, and surrendered utterly to base human impulse.
2020 was the year of the Id.
Dr. Carrie Madej, an osteopath, bares her own Id on a YouTube channel, where she speaks on behalf of Jesus — no, literally — warning viewers of the “Mark of the Beast” that is the COVID vaccine. She (or Jesus — whichever one’s doing the writing) exhorts us gravely that by allowing “man to administer anything in your bodies [it] will recode your DNA [and] I will no longer recognize you as my creation.” On her (their) splash page, she (they) proudly trumpet(s) that YouTube’s censure of her videos is proof of “the veracity of the information.”
She signs all of her writings, “YAHUSHUA (Jesus)” just in case the faithful don’t recognize the original Hebrew.
Then, there’s Bill Gates. By most estimates, the Gates Foundation has helped save 122 million children’s lives, mostly on the wings of pneumococcus and rotavirus vaccines, as well as those for HIV, TB and malaria. Unicef has a chart for this, showing that infant deaths have been cut in half since Gates began funding and organizing these focused efforts in 1990. That translates to 17,000 young lives saved, per day.
So who to believe? The licensed osteopath who channels Jesus, and the 16% of Americans who agree with her, believing it’s dangerous to vaccinate children, and that it’s a plot to control our bodies, or DNA? Or do we believe Unicef, the WHO, the Gateses, Dr. Fauci and the majority of the planet?
Does it even matter?
Of course it does.
Even when a disease is vanquished from a given population, the virus itself doesn’t go away. Like a tide, it just keeps coming ashore, looking for a place to land. Measles was declared “eliminated” in the U.S. in 2000, when a near-totality of the population was vaccinated. But in the interim, so-called anti-vaxxers have flourished, doubling the number of citizens who no longer trust — and therefore resist — vaccinations. In fact, fully 45% of Americans no longer trust vaccines. As a result, measles has made a comeback there, with thousands of new cases annually. And it’s not just measles. Pertussis (aka whooping cough), the mumps and tuberculosis are all resurging dramatically, powered by the anti-vaxxer movement.
The reasons for this are fourfold: the delusional conspiracy theories bouncing around the Internet that Gates and the Deep State are attempting to alter people’s DNA and control their minds; fervent religiosity—the belief that “God will take care of the faithful”, whatever they do, or don’t do, for themselves; a misunderstanding—and dangerously extreme expression—of the notion of “freedom”; and the comparably tepid—but still dangerous—belief that vaccines aren’t effective, and the side effects outweigh the benefits.
What you choose to believe is your own prerogative… just as long as you and I live in different countries, and you never leave home, or interact with anyone else.
Politics have always been divisive, because they are comprised of win/lose contests, just like sports. But as rabid as fans of adult games get, they still agree, unlike today’s politicians and those who support them, on the fundamental rules of the game being played.
Moreover, in sports contests, the real-life consequences of the outcome are nil. Someone gets a trophy, bragging rights, and a bigger paycheck. That’s it. In political ones, by stark contrast, people’s lives lie in the balance of the result, and the aftermath.
In the United States this year, the political contest for the presidency presented polar realities to the voting public — realities that in turn fomented inter-group hatred, seeding protests and counter-protests in which assault rifles faced off against hand-written signs on streets across the nation. The Black Lives Matter civil rights marches have become a watershed of sorts, a sharp ridge line largely cleaving Democratic and Republican groups, and sentiments. It has sometimes turned violent. Kyle Rittenhouse, a seventeen-year old teenager, unloaded his AR-15 on a peaceful BLM protest this August, killing two young men and injuring a third, over the politics of being Black.
It’s not just the public. Politicians themselves have attacked the very rules by which they were elected to abide, and which they swore to uphold, falsely. Politics, by and large, have turned into an acting contest: who can fool the most people until the ballots are in? Just today, Chuck Rocha, a Democratic Party strategist, wrote the following appraisal in the New York Times, about the fact that new immigrant voters—especially Hispanics—shifted dramatically to the right this election, after falling prey to false narratives by a candidate who ironically cares less about them than his competitor:
“When you have a candidate who has 1,000 percent name ID and is spending a lot of money, if you lie long enough about having a horse, someone will buy you a saddle.”
Republicans in power today have made attempt after attempt to eviscerate a constitutionally mandated process — that of democratically held elections — more aggressively, and baldly, than at any time in the nation’s history. The Washington Post just published an opinion piece highlighting the issue:
“Trump lost the election. He lost the recounts. He lost the vote certifications, by Republican and Democratic officials alike. He lost 59 of 60 court cases. He lost the electoral vote.”
It continues, pointing out the obvious fact that Republican lawmakers are still insisting otherwise, even after all of these failed attempts at overturning due process. Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, the Chair of the Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees elections, and the man who single-handedly shut down COVID-19 stimulus checks—twice—spent four hours in a hearing on Wednesday speaking in tongues. “There was fraud in this election,” he said, before unloading a torrent of thoroughly debunked accusations. His colleague, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, piled on. “The election in many ways was stolen.” Then Florida’s Rick Scott said this election was “no different from what Maduro is doing” in Venezuela’s dictatorship. Missouri’s Josh Hawley said “the election was rigged,” even though Trump won his state.
This was just yesterday.
Whether or not they actually believe their own vitriol, their tactics are working in the public realm. Christopher Krebs, the former head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency — and a Republican — recently urged his former colleagues to stop seeding disinformation. “This is not the America I recognize, and it’s got to stop,” he said, in response to which he has countless received death threats from civilian Republicans around the nation.
In the ever-growing divide between party faithful (this Pew Research page shows that the parties have drifted farther apart, doubling their mistrust in just 20 years), some of the places their views have landed approach the nonsensical.
A Divide of Dickensian Proportions
The least urbanized counties in the US voted Republican by a 32-point margin, while the most urbanized preferred Democrats by a 29-point spread. That’s disheartening, but sadly not shocking, given the different worlds urban and rural voters represent.
Surveys have found that 70–80% of Republicans actually still believe, today, that Biden stole the election, in spite of every single post-election challenge lost; in spite of every single proof to the contrary, by members of both parties, and the entire intelligence community, bar none. This is a staggering statistic — one that represents, to me, more than anything else, that Americans are no longer capable of internalizing facts. With implications and examples extending far beyond the election, truth, data and science have all taken a back seat to gut instinct, rampant deceit, and fear-mongering.
And as we have seen throughout history, science, truth and data are the only things standing between two extremes of instinctual expression: being upset, and genocide.
I wrote at length about this chasm in Two Americas, unpacking the demographic reasons that voting skews the way it does. I’ll share just a few of those statistics here. In urban environments, whites are a minority, at 44% of the population, on average. By contrast, in rural counties, they are a firm majority, at a whopping 97% of residents. Add to this that 80% of African Americans live in cities, with just 20% in suburban and rural settings. Furthermore, in urban America, 19% of city-dwellers are foreign born (in NYC, it jumps to 49%), whereas in rural America, only 4% were born elsewhere. And while just 19% of the U.S. population lives in rural America, that population spreads over 97% of its landmass. Finally, as we know, the U.S. Senate represents and reflects the land, not the population. In this critical point, we can see one of the major fault lines at play.
California, with 39.5 million residents, has the same number of senators as Wyoming, with just 539 thousand inhabitants. That gives each Wyomingite 68 times the voting power of each Californian.
So what do these people want from their leaders?
Here’s where Dickens meets Willy Wonka. In just one illustration, back in the innocent days of 2014, before reality went on holiday, Pew Research showed that 77% of American urbanites wanted more restaurants, schools, social services and stores within walking distance of their homes, for which they were willing to live in smaller homes, closer to one another. Rural Americans, by polar contrast, have no public realm to speak of, and so wanted larger homes, farther apart, for which they were willing to drive long distances to schools, restaurants, social services and stores.
Said another way, all of these statistics point to the fact that urbanites are willing — eager, even — to share the land and its resources with a rainbow of diverse neighbors to the benefit of all, while rural residents prefer to maximize the distance between them, to share as little as possible, and when they do, for it to be with people who overwhelmingly — nearly 100% of them — share the same gene pool and belief systems.
What do you think that does to one’s world view? How do these things impact “infinite” qualities like understanding, inclusivity, compromise, compassion, fairness, empathy, communication, tolerance, trust, or community? We are the sum of our experiences. Urban and rural understandings of the world are indeed “two cities”.
For a deeper dive into “green” and “gray” America, read this.
A Tale of Two Realities
Cities are festering pits of environmental destruction! Cities will save us from environmental destruction! By avoiding the office I can save myself! The office was the only thing saving me from myself! The Internet is stealing your data and will ruin you! The data on the Internet will save us all from ruin! Only our leaders can save us from dangerous people! Only the people can save us from dangerous leaders! The police are keeping the militias at bay! The militias are keeping the police at bay! Vaccines will kill you! Vaccines will save you! Deregulation is the answer! Deregulation is the problem! Convenience is progress! Convenience kills progress! Economics leads to happiness! Economics leads to despair! Debate kills truth! Debate reveals truth! Guns save! Guns kill! Colleges open minds! Colleges corrupt minds! Masks save lives! Masks destroy freedoms! Trump is our savior! Trump is the devil incarnate!
It goes on. And on. And on.
What can we do when the world has gone topsy-turvy; when — to summarize Dickens’ opener — our era, our intellect, our spirituality, our future, our outlook, our resources and even our post-mortem existence are all no more than kindling for countless conflagrations of vehement disagreement, reaching every corner of our lives?
The only antidote I know for polarization is discourse.
Yes, discourse. Said differently, the only thing I know of that can tether diverging worlds to one another — to prevent them from driving farther apart — is exposure to views that are unlike our own, and which in turn breed at least some form of upgraded tolerance. This is a difficult thing, to be sure, and increasingly so. But systems of governance are supposed to be the de facto places where debate flourishes — and on which collective wellbeing depends.
From the birth of Greek dēmokratiā (δημοκρατία), democracy has hinged on the ability of “all eligible citizens [to] have an equal say in lawmaking,” according to Wikipedia. In that way, it goes on, democracy is a form of political collectivism. “Say” is another word for debate, because it’s in lawmaking forums that views are aired in order to find common ground, on which to act in the name of governance.
And until recently, politicians agreed that at the end of the day, no matter their disagreements, they were compelled to act.
It was their job.
In Athenian democracy — the first-ever, established in 508 BCE — all eligible citizens were allowed to speak and vote in the assembly, which set the laws of the city state. 2,528 years later, “speaking” has turned into the kind of vitriolic one-way diatribes that Senator Ron Johnson and his brothers-in-arms have chosen to not only fabricate, but embellish beyond any semblance of reality, expressly to vilify dissenting colleagues and foment hatred on the part of those they represent, in order to win. Their behavior has no relationship — no similarity, whatsoever — to debate. While in high school we understand debate as a contest, it is actually the opposite. Debate is the most evolved form of communication, created to seed learning, thereby bridging distinct worlds. Debate is what happens when views are aired in order to share and champion personal views (or one’s opponent’s, in another form of debate) and to expand our collective understanding. Regardless of whoever wins a given contest, the long-term impacts of debate include compromise reached, agreement forged, or new ideas, incubated.
In 18th century London, debating societies Debating societies were “a phenomenon associated with the simultaneous rise of the public sphere, a sphere of discussion separate from traditional authorities and accessible to all people that acted as a platform for criticism and the development of new ideas and philosophy,” according to Wikipedia.
Without debate — real discourse — the exchange of ideas, the education of the public outside of “traditional authorities” and a system of true checks and balances all suffer. Without debate, in a sense, there is no democracy; no common ground. There are only AR-15s, vaccines from Hell (the colorful name of Dr. Madej’s website), pathogenic genocide, enemies of the deep state, everywhere, and the true destruction of societal and political fabric.
Some refer to this state as anarchy. Or lawlessness. Or societal collapse. Or libertarianism.
But unlike Hollywood, where in just 90–120 minutes, anarchic states are vanquished, the world is saved, the guy gets the girl, the people cheer, and rational thinking reigns once again, there is no “happy ending” where half the population is wielding 360 million firearms — 46% of the world’s total, in spite of representing just 4% of its population — while awaiting Armageddon, and where politicians both fan the flames of dissent and anger, and now default to outlandish power grabs, having recently, for the first time, sloughed off even the pretense of interest in voters.
Just two days ago, Vanity Fair reported that under Jared Kushner’s leadership, the Trumps and Pences have managed to siphon off half — half! — of their $1.26 billion re-election fund to a personally held private shell company, washing it through an organization run by… Trump’s daughter-in-law and Pence’s nephew, of course!, and about which nothing will be done, and for which those involved will be given a pre-emptive pardon, before the upcoming inauguration day.
$600 million of public money intended for political influence stolen, by the POTUS and the First Families.
We used to regularly decry the “failed states” borne of autocratic or despotic leaders who forcibly took over systems in order to control human and natural resources. We went to war with these, again and again and again — not altruistically; but we did nonetheless, because we believed in the power, however imperfectly practiced, of democracy.
So while the United States was never a true democracy (constitutional republics sit between democracies and autocracies), it now suffers an existential threat, in the form of a Dickensian choice between poles: hold the nation together and rule all of it, engendering a climate of debate, compromise and at least enough shared narrative to prevent us from self-immolating; or let it descend into the fractious splinter groups that James Madison swore a true Republic structure would protect it from, in his consequential The Federalist №10 essay.
The Founding Fathers agreed with Madison wholly. They were aggressively antipathetic toward direct democracies, in which each citizen would exert a direct influence over the land and its people. They favored a representative republic, in which elected officials could avoid the pitfalls of partisanship and factionalism.
P.S.: It didn’t work.
A disempowered electorate, in the form of worsening education, increasing mistrust and rampant misinformation, is one that can no longer influence a shrinking number of increasingly powerful lawmakers. The end state of this is pure autocracy, and the only countermeasure I know of is an empowered citizenry, fueled by a strong information and education network, wielding debate as the central tool of bridge-building, and progress.
The future of the United States rests on whether we continue down the current path of Dickensian dystopia, or we slowly begin to rebuild from the rubble.
To shift, in behaviors, toward actual democracy.
Not so, in France, as throughout Europe, as “old” systems gave way to new ones, in the spirit of “inalienable rights” like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Where, as encoded in the very start of our own Declaration of Independence:
“To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
If we do somehow manage to regain control over our own future, then one day, some “future Dickens” could write our story — one that may also recount the early 21st century overthrow of an entrenched and broken system, replaced as they were by institutions that empowered its people once again, as the French did, in the original novel (and in history). 160 years after its writing, both title cities in Dickens’ tome now fare far higher than the United States does, on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. While England and France are listed as “full” democracies, the U.S., by contrast, no longer qualifies, as of 2016, and now carries the label of a “flawed” one.
:( hashtag sad
It is indeed “the best of times and the worst of times,” depending on your views and your station in life. I simply long to ensure that it does not become “the end of times” for a nation I love, and for which I still hold out hope that it will flourish once again.