Labor Day is a time to refocus and rejuvenate. Facebook feeds are full of pictures of students heading off to the first day of school. Summer vacations are wrapped up and business activity picks up. After the news lull of the summer months . . .
Wait . . there was no summer news lull?
Unless you were disciplined enough to cut off your electronic devices and stop your newspaper deliveries, I suspect you know about Greenland and Denmark. The proposed nuclear (as in bomb) response to hurricanes. Our where-do-we-stand-this-hour trade war with China. Immigrant children dying in U.S. custody. Home-grown domestic terrorists killing men, women, and children in never-ending mass shootings. An unwillingness on the part of one of our political parties to protect our system of electing the country’s leaders. Dismantling of critical environmental protections. Selling off public land to the highest bidder. Disarray in the G-7. Staggering income inequality and a wildly fluctuating stock market. And that was just last week.
I fear we are coming to a point where many will give in to despair from the never-ending chaos of the news cycle and the dysfunction it portrays.
I want to discourage you from becoming discouraged. As the poet Wallace Stevens wrote in the midst of World War II, we need to “resist the pressure of reality.”
Stevens’s quote came to my attention when reading Steve Almond’s book Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to our Country. Almond calls on Stevens as he considers the “manner in which our souls become desensitized by the grim and unending procession of accounts we call news.”
I believe in the power of stories. Our brains are wired to use stories to absorb all that is around us and to help establish meaning from what could be chaos. And while the human race’s embrace of reason and science have saved millions of lives, we still choose stories to construct our own realities.
The result is that we tell ourselves stories that are fraudulent and frivolous; stories designed to sow discord and spread fear. Some stories we ignore because they are too frightening to confront. Almond’s bottom line: “Bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously. If bad stories become pervasive enough they create a new and darker reality.” Yet, while we need to take reality seriously, we also need to resist the pressure we feel from that reality.
The final “bad story” of Almond’s book is entitled, “America is Incapable of Moral Improvement.” This is the doom and despair fiction we tell ourselves, and Almond returns to one of the causes in a recent online commentary:
“. . . the fundamental media bias these days is conflict bias: a relentless compulsion to focus on arguments and accusations to the exclusion of shared interests. We’re living in the age of the sick burn.”
And he suggests a way forward:
(T)he candidates (for president) should aim their passion at the causes most Americans support, as they did in the midterms: a tax system that selects need over greed, greater access to health care and education, a climate policy based on science, sensible gun control, an immigration system that secures our borders without abusing families seeking asylum and so on. . . . I’m eager to identify the candidates who recognize that this election isn’t about their individual fate, but about a common belief: that government should be a force for good in the lives of the disenfranchised and vulnerable.”
We cannot leave this solely up to the candidates. Can enough of us “confront our bad stories and divine their meaning, and begin to tell better ones?” I am far from a Pollyanna, but I believe we can.
A critical way to move past despair is through action: how we use our conversations with others to listen first, and then tell our stories about what America means to us. How we support policies and actions that move us toward the common good. How we hold our current elected officials to account, and how we support candidates who focus on what we should be as a people. Almond makes the case that “Our fundamental challenge as citizens of good faith is to move beyond the passive consumption of politics. Opinions don’t win elections. Actions do.”
I believe the question we have to ask ourselves is a simple two words: Why not?
Hope that is grounded in memory tells us that people have changed things that seemed intractable many times in the past—from ending slavery to giving women the vote to allowing LGBTQ+ individuals to love and marry whomever they please. As a country, we have shown moral improvement over the years in dealing with racism, immigration, religious freedom, and income inequality. George Packer, in his riveting and sad 2013 book The Unwinding, provides an example out of the Great Depression.
“Starting in 1792 with George Washington, there were financial crises every ten or fifteen years. Panics, bank runs, credit freezes, crashes, depressions. People lost their farms, families were wiped out. This went on for more than a hundred years, until the Great Depression, when Oklahoma turned to dust. ‘We can do better than this,’ Americans said. ‘We don’t need to go back to the boom-and-bust cycle.’ The Great Depression produced three regulations.
The FDIC—your bank deposits were safe.
Glass-Steagall—banks couldn’t go crazy with your money.
The SEC—stock markets could be tightly controlled.
For fifty years, these rules kept America from having another financial crisis. Not one panic or meltdown or freeze. They gave Americans security and prosperity. Banking was dull. The country produced the greatest middle class the world had ever seen.”
Improvement, like many things in life, is a process. Over time, we forgot why these rules were important. Greed took over. Suddenly, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, regulations became too much of a bother and too expensive. The S&L crisis was the harbinger of the 2008 financial meltdown, and it was the American people—not Wall Street or the bankers—who paid the bills. Just because we dealt with a problem almost 100 years ago doesn’t mean that it won’t resurface.
James Baldwin reminds us that, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Perhaps it takes a full-blown crisis for us to rise up and say, “We can do better than this.” We have in the past. It is time once again to resist the pressures of reality and—as Teddy Roosevelt proposed in 1910—work for a system that values human welfare above property rights and a federal government that safeguards social justice against corporate greed.
It is up to each of us individually—in whatever way is most meaningful to us— to act so as not to become discouraged.
Have a good week.
More to come…