I recently found myself re-reading Walker Percy’s 1970 novel, Love in the Ruins, a deeply problematic work by a writer with extraordinary gifts. Lately, I’ve found myself repeating these lines as I follow the news:
"Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good."
A catastrophe is occurring, of course. More than 220,000 people are already dead in this country. Millions more are out of work. Fires, storms, floods: signs are upon us, as if from an ancient book. But, like many people, I wonder if this isn’t just a prelude. I wonder when the Big One will arrive, and what form it will take. Civil war? Economic implosion? Civilizational collapse? All of the above? Or will the pain of an unjust and failing society linger on for decades?
Either way, the outlook is not so good.
The Sunset Gun
In his essay, American Bloodlands, Chris Hedges wrote of the rage and desperation that consumes so many of us. “Violence is a narcotic,” Hedges writes. “It fills the emotional void.” That’s true of other forms of political aggression, too, forms that fall short of violence but are nonetheless toxic.
In Percy’s novel, a character refers to his alcoholic spouse’s drinking as “the sunset gun,” as in:
“It’s 5 o’clock and she’s firing the sunset gun.” And these days it’s like the saying says: it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere.
People who refuse to wear masks are like drunk drivers, with the same reckless indifference to their own safety and the safety of others. Chronic drunk drivers are addicted to alcohol. Chronic mask-rejecters are addicted. to political rage, and to our country’s deep-seated culture of toxic individualism. They hate those who ask them to wear masks, and they hate many of the people whose lives are endangered by the disease.
Then there are the hate groups – the Proud Boys, the militias – who openly preach racial, religious, and ethnic hatred while others, like the Republican Party, are less direct about it. Their addictions have always been with us.
On the left side of the aisle, hatred for Trump voters – wishing a horrible death upon them, as this Democratic blogger did, or dismissing them as “deplorables” and brutes – is the inverse of MAGA loathing for liberals and socialists. Hate and contempt are gateway drugs to political violence. They dehumanize, they make the stranger an “Other.”
Twelve-step programs say that alcoholics and addicts have a disease, but they also say that the disease doesn’t absolve people of personal responsibility for the harms they’ve done. That’s true for our violence addiction, too, and for our addiction to hating and dismissing those we don’t understand.
Opioids are the Opiates of the Masses
Some of those Trump voters are experiencing a level suffering that is unimaginable to outsiders. Opioid addiction is devastating (I have lost a close family member to it). The opioid and meth epidemics have devastated many rural communities, just as other addictions have devastated urban communities for decades.
And nobody’s immune. Alcoholism, addiction, suicide: all are on the rise. So are rage, dehumanization, contempt. In our chaos and isolation, more and more Americans are firing the sunset gun.
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Whether by design or not, this has proven useful to today’s economic and business elites. An addicted underclass is easier to control than one that is fully functional and aware of its oppression.
It’s true that many Trump voters are well-off, even prosperous, as professionals and business people. Yet, aside from some billionaire donors, liberal contempt and hatred seems to be reserved for the impoverished. The liberal community might want to ask itself why that is.
I would ask every Democrat who condemns a poor white Trump voter: What has your party offered to these voters and their communities? Isn’t it possible that your contempt for these people allows you to overlook their needs?
Burning Down the Cosmos
A 2018 political science study concluded that growing numbers of marginalized people felt “extreme discontent” with “disliked elites,” and were spreading “fake news” for reasons the authors described in striking terms: to “unleash chaos,” to ‘‘burn down’ the entire established political order,” to “disrupt the entire established democratic ‘cosmos’ and start anew.”
Centrism is the failed political philosophy of those "despised elites." Centrism gave us Trump.
The authors claim that up to 40 percent of Americans share these feelings.
The question that remains unasked: Why shouldn’t “marginalized people” dislike the elites and want to burn down the established order? In politics, business, the media … in virtually all areas, elites and their choices have failed working people. The “democratic cosmos” may look orderly to the professionals inhabiting its upper heavens. But the earthbound majority looks up and sees a sky out of Revelations, burning with fire and raining down shooting stars. Some of them pick up a rifle and aim it at the heart of the sun.
It's probable (although far from certain) that Joe Biden will become president next January. For many of us, that will be a refreshing change from a president who has fueled hate and despair. But the addictions that Trump fed on will remain. Centrism will not defeat it. Centrism built today’s political cosmos, a cosmos whose stars are jewels on a velvet coffin lining. Centrism is the failed political philosophy of those “despised elites.” Centrism gave us Trump.
The Twilight Choice
Repairing the breach left by centrism and fueled by rage will require radical love, the kind of love that condemns a broken system and not its broken people. Biden will undoubtedly conduct himself in a civil way. But radical love doesn’t come from the top, especially under this system.
Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?"
Has it? Not yet, but it could happen sometime soon. To survive it, we’ll need a deep sense of compassion, communion, and community. We will have to care for one another, in ways we have yet to fully understand. We’ll need to think clearly. We’ll have to withdraw from our addictions – to rage, scorn, depression – if we’re going to survive. I don’t know about you, but that will be hard for me sometimes.
But it’s five o’clock everywhere. The chamber of the gun is loaded, and evening is almost upon us. The choice – to tighten our finger around the trigger, or put it down and look toward the dawn – is up to us.