Flying west, I looked down on hundreds of miles of gauzy blue haze wreathing the mountains, which in time I recognized as smoke from forest fires. Down there, something was raging: a cataclysmic process was underway, but from my vantage the details of the drama were lost, and what we classify as “a natural disaster” impressed me mainly as a profound, impersonal phenomenon, caused by forces of an epic scale. Even after becoming aware that “something was wrong,” my primary response was awe, which, true to Burke’s famous observations on “the sublime,” was tinged with fear—appropriate given the danger and destruction unseen fires were generating below.
These were not the widely publicized forest fires sweeping Southern California, but spontaneous conflagrations in the northern Rockies, obscure fires that didn’t make the national news. The sight of these unseen fires has stayed with me, supplying a metaphor for the state of the nation in 2017. Despite the outwardly smooth operation of the federal government, political fires have periodically sprung up here and there, fires which must burn no matter how much Americans want to suppress them, no matter how much we tell ourselves these fires should not be. These popular outbreaks, periodically rupturing the conventional veneer of the political order, point up a disconnect between our decrepit yet monopolistic party system and what ordinary Americans want and need. Reckoning with the stunted and demeaning character of much of American life (let alone acknowledging it) is not exactly a priority on Capitol Hill.
Yet Americans’ unfulfilled cravings for respect and incorporation fueled many of the year’s top stories, including such diverse phenomenon as the #MeToo movement and the Charlottesville riots. Sadly, as our political system becomes ever more consolidated into a national bureaucracy, picking candidates from Washington and funding them with outsider money, the need is ever greater for leadership that originates in and is oriented mainly toward the interests and distinctive character of localities. Democrats looking for redemption could do worse than recommit themselves to the “reddest” and most woe-begone parts of the nation. For only with good leadership at the local level will the dangerously divisive character of local culture wane.
Image: Aerial photograph of smoke from an unseen fire
in the Western US, @ 2017 Susan Barsy