“The Rising Waters” is even more salient now than when Carl Hassmann drew it in 1906. Then, as now, American society was in a desperate state, thanks to decades of the rich getting richer and leaving everyone else behind. The Gilded Age had created vast industrial wealth while consigning millions to exploitative working conditions and poverty. Landed security became more elusive as labor-saving machinery displaced rural folk and opportunities to homestead shrank with the “closing” of the American frontier. Cities became clogged with Americans seeking the respectability and comfort that came with new white-collar jobs. Continue reading
Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings; of gates, doors, and seasons; and all sorts of metaphorical passages. Associated with time and change, the two-faced god, whose gaze takes in both past and future, presides over all transitions, “whether abstract or concrete, sacred or profane.” He opens and shuts doors with his key, his staff (depicted above as a living branch heavy with fruit) symbolizing his power to determine what prospers. From this architect of the new, the month of January takes its name.
Where the past and future meet, Americans stand, wondering how “happy” or “new” 2019 can be. Given the dismal character of national politics, cries of “Happy New Year!” have a hollow ring. No need to be blithe, given that, in the manner of Janus, the new year will proceed from the year we’ve just had. An impotent Congress, two parties captive to an unproductive quest for partisan dominance, a president whose vulgarity and viciousness are infecting civil society: these conditions, in combination, are weakening and destabilizing one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in the world.
Underlying it all is a decline in social leadership and the dying off of what was formerly an effectively unifying civic culture. In 2018, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the late Senator John McCain, and the late President George H.W. Bush all pleaded for a renewal of civility, comity, and patriotic service, exhorting a new generation to assume the burdens of enlightened and disinterested leadership, in some cases pleading to us from beyond the grave. To my mind, motivating America’s “natural leaders” to resume their traditional role in promoting communal well-being and an enlightened politics is a crucial task that will determine whether this year improves upon a politically dismal 2018.
Image: from this source.
The glory of the present is its offer of restoration: the chance to recoup on a loss, to recover from a painful reversal, to find redemption or liberation despite blows to one’s prospects or identity. The American optimist wakes up of a morning intent on “making America great again,” though his or her vision of that greatness may substantially deviate from the official Trump version. Chicagoans wake hoping for an end to the open-air homicides that mow down a few more of us every day. And all Illinois hopes for something better from Springfield: something that will transform the state’s declining fortunes and liberate it from corruption and a seemingly inescapable pit of debt. There is no reason (except for human folly) that the state cannot become the forward-looking powerhouse it used to be.
It all depends on synergy: a combination of individual energies–what we can spare of our selves, we whose cares might include a water-damaged apartment, a sick child, trouble at work, or a departed spouse.
I think of Teddy Roosevelt, whose cares included the grief of unexpectedly losing his mother and his young wife in a single day. Hampered in childhood by health so bad he nearly died, Roosevelt nonetheless managed in adulthood to become strong while conceiving of himself as integrally one with an America every bit as bedeviled as ours is today. His passionate commitment to public life ended up being a crucial force in turning the United States in a new more wholesome direction and away from the stultifying excesses of the Gilded Age.
For those interested in the condition of the US economy, I highly recommend the detailed set of interactive graphics that the New York Times published online yesterday. CLICK ON THE IMAGE OR HERE TO VIEW. The graphics compile data on almost all the private-sector jobs in today’s economy, depicting how each of 255 sectors has fared since the economic downturn and giving figures for the average pay in each sector and the total number of jobs lost or gained.
Every time I see graphics of this quality, I wonder why the US government is incapable of producing statistical summaries that are as timely and as accessible to ordinary people. While the government collects an enormous amount of data on almost every aspect of our economy and society, its performance is terrible when it comes to making facts about our country readily available on the internet for everyday use.
Many thanks to Jeremy Ashkenas and Alicia Parlapiano of the New York Times for designing a set of statistical representations that are so beautiful, informative, and easy to read.
The graphics show which sectors of the economy have recovered or never suffered a loss. Others are newly created and growing (e.g. electronic shopping). The oil and natural-gas sector, with many high-paying jobs, is growing great guns. Yet others like air transportation and many sectors relating to homes and home-building are continuing to suffer and even decline. The recession also accelerated the decline of certain ailing parts of the economy (such as traditional print media). Overall, it seems obvious that the recession coincided with other major shifts in the economy, such as those caused by globalism and technological developments like the digital revolution.
Spring is coming to my corner of the city, but I’ve hardly noticed it. Normally I would go out walking a lot at this time of year, to enjoy all the beautiful plants, the freshness of life, its fragility. This year I’ve been too preoccupied with my writing, with politics, to savor the season. I look out the window of the car while my husband is driving me to work, and this is spring: the picture that I take out the window at 50 miles an hour. At least this I can savor: this picture, showing the exact stages of the new leaf, the exact position of the gulls in the grass, the quality of the light, the fog just lifting off the craggy trees. Grant looking over it all. This is my spring. I’ve taken many photographs from the car this spring. I cheat sometimes and use the “posterize” setting on my camera to key up the city. Maybe it’s not such a cheat in a way, because the resulting images correspond to my state of mind, and to my subjective sense of the city, the moment.
I love writing this blog, not least because it forces you to consider why you’re bothering. If you’re going to write a blog, you can’t burn out, you can only burn. You have to lay your ideas on the fire, even the digressive ones, and after you’ve done that you can see what’s missing. You can see all kinds of gaps and divisions. For instance: what’s the connection between the beauty of my life and the political mega-crisis we are living? What’s the connection between my knowledge of political history and what I as a citizen should be doing? What’s the connection between all the smart moderates out there and the dismal do-nothingness of many of our “leaders” and the lowest-common-denominator politics they keep offering? The connections are weak, and they need to be stronger. Somehow, we need to marshal what is great and precious in ourselves and use it as a lever to create a better politics for our times.
I am conservative in the sense of honoring the great things that have been created in this country. On my drive to work, I see a great massing of buildings and capital. I see amazing parks and beautiful architecture, order and great vitality. The commercial streets are choked with the latest thing, with old mom & pop stores, the thundering arterial El, and every sort of pedestrian and vehicle. Generations of effort have made this amazingly complex and abundant society that’s ours. It could be better, but then look at the world news. We have basics, and a framework for becoming, that other peoples have never had and still dare not dream of. Who wants to think of it slipping away because we’ve been careless, arrogant, stupid, or lazy?
The Revolutionary generation wanted to establish a republic, but it was, at the same time, a form of government that made them anxious. They regarded it as a strenuous form of government, one highly dependent on the virtue and judgments of citizens, and they believed that, if the citizens weren’t up to it, the republic would fail. This was their worry.
Some among us are fond of touting individual enterprise, but everything that I value in our culture is the fruit of civic collaboration. Almost everything I see on my way to work owes something to an intelligent framework of laws, principles, and customs that we can’t even see. The many social goods we enjoy—whether it’s freedom of religion, the security of property, or the opportunity to gain an education or borrow money—exist only because generations of citizens willed them into being. The truth of our system is: we labor politically as a group so that the individual may thrive. To keep it going, each of us has to find something to give and lay it on the fire.