Janus Faces 2019

Full length figure of the Roman god Janus, showing his two faces in profile. The god of beginnings is holding a key and a vine.

Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings; of gates, doors, and seasons; and all sorts of metaphorical passages.  Associated with the movement of time and change, the two-faced god, whose gaze apprehends 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 all these problems 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 one of the crucial tasks that will determine whether this year improves upon a politically dismal 2018.

Image: from this source.

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Progress Isn’t Popular

YESTERDAY WAS a great day for majorities.  A majority of the Supreme Court upheld the majority of the Affordable Care Act, a complex but very necessary piece of legislation that majorities in Congress had passed more than two years back.

Besides the great satisfaction that comes from watching the various branches of our government working in the intricate ways our forefathers envisioned, yesterday’s events furnish an opportunity to reflect on the great courage required of leaders in our contentious democracy.  I hope every congressman and senator who voted for the passage of the ACA will feel more comfortable taking credit for this landmark legislation.

I’m sure the Affordable Care Act is imperfect and that down the line it will need to be tweaked.  But the complex provisions of the law are complex for the very reason that they represent an accommodation: an accommodation of many powerful private interests, institutions and professions, as well as a dizzying range of individual, programmatic, and social needs.  The health-care reform act will affect us all, and it will shift around the burdens of health care in our society; but it marks a path toward a healthier society, so far the only one a majority of our legislators has managed to agree to.

A minority of Americans will continue to rail against our national institutions, and will try to convince the rest of us to hate a measure likely to confer broad benefits on us, both individually and as a society.  May their cries fall on deaf ears, and may they remember that the very foundation of our system is a respect for majority rule.

RELATED:
Susan Barsy, A Decision We’ll All Feel, Our Polity.
David Brooks, Modesty and Audacity, New York Times.

A World Without Lincoln

sketch by Charles Dix of Fort Monroe in the offing, 1863 (private collection)

For those whose consciousness is tuned to the Civil War, April is strewn with anniversaries.  The war began April 12th, 1861, with the Confederate barrage of Fort Sumter.  Four years later, it ended on April 9th, with the rebels’ surrender at Appomattox.  A week later, President Lincoln was slain while sitting in a box at Ford’s Theater.  That spring the injured nation lay under a blanket of a peace, a peace fraught with exhaustion, anger, uncertainty.

It’s hard to fathom what Americans at that time felt, experienced.  On the far side of a dreadful, violent division, they had run a course that intransigence — impatience — and distrust — dictated.  To say Progress Is Unpopular is putting it mildly.  Those who could not put up with change, those unhappy with the course of progress, those who were sick of compromise and unwilling to think even for one minute of living without slavery — these were the people who threw in the towel.  They walked away from Congress, from compromise and debate.  Rather than accept a turn of events they conceived of as a humiliating political defeat, they rebelled against the federal government and sought to go their own way.  The ensuing war was coercive, decisively establishing the ultimate authority of the Union and the federal government relative to other interests and claims.

Among my belongings is a small drawing, a bit of memorabilia from that unhappy time.  It’s a tiny sketch on Union stationery, showing a view of Fort Monroe from the water.  The artist was a young man, Charles T. Dix, whose father, John, was in charge of Union forces there at the time.

Located in Virginia at the tip of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the James and York Rivers, Fort Monroe became a haven for former slaves who gained their freedom by leaving rebel territory.  After the war, the fort was where former leaders of the Confederacy were imprisoned.  Jefferson Davis was held there for what many considered to be an unconscionably long period.  Hitting on the appropriate way to treat men who had presided over such a protracted and devastating rebellion took a long time.

It has taken far longer to discover how to realize the dream of freedom and equality that was an inseparable part of that dark struggle.  Ultimately, though, we have struggled toward it, however benightedly, struggled toward it with and without great statesmen, struggled toward it in a world without Lincoln.