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Ever notice how the headlines in the NY times and the Washington Post are always binary, joining a claim of possible relief from our doldrums and coupling it with a dark warning? Here’s an example I made up to illustrate: Good times are coming for the economy, but some economists warn of stagflation ahead. Always a but as the hinge joint between the two phrases. However and yet might be substituted for the but, but it is the preferred short hand for capturing the duality of our days. Mother says her child weathered the massacre, but she has stopped talking. If I were to apply this to my own life, I might tell my wife, I think I may have found a way to save a lot of money, but we’ll have to move to a small apartment. She responds, I spent only fifty dollars at the co-op, but I lost my purse at the hardware store.

It’s like the sky most of the time – bright blue infinity lit with a few summer clouds, but a dark and gloomy horizon promising rain. My car runs great, I might tell my neighbor, but I may have to get a new transmission. My doctor says my blood pressure is back to normal, he responds, but he thinks I might need replacement of my mitral valve. And on it goes. No one trusts the near future; no matter how rosy the day looks, there’s always a threat looming. It is better not to give in to optimism and be accused of wearing rose-tinted specs, than to offer some dire warning to show how well you read the hidden signs of discord and tragedy. We don’t trust the world any longer, it seems. It has let us down too often. Every gift is a Trojan horse, and we dare not accept it without looking for the hidden trap.

Someone says you should try this new Italian restaurant. You dress up, get a reservation, come to the door a few minutes before you get your table, order a drink at the bar. It comes to you in a tall glass, already too watery after the ice cubes have melted, and you nibble on some stale peanuts from a dish that has been sitting out for a week or two. You order your meal, lasagna and a tossed salad. Your wife tastes her veal scallopini and puts down her fork with a grimace. It’s salty, she says. You taste your lasagna and it’s cold at the center. Your salad has some limp romaine leaves, the dressing is skimpy. You nibble around the edges of the lasagna pretending to enjoy your meal, but your wife is suspicious. She takes a taste and says we should go. The waiter charges you for the extra cheese, and says the meal requires that you order a dessert. If not, he will have to charge anyway. By now, you are disgusted. You want to speak to the manager, but you’re told he just quit. So when you’re asked the next day how Luigi’s was, you tell your friend that it was a cozy room, with candlelit tables, and Italian music playing softly. The food, he asks? Not so good. I should have told you, we didn’t like the food either, but we were hoping it was an off night. The but is neatly tucked into the sentence, as if no statement in this age could possibly come without a hinge on which to swing open the nature of contemporary reality.

I’d like to go out with you, but I’m seeing someone right now, says the girl I asked for a date after screwing up my courage for a week. It was a crushing blow. I fell for the first part with a subtle lurch of hope, and then fell flat when she implied she was falling in love. No hope for it. How am I doing, I asked my advanced placement English teacher after a few weeks into the semester. You’re getting the hang of it, but you should think about hiring a tutor. Oh sure, like my father would pop for a hundred a week while I stumbled over grammar tics and the fog that arose each time I tried to read An Introduction to Logic by Morris Cohen. I slogged through the course, got my B-, sucked it up while all the whiz kids were polishing their applications to Harvard and Yale.

I did all right in the end. I passed my courses, went to a decent enough college in Virginia (William and Mary) and ended up at the Ivy League juggernaut, the University of Pennsylvania, where I earned a doctorate. But I was a child of the rosy, optimistic post-World War II years, the era of America’s heroes, the radiant promise of a newly emerging America winning the war for humanity. Europe loved us; the Marshall Plan saved countries that had been broken after staging such a massive conflict. Even Germany prospered, as did Japan by a country willing to forgive and move on. American corporations spread out and laid claim to all the vulnerabilities of a shattered Europe. The only dark cloud to appear in that era was the rise of the Soviet Union and the formation of a new Chinese empire further east. But these were still primitive countries, and Russia’s ability to conceal its weaknesses meant that it could stage an expensive Cold War even to the last minute, when the whole edifice of this gigantic ruse collapsed into dust. Turns out the Russian state was still plowing its fields with ox teams and the towns were rationing electricity and public water. It was a country that had not evolved much since the 19th century. China was even further behind, and the rice fields were cultivated by peasants bending over to plant rice grass one stem at a time. But these were the big threats of that relatively innocent time.

It wasn’t until the war in Viet Nam broke out that the flaws and contradictions of American power began to show up. The crushing blow of Viet Nam was when we retreated in utter humility from the roof tops with desperate men and women hanging on the runners of the copters pulling away. The loss was as profound and pernicious as the South losing the Civil War. It meant that war planners in the Pentagon and in the White House would be looking for a war that could be won without too much loss of blood or treasure. That search ended in futility and despair. No war American launched could be won thereafter, hence the revulsion at how the Pentagon lied to the press and TV about body counts of the enemies, American victories in the field. None of it was true. The lies and deceptions were part of a wounded imperial spirit that could not recover the glory it had nourished on in the 1940s. Instead, a slowly erosive and penetrating despair began to work its way into the national soul. The political campaigns of the Nixon era and after promised grand solutions to America’s poverty and crime, racism and corruption in high offices. But these were mere slogans and rallying cries, not actual programs or blueprints for getting out of the impasse of a stalled nation.

By then, the erosion of faith had grown and the press no longer permitted itself to boast of breakthroughs in federal policy. The Great Society came and went; a Kinder and Gentler nation showed no such mercy in its dealing with the poor or minorities. The status quo of a faulty society mired in unresolved conflicts allowed the political parties to separate and polarize their visions, and to begin to think of themselves not as political entities so much as corporations harvesting vast sums of money to support their alliances with Big Oil, Big Pharma, big monopolies in the insurance and banking sectors, and finally, Big Ag. If the nation couldn’t be redeemed or reformed, the powers that ruled society outside the government could be strengthened if they would kindly contribute to the growing influence of political extremism. Somewhere in the murky textures of this genesis was that mischievous conjunction, the word but, to indicate the extent to which America had lost faith in itself as a beacon of freedom and equality to the rest of the world. Optimism was dying. Certainty withered on the vine. Partisanship was the new tribalism, and the rulers of the parties, in particular the Republican party with its resentment toward federalism and a lost war, began to resemble the culture of war lords in the Middle East. When the Congress was attacked during the certification of the Biden victory, the last barrier to anarchy seemed to have been breached. The repair to the torn fabric of government has been slow, tedious, without much drama or cause for celebration. But it proceeds apace, and will doubtless end with a proclamation of new reforms and ways to thwart further attempts at sedition. But it won’t cure the illness at the heart of democracy. The damage has been done after so many reckless wars and losses on the field. A big nation can only think big, and not get down to where ordinary lives fight back; it must rely upon huge weapons and vast armies. But it won’t work. Ho Chi Minh proved that point conclusively in the late 1960s.

So now the headlines in the paper read of promising scenarios of the near future, cures for the latest virus, some feeble attempts to control guns, a few sops to the poor, mild adjustments to interest rates to control inflation, dithering and evading on climate change. The headlines are not lying to us, they are weeping over a lost Eden that stands in the memory as a mythical moment of our fading past. We’re doing well, but we’re not expecting any miracles. Not now anyway.


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