“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” it was the before times ….
Our current national situation has generated a whole host of phrases and expressions attempting to express the inexpressible. One that has recently gained currency is “Before Times,” or BT (which carries something of an apocryphal or biblical connotation) to indicate the “normal” before the coronavirus pandemic set in. For many of us, BT has also come to mean the “normal” before Trump set in. In any event, now that we haven’t been living in normalcy in many respects for quite a while, we are starting to question exactly what normal life is/was, and what a return to it might really look like. It may be that the return to the old normal, the BT, is simply not possible anymore, maybe not even not desirable. Maybe it will never be again.
Charles Dickens’ historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities (1869), is set mostly in Paris during a time of pre-revolution from 1775 forward. Studied as a classic by students for generations, the novel dramatizes the horrors of The Reign of Terror and the impossible decisions faced by ordinary people caught up in forces greater than themselves. Yes, Dickens is part of the “Western Canon” of dead white men, but he was arguably the best-known novelist of his time, an unwavering champion of social justice, and a forewarning messenger about the perils of ignoring timeless lessons from the past. The moral of A Tale of Two Cities is that there is duality in the world; there is light and darkness and the truth is found in who you are and what you do. People are responsible for their own choices — as true in BC and AD, and in BT, as it is now. Amen.
We are living our own “tale of two” in America these days and, I fear, in as much of a pre-revolutionary mood as were France and England in the 1770s. Even in the BT, we were a tale of two already dividing against each other: rural and urban, white and minority, men and women, rich and poor, blue and red, educated and uneducated, native and immigrant. We managed to subvert and suppress many of those differences often pretending that they didn’t exit, but this is how revolution begins. Ignore, dismiss, and deny. And then along comes a leader who not only sees those divisions, but knows how to manipulate them. So now we are more completely divided than ever, resisting, protesting, even taking up arms because our leaders don’t understand, or don’t care. “Let them eat cake.” Amen.
Having watched the two political conventions in the last couple weeks, my own sense, along with that of many political commentators, is that we are collectively cultivating a civil war between two Americas. Each side, blue and red, sees itself as the vanguard of truth and salvation; each views the other as an existential threat. Somewhere in the middle, where most reasonable Americans reside I think, are those of us who both fear for our future and the future of our country, but who also don’t believe that politics has to be a zero sum game. When Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian who is hardly prone to extreme statements, says that “we may be a year away from losing our democracy,” then it is time for all of us to get woke, as the current expression goes, to assume some citizen responsibility for our national situation, and to recognize whatever intransigence we might be holding in our own personal positions.
We need to remember that ours is a “representative democracy,” meaning that even though we have this one-person-one-vote ideal, we are really voting for those who will in turn vote for us, their constituents, as our representatives on matters both local and national. Nowhere is this representative system more dramatically illustrated than in the Electoral College. When voters cast their presidential ballots, they are actually choosing how their state’s electors will vote, and in all but Maine and Nebraska, the votes of the electors is a “winner takes all” affair. It is interesting and important to note that the U.S. Constitution does not, in fact, require states to even have a popular vote. The legislature of a state could assign electors for the presidency even if no popular vote were conducted! (Now there’s a scary thought.)
Consequently, one’s individual vote in a presidential election really doesn’t count if that voter is a member of the minority party in his/her state, which explains why there is such furious campaigning and fundraising in an effort to turn a red state blue or vice versa. Given all this mishigas, it’s amazing that the discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral college winner has ONLY been an issue in five presidential elections: 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016. But hey! Stay tuned. Nothing is normal anymore.
Everything these days is “unprecedented.” Everything is “beyond the pale.” Everything upends convention and pushes the boundaries of law, behavior, and tradition. And the Covid pandemic only adds to the chaos and fear. The only thing that is normal post BT is not being normal at all. We are having a national anxiety crisis and feel as though we are losing our collective minds, if not literally our heads. As Michael Steele, the former chairman of the RNC responded recently to some outrageous event or another, “I simply have no head left to shake.” Amen.
The guillotine was constructed in Paris in 1792 on what is today the Place de la Concorde (photo above). Interestingly, while people had been chopping off heads for centuries, the guillotine was intended to be a more humane form of execution, designed to make death instant and less painful, while still emphasizing the revolutionary point that equality in death is equality under the law. Yet, the guillotine persists as an image of horror and fear and mob violence. Recently, Amazon employees erected a makeshift guillotine in front of Jeff Bezos’ house to protest the obscene wealth he has now attained ($192.5 billion) while most ordinary employees earn only $15 an hour. Off with their heads.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” it was the before times … Good or bad, it may never be again.