Sunday, November 6, 2016

rough beast

 Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

-- Naomi Shihab Nye, "Kindness"

"Help, help, a Herrible Hoffalump! Hoff, hoff, a Hellable Horralump! Holl, holl, a Hoffable Hellerump!"

-- A. A. Milne, "In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump"

. . . what rough beast . . . ?

-- William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Let's just call him The Heffalump. He has no kindness. He knows no sorrow. He throws it back on others, and makes them suffer for their pain.

Almost eight years ago ("falsetto prophecy," January 19, 2009), I wrote about the advent of a black president, who would the next day walk Pennsylvania Avenue. I had just been to Disney World and walked Main Street, and I thought Pennsylvania Avenue might at least that day be America's Main Street. "Isn't that what we've hoped for," I asked, "that we could all walk down Main Street together?" That was Disney's dream, and it's not all bad.

Two evenings from now I will learn who is going to make the next such walk. Like many Americans, I am not at ease about what may happen.

Perhaps one day we will walk Main Street together. Perhaps every now and then, in a Divine Domain, we already do. Perhaps on that one day we did so, and we must remember it. What we failed to predict was the reaction. We failed to understand how many of my countrymen would rather plough the street than walk with a black man; how many think a House no longer White if a father, mother and their ilk of color eat off the china; how many bilious hearts erupt because a man of negritude is their commander.

Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.

An Emperor in a novel, who pined for the Republic and failed to restore it,* thought that poison would evoke its antidote, but of course it only poisoned everything. In our day also poisons have come out. We forgot how toxic was the hallowed ground we lived on, from which old ghosts would rise. We failed to see that a media company and a political party would burn the house down just to get the black man out of it, or just to get the eyes and votes of those who want the black folks out. The party and the network failed their first objective, but they sowed corrupting seeds. How current to parade fantasy as fact, threaten free speech, demean rules of evidence, reduce discourse to a jailhouse brawl! How respectable to impeach a president with a racist lie, and call it journalism! It doesn't take long to smash the standards. How many generations would it take to replace them?

I, my friends and my associates, my teachers and my students -- well, this wasn't our idea, but ours is a share of blame. We have reveled in false equivalencies, as if the fox and hens were equal opponents in the henhouse. We have been too tolerant of intolerance, too patient with aggression, too polite with brutality, too reasonable with unreason, too respectful of malice. We're wiseing up, but we're late to the contest. For these sins The Heffalump is our penance. Seekers of truth are sinners like everyone else, and truth is never known by human hearts but through a dark and partial glass; but those who live by killing truth don't belong at table with those who do their best to honor her. What possible conversation could there be? Jayson Blair is not a journalist, and neither was Andrew Breitbart.

The school in which I first was was educated had a Political Debating Club. This club trained us to argue an issue using evidence and inference, by rules of civility and logic. A debater was supposed to be able to argue both sides of a proposition. There was no shouting down the other team, or threatening the judges, or pounding the Bible, or making up falsehoods on the fly; these incivilities never happened, and would have been grounds for disqualification. Though the contest was an artifice, it taught that free speech has its rules.

Liberation is passionate, but cannot be undisciplined. "The expectation of rationality," wrote Michael Gerson recently, "is not elitism. Coherence is not elitism. Knowledge is not elitism. Honoring character is not elitism. And those who claim this are debasing themselves."** Liberation without Enlightenment is just another crank of the Vengeance Wheel -- at best. The assault on reason, even when well meant and carried out by radical professors, yields results we should get wise to. We've already had a president we could have a beer with. Now we might have a president who, while speaking for aggrieved people, would beat us up and throw us out of the bar, before turning his rage on the oppressed. Are we having fun yet?

Lucy (or is it Lucius?) you got a lot of 'splainin' to do. My seminary taught me that a white straight Anglo-Saxon overeducated old man is in an odd position in relation to prophecy. I'm not supposed to man'splain, or straight'splain, or white'splain, or educated'splain, or knowledge'splain, or old'splain. But pretty soon somebody's got to do some 'splainin.' The fox is in the henhouse, and The Heffalump is in his limo, planning his slouch down Pennsylvania Ave. Two days from now we'll know if he gets his wish.

*The Robert Graves version of Emperor Claudius, in Claudius the God.

**"Out of his Depth, Donald Trump Clings to Deception," The Washington Post (September 27, 2016),

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