Today’s long but thought-provoking read is Dylan Matthews’ “The myth of an ending: why even removing Trump from office won’t save American democracy/It feels like this moment in history deserves a definitive ending. It won’t get one,” at Vox.
Matthews summarizes (and links) to examples of a range of ideas on what comes next in American history, but his topic is actually the conflict between our narrative-driven desire for a clean ending to this chapter, and the very reasonable argument that an early and dramatic ending to the Trump regime won’t resolve the underlying problems that made Trump possible in the first place.
Matthews puts his money on the “Best We Can Do Is Muddle Through” strategy, which truly dates back to the opening weeks of the Obama Administration, when the U.S. government had only one mission: Prevent our critically wounded economy from bleeding out. The muddlers prevailed, and saved the economy… in a much-reduced state. With 72 combined days of veto-proof majority in the Senate, Democrats managed to pass the Republicans’ health care plan with zero Republican votes, and after that, we essentially spent the rest of Obama’s term in various stages of muddling through. So it goes when your country in paralyzed by forces far larger than the Presidency.
Trump, of course, is the Red State version of “A Desire for an Ending,” the Hail Mary that’s supposed to restore White America and its anxious sensibilities to prominence. The Obama/Hope message was a less absurd story from the same genre, as was the Bernie Sanders insurgency in 2015-16. Each was an outsider, a hero.
Americans, left and right, agree on one thing: The country is in serious trouble. And neither side is wrong. The United States has become, in our lifetimes, a mortally wounded beast. It’s still dangerous and powerful, but it’s clearly dying.
A few thousand years ago, when our various hero mythologies directly animated our politics, the King and the Land were one and the same. If the land was dying, it was because the king was weak. In those days, we would have applied some sort of ritual test to select a young warrior to slay our dying king. In the pre-Arthurian Tradition of The Fisher King, this is called “The Journey to the Chapel Perilous.” The outsider hero returns from his quest to find what ails the land, kills the dying “Solar King,” and in replacing the old guy, the sexually potent young guy causes the land to bloom again.
That’s why we yearn for an ending: Because we desire a new beginning. Because in our hearts, no matter how smart we think we are, the hero king and the land are still one. It’s true in European mythologies, and in every Middle Eastern story of a dying god from Osiris to Jesus. It’s the story of the death of the old sun in late fall (which we mark by giving out candy to children dressed up as Marvel superheroes, for some reason) and the sexual conception of the new sun every winter solstice. Versions of this cycle are baked into every culture I’ve ever read about.
Yet this desire for ending and renewal is also how decline — once it takes hold of a system — accelerates. No president is capable of reversing the systemic failures that now plague global civilization, much less the media-polarized, declining United States. In our panic, we misdiagnose the problems, thereby making them worse.
This isn’t fixable, by the way, because it’s a process, not a problem. What we want is a hero who will short-circuit inevitable decline and bring about an early and glorious renewal. But this misreads what our myths were telling us: Death — the ending we all fear and hope for — is both inevitable and necessary. But so is Decline, and as soon as we enter it, we want to skip ahead. We all love new beginnings, first loves, the growing abundance of maturity. Even Death is dramatic and romanticized, subject to almost as much fascination as fear.
But Decline? It’s slow and painful and often sad. But it’s also necessary. You can’t understand nature, life, history or cycles of any kind without accounting for Decline.
And we just suck at it.
The ancients were better at living in decline, because they thought about time in circles, not lines, and the various mythologies of the Wheel of the Year shaped their understanding of human life. We are conceived in darkness (Winter Solstice), born into dependency as nursing infants (early February), emerge into the outside world with the wondrous energy of childhood (Spring Equinox), achieve sexual potency (early May), reach adulthood (Summer Solstice), reap the first rewards of our labors (early August), and then retire from work with the final harvest and the beginning of our physical decline (Autumn Equinox). Death comes for us late in the cycle (early November), and then the world lies fallow until The God impregnates The Goddess on Dec. 20th, beginning the cycle anew.
Every one of these concepts is essential to life on Earth, and I can report, from experience, that trying to live within that cycle has brought me a sense of peace and place. But that’s not why I’m writing about it.
Matthews writes about the “failed” French Revolution as an example of radical endings replaced by muddling through, which leads to a better life. And it’s a good point: For all its failings, who would choose to live in Paris during The Terror over living there today? He also discusses some sensible ideas for muddle-through political reforms here at home, but even these seem rather hopeless. None of them are possible so long as the current Republican Party can still muster a Senate filibuster, and even with a Democratic super-majority these ideas are unlikely to succeed unless we first pass radical campaign finance reform.
I’d like to offer an alternative frame for viewing these intractable political problems, one I consider neither optimistic nor pessimistic.
Since increase and decline are natural cycles, I see no reason to believe that the current iteration of global civilization is likely to continue uninterrupted for more than a few decades without facing a series of existential crises. I don’t know where I picked up the term, but I think of our currently unfolding crisis as The 21st Century Bottleneck. Global Warming, overpopulation, pollution, Peak Oil, Artificial Intelligence and environmental collapse are all problems that I suspect humans are capable of solving individually. I doubt they can be dealt with simultaneously, and it just so happens that each is showing up on our doorsteps right now. That’s why it’s reasonable, I believe, to anticipate things getting increasingly out of hand from here on out.
I’ll go so far as to wager that it’s likely that our children will live in a world where civilization — in terms of reliable communication, mass media, electricity, finance and effective civil governance — will no longer be the more-or-less evenly distributed norm. Some places may prosper longer than others, and the details are beyond me. Some form of continuity with this civilization — preservations of its history and learning — will likely make it through to the beginnings of the next cycle.
But the point is, for all our best intentions, things are just going to have to get worse before they really get better.
If you believe, as I do, that there’s no quick fix to our global problem, the question becomes: What should we do while living through this slow-motion collapse? And the answer, I think, is that we do what our ancestors seem to have done: You get by. You muddle through. You do your work and raise your kids and take casseroles to people who have just lost loved ones. Maybe some of us will start doing together what individuals in decline often do: Start making plans to pass along the best of what we have to descendants we’ll never meet.
This is the gift of Decline. You accept what the Buddha said: Suffering comes from having a body. You ponder what Lao Tzu said: The low overcomes the high. You embrace what the Christ said: Love your neighbor as yourself.
You don’t do any of this because you’re going to be rewarded for it. It’s just generally good stuff to do.
We still need people who think big. If you’re one of them, good on you. Maybe some big new idea will reduce suffering. Maybe some new work of art will bring joy. But no big idea or work is bigger than the cycle in which it occurs.
We need to accept that suffering and decline is not a failure of phony American exceptionalism, but an inevitability. This knowledge won’t “save” you, but once you accept that you’re on the declining portion of a cycle, you act accordingly. As much as you may like corn and beans, timing always matters. If you try to plant them in late October, all you’ll reap is a deeper sense of futility. And even when you accept Decline, futility is the enemy.
Ours is not to hasten or delay the end of this cycle. It’s our task to accept our place in time, to use the days we have as best we can, and to pass along something to the future.
I’m not wishing you complacency. I’m wishing you peace and understanding. What you do with that gift is really up to you.