Tony Woodlief | Author

The dividing line

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Look, maybe it’s time we cash in our chips. Blow this popsicle stand and buy that cabin in the hills we’ve always talked about. Sink a well, set out the rabbit traps, and settle in for a long-ass winter.

Don’t get me wrong—our republic has had a fine run. Not so long as some of the greats, but with far less tyranny, no matter what they teach in American history classrooms these days.

Oh God please not another conservative white man eulogizing the death of republicanism.

I’m with you, dear reader; you’ll have none of that fusty talk here. Republic is such a crusty word; you can almost see it perched in its leather chair, stroking the lapels of its smoking jacket, reminiscing on the days when the common man knew his place. It’s antiquated, and the things we resent more than just about any other infringement on our aspirations are old things that won’t just lie down and die.

We’ve traded in restraint for representation, and this is good, for what is man if not a self-expressive being? Only something has gone awry. Though he is tastefully dead and mostly forgotten, it’s almost as if that godless glowering cynic Mencken still mocks our ambitions. “Democracy,” he wrote, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

That about sums things up in this Land of the Free, in the Year of our Lord 2016, wouldn’t you say?

I understand this only sounds right to the handful of you who agree our choice for president lies between a crypto-fascist harpy and a psychotic, overgrown Oompa-Loompa. Many imagine one or the other of them is not a dishonest, self-seeking, vindictive megalomaniac who will use the Constitution as a doormat. Many more see them each for what they are, but are sufficiently repulsed by one to cast their lots with the other. Lesser of two evils and all that. As a man who’s chosen all manner of evils lesser, greater, and mostly just plain mundane, I get it.

And I understand that we remain a lot better off than most places. The empire upon which the sun once never set now advises its soldiers not to wear their uniforms in public for fear of having their heads sawed off. The future of Europe is no longer envisioned in the chambers of the EU, but in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. Russia is under the thumb of a dictator, the Middle East and Asia live at the edge of military and biological nightmares that are the fodder for video games, and South America remains a petri dish for ideas that only have credibility in the UMass economics department.

So we’ve still got it pretty darn good here. We’re not in a world war, there is no Spanish flu sweeping millions into the grave. Our statisticians tell us our GDP continues its upward creep, and with it our happiness drifts upward, upward. There is a troubling echo of drug addiction and suicide, but our pharmaceutical giants churn out promising solutions to these annoyances. Things are looking up.

And yet here we are, wondering how in the hell we came to this, and wondering further: if this is what we’re capable of, how much worse could it get, and how fast?

And friends, there is no solution to be fitted to a presidential platform. No national plan. No Great Leader in suit pants and focus group-tested haircut. There is only you and me and our little platoons of family and church and neighborhood and school. You know it was only ever that, right? You think my grandfather and maybe yours picked up a gun and fought tyrants out of love for a piece of paper, or a pledge of Allegiance?

Of course not. They did it out of love for their own platoons. Their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. Their children, and their women, and that tree at the edge of the field where once they ate an apple and watched the sun set fire to the sky and to their own hearts as well, in a way they could never put in words but which they wanted their own children to know, and their children’s children.

The ugly thing in all of it is that we have indeed gotten what we asked for. We want it cheaper and simpler and most of all we want not to be bored, and Jesus Christ if that doesn’t describe these two moral cripples campaigning to rule this tattered free world, and not just them but far too much of our own lives, then I don’t know what does.

Our dreams have come true, friends. We live in the best of times. Now where in hell is the brake?

I don’t know. I don’t know. But I suspect we won’t find it on a digital screen. We won’t hear it on a cable program or talk radio. We sure won’t hear it in a politician’s speech. The problem is in us, do you see? In these hearts through which runs the line dividing good and evil.

So maybe that’s where we begin to find the answer. Whether it’s in our house or our high-rise or in our cabin in the hills, nothing will change unless we each of us grapples with that oldest and most unsteady of instruments, the human heart. Not someone else’s, but our own. A country is only as good as its people, and a person is only as good as his heart. And God help us but we have some work to do.

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