The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Dickens’ classic book “A Tale of Two Cities” begins, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” That’s a pretty apt description of the world Americans inhabit right now.

On the plus side, advances in transportation and communication allow us to travel the globe and connect with others in ways our parents could never have imagined. Medical science has given us longer, more comfortable lives. Technology has improved our productivity, and brought education, books, and the arts to millions who otherwise would lack access to them.

The best of times.

And then there is our experiment with self-government, which isn’t going so well.

It’s partly the economy, of course. During times of economic distress, people get testy. Prejudices emerge. (Attacks on immigrants and Muslims, especially, are getting ugly.)

But it’s not just the economy. We also seem to be in the throes of a massive cultural backlash, driven primarily—although certainly not exclusively—by old, angry white guys.   Most of these angry folks cannot articulate what it is that makes them so furious—probably because they really don’t know themselves. They just know that the world they were born into (or think they were born into—that “leave it to Beaver” world that existed, if at all, for a very few families) has changed.

If you listen to Tea Party activists for even a few minutes, you cannot help but be struck by the fact that they cannot describe policies they support, although they can certainly identify what they are against—much like a cranky two-year-old, or that character from “Broadcast News” who was “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”

Conventional wisdom tells us this rage will translate into the election of several of the crazier candidates who have emerged from the primaries. We are two weeks away from an election where a lot of irrational folks are energized and large numbers of reasonable citizens are dispirited.

If, as many of our pundits predict, this angry electorate votes indiscriminately against moderates and incumbents, opting for extremists who display little or no recognition of the complexities of the issues (or even basic understanding of the world we inhabit), we will all suffer the consequences. If we turn the apparatus of government over to the “simple answer” ideologues—the creationists and climate-change deniers, the folks who want to repeal Social Security and the Civil Rights Act, the conspiracy-theorists who have convinced themselves that President Obama is a Muslim who wasn’t born in the United States—the consequences will be grim.

We have never needed sane and steady public servants more than we need them today.

Which brings me to another quote that seems apt right now: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

If reasonable people don’t vote in large numbers, and the ideologues and crazies and know-nothings take the reins of power, “the best of times” will become “the worst of times” in no time.