I hesitated to dive into the task of writing this diary, because I knew it would be ongoing and that it would demand a lot from me. I decided to do it because I knew it was the right thing for me to do, that I’m built to do it, that this is something I’m ready and willing to do in this moment. There’s comfort in that.
Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. – Ecclesiastes 2:24
I’m not conventionally religious – and in fact I made a point early in adult life of not being religious, or of being not-religious. I never fully cast aside or rejected the religion I was raised in, but I decided to do without it. That’s a subtle and complicated story to tell, with biographical and vocational aspects that to me are foundational and important, so I’ll save it to tell some other time, if then. Suffice it here to say that during my years in Asia, where you can hardly have a casual conversation with a new acquaintance without nosily being asked your religion, I developed the habit of replying that my religion is journalism. And I meant and still mean that only half tongue in cheek. Journalism is my discipline, my way of paying attention.
This past Friday, March 28, I wrote to my friend John Singleton at TCU: “Weird to have work to do that feels so meaningful and well suited to my capacities, at a time when the whole world seems to be really and truly going to hell in a handbasket.”
John’s reply was succinct: “Yep it makes every act holy.”
The gap – four days – between my last entry and this one is the longest since I began this diary on March 3. I find myself torn between welcoming a breather and feeling compelled to keep up. But how could I possibly hope to keep up?
In the fall of 2012, between Labor Day and Christmas, I spent 3 ½ months driving mostly solo around the contiguous United States, clockwise (just in case the Buddhists are right that that’s the direction that adds benevolent energy to the universe), beginning and ending in Seattle. That’s another story I’ll tell more of some other time. For present purposes I’ll say that, although my conscious intention was to avoid writing a political book, I did make a point of taking my trip during the fall election season because I thought – rightly enough – that it would allow me to document history on the fly. If only I had waited four years.
Still, un-momentous though the 2012 presidential election turned out to look in retrospect, traveling then allowed me to reflect, at the end of my book Home Free: An American Road Trip, that “while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center would hold was an open question.”
Following Trump’s election and inauguration three-plus years ago, I was invited to speak at a meeting of an activist group called Communities Rising. I titled the talk I gave, at a church in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood on May 1, 2017, “Our Tasks at Hand.” The title sounds pragmatic and political. And it was; but my own pragmatic politics begins with the premise that understanding should always precede both judgment and action. “The first thing I want to say,” I said that evening, “is that the center failing to hold is not entirely a bad thing.”
Not that there isn’t damage or loss; there’s too much of both, including damage to our national self-regard and loss of cherished illusions. But we can’t undo the damage or recoup the losses. And if living life attentively, as I’ve tried to do, teaches anything, it teaches that there is life after loss. The Roman Empire devolved into an archipelago of disparate polities that have remained in flux ever since. The Moghul Empire in India continued to exist – officially – for 150 years after the death of the Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, but increasingly its parts were ruled de facto by regional governors with only ritual reference to the imperial court in Delhi, until India’s new rulers, the British, belatedly declared the Moghuls truly defunct in 1858. In both cases, ordinary people had to do whatever they could in the ambiguous aftermath. It’s not our task now to strive heroically to hold the center together, like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. Our task is to pick up some of the pieces and recombine them in creative, humane, and useful ways. As a Haitian proverb has it, the big guy does what he wants; the little guy does what he can.
Apologies for quoting myself, but in present circumstances it’s more efficient than rewriting to give the more polite impression that I just thunk this stuff up now.
On Friday I read a Vox article headlined “Governors are starting to tighten their borders. The implications are staggering.” The occasion was the governors of Texas and Florida – and apparently other states – signing orders restricting travel into their states, to help control the spread of the coronavirus. The article’s author, Ian Millhiser, wrote:
Gov. Abbott’s order, at the very least, is probably carefully drafted enough to survive constitutional scrutiny. That order applies to “every person” who flies into Texas from the designated areas, regardless of whether that person is a resident of Texas or some other state. Read in that light, it does not discriminate against non-Texans. …
But even if such travel bans are legal, they are still indicative of a greater rot within our constitutional system. The premise of our Constitution is that the states gave up some of their sovereign authority to the federal government, in return for mutual benefits such as collective national defense and free trade among the states. The premise of the post-New Deal order is that the federal government must take on additional obligations, including providing a basic social safety net.
In my May 2017 talk I said:
One of the reasons it’s hard for us to know how to respond to our own flux and upheaval in these times is our vestigial fealty to a hoary – and fundamentally false – notion of a unitary United States of America. That unity is false because it’s a geographic and ideological unity imposed by relentless propaganda and from above by an imperial center. Well, the center has failed to hold. Now what? In his great, long essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel refers to Russians’ proclivity toward “a superpower patriotism which traditionally places the interests of empire higher than the interests of humanity.” We Americans have more in common with Russians than we like to believe. Part of our work at hand now is to acknowledge – first and foremost to ourselves – that the United States is in fact an empire, both globally and internally. Next we need to train ourselves away from imperial habits of mind, to remind ourselves and each other constantly that humanity is more deserving of our loyalty than empire.
This moment feels very much like one for taking an inventory of one’s loyalties and affiliations. All political entities – the United States of America, Texas, Wisconsin, Washington State, the notional Republic of Cascadia that some in this region cherish – are just that: fictions that exist only if we agree to believe in them. And spinning scenarios of whether and how the status quo ante might break apart is only a parlor game – until it isn’t.
From the Seattle Times, Friday, March 28:
President Donald Trump’s negative remarks about Washington Gov. Jay Inslee as the state and nation respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic “haven’t knocked us off our game at all,” Inslee said Saturday at the site of a field hospital the U.S. Army is setting up inside a Seattle event center.
The governor has clashed with Trump in recent days over the federal government’s response to the crisis, trading comments and tweets as Inslee has urged the president to provide states with more aid and equipment.
“None of us here are being distracted by the background noise that might come out of the White House,” Inslee said in a news conference at CenturyLink Field Event Center with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine and other local leaders. “Our job is too important to save constituents and our neighbors and our families from this deadly virus.”