What rough beast?

revolutionNothing ruins a good revolution like winning.

Wiry, wily Irish bomb-throwers get their place at the dinner table, stuffing themselves on the political pie that has been denied them for so long, and find themselves growing fat and slow and toothless. Hezbollah finally hacks and burns its way into mainstream Lebanese politics, and next thing you know they’re no longer the wild-eyed incarnate Wrath of God, but a gaggle of middle-aged politicians in pricey Italian shoes struggling to defend their prerogatives against a new generation of anarchists and Islamic fundamentalists. George Washington’s cold winter at Valley Forge, battling the old aristocracy, led to a long, warm afterlife as the first of a new and even more deeply entrenched ruling class.

* * *

When Newt Gingrich led his overthrow of the ancien régime in 1994, his shock troops were a gang of novice politicians coming from single terms in Midwestern state legislatures or moderately successful careers as doctors or media figures or corporate lawyers in Tennessee and Georgia and Texas. The “Contract with America” crowd had been throwing rocks at the Tom Foleys and Jack Brooks and Dan Rostenkowskis for years, demanding change – change at any cost, prune the deadwood, pump out the bilges, plow the whole mess under and start fresh – and now, at long last, they were ready to take charge.

Except governing turned out to be so damned hard.

It’s easy to dismiss the Tea Party and its exemplars as a nightmare product of some dark Trailer Park of the American Soul, but there’s more to it than that: People like me, talking heads with their history books and their economic pie charts and their fifty-dollar vocabularies have done a lot to confirm and validate the alienation that the Tea Partiers feel. Nothing makes an ignorant person angrier than being shown over and over just how ignorant he is. In my own defense, I’m proud of my intellectual achievements, and have had it up to here with having to pretend to be dumber than I am just to coddle the delicate sensitivities of someone who could be better informed but is just too damned lazy to work as hard as I have to get there. But there, of course, you see the problem: an attitude like that doesn’t exactly build bridges.

Standing outside shouting slogans at the WWII vets and the leftovers from Eisenhower and LBJ and Nixon who had been running the show for so long was exciting and simple. You could demand policies that couldn’t possibly be enacted in a democracy, or propose plans that violated the most basic rules of elementary economics, or promote actions on social issues that failed even the most superficial Constitutional test, and it didn’t matter, because it just wasn’t up to you. You weren’t running the show. There were no consequences if you made promises you couldn’t keep, you could just blame Those Guys for everything.

Once in office, however, things got complicated. The boys who had paid for your trip to the big city were now expecting results, and now that you were one of Those Guys, it was you they were expecting those results from. Unfortunately, the machinery of governance was big and spooky and dangerous and the only people who knew which buttons and levers did what were the very geezers and deadbeats you had driven out of town with such enthusiasm.

Four years after Newt Gingrich proclaimed victory over the old guard in the US House, he was himself out of office, brought down by ethics violations so egregious that it was difficult to reconcile Gingrich’s obvious intelligence with the political naiveté demonstrated by his crimes.

Many of the Gingrich crowd stumbled and fell into that same hole: lacking the more time-tested sensitivities of their predecessors, elected officials behaved like poorly supervised fraternity boys. There were ridiculous sexual misadventures like Mark Sanford’s Argentina adventure; or David Vitter’s trips to the whorehouse, using his own publicly-available telephone number to arrange his outings; or Larry Craig’s game of footsie with an undercover cop in an airport restroom in Minneapolis. There were episodes of influence-peddling that sometimes crossed the line into illegality, but frequently just smelled bad.  Once the dust had settled, however, the survivors, bruised and sticky but still in the game, found themselves firmly in control of the same government that Gingrich had worked to shut down only a few years before.

Then came Barack Obama, and in response to the spectre of a black man in the Oval Office yet another “revolution” arose, but this time with rhetoric about legitimate political, economic and social issues painted only very lightly over a substrate of racism, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism. Men and women who would have found it difficult to name ten former Presidents of the United States, or to identify where exactly in the US Constitution the job was defined, were now clamoring that one of their own be given control of that post.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!
Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body
and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast,
its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

— William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Like the Gingrich team more than a decade before, the new rock-throwers found enough support among voters to achieve important positions in the government that they professed to despise; and even more than those Young Turks of 1994, these inexperienced and unqualified newcomers found themselves struggling to understand the fundamental responsibilities of the jobs they had worked so hard to get. Making incendiary speeches to adoring crowds was easy, even fun; making law, not so much. Staying out of trouble while surrounded by the seductions of lobbyists with gigantic expense accounts, and special interest groups funding gigantic PACs, and high-class hookers bouncing gigantic – well, anyway: it’s a jungle out there.

And now, the curtain has risen on Act III: the kind of confusion and consternation at every level of American politics that has not been seen since the end of the Civil War. The bomb the anti-Washington crowd has been building since 1994 has gone off with a vengeance. Bombs, unfortunately, don’t pick and choose among their victims: if you happen to be in town when the clock reaches zero, you’re going to get hurt. Whatever happens on election day in a matter of days from now, the story won’t be over once the votes are counted.

The rough beast will have been born, and we’ll have to decide how to live with that.

Moody madness laughing wild

If you gotta ask the question, you'll never understand the answer ...

If you gotta ask the question, you’ll never understand the answer …

The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz¹ is a bizarre allegorical romance attributed to a German theologian named Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.

The story takes the form of a vision – what you New Age folks would call “lucid dreaming” – in which our hero, Christian Rosenkreutz, experiences a series of episodes that supposedly illustrate great cosmic truths which are never explicitly articulated. The symbolism is lavish and highly detailed: for the uninitiated, it all seems like some sort of paranoid fantasy, but for those with the proper training and insight there is supposedly much useful information to be gleaned. The nature of that information is, again, not clear: Is it a cookbook of alchemy? Recipes for the Philosopher’s Stone? Procedures for turning lead into gold, or quicksilver into the Elixir of Immortality? Or is it perhaps a glimpse behind the veil of reality, offering clues as to the fundamental powers of our universe? As with so many esoteric systems, those who tell don’t know, and those who know aren’t telling – at least not for free.

*  *  *

The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is the first of the three founding texts of the Rosicrucians (a.k.a. the Order of the Rosy Cross). The other two are the Fama Fraternitatis and the Confessio Fraternitatis, also usually attributed to Andreae.

The narrator begins his tale with an invitation to a Royal Wedding, a prestigious and much-anticipated event, which he fears he is unworthy to attend. He goes to sleep in a state of great anxiety, and as his dreams commence he finds himself in a dungeon, bound in chains in the company of a great crowd of other prisoners.

Their captors –  the “nobles” – peer down at the rabble through a hatchway high overhead, delivering a rather obscure allegorical lecture – explaining why we’re up here and you’re down there –  before a spokesman announces that a rope is to be let down and pulled back up seven times, and that anyone who can cling to the rope will be drawn up and out of the dungeon.

The prisoners have a couple of obvious choices, each exclusive of the other:

One: the captives can trample each other to get hold of the rope, the stronger succeeding at the expense of the weaker;


Two: some prisoners can choose not to make the attempt themselves, instead helping others by boosting them up on their own backs to places on the rope, in the hope that those who escape with their help will then be able — and willing — to intercede on their behalf.

The “correct” choice is never made clear: our narrator, while constantly professing his humility and unworthiness, is singled out for special treatment by way of various dei ex machina, so the decision is out of his hands. (And, like the narrator of a movie retelling of the sinking of the Titanic, we know that however suspenseful things may get, in the end the narrator will not be going down with the ship, since he or she has lived to tell the tale.)

So-called Hermetic texts such as the Chymical Wedding and its sequels are like cookbooks, but cookbooks in which every step, every ingredient, every process, is described in the most esoteric terms possible: for the untrained chef, so much is obscure, so much prior knowledge is assumed, that boiling an egg or steaming a head of broccoli become terrifyingly arcane undertakings. The hermeticists and alchemists believed that the knowledge they possessed was so dangerous that the uninitiated had to be protected, excluded by a wall of symbolism. If you couldn’t figure out what they were telling you, then you probably weren’t supposed to know.

*  *  *

Any time you have more than one human being in the same place at the same time, there will arise some system by which conflicting interests are resolved in favor of one or more individuals at the expense of the rest.

The most basic mechanism is the one we share with the crocodiles: hierarchy based on brute power. “I’m the biggest and the strongest, therefore I get the best of all the available resources – which, of course, makes me even bigger and stronger, and even more entitled to the lion’s share.” Simple, obvious, straightforward.

Once the system evolves beyond that point, however, complexity sets in with a vengeance.

From where we stand today, we can look back through history across thousands of social and governmental experiments, each with its own supporters and detractors, and even with hindsight there are no clear winners or losers.

The only constant across all these systems is the fact that those in power hold onto their position only with the complicity of those they rule. When things don’t work out, peasants revolt, voters flock to the polls, oppressed minorities throw themselves on the bayonets of their oppressors, religious martyrs sing hymns from the auto-da-fe. We change the rules, we die under them, or, like Gandhi or Mandela, we simply sit down and say “Maybe I can’t beat you, but I can refuse to validate your control over me.”

*  *  *

Like Rosenkreutz on his dream quest, we live in a world of choices. There are no hard and fast rules to tell us the right answers from the wrong – or rather, there are too many, and they frequently contradict each other. We have to rely on our own intellect, our intuition, our instincts, our compassion, or our ambition to tell us what to do.

In 1742, Thomas Gray wrote that “ignorance is bliss”², suggesting that perhaps it’s better to choose to enjoy the daylight, gathering the rosebuds while you may³, never looking up from the flowers to see the approaching night. Others instead choose to peer under the bed and into the shadows at the back of the closet, to hunt down the bogeyman and face him, always conscious that sooner or later, after the rosebuds must come the killing frost.

For the rosebud crowd, there is little incentive to invest time and effort into plans that can only produce benefits in some uncertain future; the only sensible choice is to grab the rope, kick away the reaching hands, pull for the sunlight in the here and now. For the others, today’s roses bloom unappreciated: it’s the future that matters. They believe that bending the back today, enduring a little more time in the hole, will create the opportunity to bring more of their fellow prisoners up into the light – assuming, of course, that everyone plays his part and fulfills his obligation to the others.

No easy answers: Rosenkreutz doesn’t have to make a choice, because lucky accident gets him out of the hole. It’s his story, after all, and he gets to skip the tough parts if he wants. Dreams are like that. For the rest of us, though, things are not so easy. We have to decide on our path – choosing not to choose is itself a choice, with its own consequences – and we have to learn to live where that takes us.

¹ http://hermetic.com/norton/pdf/Chymical_Wedding.pdf

² Thomas Gray, “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44301

³ Paraphrased not from Gray, but from his compatriot Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/46546

Journal: Wednesday, September 28

signEvery so often I have a dream that was obviously intended for someone else. Last night’s tour of the unconscious mind was a case in point.

My dream self popped up in a hole-in-the-wall greasy-spoon diner somewhere in New York City.

The place was little more than a narrow closet: four or five two-tops running along one wall, a battered white enamel display case stocked with an assortment of plastic-wrapped mystery-meals, and a narrow aisle in between. At the back was the cash register and a doorway leading to the kitchen.

The waiter was a hulking Russian gangster visibly suffering from violent indigestion, while the owner/chef was a little bundle of rage in a filthy apron, cursing and spitting in broken English from the tiny kitchen.

The specialty of the house was breakfast: bacon, french fries, and eggs. According to the menu posted on the wall behind the desk, the eggs were available in several styles, each with a cute California theme.

  • The “San Francisco” (light and fluffy)
  • The “Camarillo” (thoroughly scrambled)*
  • The “Folsom” (hard-boiled)
  • The “Simi Valley” (whites only)
  • The “West Hollywood” (over easy, with sausage)

and so on, down to where the grime and inadequate lighting made the rest unreadable.

For some reason not entirely clear to me, I seemed to feel that this dive was the only choice available to me. My dream self was unable to walk out the door and get a falafel from a street vendor – or, for that matter, to root through a trash can for a leftover hot dog – which would have been far preferable to anything available in the diner. I was starving, desperate to eat something, but not altogether convinced that the available options were better than a slow death – especially after the waiter had to run to bathroom for the second time to deal with an intestinal emergency.

Eventually the stress reached the tipping point and I woke up, baffled and desperately wanting a really hot shower. And maybe a bagel.

Anyway, there it is. If this dream belongs to you, please feel free to pick it up any time between 9 and 6 weekdays. Please.

*I had to Google “Camarillo” upon awakening. It turns out that the town was the home of a state mental hospital from the 1930’s through the 1990’s. I’m not quite sure why my unconscious mind knew that.

Journal: Tuesday, August 2

tracks3I am of the age at which I can occasionally begin a sentence with “In my day …”

Don’t judge me: the decades since I was born on an Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1958 have been turbulent, and I feel that simply having lived so long entitles me to a pompous moment now and then. Vietnam, Watergate, Stonewall, the Civil Rights movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Reagan, two Great Recessions, two Iraq wars, two Arab-Israeli wars, the birth of Justin Bieber and the death of David Bowie, the rise of China, the fall of the Soviet Union … A lot of water has flowed under the bridge I stand on.

Many great names in American political history have also come and gone as I watched: William Fulbright, Strom Thurmond, Shirley Chisolm, George Wallace, Jesse Helms, and Ted Kennedy, among many others. Good or bad, these were men and women whose names will be forever tied to an idea or an ideal, to something bigger than the offices they held, bigger than they themselves could ever be.

This summer I find myself watching the successors to these giants dealing with one of the most baffling presidential elections to face this country during my lifetime. Powerful men like Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and John McCain are suddenly hapless passengers on a runaway train, unable to direct or deflect the momentum even as they realize that the train may be headed over a cliff.

In my day, the political greats would have known what to do. Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond switched parties when they felt the wheels starting to slip on the tracks — Arlen Specter even did it twice. George Wallace jumped off the train entirely and founded his own party. Others created new constituencies in segments of the population that had previously been politically inert, such as the working poor, minorities, or disaffected rural whites. Dwight David Eisenhower, a retired general and a revered war hero, delivered dire Jeremiads on the threat of the military-industrial complex. Ted Kennedy, a Gatsby of wealth and privilege with a personal life that did not bear close scrutiny, became a champion of the underprivileged, the weak and the ignored. All were willing to set out in new directions, through unexplored territory, without the benefit of party support.

Unlike their predecessors, McConnell, Ryan, McCain, and their colleagues have not built their careers on any overarching dedication to a particular set of ideals or social causes, but rather on loyalty to party, party above all, sacrificing achievement, historical legacy, and personal pride on the altar of the collective goal of turning the United States into a one-party state. These folks clearly detest – and are detested by – their party’s current candidate for President: they repudiate his statements, apologize for his extremes, yet they can’t turn away. He may be a monster, but he’s their monster, and they will oil the wheels of the party train with their own political life’s-blood if he demands it.

One of the struggles that the Democratic party has faced since WWII arises from its commitment to the “Big Tent”, the mission to include (and sometimes totally consume) every cause, every sub-group, every interest or identity. Perhaps because of this drive to embrace everybody, for the rank-and-file Democrats loyalty to such a promiscuous mistress rarely runs deep: Democrats are more likely to vote across party lines than Republicans, and are more likely to vote against their own party’s positions on the basis of a specific issue in which they are emotionally invested. The Republican party, with its simpler and less inclusive ideology, has a narrower, more homogeneous base, allowing them to expect a degree of obedience that simply isn’t possible with the more fractious and broadly-based Democrats. Until lately …

The current crop of Republican leaders, unlike those who came before them, prefer to lead from behind: tone-deaf to ideology themselves, they have assembled an ideologically-driven army that they can use as cannon fodder in their drive to win at any cost. House Speaker Ryan, Majority Leader McConnell and their colleagues have alternately starved and coddled this army, rousing its passions, dulling its awareness, and stifling its ability to question it own motivations. Such armies, however, are almost always easier to create than to control: this one has become dedicated, passionate, notably ill-informed about issues and history – and increasingly convinced, to the dismay of its creators, that change at any cost, even complete destruction of the American democracy that has brought those leaders to prominence, is better than the status quo.

Election day is coming up in a matter of weeks. Senator McCain might not be returning to his job in Washington after the holidays; several other Republican Senators and members of Congress are also vulnerable – not necessarily to Democratic opponents, but to challenges within their own party that threaten to either cripple them in November, or place deeply flawed protest candidates on the ballot in their place. The Republican presidential candidate is already declaring that the elections may be “rigged”, suggesting that any outcome other than his own victory may be met with fire and bullets.

The train hurtling toward the abyss has made a lot of stops during the last several decades. There have been many opportunities for passengers such as Mr Ryan and Senator McCain to regain control, to unmake the monster they’ve built and begin reaching for a purpose, a reason for their party to exist other than simply its own perpetuation. They haven’t done it: instead they’ve continued to shovel in the coal, believing somehow that as long as they win, everything else will come right in the end.

The Barbarians at the Gates

"Get off my lawn, dammit!"

“Get off my lawn, dammit!”

Last Tuesday, in a California courtroom, a judge sentenced 23-year-old Casey Nocket to two years’ probation and 200 hours of community service after Nocket pleaded guilty to seven counts of damaging government property. Over the span of about a month in 2014, Ms Nocket had used indelible markers to paint large cartoonish figures on prominent rock surfaces in various national parks in California, Colorado, Utah, and Oregon; she had then posted photos of her doodles to Instagram.

News accounts of Ms Nocket’s exploits invariably use terms like “vandalism” and “vandalized”. This was a characterization to which the defendant objected during the court proceedings, and I would have to agree with her: real Vandals don’t deserve such a comparison.

.  .  .

In 455 AD, the Vandal King Genseric led his armies against the city of Rome in retaliation for the abrogation of a treaty between his kingdom and the Western Roman Empire (consisting of little more than the city of Rome by that time; the Empire was pretty much on its last legs). The Roman Emperor Valentinian III had been assassinated by a usurper, Petronius Maximus; the latter, hated in Rome and desperate to validate his claim to the throne, had married his son to Valentinian’s daughter Eudocia, who had already been promised by formal treaty to Genseric’s son.

Genseric, whose kingdom included former Roman territories in North Africa, plus Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Malta and the Balearic Islands, saw little reason to put up with Roman treachery. He assembled his army and marched to war.

The Vandals reached the former capital of the western world virtually unopposed. Petronius Maximus had attempted to bolt as the enemy approached, but was captured and executed by a mob of outraged Roman citizens. Bowing to the inevitable, Pope Leo I asked Genseric not to raze the city or slaughter its inhabitants, and the Vandal king agreed; in exchange, on this day, June 16, 455 AD, Leo ordered the city thrown open to the invaders.

Historians, like everyone else, tend to put their own spin on events. Procopius, a diplomat in the Byzantine court, wrote a great deal about the events of his era, and although we are indebted to him for his information, he seems to have hated just about everybody. For Procopius — the Bill O’Reilly of his day — if the facts didn’t quite do the job, he was more than willing to rely on gossip and innuendo to put meat on the bones of a juicy story.

Victor Vitensis, meanwhile, also had a dog in the race: he was an orthodox Catholic Bishop, deeply invested in the prevailing theology of the time. The Vandals, while also Christian, had been converted generations before to what had later come to be considered a grievous heresy, that of Arianism (see below)*. As is so often the case, a total heathen was more acceptable to the religious mainstream than a heretic, and the Bishop’s writings on the topic also should be taken with a grain of salt.

*The orthodox Catholic church of that time preached that all three members of the Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Ghost — had always existed, as equal parts of an indivisible whole, while the followers of Arius believed that although God had always existed, He had created the Son at some specific point in time — implying that the Son had not always existed and was therefore less that the Father (see the Gospel of John, chapter 14, verse 28).

Accounts differ as to what happened once the invaders achieved their objectives. According to Prosper of Aquitaine, who died later that same year, the Vandals exercised considerable restraint: the sack continued for fourteen days (instead of the traditional three), but was limited to treasure — art, architecture and citizenry were spared. On the other hand, the Byzantine historian and civil servant Procopius insists that one church was burned down, while Bishop Victor Vitensis wrote at great lengths about the ravages suffered by the Romans at the hands of the invaders. (See the sidebar for more about these gentlemen.)

In any event, the Vandals settled in and ruled much of the old Western Roman Empire, including Rome itself, for almost another century. Their tenure was peaceful, given the tensions of the day, with Genseric’s heirs maintaining uneasy but stable relations with both their neighbors to the north and west and with the Eastern Roman Emperor at Byzantium.

The only significant fly in the ointment was (surprise!) religion. Later Vandal kings (Genseric died twenty years after the conquest of Rome) were more heavily influenced by their faith, and conflict between the mainstream Trinitarian Catholics and their Arian rulers frequently descended into episodes of sectarian violence. In 523 AD the fervor of the Vandals had mellowed and relations with the Catholic Church had improved considerably, but after a series of military setbacks the easygoing King Hilderic and his informal co-ruler Hoamer were deposed by the rabidly anti-orthodox Gelimer, and the persecution of orthodox Catholics became a centerpiece of state policy.

In the east, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, aided by Belisarius, one of the greatest military leaders of all time, had finally consolidated control of his own territories, and decided that Gelimer’s excesses provided a pretext to abandon the peace that had prevailed since the fall of Rome. The Vandals could not match Belisarius’ genius and lost one confrontation after another, with Gelimer’s final surrender in 534 AD bringing about the end of the Vandal kingdom.

.  .  .

Throughout the decades of Vandal rule, Rome and its heritage were not erased or defaced by the occupiers: on the contrary, Genseric and his successors wanted to rule a kingdom modeled on the one they had overthrown, and so they worked to preserve much of what they had inherited. It was only during the centuries that followed the collapse of the Vandal kingdom that the leaders of the orthodox world — anxious to erase the stain of heresy — rewrote the story of the Vandals to construct a narrative of barbarians destroying everything in their path, like wild animals, incapable of appreciating the art, the culture, and the history around them.

We have but to look around us at our government buildings, our political institutions, our monuments, our religion, even our language, to see how inaccurate that picture is. Far from destroying the Roman culture, the Vandals helped to preserve it during one of its most vulnerable periods.

.  .  .

Casey Nocket — who likes to sign her work “creepytings” — was not trying to preserve or augment the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Nor did her work display any particular social import or artistic skill in and of itself. Rather, her actions seem to have been more like those of a child who smashes a vase or a lamp in order to grab the attention of the adults in the household.

“Creepytings” is fortunate to live in a time and place that views vandals (in the modern sense) with relative tolerance, and accepts the occasional abuse of our shared heritage and resources as the cost of our freedom of expression.

The real Vandals, with their deep sense of the importance of the glories that surrounded them, might have been less accommodating.


Journal: Monday, June 13

mouthIn the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting last weekend we’ve seen an outpouring of support and solidarity for the victims. Strangely, I find this almost as depressing as the event itself.

Where was all this sympathy, this solidarity, when our poltitics, our media, and our social discourse were being hijacked by the Pat Robertsons, the Donald Trumps, the Tom Cottons, the Bill O’Reillys? We have created a society where attacks like this are not just tolerated but encouraged, every single day, and millions of people sit in front of blaring televisions and nod and thump the arm of the La-Z-Boy and mutter “Damn straight! You tell it!”.

Or worse, they sit in mute disgust and do absolutely nothing.

Rhetoric that is racist or homophobic, xenophobic or anti-intellectual or sexist, has become more and more the norm of late. Millions of Americans rail against the strictures of “political correctness” that discourage them from publicly expressing just the kind of hatred that prompted the most recent incident. Donald Trump is praised for “saying what he thinks”, even when what he thinks is brutalizing and dehumanizing to many of us; negative reaction to the Supreme Court’s opinion in Obergefell vs. Hodges (legalizing same-sex marriage) was virulent — calls for violent action against gays were widespread in conservative media; Arkansas’ Tom Cotton is viewed as a potential 2020 Republican presidential candidate not in spite of his hateful comments about millions of people with whom he reluctantly shares the planet, but because of them.

I was born and raised in the ultra-conservative rural South. We saw enemies everywhere: the Catholics (“idolators”), the Jews (“Jesus-killers”), MLK (“rabble-rouser”), peace activists (“yellow-bellied traitors”), and so on. In all that fear and mistrust, however, a phrase that we heard over and over was “You just don’t say things like that!” Our beliefs, our prejudices, wrong or right, were sacred, but even more sacred was the obligation to be polite. We were taught to hate, yes, but we were also taught that civility mattered. Today we’ve kept the hate, but lost the instinct for simple courtesy, and an essential restraint has been removed from our behavior toward our fellow man.

Politicians and pundits have rushed to express their shock and dismay at this latest outrage — even those who had advocated, directly or indirectly, just the type of aggression that Omar Mateen carried out in that Orlando nightclub — but we all know that tomorrow, or the next day, they will have moved smoothly back into their old tracks, railing against the vile homosexuals (or Jews, or blacks, or Muslims, or working poor, or disabled, or Mexicans — there is never a shortage of people to hate) and encouraging, sometimes overtly, sometimes through innuendo and implication (“transsexuals in the bathrooms at Target! Grab your guns!”) the next Pulse massacre, or Matthew Shepard murder, or 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, or Kristallnacht.

Free speech is enshrined in our system of laws, protected by the document on which our entire social structure is based. Unfortunately, there are aspects to this right that the Founding Fathers took for granted, such as civility, politeness, respect — simple, basic, common courtesy. As we’ve seen, they were wrong to assume that their descendants would carry those traits forward. Instead, we’ve come to value sheer noise over thoughtful discourse. We’ve replaced Jefferson and Madison with Rambo and Dirty Harry, Abraham Lincoln with Ted Cruz.

There may well have been people I knew in that club Saturday night. The next incident could engulf friends, relatives; I, myself, might one day become a victim. I’m sure we could think of any number of reasons why I, or people like me, should be hated or feared. We can talk about it, and maybe I can do something to ease your apprehensions, or you can go get your gun. I can’t decide for you.

Your move, America.