The storming of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday cannot be defended. The actions of these deranged individuals can only be condemned. That applies to the bizarre vanguard who entered the building, including well-known alt-right figures and the larger crowd that gave cover to those actions. There is no excuse. There is, however, a broader picture, one that shows a nation frayed to the breaking point.
As riots, violence, and looting swept the nation this summer, it was easy to explain it as the result of misguided anger at police violence, or even the boiling over of simmering lockdowns. Likewise, the violence at the Capitol could be tied to the specific circumstances of the recent election.
Whether one believes that police violence is a massive scourge or that the presidential race was stolen is not particularly important. What matters is that faith in society and order itself has been shattered for far too many Americans.
William Butler Yeats put it this way:
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.
This feels very much like the moment in which we reside. To be sure, the actions of a radical few tens of thousands on this side or that do not reflect the will or desire of most of our citizenry. The vast majority will not take to the streets.
Instead, atomized Americans long forced home and tuned in on screens can only watch the fury spilling on the streets of their nation. They lack the social and community means to soothe their country and calm its extreme elements.
In this respect, the lockdowns are merely the apex of a mountain of isolation that too many Americans are perched upon. Too many have no church, no lodge, no bowling league, no ice cream social. Their eyes do not even land upon their neighborhood or neighbors.
Instead, they stare at their own hand as the entire world pours into their consciousness. They choose sides. Once chosen, a tribe is inscribed upon them. There is no greater shame in our modern world than changing one’s mind.
There are no institutions, no political or media actors who can escape blame for this year of violence, and I include myself in that. Yes, of course, Joe Biden should have condemned more quickly and forcefully the summer of violence, just as Donald Trump should not have given his fiercest supporters quixotic false hope of a victory. In a year in which washing them has never been more important, nobody’s hands are clean.
We fail to consider that the ease of modern life is terrifying. We fail to consider that actually achieving Dick Tracey videophone watches or Star Trek tricorders only feels like a miracle for a moment. Soon we are just accustomed to them. They may bring us some happiness, but they do not bring us a connection to our world, to others, or to God.
It doesn’t matter which side is right, because both are suffering. What Americans lack has nothing to do with politics. We lack meaning. The conservative may love liberty, but in and of itself liberty does not give meaning to our lives. The same is true for progressives and their search for perfect equity.
The irony of the digital age is that never has everyone known as many people and never have they felt so alone. Perhaps the problem isn’t racism, crime, climate change, or religious liberty. Perhaps the problem is civic life itself.
What if the problem is not that we are so divided? When have we not been? What if the problem is that we have never been so isolated? Nothing brings people together like a good riot.
We need to think about our civic institutions, many of which emerged for reasons that technology can now provide for us alone. One need not get out of bed to be entertained, to feel connected to something, even to feel productive. It’s all in the palm of your hand.
But we miss each other. There is pain, and a longing for meaning. Out to the streets in anger is all many people have left. To some degree, we should be grateful that even that remains.
Long before Yeats, the poet William Blake penned “Jerusalem,” in which he decried the industrial age and the “dark satanic mills” that crushed the pleasant peasantry of ancient times. We tend to look on that work as naïve now. But it wasn’t. Two hundred years later, we are just at an advanced stage of Blake’s nightmare for humanity.
I do not suspect that either Yeats or Blake were particularly optimistic about their own times. I am not particularly optimistic about ours. But I do take comfort in their discomfort. As Shakespeare put it, I bear our own misfortunes upon the backs of such as have before endured the like.
Look up. Look up to see your neighbors. Look up to see the miracle of breezes fanned by swaying branches, to the shifting snow falling faintly. Look up to God. Know that you have meaning.