Equinox and paradox

The US is more dysfunctional at the macro level but efficient at the micro level

Equinox and paradox
September 22 was the Autumn Equinox. There are, of course, two equinoxes. Two days each year that the earth in its trip around the sun is correctly tilted so that its equator is directly below the sun. These two days are also the two days when day and night are identical in length in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. They are the astrological beginning of autumn and spring in both Hemispheres. For us, in the Northern Hemisphere, the dark is approaching.

Spring and Fall Equinoxes often strike many, especially poets, as a metaphor for life itself, or at least the life cycle. In the Spring, life renews, and creates new life—trees grow leaves, flowers and crops are planted and sprout from the soil, the weather warms, new life comes to the plant and the animal world. In the Fall, the sun goes south, the warm weather turns cold and nasty, the trees “unleave,” the flowers die, the crops are harvested to be consumed in the winter, and life becomes gray and depressing.

When I sat down to write today, I remembered that I had once written a piece about the Fall Equinox, so I set out to find it to see what I had written about then. But at first, I couldn’t find it, so after about an hour of searching through all of my recent pieces (going back to about 2013), without much hope, but in desperation, I went to the cache of articles I wrote for yet another publication in earlier years. And I found it among some things I had written in 2009. Now that seemed like a good basis for comparison—what was I writing about eight years ago on the Fall Equinox of 2009?

The title of that old piece is “Equinox and Paradox.” I like that title so much I used it again on this article. I do not think it is an infringement of any kind to steal from yourself, and some ideas are too good to confine to the archives after only one use. The 2009 piece turns out to be about the US, not about Pakistan. And believe it or not, the first subject that it covers is health care. President Obama was beginning his counter offensive on his health care bill, about which the Republican opposition was telling lies. Change the names and the headlines would be the same today.
Eight years ago I mentioned the "new" tendency in US politics to tell outright lies unashamedly. Although I didn't recognize it, our politicians were beginning to rely on the art of lying to the public and were laying the foundation of a politics based on alternative facts

So eight years ago, we were debating health care, and we still are no closer to a system that works to cover all who need it. “Obamacare” passed the following year, but instead of Congress working to improve what we knew was an imperfect and fragile program, the Republicans set out to repeal it and have not yet stopped trying while its frailties have become serious problems much to the Republicans’ delight and the public’s chagrin. Yet diehard Senate Republicans will try again this coming week to push yet another bill which repeals “Obamacare” and replaces it with something that has offended nearly everyone but the bill’s sponsors, and is almost certain yet again to go down in flames.

Eight years ago I mentioned the “new” tendency in US politics to tell outright lies unashamedly. Although I didn’t recognize it, our politicians were beginning to rely on the art of lying to the public and were laying the foundation of a politics based on alternative facts. That was perfected by President Trump and now seems to be an accepted fact of American political life. Connected to this is something I also noted in the 2009 article, a “pervasive mood of distrust, uncertainty, fear and frustration” in the public. Mistrust of the federal government was strong, and of course this has only become stronger. Approval of the federal government was declining, especially of Congress; in 2009, however, President Obama’s approval rating remained okay. Today only 7% of the American people, according to recent polls, approve of Congress, and President Trump’s approval rating is falling to below 35%.

The 2009 article reports the frustrations and troubles of America’s working class, which  were beginning to show, and the feelings of abandonment and despair that led to Donald Trump’s election were beginning to crystallize. It took the Trump candidacy to harness these feelings into a winning political message, but they had been there for the right candidate certainly since the great recession of 2008, which the 2009 article refers to as the “double whammy” recession, that had torn people’s jobs and homes away for the preceding 18 months.
At the micro level this country still works, and probably better with a federal government that is more dysfunctional than it was eight years ago

I mentioned the growing nostalgia for a “golden age” when things worked better. Strangely enough, I found then that liberal commentators were more inclined to refer to the golden age, but the concept was certainly borrowed by Mr. Trump in his illusory promises to bring industrial jobs back to the US by strengthening, or getting rid of trade agreements, by protective tariffs, or by simple bullying. Thus, the seeds of Trumpism were planted long before Mr. Trump came along to harvest them. Those of us who wrote about those seeds back then just couldn’t imagine a candidate like Trump to take advantage of them.

The paradox I had in mind in the 2009 article was that while the US was becoming more dysfunctional at the national level, what I called the macro level, it remained competent and efficient at the micro level, that is in the local efforts around the vast country to improve the daily life of the country’s people. I mentioned the dedication and special skills of those who care for the elderly and infirm, which I had seen up close, as well as those who help feed, clothe and give shelter to the poor, the hungry, homeless, and a variety of services to the disadvantaged, too many to mention here. This strength continues, I am convinced, and the evidence is not only that all these efforts continue unabated in the face of a less invested federal government, but also that extraordinary and often ad-hoc efforts are made by thousands of Americans from every corner of the country who come to the aid of the people in the areas recently stricken by Hurricane Harvey and Irma. At the micro level this country still works, and probably better with a federal government that is more dysfunctional than it was eight years ago. In addition, I should mention that there are new things to do at the micro level—resist the federal government’s perverse policies that the majority of Americans does not accept. There is much to say on that in a future piece.

I was struck when rereading that old article, however, that the real paradox of the Spring and Fall Equinoxes is on a more existential level. The questions raised by the life cycle and symbolized by the Spring and Fall Equinoxes are about existence itself. Perhaps the Victorian poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, encompassed this best in his 1880 poem, “Spring and Fall.” He addresses the poem to a young child named Margaret and asks her in the first two lines if she is grieving over “Goldengrove unleaving.” In other words, is she sad and grieving to see that the golden leaves of the trees of the grove into which she has wandered have fallen to the ground and are turning to mulch. “Leaves,” he writes, are “like the things of man;” they fall on the ground, rot, and become the soil for new life. As she grows older, he says, she will become accustomed to the cycle of life, understand it more, and come to view it with a colder eye. But even so, she will weep because all human sorrows have but one real source, the knowledge that this is the inevitable end. “It is the blight that man was born for,” Manley wrote, “It is Margaret you mourn for.”

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.