I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with a friend down in Los Angeles about our current national circumstances. He’s frustrated with the institutional response to Covid-19 which he feels is excessive and heavy handed. He’s mystified by the popular culture and chaotic drama surrounding Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd protests. These concerns come on top of his long smoldering distaste for the homeless camps, van dwellers, and illegal immigrants in his neighborhood. He’s aggrieved by the lack of law and order and he has a short list of the people he believes are responsible.
My friend has many valid points and I acknowledge them. What he wants is something approximating normal life as defined by old Kodachrome photos of happier times when things worked better. His perspective is shared by many of his fellow Americans. We never argue about the particulars. My primary response is to shrug. He wants his little corner of Van Nuys to be something it’s not and he’s going to continue to be disappointed.
I prefer not to play Devil’s Advocate here. Nuanced reasoned arguments don’t apply once people are sufficiently fired up and deep into fight or flight mode. Instead, I take the role of the Devil’s Cleaning Lady. As you can imagine the Devil’s household is a wee bit dysfunctional. The maid goes about the quotidian work in the scullery and laundry room while the family in the big house scream at each other down the hall. The hired help is invisible, but knows all the secrets. In spite of the occasional unpleasantness it’s a good gig if you keep your head down and learn to ignore the flames that creep up from the basement. The Devil pays well and the house is swanky.
Pull up the images of Nancy Pelosi in kente cloth “taking the knee” and Donald Trump brandishing a bible in front of a church with tear gas drifting down the street. The Devil feeds off the tension between these two ossified conflicting narratives and their cartoon cast of characters. Strip away all the touchy feely opportunistic identity politics and costume dramas du jour and what’s left? There are deep underlying structural problems that are not being addressed by the reigning septuagenarians.
The hand wringing and chest thumping on each side is a waste of time. The divide in American society isn’t actually between the Left and the Right. That’s just window dressing. The real problem is that we’ve spent the last forty odd years dismantling all our institutions and running up a massive bill no one intends to ever pay. We did this willingly and intensionally, because we didn’t want to be constrained by societal obligations. No one forced this on us. We demanded it. And now that our institutions are shredded and impotent we’re beginning to realize they sometimes come in handy.
The old battered systems can’t be reinvented at the moment since too many people are still enjoying the benefits as they are. You can’t tell the difference between a Republican and a Democrat at a city council rezoning hearing as each clings to their tiny precarious slice of American pie. Meanwhile the Proud Boys and Antifa are two sides of the same coin with similar resentments and grievances given their reduced circumstances and diminished prospects.
When the next crisis arrives – and it will – we’ll go down another rabbit hole of recrimination, scapegoating, and finger pointing. We’ll slap some duct tape on the problem and pretend it’s fixed. Until the next crisis hits. Eventually our ability to function will be so compromised that the bottom will fall out of something really critical. Once the lights go out the collective mood will shift quickly. That’s when the old sclerotic systems will be swept away and new institutions will be installed. Will they be left wing social engineering or right wing corporate theocracy? Yes. Americans have a long history of splitting the difference diagonally like a grilled cheese sandwich. Just ask the cleaning lady.
My friend isn’t going to like the new institutions any more than he likes the current ones. But he’ll suck it up like everyone else because there will be order again and the lights will come back on. Everything will tighten up. The homeless and other unsavories will disappear. Where? You really don’t want to know. People will respect authority again even if that authority isn’t perfect. There won’t be a choice. And after all the dust settles Van Nuys will still be Van Nuys. That’s both his reward and his punishment.