Listen carefully and you can hear the galloping hoof beats of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse approaching. So the pundits at FOX, CNN, and MSNBC keep warning us:
“Ebola, Ebola is washing up on our shores in every wave of the Atlantic.”
“All of South America is massing at our boarders poised for the invasion, white people beware.”
“Breaking news…. The Republicans are conspiring to deliver this country into the hands of the oligarchs.”
“The pretender in the White House is just keeping the seat in the Oval Office warm for the Anti-Christ…film at eleven.”
We are continually being told to “be afraid, be very afraid.” Every day brings one more thing to worry about.
It seems we are all living our lives against a constant background of anxiety and depression. Not only do we have to worry about the mortgage, pleasing the boss, our kids grades, and erectile dysfunction, but we have to do it to a chorus of “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.”
Cumulatively it works to create a climate of fear and suspicion, causing many of us to cocoon ourselves away in some imagined place of safety, even if it’s only our living rooms in front of our TV sets. Young people who should be filled with hope no longer believe that their lives will be better than their parents. In the oldest democracy on earth, less than a third of the electorate bothered to get out and cast a ballot in the last election.
When people are afraid it’s easy for them to turn in on themselves. When we feel threatened it’s harder to be generous.
I am inclined to think that the greatest threat facing this country does not come from the billions in debt we owe China, nor militant Islam, nor climate change, but rather the “Balkanization” of America. The loss of a sense of our existential connection to each other as a people is the sickness that is eating away at our country.
And it is a spiritual sickness. We retreat into our ideological ghettos of “the saved” and, instead of seeing political power as a tool given to our representatives to build the common good, we see it as a weapon to be wielded against the “damned.”
In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” a terrible plague sweeps through the medieval realm of Prince Prospero. Thousands of peasants are dying of the hideous “Red Death.” Prospero’s response to the suffering of the poor is to gather up his cronies and courtiers and barricade them all inside the safety of the castle.
While people are dying and pleading for help outside, the aristocrats hold a masked ball inside. Believing themselves to be safe behind their walls they dance and drink the night away. But then, at the stroke of midnight, as everyone removes their masks, Death reveals himself in their midst where he has been all along. The elite flee in terror, screaming, and stumbling over each other, clawing at the bolted doors in a vain attempt to escape their fate.
I don’t know if Poe is still required reading in school. I hope it is. There are lessons to be learned from the classics.
Whether it be Ebola, the economy, or the “Red Death,” sooner or later our neighbor’s troubles become our troubles. Neither miles of boarder fence, nor gallons of hand sanitizer, or 401-k accounts will save us.
What will is remembering that we are all in this together. In the end, we are our brother’s keeper.
“Subdivided We Fall,” by Scott Stossel, New York Times (5/8/2008).
- A review of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop, with Robert G. Cushing.
- Image by Rick Meyerowitz.