Just as the rest of America, I too was swept away by the Kavanaugh hearings. A popular but unconventional president; the highest court in the land. An eleventh hour spoil appears from out of the shadows of California – where else? – to joust and spar in our most hallowed halls while outside the bread and circus churns in all its bizarre splendor. Accusations so outlandish to the decency and etiquette of good men that they have to be heard, if only to satisfy the morbid curiosity of a public that has become desensitized, accustomed now only to the tawdry and the lascivious. A circus to pass the time – a pantomime for the powerless who are trying every trick in their limited imaginations to not remain so.
My novelist eye often imagines how history will look back at this moment. I am a fan of documentaries and mini-series of medieval courts in Europe. A cardinal, mad with rage hauling his enemies before an ecumenical tribunal for a counterfeit trial and onward to a sentence pre-ordained. I wonder how future plays by our latter-day playwrights will show these our days of heady chaos? Witch trials; book-burnings; scarlet letters emblazoned forever, electronic even perhaps. But guilt, innocence? Well that’s not the point. Those are old ideas, nostalgic ideas, quant almost. Cute in their utopianism – perhaps still important in children’s storybooks or on the pages of epic fictions (Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia). But not for modern public life tribunals. Today they are as they were centuries ago, a lesson by the inquisition; “Do not dare to challenge us, we who are the moral. Lest we destroy you.” Not with violence – not these days, not in the old sense. The rack, drawn and quartered, beheaded and placed upon display. The violence today rests in the weaponization of outrage carefully honed in the kiln of public opinion to be used against any who dare hold their own council. Of course, what of those who do – and now do so in the sacred sanctuary of our highest viziers? Well, the apocalypse. No, in that case a normal accusation will not do – it must be evil and Machiavellian befitting the epic nature of the contest.
But the real story in all this might be called, “Powerlessness in America”. Because there can be no power if there is no truth. There can be violence and destruction – but that is not power. And those who gave us a post-truth world have also given us “alternative facts” and empty accusations judged not by due process but by counting hashtags and column inches (above the fold, preferably) – by the number of harangues on public street corners or inside restaurants where I am eating with my family. And there can also be no power without consent; legitimacy, that golden crucible which is delicate and fragile and ephemeral because it is an idea and a spirit. A contract – oh my libertarian friends don’t like the idea of Rousseau’s “social contract” for it implies obligations inherited through birth, differing around the world based upon tribe and religion and gender. But isn’t this what community is all about?
Powerlessness in America. Those who opposed our fine new judge are feeling powerless this morning. So too those who were unable to stop the charade and had to stand aside and watch the slander in disgust. But did you know that powerlessness is the American design? Divided into separate authorities, into different parties and federalized down and away, limited by times and terms and staggered to thin the passions of the mob – power diluted away and safe from the grasping hands of the greedy. Because, while the belief in real power brings some to believe “separation of powers weakens the state,” – famously from Venezuela’s own Supreme Court – true powerlessness is the end result of the poverty brought about a predatory state. Just ask North Korea’s elite killed by anti-aircraft weapons and eaten by dogs or the Venezuelans who thought they could vote themselves other people’s money. Power may be fun, when you are in charge. When its arbitrary and absolute. But how often does that happen? And what guarantees that you will be the tyrant? And what war, what violence are you willing to call down to achieve this end? And do you think it will fill you? Because it has never done so – for anybody – in our world’s long story of power.
True power, let it be known (for all the “resisters”, because the faithful already know this) comes not from control of our sage chamber of magistrates or by who sits in an odd-shaped office in a stately mansion atop a swamp. True power comes from our own conscience, of what we teach our children when we read them a story at night, when we bicycle with them in the morning before breakfast and when they ask us questions about right and wrong. True power is control of our emotions; discipline to build a world from nothing, gamble it on an opportunity and lose and start again (yes, I think I read that somewhere). True power is standing naked before our God and admitting our true nature to Him and through that admission to ourselves as well. And then, true power is to take that understanding and turn it into a life lived more abundant; with faithfulness and restraint and kindness.
And then passing these things on to our little boys through the stories of the also-powerless.
Because those are the important lessons. For if they are stories about wise men, kind women, and faithful families those kernels will be carried forward into the future. But if they are about hatred and violence and anger – let’s call it “resist” – well you might just get what you ask for; and it might resemble North Korea or Venezuela more than it does Atlantis; and you might not be in charge.