A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The grim news that a Texas judge declared that the ACA – i.e., “Obama Care,” is unconstitutional filled cyber space last night. It was hard to trudge up the steps to bed and try to sleep. I’m covered with a good health insurance policy, but that didn’t lessen the weight on my conscience about the plight of those who depend on the government’s health insurance, especially those with”pre-existing conditions.” Naturally, Trump cheered the news along with his supporters in Congress. The cold, deadly winds of capitalism began to blow against the eaves of my house, winds out of the polar depths of Big Pharma and the insurance monopolies that have lobbied Republicans for years to destroy one of the few really benign acts of the federal government in many years.
I sat up late reading various blogs and editorials about this decision. The one that gave me a ray of hope was by Cristian Farias, a member of the editorial board of the New York Times. There was no basis in law for this decision, he wrote. It will not hold up for long, and even the White House will allow the law to continue until appealed, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Six years ago, the high court ruled that the ACA was indeed constitutional. Five of the jurors are still on the bench who made that decision. Someone else noted that this particular judge has been trying to reverse as much of Obama’s legacy as he can, and that the case against the ACA was carefully shepherded to the Texas judge to maximize the chances of killing it off. He delivered on the basis of what many are saying is a weak legal argument about the disintegration of the act after the penalty for remaining uninsured was removed. “Don’t panic,” Farias said to the poor dopes like me hunched over a monitor and a cone of lamplight. Maybe that was enough, like a slug of brandy, to get me off to bed for the night.
One needs consolation every other day, it seems, from the ferocious destruction coming out of Trump’s brain. I remember how Trump sat stolidly at his table while Obama flayed him alive in his comments at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in 2016. It was a scathing attack, more barbed and overt than he had ever been. But the confidence with which Obama spoke depended on his certainty that Hillary Clinton would win his chair in the oval office. I imagine Trump played the tape of that dinner over and over, writing down every swipe at him, and checking off a list of Obama’s best legislation to make sure he would erase every trace of his predecessor. Killing ACA was a big win for him, and I dare say he has completed his list of reversals.
The political pain I feel seems to swallow up the world. You forget there is such a thing as nature, a sky full of geese, a full moon over the silvery marshes. You can’t recall feeling anything but despair, but there were times you laughed until the tears rolled down your cheeks. You can’t recall the last time you crossed your legs and finished the Saturday Times puzzle with a feeling of deep serenity. I had to remind myself this morning that the coffee my wife brought up to me as I listened to Scott Simon cracking jokes with a sports reporter was a gift of the gods, a kindness I hardly deserved but received with a bright smile. It was sunny out, and the temperature was a mild 42 degrees, good walking weather after a long cold snap.
We’re not used to losing so many cherished laws and restraints at one blow to the furies of corporate tyranny. The promised rollback of Obama’s limits on emissions to carmakers was the work of Charles Koch, the refining giant Marathon and the fossil fuel states. Even the carmakers said it was a bit too much to go back to an earlier pollution standard, but then, they had not pushed for the executive action. The oil companies were the principal malefactors this time. It makes you wonder how seemingly educated men and women could sit around in boardrooms and plot a strategy to increase pollution in the face of global warming. As one European journalist remarked, there is no moral direction coming out of the United States as the world ponders its reluctance to cut emissions at the climate conference in Katowice, Poland. You grip the arms of your chair to think of such global betrayals of common sense.
My daughter called to tell me that the gilets jaunes, the yellow vests, were out in the streets of Avignon, where she lives, and that the riot police lined the main streets dressed like Ninja Warriors in full armor and plastic shields, with their patrol cars parked behind high portable walls. The men protesting were balding, middle-aged workers who believed in the work ethic, who fought in France’s wars, who endured the stagnation of their wages for the past twenty years without protesting. But they had reached their limit and were pounding the asphalt too angry to accept the sops from President Macron’s government. They were from the suburbs, the provinces, the parts of France that the government has neglected, except to collect the ever-rising taxes on their income.
Europe is suffering as much as we are the ravages of inequality in our time. Brexit is a symptom of that feeling of lost identity, of a government that had welcomed the trade advantages of the European Union without considering the ordinary citizen’s diminishing freedom. Brexit surprised everyone when it was voted for by a majority of disgruntled proles watching immigrants move in and take jobs, drive up rents, and allow Brussels to pull the levers of power that once belonged to them.
We’re not being told the full extent of the turmoil in the West, or how it will feed into the revolutionary anger of common people. Germany is weak and fragmented, so is Italy. I suspect Spain and Austria are also writhing and finding the new world order more of a curse than a sign of progress or peace. This is a world conceived by bankers, erected over the ruins of the welfare states that once worked sufficiently well to give working people a sense of belonging.
My daughter remarked that people were talking to each other, sharing their experiences of the crisis. She hadn’t seen that before, not in this way. Trouble always seems to unite people who otherwise don’t socialize much. The French are notorious for their lack of civil spirit; it takes a lot to break through their armor to a beating heart, a human spirit. But it’s there, under the surface, protected against the trivial nuisances of daily life when times are good. The threats of the present have made people look at each other in a new way, she was saying. Discovering that we’re all in this together. Perhaps that is the real consolation of this grim moment in history. That the human spirit will prevail and outlast the ravenous greed of those in power.
Matthew Arnold, the English 19th century poet and public intellectual, observed once that society expands and contracts by some invisible mechanism of history. We can’t anticipate the moment when we lose our way, or when we find it again. But time has no other logic than this breathing in and breathing out of order, this ability to create but also to destroy the best things about us. Right now, we are in a period of dissolution; the things we thought were permanent are made of water and reflections. Our perception of ourselves is obscured by nostalgia, our habit to cling to hope and pray for relief from our perils. The stark reality is hard to absorb and believe, but in the end, it is the only thing that will goad us to demand our essential humanity be restored and protected by those we have put our faith in. The yellow vests are already there, hoisting their placards, shouting their slogans. Americans should pay close attention to their bravery, because we may have to begin to protest as well. And soon.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2018 Paul Christensen