The following essay by David Brooks was published today in the NYT. It is a must-read essay.
It has to be admitted that Donald Trump is doing exactly what he was elected to do.
He was not elected to be a legislative president. He never showed any real interest in policy during the campaign. He was elected to be a cultural president. He was elected to shred the dominant American culture and to give voice to those who felt voiceless in that culture. He’s doing that every day.
What’s troubling to me is that those who are the targets of his assaults seem to have no clue about what is going on. When they feel the most righteous, like this past weekend, they are actually losing and in the most peril.
Let me try to explain what I think is happening:
After World War II the Protestant establishment dominated the high ground of American culture and politics. That establishment eventually failed. It tolerated segregation and sexism, led the nation into war in Vietnam and became stultifying.
So in the late 1960s along came a group of provocateurs like Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the rest of the counterculture to upend the Protestant establishment. People like Hoffman were buffoons, but also masters of political theater.
They never attracted majority support for their antics, but they didn’t have to. All they had to do was provoke, offend the crew-cut crowd, generate outrage and set off a cycle that ripped apart the cultural consensus.
Today in Steubenville, OH, a man shot and wounded the judge who was overseeing a wrongful death lawsuit again him. The shooter, who was killed, was the father of a Steubenville High School football player who, when he was 16, was convicted of raping a 16 year-old girl.
James Wright, a poet whose work was well known in the 1960’s and 70’s, was born in Martin’s Ferry, WV. Martins Ferry is next door to Steubenville, OH. It is (and was) coal country, and both towns and the area generally have always been stressed economically. Wright’s most famous poem (it’s brief) is titled “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, OH.” It is about high school football. It is about poverty and despair and violence. It is about how the brief moments of high school glory can help folks (young and old) to momentarily forget.
I hope you will take a few moments to notice and work through how the news story plays off the poem, how it enriches the poem, how it makes life still more sad.
AUTUMN BEGIN IN MARTINS FERRY, OH
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
So with rain on the roof and the most amazing NH fall colors waning; with the chickens in, the ducks, the sheep; with November so close and showing its pointed shoulders…why not? Why not a photo and five minutes looking at it? Robert Franks’s Nebraska, 1955… Continue reading
Once in mid-July when I was fourteen, I caught our neighbor Edna Cobal unannounced in the garden behind her home. I had ridden my bike to her house to deliver a check from my father, and as she didn’t appear when I knocked on the kitchen door, I went around to the back where I knew she kept a garden.
I didn’t see or hear anything initially, but then from somewhere off to one side I heard a rustling, dry-leaf sound, and following the sound off the porch and between a planting of lilacs, I discovered her—Mrs. Miller Cobal, an elderly woman, a grandmotherly woman, a woman who always wore a dress and who always remembered my name, a woman best known, at least in my circle, as the Mrs. Cobal who one day announced that she would never again attend church—I discovered Edna sprawled on her back in a great heap of dried pea vines. Having at some earlier time pulled them and heaped them high, she was now, for reasons impossible for me to fathom, lying in them. At the moment I startled her she was tucking a handful of vines under her chin like a scarf.
There was nothing either one of us could do except find each other, which we did with all of the accompanying embarrassment and ill-at-ease you might imagine. She got herself extricated and upright, her dress smoothed, I got the check into my hand and visible.
When finally she stood before me, small and with a slight smile, she reached out and, placing a hand on my shoulder, said, “I am sorry, Wilmer, that you had to find me this way. But sometimes there’s need to be with things. Even the end of things. Like the beautiful end of peas.”