What can’t be cured must be endured.
— Brendan Behan
Let me be clear, lest I scare you away at the outset: This is not a review of the fantastically charming show that Bob Dylan and his band put on here in Birmingham last week. But for purposes of this column, I do want to tell you of the jolt of consciousness that coursed through me when the first words the septuagenarian troubadour sang (the opening line of the 2001 Oscar-winning song, “Things Have Changed”) were these:
“I’m a worried man with a worried mind…”
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “Talk about capturing the national mood in 10 words or less…”
I mean, let’s face it: If you’ve been paying more than passing attention to the state of American discourse — which, in a nutshell, was sub-Neanderthal in the run-up to the November 8 election and has regressed in its aftermath — and if your brain chemistry and worldview haven’t been altered permanently by partisan bile of one flavor or another, then you have to be worried.
Republican, Democrat, independent, liberal, conservative, male, female, black, white, brown, gay, straight, Muslim, Jew, Christian, young, old, rich, poor. Voted for Hillary or Trump enthusiastically, voted grudgingly for one or the other — or Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein, or wrote in Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Mitt Romney or Ronald Reagan or your grandmother or Superman — or did not vote at all. Since approximately sunrise on November 9, I’ve been talking, both in person and virtually, to people who collectively cover just about every point along the political spectrum, talking about the way the election played out and what actually happens once President Trump takes office.
I can sum up most of those conversations in one word: Unsettled.
Unsettled. Which is another word for “worried,” as in, worried people with worried minds. Nobody knows what’s about to happen, and even those who take some apparent comfort in thinking that they do have about them a fevered and unsettled edge that renders their bold declarations of America’s salvation or its doom as brittle as glass and as empty as a robin’s nest in deepest winter.
You can be as elated or as crushed by the result of this election as you like. But if you’re not actively worried — if you’re not wondering about your own responsibility, for the election’s outcome and for the future of our troubled republic in general — then quite regardless of your views and opinions and convictions, you have achieved a level of self-centered obliviousness that signifies either an iron will, an alarming level of prejudice against one or more of the demographic segments that comprise the social and economic and political reality of America in the 21st century, or both.
In other words, if you’re not worried, you ought to be. Because above all else, the nature and character of the long and destructive campaign just past has made crystal-clear an unavoidable fact: To borrow from another of my musical idols, Neil Young — who, though Canadian, is in many ways as American an artist as there is — this country is coming apart at every nail.
So what do we — meaning all people of goodwill — do about it?
My short answer to that is, Let’s get busy.
Now, when I say, “busy,” I mean it in a very particular way. I do not mean protesting the president-elect, though I support every American’s right to protest anything at any time. I do not mean taking the ridiculous notion that Trump won a mandate and using it to justify any and all manner of white backlash against our increasingly diverse society, though I do understand the tide of anti-establishment frustration and anger that propelled the president-elect to victory.
I do not mean curling into a fetal ball, overwhelmed by the outrage and seeming futility of it all. I do not mean assuming the worst about any and every one of your fellow Americans who voted differently than you did, because in doing so, you dismiss the legitimate concerns of a vast swath of the electorate, and you dishonor the memory and sacrifice of every person who has ever died in the cause of freedom and justice and the dignity and worth of our individual lives.
I do not mean that I have abandoned the American principles I learned in elementary school in a small Alabama town, most especially the idea that America is big enough to contain multitudes, living in freedom and sharing equitably the blessings of liberty. I do not mean that I no longer love my country, nor that I have ceased to believe in the essential goodness of its promise or given up hope in the depth and breadth of its possibilities.
What I do mean is that our federal government is suffering from what still one more of my favorites, the great Woody Guthrie, called “a breakdown, a sort of a nervous bustdown.” Over roughly the past quarter-century, that august institution — and, whether as cause or effect, the country as a whole — has devolved steadily into partisan blood sport, a grim charade of representative government in which the shared notion of what is best for the country — the innate national belief in the value of consensus — has become so hopelessly lost that I have serious doubts of our ever again finding it.
I can’t fix that, and neither can you. Neither could President Obama, by the way, and neither can President Trump. The ills that plague us run deep and dark, and I’ve become increasingly convinced — over roughly a decade now, even as my reserves of hope have fluctuated wildly between relatively full and all but empty — that not only is the federal government mostly uninterested in treating them, but in fact has rendered itself almost completely incapable of doing so. Every move is political, demonstrating the stark contrast between the now diametrically opposed necessities of politics and government.
We can’t even agree on the definition of American anymore. And until we do, until we arrive at that critical consensus, we’ll be wasting our time and effort and resources treating symptoms, rather than curing the disease.
And so, again, What do we do? Get busy doing what?
Get busy working on Birmingham. This is just my own opinion, but I believe that the best and most effective way for people of goodwill to work for the betterment of our country, over the next four years and beyond, is by working at the local level, for the betterment of the community we share.
Actually, I — along with others — have been saying that for a long time, to pretty much anyone who will listen. Local government is where it’s at, my friends, the place where the proverbial rubber meets the fabled road. It is local government that affects our everyday lives most directly and intimately — and therefore the arena in which communication, cooperation and cohesion can have both the most immediate and the most sustainable impacts.
In Birmingham, both our most glaring needs and our greatest opportunities are local in nature. Which begs the question of why we don’t do a better job of recognizing and acting upon that. For example, which is better for the community in the long run? Recruiting one large company to expand or relocate to Birmingham and bring, say, 500 new jobs; or helping to create 50 locally-based companies that employ 10 people apiece?
We can do both, of course, and should. But I’d argue that we’ve been going about it all wrong. Our needs and our opportunities are not separate things, but rather opposite sides of the same coin. No matter how you slice it, Birmingham has done a terrible job of investing in its people.
As a result, we are poorly positioned to compete with communities that have made substantial investments of that nature. It is those communities that will reshape the role that cities will play in promoting human potential and changing the tone of political discourse. It is those communities that are positioned for long-term prosperity.
To our credit, Birmingham has already been thinking and talking about these things. Which reminds me of something my witty friend, the civic impresario Max Rykov, posted on social media sometime back (if I’m paraphrasing, it’s only slightly):
Why hasn’t Birmingham solved all of its problems? Haven’t we had the requisite number of panel discussions?
Now, as one who generally accepts invitations to participate in panel discussions, I find this comment to be one of the most profound things I’ve heard anyone in Birmingham say lately. Birmingham is a great town for talking, but when it comes to doing, some critical element always seems to get lost in transit.
That’s too bad. But it’s also something we can fix. We can make Birmingham a great city. And what’s more, we can watch it happen before our eyes.
Given the apparently increased propensity of Americans — including Birminghamians — to become offended at any perceived slight, I feel obligated here to acknowledge the many, many wonderful things that are happening in our city, and the admirable work that so many are doing that is aimed toward the end of making it truly great. I’m not trying to slight anybody, but rather to suggest that we need to abandon our insularity and work together to make sure that all of our perceived “progress” isn’t leaving behind the same people who have been behind forever.
We need to work together, period.
That should be our common goal, the mission that binds us together in this time of unavoidable national turmoil, and keeps us focused on our task of making Birmingham what we — what the world — needs it to be. For anyone who wants our city and our community to succeed at the level of which we’re capable, it is imperative that we find and activate the ways and means of uniting around our common needs and desires, and working for the common good — the good of Birmingham.
Otherwise, as much as I’d hate it, it might be difficult to avoid coming the same conclusion as the narrator in Dylan’s song — the fellow who returns repeatedly to its plaintive refrain:
People are crazy, times are strange.
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range.
I used to care, but things have changed.