Poet's Notebook: Mayday!


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

Recently I opened up the Tampa Bay Times to the editorial pages and saw three headlines: DEMOCRACY PUT UP FOR SALE (the editorial), GAP IN WEALTH IS EVEN WIDER THAN WE THOUGHT (by Jordan Weissman), and LEGISLATORS ROLL OVER, FETCH FOR BIG UTILITIES (by Daniel Ruth).
  • Jeanne Meinke

My first thought was, “Well, duh, everybody’s heard this.” My second was “Mayday!” — because everyone hasn’t heard it; or if they have, they don’t believe it. (For those not familiar with distress calls, “Mayday” — from the last two syllables of the French phrase Venez m’aider: Help me! — is the international signal, usually repeated three times, for life-threatening emergencies.)

The above articles were detailed, well-written, and true. They told us to pay attention to the assaults being made on our democracy by legislators, business leaders, and Supreme Court justices.

But, increasingly, headlines like these are shouting into a void. Newspapers are fading away as the makers of public opinion, having lost circulation and let go more than a fifth of their reporters, and television reporting has splintered like a kaleidoscope. The result is that excellent articles like these aren’t read by enough people, and are blotted out by contrary voices and false advertisements on the other media outlets. In this environment obvious truths — like climate change, widespread voter restrictions, and the chasm between America’s rich and poor — become not only less obvious, but subject to endless debate. No consensus means no action, to the detriment of America’s democracy, health, and once enviable future.

This change took less than 40 years to happen.

In 1981 Walter Cronkite, commonly called “the most trusted man in America,” retired, lining up neatly with the election of Ronald Reagan, star of Bedtime for Bonzo and supporter of Barry Goldwater. In the decades before Reagan’s rule, the United States had become the beacon of the world with its courage, prosperity and generosity. Our public education was first-rate, workers were paid well, the GI bill built the middle class, unions flourished, Social Security was solidified, and taxes were fair (the rich, as in most countries, paid a lot more — but still had a lot more than everyone else). The “Greatest Generation,” basically World War II through the Civil Rights laws, powered America to the forefront of the world (my group, the “Silent Generation” — I apologize, softly — was the buffer zone between the Greatest and the Boomers).

These complex programs were accomplished because, despite loud dissenters, the country as a whole could follow the debates and developments, and make up its mind. Besides Cronkite on CBS Evening News (preceded by the tougher Edward R. Murrow on radio), there were Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC, and Harry Reasoner on ABC, all sober and serious voices. This was far from perfect. Where were minorities? Where were women? (Barbara Walters joined Reasoner eventually, if briefly.) But these voices all fell within an agreed-upon range of normality, integrity and civility — and things got agreed upon and done.

I don’t want to blame the likable Reagan for everything, but our invasion of Grenada in 1983 (Operation Agent Fury) was a sign of things to come. Hate groups, energized by President Obama’s election, are rising sharply. Fury, instead of civility, has grown to mark our social and political discourse. You lie!

America has proved that in times of crisis it can be brilliant and resourceful, so I’m not despairing. But with this wealth gap boosted by recent Supreme Court decisions; and climate change action already decades behind; and even our racial problems getting rattled by recent voting rights and affirmative action setbacks, we should all be nervous.

But not silent: Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

—Both quotes from “The Second Coming,” from The Collected Works of W.B Yeats, Volume I, Scribner 1997. 

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