Yesterday and Tomorrow
Yesterday, Saturday, began ominously in Seattle. Thunder and lightning. While not unheard of here, it is uncommon. Something to do with the warmer air of a coastal climate. The east side, the other side, of the Cascades? That’s thunder and lightning territory. But there it was. A dark morning. Flashes of lightning against the darkened sky.
That was the first thing that seemed to cast a sense of foreboding on the day.
The second came shortly. I ran into my neighbor, Steve, in the garage. He said he has just administered “last rites” (my words not his) to a fallen owl in the garden area behind our place. I went out to check. It was a barn owl. As with other once living things, it seemed smaller in death than in life.
Probing it gently, then turning it over, I could see no sign of what had caused this golden white creature to now lie still and damp with early rain. But there is something about an owl, even when alive, that seems a bit ominous. It has to do, I suspect, with the fact that they hunt at night. Darkness. Owls. Distant, “who-who.”
Also their wings. The line at the front edge of an owl’s wing is unique. It is serrated. The effect is that they fly silently. Because of this, owls are on their prey suddenly and surely. The surely part has to do with the force exerted by an owl’s talons. It is enormous. Something on the order of 5,000 pounds per square inch. They exert a pressure many hundreds of times greater than human fingers. More on the order of vise-grip pliers wielded by a lumberjack.
Thunder rolled, lightning lit the heavens. And a gorgeous dead owl lay small and wet in the gathering storm. I grabbed a shovel and dug a hole for burial.
An ominous beginning to a day that ended with fires, looting and violence in downtown Seattle. By all accounts the protest of George Floyd’s murder had begun peacefully. But since Molotov cocktails, frozen bottles of water, rocks and tire irons came out before long, not all had come with peaceful protest on their minds.
I went to bed muttering, “This (looting and violence) only helps Trump. Now he will play the law-and-order card.”
With morning came the debate. Which is worse? Looting, arson, street violence and mayhem? Or the centuries of, and continuing, violence against black men and women? It’s a bad, one might say, a false choice.
Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show” reflected on it earlier in the week. Here’s a clip very much worth watching.
Noah speaks of a social contract as the origins of society. We agree to sign on to certain rules that make a society functional in exchange for conditions that are better than a jungle. But what happens, asks Noah, if conditions, at least for some, aren’t any better than a jungle?
A particular point Noah made that struck me. And it reminded me of a piece, just days ago, “The Betrayal of the Elites.” Noah argued that the greatest onus for honoring the contract, for playing by the rules, for being accountable, falls on those at the top. Therein lies the problem. As previously noted, “elite” has ceased to mean responsibility or obligation or being admirable. It has become a prize. You’ve won. You’re “elite.” Do as you please. Rake in the dough. You’re entitled.
When that’s the case, arguing that those whose benefit least from the social contract ought to honor its rules becomes harder to make. Even if it “right,” it becomes hard to sustain. And that’s where we are.
Tomorrow? We can, and certainly will in many quarters, debate – Monday morning quarterbacks all — whether looting and violence are ever justified. We can choose teams. “Law and order” here. “Freedom from tyranny and terror” there.
The real question is our social contract, or, if you prefer — and I would — social “covenant.” (Another time, we can discuss that difference and why it matters.) What binds us together? To what do we commit ourselves? What do we owe to one another? Many have argued (including me) that this pandemic tells us, “We’re all in this together.” But the policies and choices of the last fifty years in America have said otherwise. The pandemic is making this clearer.