Friday, November 6, 2020

America: Fixer-upper or...?

My spouse enjoys the modest suspense of those renovation and rehab shows on HGTV. Invariably, a project that seemed straightforward confronts some basic issue that must be addressed lest the entire structure be doomed. It is an apt comparison to the United States in the wake of our most recent nationwide election. The U.S. still has a modicum of curb appeal, but venture beyond the fa├žade and it is worrisome.

Copyright and Turn This Town Around Whitesville

One could argue that our democracy and/or republic is structurally unsound. The foundation, erected by our forefathers, appears remarkably stable, only a few constitutional cracks that we can chalk up to the contractors simply being non-clairvoyant. The language in the homeowners’ manual is perhaps outdated, too, but that can be forgiven. We’ve had upgrades, like the Emancipation Proclamation, but since then it has been mostly a new coat of paint here, new flooring there. Cosmetic changes are nice, but they often conceal damage we would rather not address.

The twenty-first century has finally exposed that we have load-bearing walls holding up glass ceilings. Our support beams have dry rot or worse. Mold has crept in after periodic floods of repression, oppression, and sheer neglect. The door is stuck shut, the plumbing shot, and the wiring is not up to code. Porch pillars, and pillars of our communities, are not what we thought they were. Our privileged experiences are not reflective of the entire populace.

As an entomologist, the term “structural pest” comes to my mind. Subterranean termites. We have not been treating for them, and now we are suffering the consequences. It is telling that termites are pale, and shun the light for the darkness of their tunnels. They are blind or nearly so. They are oblivious to whatever source of cellulose they are munching, intent only on feeding themselves and their siblings, all the progeny of a bloated matriarch. They are incredibly successful in their destruction, and completely unaware of their colossal impact.

This election revealed the termites, and it was personally punishing. It turns out that many of us have been termitophiles, blindly associating with others who have, in their privacy, been gnawing away at our nation’s health and welfare by failing to advocate for those less privileged. We either did not know them, or they metamorphosed, gradually or rapidly, into something we were not expecting. That is what really shakes me in the aftermath of the election: Personal, emotional, invested infrastructure is failing. I had assumed my friends were also my allies, my load-bearing walls, and fellow construction workers helping make the world better.

It is a curse of the empathetic and vulnerable to have compassion even for those who would smite them, or at least undermine the values they hold dear. Agonizing decisions are made daily, now, as to who in your personal circle you have to let go. There are plenty of rationalizations for saying farewell, and at least some may be legitimate if not necessary. You cannot repeatedly compromise your personal mental health by being an apologist for a friend who clearly does not stand for your own principles. It is not “social embarrassment” or “politics,” it is myself recognizing that many in our world need protection from harm, while you do not.

Parting ways may be doing your former friend a favor, too. As their own circle of friends diminishes, it may force them to abandon the outdated infrastructure of belief they have clung to for so long. That is not meant to express any kind of moral superiority, mind you. Please be wary of that.

Termites (the insects) in other parts of the world are not always structural pests. They create some of the most complex and efficient architecture of any animal species, complete with “central air” in some cases, underground mushroom gardens in others. Termites are the foundation of many ecosystems in savannahs and jungles and deserts. Ironically, they do not know their limits, and probably believe they are the superior organism in their realm, overcoming attacks from aardvarks and anteaters, and spreading their colonies far and wide. They are also unaware that they truly are important to the health of the planet.

In this regard we are not like termites, unless we abandon all logic, science, reverence, and hope. We will need to invest heavily, and consistently, in acknowledging the rights of all peoples, and advancing the appointment of the disenfranchised into positions of power. We don’t have to wait for another national election to begin the necessary demolition and restoration.