Of Many Things

Last week some boys were rummaging through the attic of a once grand Victorian mansion on Chestnut Place in the old neighborhood. The house had fallen into foreclosure in 2007. They unpacked cartons of hitherto unpublished correspondence between the nephew who owned the house through the mid-1970s and an older uncle who visited very rarely but wrote regularly from all over the world. The letters explored the murky depths of human behavior and the clouds of self-deception that make life seem normal when it is not.

One was written in the summer of 1973, when the Vietnam War was coming to an end and the Watergate hearings were underway, just after the American Indian Movement and federal agents engaged in battle at Wounded Knee and about the time Ian Paisley and his followers broke up the first sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly. There was discontent everywhere, stoked anger leapt into flames in unexpected places, and the highest authorities in the land couldn’t keep what was hidden in darkness from being brought to light.

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I share here a portion of one of the nephew’s letters that may offer perspective on this, our latest summer of discontent.

Dear Uncle,

We have a moment of great opportunity. The commotion that was aroused five years ago has entered a new phase. Feelings of insecurity mix with dread anticipation of the powerful tumbling from their heights. Old resentments send the middle-aged into the streets and stir young people to violence; and without reconciliation, the hoped-for settlement of old scores promises only decades more unrest. Vengeance is becoming more and more acceptable under the guise of justice.

Everyman sees television as a blessing; but we both know it will prove a curse. Trivial content will drive out serious fare, and in the absence of moral guidance estheticism will displace the old ways, leaving only raw sensation. Popular culture will be awash in violence. Experts absolve it, saying viewers can distinguish entertainment from reality; but step by step, as our opponents say, souls coarsen. A fascination with the sensations of fine dining will be muddled with the gluttony of pie-eating contests and the hunt for exotically repulsive menus. Musicals will be made of cannibalism; and they will think it smart.

Empathy, that great bulwark of nature holding people back from a war of all against all, withers, to be replaced by endemic rivalry. Not many years hence the game shows of today will be replaced by fantasies of competition plotted with scheming and treachery. Graduates of Jebusite colleges, former Jebusites foremost among them, will make rants more acceptable than reasoned discourse. What a reversal for our relentless old enemies’ fantasy of educating the best and the brightest in service of the neighbor.

Controversy without argument will fill the airwaves. Venting will become commonplace, and ears will “itch,” as our great adversary Saul wrote—we have to give him credit for an exact metaphor—“itch” to hear the latest outrage. Peddling hate will become a religious duty, and what wrong-thinking people take for progress in overcoming prejudice will be reversed. Self-anointed prophets—thank you, Master, for seducing them—claiming “the Spirit” speaks through them, will look everywhere to find others to hate, ostracize and persecute. The Knights of the White Sheets and Flaming Crosses will rise again. Millions will live by rage.

They believe it can’t happen again. “Never again,” they say. But you and I know how it begins.

Your devoted nephew,

Wormwood

This local reporter acknowledges his debt to the boys on Chestnut Place, the late C. S. Lewis and the archfiend Screwtape.

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