The other evening we watched a spectacular sunset from the top of the Hurricane on St. Pete Beach, and I thought of Doctor Faustus toward the end of Christopher Marlowe’s old (1604) play. I looked around at our fellow customers and tourists, enjoying the view, with margaritas and grouper sandwiches, far from the atrocities of ISIS, Kenya, Nigeria, Syria, even the man who threw his daughter off the Skyway Bridge, visible from up there. Like most of them, despite reading about these things every single day, I still feel reasonably happy — but still can’t help thinking (knowledge is guilt) of doomed Faustus, who, having sold his soul, looks up and sees a scarlet sunset similar to the one we’re gazing at now, and cries, See, see, where Christ’s blood streams…
Living in the internet age means we’re always dealing with the current calamity, real, exaggerated, or truly catastrophic: earthquakes, assassinations, kidnappings; planes dropping like flies, children sold by the hour. Large areas of the world are toxic, and we as a country seem to get dragged into them, for good and bad purposes. But we as people live in a bubble as impenetrable as the gated communities of the wealthy.
These disasters have always happened — many, perhaps most, without our knowing it. But now we’re all like numbed security guards in a room full of cameras monitoring the latest abominations: beheadings, stonings, drownings, burnings, murders live on TV. Knowledge is power, they used to tell us. Now it seems more like knowledge is tragedy. But that’s an exaggeration: maybe knowledge today is just anxiety. The Age of Anxiety, predicted by W. H. Auden’s poem in 1947, has truly arrived.
One reason we feel anxious is that so many things happen so quickly in so many places that we don’t know where to start. Probably we need to take a deep breath, go back in our heads, and look for root causes. That’s where some real work can actually be done, which is why the Iranian Nuclear Treaty would be a step in the right direction. ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, and the Taliban can hurt individual Americans, but not America. Decent people live in all the countries from which these groups spring, and somehow we need to reach out: Bombing, fighting, starving them only spreads the poison. ISIS is the offspring of Guantanamo, the grandchild of Abu Ghraib, the great-grandson of My Lai.
Closer to home, one of our country’s crises has been the overrunning of our southern borders — often by children, mimicking the perhaps apocryphal and also disastrous original Children’s Crusade (1212). Our politicians have gone bonkers, some blaming President Obama, others saying they’re coming here to sell drugs or live free off our government. Governor Perry sent in the Texas National Guard to protect us from these youngsters. No one, least of all Donald Trump, seems to be asking why they’re crossing the border and surrendering to the first persons they meet, throwing their young lives into our hands.
Peeling the layers backward, through the poverty and violence, we arrive at the root causes of this exodus: our hunger for drugs, which has rendered these children’s cities unlivable; and our business leaders’ drive for cheap labor, which has brought the adults over to sweat for pennies in the shadows.
At about the same time as Auden’s poem, Walt Kelly’s Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We used to turn to the church, and many still do (these days, Pope Francis is an inspiring figure). For others, turning to art, including the comic pages, might temporarily soothe and stimulate their minds.