Slouching Towards Bethlehem Again
Today’s real news reads like fiction, and both the satire of an Andy Borowitz headline
and a Seth Meyers “Closer Look” segment read and sound like real news.
Once again, the raw but beautifully told truths of the “New Journalism” of the past seem painfully appropriate for documenting the present.
In the fall of 1976, I was reeling from my father’s sudden death that past spring and experiencing the throes of true independence as a freshman at Boston University. One of the many eye-opening literary encounters I had while there was with Joan Didion and her depiction of California in the late 60s, particularly the scene at the Haight that was represented in the title essay.
Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem had a profound effect on me. I can remember the physical object of the book as much as the ideas inside it, sliding one hand over the cover, opening it, and on reading it, wondering:
You’re allowed to write like that? As a journalist?
The essays had been assigned for a class titled “The New Journalism.” Our weekly seminar was held in a five-story brownstone on Commonwealth Avenue, which was an adjustment for me as well. I had never had class inside a brownstone before. At the very same time, across the avenue, at the cinder block fortress that was the School of Public Communications, I was chaffing under the restrictions of a more traditional approach to the profession. During the first few weeks of classes there, my instructor told me that unless my spelling got better, I might fail her class. In those pre-spellcheck days, my first two assignments had contained two errors each, and she had a zero-tolerance policy.
Didion’s spelling was fine, of course, but her narrative was so reflective of her subject that it turned the very rules I was being forced to follow in the fortress upside down. Or sideways.
Since then, when the world was not right, her words would come back to me, as they have been every morning for over 365 days now:
The center was not holding.
The line is a rift on a well-quoted W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” the first stanza of which reads:
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, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Didion felt the piece, and the circumstances surrounding it, had been misunderstood, as she wrote in her preface to the collection:
It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization . . . the proof that things fall apart. . . I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the fear that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had known it no longer existed.
And after it was printed, no matter how flatly and directly I thought I had said it, I had failed to get through to many of the people who read it and even liked it that I was talking about more than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads.
That many people saw the movement as limited to that place and time troubled Didion. She scoffed at people congratulating her for finishing the piece “just in time,” before, as they assumed, the movement ended. The next stanza of the poem helps to contextualize both Didion’s concern and the relevance to today’s “drowning innocence,” and to our need to effectively chronicle it:
Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand; A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
Somehow Didion saw what was coming and was frustrated that others did not. Like other journalists, she traveled more than most of her readers did, she saw more and talked to a great many more people than any individual reader. Why were her words not enough to move people beyond feeling to understanding and action? But they did move me when I first encountered them. In fact, they shocked me right out of the freaking who-what-where-when-and-why of it all that had been modeled to me since my high school reporting days. In fact, it's clear to me now that those words were part of what moved me out of school all together, across the country, and to an entirely new different way thinking of and new way of life.
There were many writers associated with the New Journalism movement, including the likes of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, and Truman Capote; but it is Didion that I return to now, even as the cacophony of social media is shouting at me the horrible reality of our decaying government.
An apocalypse wrapped up in a day-dream
I first read Slouching Towards Bethlehem nearly 10 years after Didion had written it. had lived through some of those very moments she described, just not fully conscious of the magnitude at the time. I had grown up middle-class comfortably. Some exposure to social unrest had intruded into that idyllic upbringing: the blackout of 1965 with its attendant looting, waiting through that long dark night for my father to arrive home from Manhattan on foot despite the danger; watching the Vietnam war playing out on my living room television and fearing the fickleness of the draft, and whether it would take my brother; busing in the early 70s reconfiguring the chemistry of our classrooms and our hallways.
During those same years, I had experienced a riot outside of an L.A. hotel where my family was staying while on vacation. The hotel workers were protesting unfair wages. We could hear the chants from our sun-drenched rooms. They circled our bus as we pulled out of the hotel parking lot on our way to Las Vegas. Once in Vegas, it was easy to forget what had happened the day before. And following that, I rarely thought about those days again.
So, arriving in Boston in 1976, although I had experienced albeit a small portion of the turmoil associated with the New Journalism, I was more affected by the reporting of it, the language of it, and how it transported me to a world that, even though I had been somewhat a part of it, seemed alien to me.
Describing our current distance from implosion
Today if you are not protesting, you are witnessing the destruction of, for all its faults what remained at the end of the Obama years, what had become an increasingly healthy democracy. By observing its downfall, by remaining complacent in the face of so much injustice, you make yourself complicit in its downfall.
It’s playing out like some poorly-scripted action movie, and I can’t get Didion out of my head. The center is not holding, and the very fabric of our democracy seems to be unraveling:
Our president is not only a known sex-offender, but a war monger, liar, tax evader, bad businessman, has an uncontrollable Twitter addiction, and is an excessive golfer.
Special Council Robert Mueller III is zeroing in on proof that the White House was directly involved in inappropriate conversations with Russian officials during 45’s transition to the White House.
We are now the only country “officially” opposed to the Paris Accord; the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is a known oil and gas advocate, and is dismantling 50 years of effort to protect clean air and water resources; and Kathleen Harnett, Trump’s nominee for senior environmental adviser has described global warming as “a kind of paganism” for “secular elites;”
It’s no wonder that it is getting increasingly easy to believe that headlines like this could soon be real news:
Trump Voters Celebrate Massive Tax Cut For Everyone But Them
Even Dan Rather starts to sound like a comedian, brilliant in his simplicity, except he isn’t really trying to be funny, when writing in News and Guts the other day, he turns out lines such as:
I’ve seen kids spill out their piggy banks and plan their allowance budget with more care than the Republicans in Congress are planning for the future of the U.S economy.
He might as well be writing for Johnny Carson? Hell, he might as well be Johnny Carson because that’s what it takes to get through to some people! And like Didion, in 1965, he lets his sentence structure loose in order to communicate the absurdity of a vote gone awry:
But the magnitude of these issues – we’re talking the U.S. Economy! and oh, yes, healthcare, and now even elements of environmental policy (drilling in the Wildlife Refuge in Alaska) – combined with the sheer opaqueness of the process, the fact that no one really knows what’s in the bill, or how it will play out over time just boggles the mind.
Rather takes us on that journey of words, drawing, or perhaps even dragging us through the muck of the American political landscape, and we are slouching toward Bethlehem along with him.
Darkness Drops Again
No doubt darkness is upon us, and the third and final stanza of Yeat’s poem, with its title reference to “that rough beast” couldn’t be more relevant now. Is it even more relevant today than in the 1960s?
The darkness drops again but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
We are seeing the ongoing and potential destruction to the economy, healthcare, the environment, and the national politic led in large part by a man who communicates via nightly rages of 140 . . . oh, right, 280 characters. Could 45 have been a Gonzo journalist?
Which brings us to the difference between Didion and many of her contemporaries in those early days and which is why we could use more like her now. Dan Wakefield knew it then when he wrote in a June 21, 1968 New York Times article, "People. Places, Personalities":
The author writes about the contemporary world-- quite often the Western United States where she grew up and where she has returned after the writer's almost obligatory boot-camp training in New York City-- and though her own personality does not self-indulgently intrude itself on her subjects, it informs and illuminates them.
We need more people to tell today’s story accurately and vividly but at enough at a distance so as to be less about them and more about that rough beast whose hour has come. We have a few who have done so, people like Borowitz, in incredibly short but brilliantly satiric form; Seth Meyers and John Oliver, who have brought back a longer form of commentary to late night comedy; Dan Rather, the veteran reporter who has taken to new tools for journalism, applied his love for country and for words, and is fighting to expose the beast; and last in this incomplete list but clearly not least, Robert Reich, our former Secretary of Labor, who has taken his analytical capabilities to social media like he was born for it, wielding a white board to illustrate his regular Resistance Reports and keeping us all engaged and informed as the beast continues its approach to our Bethlehem.
These people have carried and built on a tradition of journalism that for me was shaped in large part by the work that Joan Didion did in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
And yet, just as in earlier times, just as she said at the time, some people just don’t get it.
Updated December 8, 2017
NB: I finished this post one day before the southern California fires broke out, two days before it snowed in Texas and Georgia, and in the same week that we were openly comparing the sexual harassment accusations against a senator to those against the president, among other folly and disasters. My point is, based solely on the few days since this was posted, people should see that the beast has arrived, and is in full attack mode.