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Teachings from a time of wrath

  • John Bos


Tuesday, December 04, 2018

On Nov. 5, one day before the election that I was fervently hoping would rescue America’s from its slide into greater authoritarianism, members of our local writing group were given a selection of “prompts” for us to respond to.

The prompt that snared me immediately was “teachings from a time of wrath…”

I was taught in my early years that human beings had both the capacity for good and for evil. I was brought up in a time and culture that taught me to believe that good would prevail. That the light would wash away the dark. That people are inherently good.

This belief has been all but shattered. I find myself living today in a time of wrath at home and abroad. A time of societal wrath uncovered and fueled by dictatorial acts of evil new in my 82 years of experience on this endangered earth. But I continue to look for the light.

What I am learning, what I am now being taught, is that I should have ingested the history of evil into my gut instead of safely accepting the scholarly documentation of the history of humanity’s evil practiced upon the “other” in my head.

I am today feeling this deeply dehumanizing history in a visceral and emotionally painful way. The emotional safety line between my experience, when visiting the Holocaust Museum with its photos and videos of Jews imprisoned at Auschwitz when the Allies first entered that concentration camp at the end of World War II, has been crossed. I cannot remember how many times I drove by the Tree of Life Synagogue during my time in college and early years of employment in Pittsburgh. The synagogue is down Wilkins Avenue from Dunmoyle Street where my wife grew up in Squirrel Hill.

In today’s time of wrath, the angry slaughter of innocents continues to grow. The Parkland High School students, the gays in the Orlando nightclub, the anti-Semitic “box bomber,” the children at Sandy Hook, the Oakland Night Club and the photograph of the starving soon-to-die baby girl in Yemen. The list continues to grow. I am, we are, experiencing the capacity for evil spreading almost daily in our lives, at home and abroad.

That we, the people of the United States, should have in the office of what was once the leader of the free world, a shell of a man whose capacity for good is nonexistent. Donald Trump is a man who struggles against the fragility of his own vanity, a man who can hardly see the world beyond his wall of defensive self-regard. What I am learning in this time of wrath is that this man without conscience is a symptom, a symbol of a dark, broad swath of human nature emerging to prove my long-held belief that good will prevail over evil as false. I am having to accept the fact that I am witnessing the ascendance of prejudice, anger and vengeance in a terrible tsunami of wrath that is tearing our nation apart.

The heroes in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” should sound familiar 79 years after the publication of his classic book: migrant workers mistreated and discriminated against by our government past and present. The Obama administration deported a record number of undocumented immigrants, more than 5 million after his eight years in office. But he also set up the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which stopped deportations for undocumented minors brought to the country by their parents.

Unlike Obama, Donald Trump made immigration a hallmark issue of his campaign, and in the first week of his presidency, he signed executive orders suspending immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, bolstering border patrol and deportation efforts and starting the funding process for his touted border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

Under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection reporting record-low apprehensions at the Southwest border in 2017. Yet, despite his hard-liner rhetoric, he has deported fewer immigrants than President Barack Obama did. That said, Trump’s immigration policy has called for the separation of over 2,300 children from their parents and the elimination of birthright citizenship. Crimes against humanity.

Steinbeck's wrath is directed at those who abuse power. In “Grapes of Wrath,” banks evict farmers with debt and businessmen exploit migrant labor and disband unions. Steinbeck's America linked governance and capitalism under which the majority labored for the sake of the powerful's profit, an early example of the “trickle up” theory. So what’s new?

Steinbeck’s book closes with biblical floods, washing away crops, homes and people. Today hurricanes, draught and firestorms that will take years to recover from are devastating in reality, if tey are not biblical in scope. Steinbeck never thought that humanity could harm the climate as we now do, but he still told a story of mankind's disrespect for the earth – and the penalties we pay for man’s presumption of invincibility. One of the most depressing lessons in this time of wrath, one I will not be here to suffer the consequences of, is the continuing destruction of our planet home because of the addictive obeisance to the power of money to buy denial.

What I want to believe, what I have always chosen to believe, is that the good in human nature will somehow prevail. I still want to believe this but have also learned in this time of wrath that belief is not based on fact. It is based on what I would like to see happen. Like a dream. Like a fairy tale.

In Steinbeck's world, wrath, when it protects the weak, can renew hope. Steinbeck is reminding America that its heart, the heartland from east to west, deserves respect, and that respect was worth fighting for – that wrath can be good.

On Nov. 6, along with other like-minded swimmers, I was able to grasp the life preserver of Democratic control of Congress to survive the tidal waves of voter suppression and unregulated crony capitalism for at least the next two years. On the same day almost half of America voted to increase Republican control of the Senate, to support the continuing capacity for evil. I am still looking for the light.

John Bos lives in Shelburne Fall. A regular My Turn contributor, he invites comments and dialogue at john01370@gmail.com.