Monday, December 8, 2008


We've been here before, economically. You wouldn't remember it. The 1890s. An unrestful time, of instability and social upheaval. The details are interesting in themselves, but incidental. Lots of noise about tariffs, should they be for generating revenue or for promoting and building business and industry. And the gold standard, hard money, as opposed to a cheaper currency backed by silver. The South and the West were for silver. They had debt, and wanted cheap money. Well, that's the point.

The West had been settled and built by debt. The boom of the seventies and eighties was based on the hunger for steel -- railroads and everything they brought. By the nineties, there was no more need for railroad building. They were built. Sound familiar? -- with our current appetite or its lack, for cars? Cars are practically the only thing still made in America. Seems like a bad idea.

President then was Cleveland, our only discontiguous president, and a bull of a man. Completely honest, utterly straightforward. Admirable. The only Democrat elected president between Buchanan and Wilson. Cleveland was Democrat in name only. Surely no Republican, and absolutely not a Populist, but not a Democrat, whatever a Democrat was in those days. Hard to tell. Isn't it always. But its the same with Republicans. In the last quarter of the 19th Century, Republicans were what the left thinks they are now -- corrupt plutocrats. Point is, there wasn't much room in any party for an honest man. Sound familiar?

And then there's our Bush. Cleveland was lauded into office, both times -- lost in between to Harrison in the Electoral College, but won the popular vote by a hundred thousand. Close, that is, and early on, popular. But how things change. He was burned in oratorical effigy by his own party at the 1896 convention -- the one that gave party control to Bryant -- a total repudiation of Cleveland. Well, as I say, Bush all over again, only ahead of time.

Lessons? I haven't laid it out enough to make the lessons clear. Anyway, I have only one point. The economic turmoil of that age was due to debt. The prosperity of the previous decades may not have been a zero-sum game, since real things were built. But it wasn't a pay-as-you-go prosperity, so the bill came due later, all at once, and the hammer blow was hard. Hard enough to foster a new, wild, almost anarchistic political movement. Doesn't seem prudent, does it, to borrow too heavily against the future. Layaway is so much sounder than credit cards.

There's hardly any point in saying all this, though. By the time we learn all the necessary lessons, we're too old to prosper from them. Maybe it's the old age that stops us from continuing with the old mistakes. Grim, it's so grim.

I guess that's my real point. I was thinking to myself earlier that people think they're safe. They just don't know any better. You think you have a place, and a standing in the world. You think that the law and your decency will protect you. But all it takes is a finger, a pointing finger, an accusation, and all your resources can be consumed by lawyers and appeals and the cascade, the avalanche of cost and destruction that a pointing finger set in motion. An idle tongue. You touched that boy, didn't you -- he says you did. And your wife, whom you thought trusted and knew you, remembers a time you stared thoughtfully into space, and she thought you were looking at a boy, and puts that together with this and the seed of doubt, the worm of doubt burrows into her soul, so that accusation and expense and job loss and conviction and confinement come together to justify her leaving you and taking the kids and selling the house if anything is left.

And you thought you were safe.

But you're not.

Grim, isn't it. No, that isn't my story. Hardly at all. Just in its theme. Like patterns of economic downturn, with their uncertainty and stress and despair. Reading the Psalms may be a present comfort. It may not be, too. Who can say. When false comfort is still comforting, is this worth while? I hardly know. I like purity, and count truth as valuable and what is false as dangerous. I have read the Psalms in time of dire calamity. I was not saved, not spared. My fault, no doubt. As is my current distress. That's the problem though. There's a part of me that just wants to finish the job. I don't suppose even God can save someone from himself.


I've just deleted a few lines about friendship. Something about my not having had one since high school. Something about the idea that some doors in that wall may be opening. The point would be this. Again. Isolation drives us mad. I think it's probably true, that God is not enough. To be a healthy, a whole person, we need people. I wish it weren't so. Fervent prayer into the dark should be enough. But it's not.

Alright, I'll say it, confess it. When I was a kid, even in elementary school, I'd reject friendliness because I didn't want to be anyone's project. Friendliness made me hostile. Isn't that awful? To be so ruined at nine. So untrusting. That's the word I used in my head -- project. Lord. And I am the man that boy grew into. Nobody's project.

You might think I've wandered far afield from Cleveland and a previous century. That's because you haven't been paying close enough attention.


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