Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

You Can’t Go Home Again

Recently, I decided to re-read You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe’s classic, and as I was working my way through Book VI, where George Webber is preparing to depart and then leaving Germany in 1936, I found parallels to our situation in America.

In the novel, George Webber feels a sense of foreboding, that Germany is on the cusp of something terrible, particularly with respect to discrimination against Jews. What struck me is that Wolfe likely wrote this scene in 1937 and early 1938 before dying in September, almost exactly one year before the outbreak of WWII. It’s in this part of the novel that George Webber realizes that Germany – the country he has loved and almost worshiped – has changed irrevocably. It has in fact disappeared.

All that got me thinking about America today. I don’t think we’re at the same point precisely, but I do get the sense that we’re edging ever closer to a great schism, a time in which we’ll be called to make a stand one way or the other. Do we want to be a nation that seeks its own goals only, the rest of the world be damned, or do we want to strive toward being a global partner, concerned with the whole world’s wellbeing?

I don’t know how we’ll answer that; I don’t think anyone does. But it seems clear that we’ve entered the fray, some of us determined to protect our own, to continue on the course our forebears have plotted for us, while others call for systemic change, believing we should throw out everything we’ve accomplished to this point and start over.

It doesn’t even matter who’s right, who’s viewpoint will be proven by history to be correct. What matters is the rancor and acrimony extant in our civilization now, the inability or at least unwillingness to compromise, practically guaranteeing that nothing will get done.

And compromise doesn’t mean my side giving in to your side or vice versa. It means thoughtful deliberation after examination of all the available evidence. No new taxes and Medicare for all simply cannot coexist. There must be a third way, where some taxes can be raised and a healthcare public option can be created, for example.

But the Manichean voices on the left and right, so convinced of their rectitude, would rather burn the planet down than surrender one inch to the enemy. It’s easy to blame the politicians, but we can’t really do that since we’re the ones who put them there. Nazi Germany, at least had a dictator at the helm. We don’t have that excuse.

So we press on, looking for the glorious victory, heedless of the smaller achievements we might be capable of attaining. We’re not interested in moderate candidates. We don’t want to succeed by inches. It’s all or nothing.

It wasn’t always that way. At one time we understood that you can’t always get what you want. Sometimes you have to take a small win and work to build on that. But that isn’t who we are right now. For us, in these times, the world is black and white. If you believe something different from what I believe, then you’re not just wrong, you’re evil – and compromising with you would taint me.

So where does that leave us? I’m not sure I have the answer. I do know we need to become more thoughtful and less reactive, more willing to consider that we might be wrong and that our initial instincts need to be examined carefully. We need to avoid mob mentality and focus on finding ways to work with those who see things differently.

I’m not sure if that will be sufficient, but the course we’re on now seems dangerous.


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