So opined William Butler Yeats as we slouched toward Bethlehem.
And as we’ve all been slouching through 2020, I’ve had this nagging feeling that we Americans have been asking the wrong question.
At long last it is gut check time in America.
We’ve been asking: Can America survive?
Survive Trump, the pandemic, the militias, the polarization, the partisanship, the voter suppression, the dirty tricks, the Russian interference, the court packing whatever.
After Tuesday, we need to start asking an entirely different question.
Does America deserve to survive?
I only bring it up because it seems to me that we are long overdue for a period of national introspection. And if we don’t start now we likely never will.
Because things really do feel like they are starting to fall apart. And it’s not altogether certain that the center can hold.
And what happens then? Yeats tells us: “Mere anarchy is loosed…”
Not to be overly dramatic. But let’s be honest about where we are right now in our uniquely American experiment in self-governance.
Listen, just firing Trump – yes, I’m being an optimist here – won’t fix much. The damage to the national psyche that made Trump possible runs deep and wide. It’s been a long time in the festering.
How can it be, a century and a half after we outlawed slavery, that bigotry and racism still burns so hot in our country? It imbues our criminal justice system, our neighborhoods, our schools, our relationships and so many other American institutions.
How can we continue to turn a blind eye toward climate change, while the west burns and the southeast floods and the oceans around us rise?
What does it say about democracy when our political system can be so easily bought and sold by millionaires and billionaires for the benefit of millionaires and billionaires?
Are we so truly gun crazy that we all but cheer on armed militias intent on inciting civil war?
Covid showed us that our “best in the world” health care system is totally unprepared to deal with a crisis on this scale. It’s nice that the President can get world-class care, but what about the rest of us?
For centuries immigrants have strengthened and reinforced America’s greatness. When did they become rapists and thugs to be walled out? And how did we decide that putting kids in concentration camps protects us from “those people”?
And when did Americans begin to so hate and fear fellow Americans who don’t look like them, worship like them or vote like them?
If Trump wins, that unasked question may well and truly be answered in the negative. But even if we do send him packing, that will be the easy part.
Coming to terms with the root causes, conflicts and conundrums that made his election possible in the first place is going to require a lot more collective heavy lifting.
I have this horrible feeling that if we all just vote and then wash our hands of the whole sordid business, the Great American Experiment will be forfeit.
I believe in America.
But I also believe that unless we are willing to come to terms with those things that divide us, feed our prejudices and fire our animosities we must inevitably be forced to admit to ourselves…honestly…brutally…truthfully.
That the center did not hold. And that America did not deserve to survive.
In these times of Covid chaos and confusion I wonder: What would RQM say?
That would be Robert Quarrels Marston. Scientists, physician, scholar, and the man who invented the modern University of Florida.
Marston was a sort of an early Dr. Fauci who believed in science and didn’t mind questioning authority.
As a Rhodes Scholar he studied at Oxford under the tutelage of Sir Howard Florey, one of the Nobel Prize winners who gave the world penicillin. As the nuclear era blossomed he did groundbreaking research on what happens to the human body after total irradiation. He edited a book called “Medical Effects of Nuclear War.” At the University of Minnesota his speciality was bacteriology and immunology.
Marston bucked the politicians when necessary. He integrated the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in the face of resistance from then-Gov. Ross Barnett. And when Richard Nixon wanted to declare “war” on cancer, Marston, then director of the National Institute of Health, said it was bad science to concentrate all resources on one form of illness to the neglect of others.
Nixon fired him.
But never mind all that. RQM’s finest work, his masterpiece, was remaking a backwater southern football school into top ten world class research university.
I was writing for the Alligator when Marston was named president of the University of Florida, in 1974. And during much of his tenure in Tigert Hall, I was higher education reporter for the Gainesville Sun. I talked to him and wrote about him on an almost daily basis, and it was clear that UF hadn’t seen his like before.
Marston’s predecessor hailed from the ranks of good old boy politics. Stephen C. O’Connell longed for the days when freshmen still wore beanies, and he simply couldn’t cope with the rising anti-war, pro-civil rights sentiment among students who came here to learn and ended up occupying O’Connell’s office in protest. His chief fund raiser once told me that the only time he could get O’Connell to leave the state was to go to SEC meetings.
When Marston came to UF, Shands hospital was pretty much housed in a single building, its finances were in disarray and an influential state senator in South Florida was talking about blowing the whole thing up and starting over again…preferably in Miami.
But Marston changed everything. He raised tens of millions of private dollars to improve and expand UF academics and its research capabilities. He paved the way for entrance into the prestigious Association of American Universities. Under his leadership UF became one of three state universities housing the broadest range of academic disciplines on a single campus.
He created UF’s Eminent Scholars Program and turned the university into one of the nation’s top destinations for National Merit Scholars.
Just this week UF announced that its faculty and scientists raised a record “$900.7 million in research funding in fiscal year 2020, despite many activities being paused for more than two months by the pandemic.” UF’s powerful research and grants machine owes its very success to the culture change and mission refinements that Marston oversaw during his 10 years at Tigert Hall.
A Renaissance man in the fullest sense of the term – he even dabbled in the science of fisheries – Marston passed away here in Gainesville in 1999. He was a gentle Virginian with a dry sense of humor and a wry smile.
I only bring all this up because I’ve been thinking about what RQM would have to say about the politicians and university presidents who are so insistent that we play college football in the midst of a Covid pandemic.
Gov. Ron DeSantis argues that “To take away (the football) season would be short-circuiting the dreams that so many of our student athletes have worked for, in many cases, their whole lives.”
Which is poli-speak for: What doesn’t kill these kids may possibly make some of them richer…at least the few who will eventually get to the NFL.
And FSU President John Thrasher, surely our latter-day Stephen C. O’Connell, assures us “We know that we can do it safely. We think it’s in the best interest of our student athletes.”
Which is NCAA-speak for: We will lose a ton of money if we can’t exploit our unpaid student athletes to rake in ESPN royalties.
Make no mistake, we are talking about turning student athletes into lab rats for our viewing pleasure. Throwing them into close contact in a sport that punishes the human body and lowers its resistance even when there isn’t a plague to complicate things.
All for our personal entertainment and the glorification of our alma mater.
Marston wasn’t anti-sports. His administration built the O’Connell Center, the O-Dome, so UF could up its basketball game. But neither did he salivate over the prospect of national titles. He used his Saturdays in the President’s Box to win Bull Gators over to his vision for a stronger, smarter and more comprehensive graduate research university.
Personally I think RQM – scientists, physician and scholar – would have been rendered speechless, at least initially, by the insistence that the game must go on no matter the consequences. Never mind the inevitable infections. Never mind all of the things scientists are still learning about the long term negative impacts of the coronavirus on the human body.
On the plus side, even as we continue this, um, infectious tailgate culture of head-banging and old school rivalry, a whole army of scientists and physicians over at the health center will continue to frantically search for treatments, cures and vaccines…all of which require lab rats.
What would RQM have said? Not no. Not even hell no!
“What in the world are all of you thinking?” that gentle, soft-spoken and always polite scientist, physician and scholar would have asked.
Because Marston would have understood the coronavirus. He would not in a million years have understood what strange malady infects a body politic that breeds the likes of a DeSantis and a Thrasher.
Who was that masked man? That masked woman? Pretty much all of us these days. This is life in the age of COVID. Thanks to USA Today’s The Day In Pictures feature for reminding us that the way we live now is indeed different. And all the world over.
In Greek theater, the mask was the thing. The actors wore them to convey tragedy and comedy alike.
Ironically, when The Hippodrome (from the Greek “horse” and “race”) finally reopens, it is likely to be the folks in the audience who are masked.
But nobody knows when the show will be able to go on again at The Hipp. Meanwhile, Gainesville’s only professional theater is struggling to keep, um, body and staff reasonably intact.
“It’s a tough time,” says Hipp creative director Stephanie Lynge. “Our summer show (traditionally a big money maker) is gone, it just wasn’t safe. We can’t do live theater, but we are rehearsing, remotely, for a play that we will record and put on line for sale” later this month.
In the meantime, here’s something fans can do to help keep at least a few Hipp employees drawing a paycheck.
And more specifically a Depot Park mask, a Mudcrutch mask or a Night Sky Over Paynes Prairie mask.
Or go really go crazy and score a Potato At Turlington mask (don’t ask), or a Dr. Cade’s Studebakers mask.
All of the above, and more, thanks to a creative collaboration between The Hippodrome and former Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan.
Who, since the onset of COVID-19, has become sort of the Tzarina of Hogtown Maskdom.
Since early March, Hanrahan’s nonprofit group, GNVcovidmasks.org, has assembled hundreds of volunteers to sew and distribute thousands of masks throughout the community.
While that work continues, she has a new site, HippMasks.org, to market and sell a line of Gainesville-centric masks.
Proceeds from the sale of those masks go to support three theater wardrobe department workers who, having no costumes to sew at present, have instead been turning out hundreds of Hipp Masks.
“They produce between 150 and 175 masks a week,” Hanrahan says of the Hipp sewists. “I just choose the fabrics and the patterns.”
Not to mention the quirky that’s-so-Gainesville names.
“Our entire wardrobe team has been sewing for over three months,” says Lynge. “They help design the masks and Pegeen pays them. They are good quality masks with filters. It’s kind of a win-win for everybody.”
In recent weeks Hanrahan has been on Facebook soliciting name suggestions for this new line of Hipp Masks. There’s a Gainesville High School mask and a Harn museum mask, a Kanapaha Gardens mask and a Santa Fe Zoo mask.
And here’s the thing. If we’ve learned anything from the events of the past few months, it should be that masks are not going to go out of style any time soon. We will almost certainly be donning nose-to-mouth covers in public places for the foreseeable future, if not longer.
Hipp Masks have been for sale at Satchel’s Pizza. Now they can be bought on line.
“If someone told me a year ago that I’d be marketing face masks using Gainesville themed fabrics I’d have said they’ve lost their minds,” says Hanrahan. “But it’s actually been a lot of fun. And as long as they are willing to keep making them I’m going to keep selling them.”
Listen, in the classic Greek theater tradition, there will almost certainly be lots of masks on display when the Hipp finally does get to open its doors.
One way to help turn a pandemic tragedy into a farcical comedy is to show up for curtain call sporting a Chert House Gainesville mask. Or maybe a Spanish Moss At San Felasco mask.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary…
I am an American patriot.
I have been to war in the service of my country.
I vote each and every time.
I pay my taxes.
I do not pledge my allegiance to colored cloth.
That is the flimsy cloak of sunshine patriots.
I do not believe “My country right or wrong.”
If I see something wrong with my country it is my duty to try to put it right.
I do not believe that God’s law is America’s law.
We make our own laws, thank you very much.
I have been alive for 72 Independence Days.
This one is decidedly different from any 4th of July in my lifetime.
And not just because of canceled fireworks and parades and closed beaches.
Or because masks threaten my freedom to infect my fellow Americans.
Covid-19 isn’t the only threat to America’s health and well being.
Nor even the greatest threat.
No, I fear in my heart that this may be America’s final Independence Day.
Not to put a fine point on it, but we have put a hate-mongering, bigoted man-child in the White House.
And we have stacked the Senate with his enablers.
And as much as we might like to think otherwise, his election was no fluke.
We knew what he was.
He told us.
And we still elected him.
Out of hate-spite-fear-defiance-anger.
Choose your preferred poison.
Moreover, we created the conditions that allowed this spewing goblin to ascend to the highest office in the land.
In my lifetime I have seen Americans divide themselves against Americans.
By city/state/suburb/rural zip codes.
We have for a generation elected politicians who campaigned on the premise that government is incompetent.
And then, having been elected, they proceeded to make government ever more incompetent.
Delivering on their self-fulfilling prophecy.
Too many or us didn’t bother to vote when we should have.
And while we weren’t voting, the government-is-bad elite quietly passed suppression laws to keep as many of us as possible from ever voting again.
We helped ourselves to government entitlements.
While we cut our taxes and paid for our entitlements by saddling our kids with the IOUs .
We segregated ourselves, one against another; in our schools, our churches, our neighborhoods.
We militarized our police, created a money-sucking prison-industrial complex, and threw ever larger sums at a bloated military to keep us from harm abroad.
Even as we cut funds for schools, colleges, social services and health care.
And now we wonder why we lead the world in coronavirus cases.
We became the most heavily armed society in the history of human civilization.
Ostensibly to protect ourselves from the police/incarceration/military state we paid so much money to create.
And then we wonder why it is that self-proclaimed militias wielding military-grade hardware – and often waving confederate and Nazi banners – have suddenly appeared outside our state houses demanding the surrender of the very people we elected.
And we ask:
What went wrong?
How did this happen?
But the fault, my fellow Americans, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.
But I am an American patriot.
And I do not yet despair.
I believe that we have it in our collective power to right this foundering ship of state that we call the United States of America.
We have one more chance.
This is my declaration.
On Nov. 4th we Americans will turn out the bloviating autocrat and his enablers.
And we will do it decisively.
And then we will begin again.
Or we will not.
In which case the American idea, the great American experiment, will be well and truly dead and buried.
This will be the most important election in my lifetime.
In my 72 years.
But even if we do the right thing on Nov. 3, we cannot expect things to magically turn around.
America will not suddenly become great again.
We have so much work to do.
The healing of deeply ingrained racial, religious and economic schisms.
The reclaiming of government that has for too long been for the wealthy, by the wealthy and of the wealthy.
I do not expect all of this this to happen overnight.
I don’t even expect this renewal to be completed in my lifetime.
America remains, as it has ever been, a work in progress.
But I do expect it to happen.
Because I am an American patriot and I believe.
I believe in the vitality of the American dream.
And I sense, at long last, a sea change occurring in the American spirit.
This is our moment.
This is our destiny.
This is our new Declaration of Independence.
Our best days lie ahead.
But only if we have the courage and the wisdom and the fortitude to take our country back from the exploiters and the opportunists and the haters.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary…
I originally wrote this piece in the summer of 2017, when I was traveling in Russia. It seems a good idea to revisit now that confederate monuments are coming down all across the U.S. Give the Russians credit where credit’s due. RC
Stalin’s got a busted nose.
Shattered in transit, it makes “Old Joe’s” legendary scowl even more pronounced.
His cold granite visage once stood sentinel at the Bolshoi. Now he resides in more humble digs – a leafy park near the banks of the Moscow River.
In truth, Stalin – let’s call him the Soviet Robert E. Lee – has nothing to smile about.
He is surrounded by a phalanx of grotesque figures – some kneeling, some writhing in pain, some with empty eyes and twisted mouths.
Collectively, they resemble nothing so much as demons of the fiery hell Old Joe has surely been consigned to.
And lest anyone forget the “heritage” this man wrought, just over Stalin’s left shoulder is a boxy, cage-like affair containing scores of stone heads – anguish written on each face.
“Victims to the Totalitarian Regime,” we are informed.
Not too far away, Lenin – we’ll call him Russia’s George Washington – enjoys somewhat more generous treatment. Behind him are large aluminum symbols of the USSR – a giant hammer and sickle, a colorful “CCCP.”
But even Lenin doesn’t get off scott-free in Art Muzeon Park – AKA the Park of Fallen Memorials.
Arrayed around him are four gaunt, painfully thin and twisted figures by the sculptor O.N. Garkushenko. One is titled “Descent Into Hell.”
In Muzeon, the gang’s all here. There is a bust of Brezhnev and a marble of Marx. Kosygin looks queasy, Serdlov dispeptic and Dzerzhinsky depressed.
Their proximity leaves little to interpretation – however well intended Lenin’s revolution, Russia’s 70-year experiment in Soviet communism went horribly awry.
Each is accompanied by a disclaimer: “This work is historically and culturally significant, being the memorial construction of the Soviet era, on the themes of politics and ideology.”
The Russians are nothing if not pragmatic.
And in Muzeon they can teach Americans something about how to memorialize people and events that many of us would just as soon forget.
I was visiting Russia when Charlottesville burned with rage, Trump excused the nazis and Gainesville said no to Richard Spencer’s bid for a University of Florida podium. Watching these events from afar, I searched for Russian parallels that might lend context to my own country’s current flirtation with the politics of racism, polarization and discontent.
Not many clues in St. Petersburg. That historic city on the Neve seems these days to be infatuated with all things Tsarist (from Ivan the terrible one to Peter and Catherine the great ones.)
The good and bad of it all being good for tourism, they say.
But Moscow is 400 miles and seemingly two centuries removed from Tsar Peter’s city. If there is anything like a mass infatuation in evidence, it is surely with Putin’s “strong” leadership. His stellar popularity polls must make The Donald green with envy.
Moscow, a bustling city of 12 million, is reinventing itself at warp speed. New money is everywhere – in modern glass skyscrapers, sleek sports cars and luxury condos. Grim, gray Kruschev-era apartments are being renovated to resemble Miami high-rises. Immigrants from breakaway republics flock there in search of jobs. And a baby-boom is afoot – helped along by generous government subsidies to encourage procreation,
After the fall of communism in 1992, Soviet statues and busts were torn down by the hundreds, mostly to be left in crumbling piles. But some have since been “rehabilitated” in Muzeon Park.
Not to be glorified, however.
Nor are they alone. And that is both the genius and the beauty of this park.
Muzeon is a sculpture garden, and Joe and Vladimir and the rest rank as little more than sideshows in the larger context of this magnificent public space.
Not 200 yards from Stalin is a serendipitous tribute to Old Man Mazoy, who, we are told, saved Russia’s rabbits by plucking them out of a flood with his rowboat. Within Lenin’s disapproving line of sight is Shtok’s “The Lying,” a graceful bronze nude shrugging off her nightgown.
Next to the aluminum Soviet symbols are hundreds of small statues in a cluster. Angels and bears and children, oh my. Some are cracked and flawed. Some whimsical. Some sobering.
And then there’s the giant hand.
Maybe it’s just me, but the giant hand seems to be waving a merry bye-bye to Old Joe and his gang of thugs.
Moscow does not believe in tears.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor for The Sun.