Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland
   where you’re madder than I am
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you must feel very strange

         —Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”

Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl.
         —William Shakespeare, King Lear

Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl. What is there to write of Rockland this week that cannot be written of so many other places? I am sick with grief and rage at this world we permit by action and inaction, and at the physical comfort that has dulled our sense to suffering. But see how lazily and breezily I write “we” and “our”: what I mean is “I” and “my.” Do I really write this in a house that could easily shelter thrice the people who now inhabit it, in this time of great need? I do. Do I bear some responsibility for the bodily safety and economic survival of thousands of people, a great proportion of whom have lost their means of sustenance? I do.

Only in times of great duress have I understood Homer: “Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles.” Such an annihilating rage is generally beyond me. Lately, though, that’s been changing. The material prosperity of the United States is unmatched in the world. There is enough for everyone, full stop. How can such a phenomenon as the “working poor” exist? How can a single missed paycheck bring people to ruin? How can drivers (including me!) keep blithely driving their cars as if that choice were benign?

There are specific answers, of course, and there are many answers. But one true answer is: Because I let it be so, and because you let it be so. Among the things that COVID-19 is destroying is my middle-class gentility, which was already getting frayed.

I’m not a revolutionary by temperament. I embrace compromise and reconciliation. But I’m finding myself more and more in situations where these things accomplish objectively more harm than good, and I’m having to check myself to be sure that my desire to make some people comfortable isn’t to the detriment of everybody else. In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

What constitutes “a negative peace which is the absence of tension”? Self-congratulation (I pronounce myself guilty!). The magnification of small victories beyond their real importance (Guilty!). Pablum about “community” (Guilty!). What constitutes “a positive peace which is the presence of justice”? Toil, vigilance, and affliction — but also solidarity, solace, and an eye cast more towards the future than the present.

Right before the COVID-19 crisis heated up in Maine, I proposed on City Council that we start to explore what a local living wage policy could look like. It remains to be seen whether my timing was opportune, and whether a new world is being born. But a living wage isn’t enough. Apropos of liberal social policy, William Buckley used to say, “Don’t immanentize the eschaton!” (i.e., Don’t hasten the apocalypse!). But, at the moment, I’m ready for it.

Except that I’m not really, and I only think and write this way when I’m feeling down, just as you might be feeling down too. New worlds are built, not born, and we may now have the opportunity to build something else, something less encumbered by received wisdom and precedent. Let’s gird ourselves for toil, vigilance, and affliction. Let’s ask ourselves why and whether things must be as they were and are. Let’s rededicate ourselves to compassion, fairness, generosity, and opportunity. Let’s see what we can build.