Belmont Club

Left to ourselves

Eli Saslow chronicles the slow decline of Greenwood, SC during the first 100 days of the Obama administration in the Washington Post. It’s a town with unemployment over 11%, with people unable to pay their bills, pay for heating. It’s a place where old ladies have only a box of grits in the cupboard.  It’s an story centered on the efforts of a city councilwoman that is without villains; but it is also one without transcendent heroes.

It was nobody’s fault, really, that councilwoman Edith Childs had such high expectations. She followed the election of Barack Obama with mounting expectation and rode the slow trajectory of disappointment to its still-plunging depths. Slowly it dawned on her that Obama had no box of magic tricks in his repertoire; that nothing that would stave off the relentless deluge of bills in the mailboxes of her constituents and slowly shrinking job base of her community.

Across the dark living room, one of Childs’s favorite pictures is displayed on a worn coffee table. It shows Childs with her arms wrapped around Barack Obama, his hand on her back, her eyes glowing. They met at a rally attended by 37 supporters on a rainy day in 2007, when Childs responded to Obama’s sluggishness on stage with an impromptu chant: “Fired up! Ready to go!” She repeated it, shouting louder each time, until Obama laughed and dipped his shoulders to the rhythm. The chant caught on. “Fired up!” people began saying at rallies. “Ready to go,” Obama chanted back. He told audiences about Childs, “a spirited little lady,” and invited her onstage at campaign appearances. By the day of his inauguration, when Childs led a busload of strangers bound for the Mall in her now-iconic chant, her transformation was complete. She was Edith Childs, fired up and ready to go.

But now, as Obama nears the 100-day milestone of his presidency, Childs suffers from constant exhaustion. In a conservative Southern state that bolstered Obama’s candidacy by supporting him early in the Democratic primaries, she awakens at 2:30 a.m. with stress headaches and remains awake mulling all that’s befallen Greenwood since Obama’s swearing-in.

The unasked question in Saslow’s article is whether or not Greenwood, SC isn’t a glimpse into the future of other places across America. What happens if 11% unemployment or worse becomes the norm rather than the exception? Will they become places where people have given up on magic politics and turn to working the phones, paring the cheese more thinly and racking their brains in search of ways to make ends meet? Atheists have long imagined a world without belief God; but are we prepared for something philosophically rarer: a world without a belief in politicians? Or will the opposite occur? Will a downturn, taken far enough, result in a desperate search for extreme political solutions by a people tired of making applications without result, of making job calls without return? Men on white horses are far more common in history than nations with a belief only in themselves. Except in America, the first country in modern times to try the tides without a king are men on white horses rare. But the ocean is wide, perhaps endless; and the distant shore behind still beckons to those who imagine safety there.

Albert Camus in the Plague described a world suspended on the edge of a decision; a curiously quiet place of private struggle above which an invisible cloud hovered. It is always a world that can go one way or the other.

“Only a few ships, detained in quarantine, were anchored in the bay. But the gaunt, idle cranes on the wharves, tip-carts lying on their sides, neglected heaps of sacks and barrels — all testified that commerce, too, had died of plague.”

“It was the time when, acting under orders, the café-proprietors deferred as long as possible turning on their lights. Gray dusk was seeping into the room, the pink of sunset glowed in the wall mirrors, and the marble-topped tables glimmered white in the gathering darkness.”

“They found nobody on the terrace — only three empty chairs. On one side, as far as eye could reach, was a row of terraces, the most remote of which abutted on a dark, rugged mass that they recognized as the hill nearest the town. On the other side, spanning some streets and the unseen harbor, their gaze came to rest on the horizon, where sea and sky merged in a dim, vibrant grayness. Beyond a black patch that they knew to be the cliffs a sudden glow, whose source they could not see, sprang up at regular intervals; the lighthouse at the entrance of the harbor was still functioning for the benefit of ships that, passing Oran’s unused harbor, went on to other ports along the coast. In a sky swept crystal-clear by the night wind, the stars showed like silver flakes, tarnished now and then by the yellow gleam of the revolving light. Perfumes of spice and warm stone were wafted on the breeze. Everything was very still.”

It was waiting, and still waits, for us.