Civilization on thin ice

Americans are well behaved in the public square, but listen to their pundits and you get the shivers.

Protesters burn Israel flag at embassy, Cairo_521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Protesters burn Israel flag at embassy, Cairo_521
(photo credit: Reuters)
I’m not sure that I understand the connection between the man who beats his wife and breaks her jaw and the post-enlightenment culture, all that uplifting Wagner that murdered millions of Jewish men, women and children. But there is one.
There is also a link between the violence we see in the Arab streets and the rage that we know can erupt, does erupt, in genocide or war, even in countries with art museums and concert halls and libraries.
In America we don’t see street protests, which end in blazing fires and bullets flying.
Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm in Selma and never burned a car or a flag or an ambassador.
Americans are essentially well behaved in the public square. But listen to their pundits and you can get the shivers.
When it comes to right-wing talk radio, no one is serving tea, certainly not the Tea Party. The air waves are full of cursing and contempt, and endless sneering at others.
Code words for Blacks or Hispanics or poor people are barely code, and contempt for the president of the United States is fed by lies rampant in certain parts of this nation. One nation under God is a fairy tale right there with George Washington’s chopped down cherry tree. We are many factions and some want to deport others and some want to cut the nutrition of needy children and some simply refuse to concern themselves about the health care of the less fortunate.
Political dialogue is the oar that moves the ship of state through turbulent waters. Talk radio is the broken oar that threatens to sink the nation underneath the churning waves of discontent and fear that someone else might be receiving more, having more, while deserving less. Pure hatred is more of a threat in America than carbon dioxide emissions, which isn’t to say those are good for you.
The man who hits his wife can’t control his temper. He seethes with the injustice done to him, the lack of respect he feels in the world, the fear of failure that wakes him with nightmares.
He boils with rage, a rage that easily overwhelms any tenderness that he might harbor in his damaged, poisoned heart.
This may be private domestic trouble but it mimics the world of international politics. It is perhaps the explanation for wars that erupt in countries with only spears to hurl and in countries with bombs buried deep beneath their mountains.
So if someone has disrespected the religious icons, the sacred texts or persons of another religion, we see the beasts burst out of their homes and into the streets, murder in their eyes, violence in their voices, rage in the air.
Civilization is always on thin ice. The polite British tortured, dominated, stole, oppressed, shot, imprisoned, imposed and wreaked havoc around their empire. The less polite Taliban don’t go to the ballet, but their God in all likelihood isn’t flattered by their violent ways.
And so it seems to me that when Bibi waves his bomb at Iran and Iran goes tunneling down to split its atoms, the street, the violent street, is just doing its human thing, its natural thing, getting ready to destroy, to kill, to maim, to burn. The same way the best of social workers may not be able to stop the wife beater even with a 10-step anger management program, so we are all held hostage to our human failure, to our human chest-thumping in the forests of diplomacy. And the end will be the way the end always is: death.
 Contributing editor Anne Roiphe is a novelist and journalist living in New York.