American Riptide

“It is the plain man who gets uncomfortable and says to himself, ‘this may be the fashion of the moment, but I don’t like it.’ It is the mass of Christian men who feel in their bones that there is something wrong, though they have difficulty in explaining it.” Hillaire Belloc, The Great Heresies.

America has suddenly changed. It’s like a riptide. I live near the beaches of Florida, and therefore the reader must forgive my penchant for sandy references.

Consider how riptides form. The tides bring in sand, lots of sand. It piles up, forming a gently rippled structure extending out from the beach. If you walk out into the sea, straight from the beach, you will likely experience this as first a drop in depth, and then a sudden rise as you emerge onto a sandbar. These sandbars extend, sometimes for miles, running parallel to the beach, but hidden, utterly unseen from the perspective of the air-breathing mammal.

So, if my poor description serves, this sandbar is like a hidden dam under the water. It retains high tide between itself and the beach. A massive amount of water can accumulate in this pocket.

As the tide goes out, the difference between the water in the pocket and the receding sea level becomes greater. Eventually, gravity does its work and the sandbar, often still hidden beneath the waves, breaches. The sandbar’s wall-like structure collapses at a weak point. Now the riptide begins, as all that accumulated mass of seawater suddenly rushes through the breach to find its level outside the damming effect of the sandbar.

From the beach it’s surprising. One minute, there’s no visible problem, and the next, a rushing torrent of seawater is flowing in incredible fury straight out into the horizon.

Swimmers or bathers who happen to be near the breach in the sandbar will get swept out to sea, sometimes for quite a long distance, pulled by the ferocious current through the breach in the sandbar and then propelled out into the open water. The trick to survival, so they tell me (as I’ve never been so unlucky as to need the advice) is to swim parallel to the beach, not to fight the riptide. Get OUT of the riptide, but by swimming sideways to its flow. There’s no stopping the riptide once the breach has formed.

Now I must shift, dear reader, to try to take this painful analogy and apply it to current events. (And the pun on ‘current’ was unintentional but now adopted.)

On January 6, the Capitol was either stormed or occupied, depending on your political persuasion. It was either sedition and insurrection, or it was a valid protest that vented the legitimate fury of the disenfranchised electorate. There are plenty of middle ground understandings of this remarkable event, of course. Take your pick.

But to belabor my poor metaphor, I was a man on the beach, watching from my privileged position, and it was definitely a riptide. Some kind of unseen barrier broke that day, and nature took its course. A great breach opened up in some hidden social structure and suddenly a great wall of fury erupted in a place that seemed serene just moments before. A riptide of humanity, as it were.

Now the GameStop mania is delivering similar effects to Wall Street. Something broke, something shifted out there in the unseen world of finance, and now the fury of the people is bankrupting the wealthy.

Now that I see this in this light, I understand the BLM / Antifa riots more. They were the first caught in the riptide. They got pulled through the dissolving social structure a year before the MAGA folks. In a human (all too human!) way, they are in the same desperate position as anyone else.

I can only speculate as to what the hidden disruption was. Just like the mass of seawater retained by that hidden sandbar, the great weight of American anger was being held back by something that has now failed. But something is very different in America.

And now the government is adopting the same tired old approaches to civil unrest: domestic surveillance and harsher penalties (eventually torture, kangaroo courts, and some sort of gulag/camp if the historical pattern holds). It seems the riptide will continue as more and more people get pushed through the dissolving societal structure and into the wide-open of the unknown future.

What else can the government do? No government ever says, “Perhaps the answer is LESS control.”

No oligarch ever said, “Maybe those people really are my equals and I should address their concerns and questions, even if I think they are nonsensical.”

So, the government is not addressing how to handle the riptide. What failed? Can it be repaired?

Now, as it seems we are caught in a riptide, perhaps some sort of adaptive approach to survival is required? How can we swim sideways, as it were? We can’t go back. There’s no fixing whatever it is that broke. We can’t even identify what or where it broke, or how to repair it if we could, no more than a swimmer has the capacity to repair an underwater sandbar. Like it or not, the riptide is upon our country.

And what tide flowed out, to begin with? Was it the erosions of personal freedom over the past year due to COVID? Was it the unresponsive government? Was it economics? All of the above and more? What created the disparity that produced the great weight that is now rushing us all out to sea?

And just to bring the opening quote into perspective, Belloc was critiquing the Albigensian heresy and outlining the medieval response to it – if you don’t know the story or haven’t read The Great Heresies, I suggest it for the thoughtful reader. He has his weak points and prejudices, but Belloc, especially in the critique of what he called The Modern Mind heresy, was spot on to the point of nearly prophetic stature.

IMAGE: Rip current by U.S Army Corps of Engineers Field Research Facility at Duck, NC. Public Domain.