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If you want to feel unsettled, watch Years and Years, a British TV drama which has been picked up by HBO after running on BBC One earlier this year. A sci-fi soap opera set in a dystopian near future, it opens in 2019 and follows the fortunes of the Lyons family--four adult siblings and their grandmother--over the next 15 years.

This is a well-engineered piece of credible horror; the family experiences all the usual episodes of domestic trauma and triumph while the wider world collapses in the background. It feels prescient. This is what could be. As one character, Steve Lyons (Rory Kinnear, who had a memorable turn as a British prime minister faced with a distasteful choice in the series Black Mirror) puts it, the siblings, born in the '80s and early '90s, "were lucky for a bit ... We had, like, for the first 30 years of our lives, we had a nice time ... Turns out, we were born in a pause."

I was skeptical about the show because the previews I saw prominently featured a right-wing populist politician named Viv Rook (a startlingly good Emma Thompson) who, over the course of the series, enjoys a Trumpian rise. I didn't think I'd be interested in that because I'm not much interested in politics.

I resent feeling like we have to pay close attention to what politicians get up to. Yet I feel like I have to watch them. I wish they'd just do their jobs. I wish they'd put the interests of their constituents ahead of their personal agendas, that they'd take a realistic view of what is required to better the lives of all Americans. I wish the trade didn't attract the vainglorious and corrupt.

We should be governed by earnest clerks, by quiet, serious, honest people with self-deprecating senses of humor. People who don't tell us how dutiful and honorable they are. People we might habitually underestimate.

People we could trust not to rob us. Boring, good people who understand that reasonable, well-intentioned minds can disagree and that compromise is a necessary part of governance.

Obviously we don't have that kind of government; the lure of power and the money that naturally flows to power in a capitalist society is strong. The wrong sort of people are attracted to political careers--bullies and over-compensators and messianic opportunists seek office for reasons that have nothing to do with securing the blessings of liberty for the people they are supposed to serve. We have to be viliglant, else they convert our birthright to their own uses.

My idea of government is as a silent, deep-running machine as unobtrusive and benign as ether. It would fix the potholes and keep the peace and contract with other nations that would be run just as quietly.

But government is not like that, because we are not so good as that. Government is petty and oblique; it makes us carry papers and keep files. Comprised of men, not angels, it has its own appetites and a brutish instinct for survival and growth. One of the basic problems of civilized man has always been how to deal with the apparatus we have constructed to perpetuate our society.

Jokers and clowns have to do something; politics requires no particular talent beyond the ability to flatter and make promises. Successful candidates enlist the confidence of their constituents the same way hustlers enlist the confidence of their marks.

Maybe we should wonder why there are any honorable people in high office instead of why there are so few. Shamelessness is an asset to the office seeker; no one disputes that to win a Senate seat one has to be a cheerful liar. This is the game as it is and it will not be changed.

They talk to us like we are children. And it is like children we respond, crediting their rhetoric as sensible, their fairy stories as history. Toute nation a le gouvernement qu'elle mérite. Some of you understand that; I'm not translating it for the rest of you. I'm not running for anything.

Politics will not save us. It is, we are constantly reminded, the art of the possible.

It is also the author of atrocity, from the three-fifths compromise to the Dred Scott decision to the establishment of the "separate but equal" doctrine in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson to the Kristallnacht. Politics is a necessary evil but an evil nonetheless; implicit in the everyday give-and-take of dickering and compromise of transactional business as usual is the low-grade corruption of principle. It's hard to horse trade.

You all saw what happened last week. Some of you may have even read the report, the bounds of which the old prosecutor refused to stray. It doesn't matter; you either enjoy the reality TV star in the White House or you don't, and if you enjoy him you don't care what he did, or what was done on his behalf. Most of you have bought into the idea of Manichean party warfare as the only way forward. You have picked a team for which you will root.

Fair enough. I'd rather watch baseball than the scripted series that has become our national politics, this pro wrassling-derived quasi sport with its heels and faces and kayfabe.

I'd rather watch Years and Years.

Like the Lyons kids, I was born in a pause too--or at least things broke lucky for me. I remember how the end of the '60s felt; I remember Watergate, but was too young for Vietnam.

The news hasn't always been boring, but I came up in an era when it was still possible for young people to make their way without incurring crippling debt, when there was still a reasonable expectation that good behavior and diligence might be enough for a person to secure economic dignity.

For most of my life, the idea of America as the world's last best hope--of our country serving as a moral force in a brutally Darwinian universe--still had currency.

And I have to admit that, as weird as things are now, I don't feel financially insecure, and nobody has made me shut up--not yet.

It's only made me sad.


Editorial on 07/28/2019


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