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Dear Tom,

I have it from your wife that ever since Romney lost, and in light of developments since, you haven't been yourself. You're not exercising. You're up till all hours at the computer, reading propaganda that reinforces your belief that a rising tide of people unlike you, whom you'd never aspire to resemble, will yet engulf all you hold dear.

Your side is losing, as even they admit. You are terrified.

You're running yourself ragged. You aren't a young man. You should come to bed and get some sleep. You should attend to your wife, who loves you, and your children and grand-children, who also adore you. Since you're concerned about your legacy, you should dote on them in kind. Forget politics.

Reactionary rhetoric accuses progressives of promoting "self-sacrifice" to tout the "dream" of collective well-being, rather than the right's presumably clear-eyed adult vision of competitive hyper-individualism.

But, on the face of it, "self-sacrifice," which the right casts so pejoratively, is exactly what it's demanding of you. When haven't you dropped everything at their request, to staff a phone bank or fund a dead-end cause? And for what??

The dearest self-sacrifice the right demands of you, though—beyond care, beyond toil, beyond money—Tobias Wolff describes in his remarkable short story, Bullet in the Brain. It's about a bank customer, a curmudgeonly book critic shot to death during a heist because he smart-mouths the robbers.

Much of the story concerns what happens in the mind of the victim, Anders, the instant after he's shot, before he dies. The narrator emphasizes noteworthy biographical incidents Anders does not re-experience right then. One of these especially stands out:

He did not remember the surprise of seeing a college classmate's name on the jacket of a novel not long after they graduated, or the respect he had felt after reading the book. He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect.
As the rising tide of literary mediocrity plagued Anders, obscuring all else, the gods of the right-wing fixate you on the great, smelly throng threatening to crash the rarefied chambers of the power-brokers. You aren't to try to understand the many trespassers' circumstances or their needs. You aren't to let yourself think of what you may have in common with them. They are "takers," whom your beliefs tell you aren't worthy of your regard. To enact your political vision, then, you must sacrifice "the pleasure of giving respect."

My worldview, unlike yours, pushes me to flex the very muscles Anders never used, the ones that atrophy in you. I try to understand every last person in the swelling and converging rabbles around me, including the needy, including the desperate, including especially the impolite and offensive. Ideally, even those who don't "say it well," don't quell my interest in their meaning. The right-wing ideology you embrace entices its followers into a bubble. Free-ranging curiosity about the world, as the powerful know, can lead to respect, often does. Well-taken respect leads, in turn, to pleasure, to a kind of incendiary radicalism that blights the best "divide-and-conquer" seed the betters toss to the masses. They can't abide that.

Anders lives in the past, though his present and future crystallize in the moment the assassin shoots him. Time splinters.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won't be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet's tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can't be helped. But for now Anders can still make time.
It's finite. You and I agree on that much. Decades behind you, already in my forties, time matters to me more than it used to; you know what I mean. As Anders was forced to "make time" in the moment he's annihilated, so are you, so am I. I do it by stretching my puny, person-scaled mind and heart to try to understand each mortal I come into contact with, the self-serving lies the powerful tell, and the context the rest of us share.  

As he dies, Anders recalls a boyhood peer, who has just defended his own choice of the "shortstop" position in baseball, calling it "the best they is." In this memory, Anders "makes time:"

…time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.
People say things as best as they can, and sometimes their expression is perfect. Those realizations, arising in a stricken brain, are eternal. So Anders blesses the future in his dying moment.

Take care, Tom. Know that I am watching, and I'm worried. You cling to the past, as Anders did, but with less refinement and more distress. More keenly than Anders did, you dread the future. But, even in seeming chaos, dread is futile. The one given, as human history expands, is the individual human will to dignity. The growing throng of people insisting on their human worth is colorful, noisy, seemingly free-form, and if we don't join in, we can only delight in it.

That delight illuminates a time you and I won't live to see.

All the best,


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