Day of the Sunderers

    Richard Louv, in his important new book The Nature Principle, exhaustively documents recent research on the positive effects of outdoor environments on human health.  Louv arrays an impressive number of studies and figures to confirm what many of us have always known experientially:  Nature is good for us.  For those who need ammunition for the argument, Louv is their man.
    In his chapter on the connection between nature and mental health, Louv quotes a researcher named Glenn Albrecht of Perth, Australia, who has coined the term solastalgia (combining root words for solace and pain), meaning "the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault."  I would define the feeling Albrecht's neologism describes as the pain of the threat to one's sense of home, whether external or internal.  Albrecht's coinage proceeds from his study of communities in New South Wales affected by strip mining, but the wider applicability of his term -- from natural disaster to full-scale war -- should be evident.
    The concept of "solastalgia" is appropriate to discussions of the right wing assaults on labor and other rights of working people we've witnessed since the 2010 elections.  Solastalgia is plainly a motivating factor, for instance, in the enormous protests and passionate grassroots resistance to the radical administration and policies of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin.
    I became acutely aware of the right wing erosion of what I'd thought stable features of American democracy when the US Supreme Court, overturning the popular vote, handed the presidency to George W. Bush in the disputed 2000 election.  I'm neither politically naive nor inactive, but I'd been lulled by the relative peace and prosperity of the Clinton era, in retrospect a lapse with severe consequences.  Since that time, my life has never been entirely free of the uneasiness and outright pain of this thing called solastalgia.
    Wisconsin, I think, suffers a particularly bad case of solastalgia; I don't doubt that even on the right, some who approve Walker's agenda worry over the field of contention to which our generally peace-loving state has descended.  Traditionally, Wisconsin has distinguished itself in maintaining a healthy balance between the conservative stability of its farming culture and the progressive legacy of its politics, coming together to create conditions for opportunity backed by a commitment to the general good.  Progressives such as Bob La Follette, William Proxmire, Gaylord Nelson, and Russ Feingold have devoted careers to ensuring a high quality of life not only for Wisconsinites but for all Americans.  Now all that is suddenly in danger.
    No wonder we experience the assault of Walker as an existential threat to the secure ground -- historical and spiritual -- of the Wisconsin home we've known all our lives.  If Wisconsin can be stripped of the social and political progress of the past hundred years, for which we've been justly proud, then what place is safe for our most forward-looking dreams? 
    Our country becomes increasingly subject to solastalgia as we watch the Republicans attempt to dismantle the social and economic safeguards of the New Deal, as has been their intention for decades.  The agendas of right wing ideologues like Scott Walker and Paul Ryan are more than political in their implications; they also undermine the sense of our identity as persons secure in a known system in a known place.  These radical agendas to weaken or abolish the New Deal safety net undermine the foundations of our mental health.
    The sad truth is that we have foolishly entrusted our health to people who do not care about our health.  It's as if, sick, our instincts served us so poorly that we went to an anti-doctor, an outright poisoner, instead of a healer.  Scott Walker is exactly the wrong kind of person to put in charge of the health of the tolerant, easy-going state of Wisconsin.  He cares nothing for the bonds of affection that join us as citizens, and displays little understanding of the importance of the social contract, imperfect as it is, that has kept our elderly and poor from dying on the streets.  Instead he hangs out his watch repair shingle, and then "repairs" the pocket watch of Wisconsin (which was not broken) with a sledgehammer.
    D. H. Lawrence wrote about Walker's kind in a wonderfully strange late poem, "Walk Warily."  He says: 

     Walk warily, walk warily, be careful what you say:
     because now the Sunderers are hovering round,
     the Dividers are close upon us. . . .

Isn't Lawrence also talking about George W. Bush, who told us he would be a "uniter"?  That should have put us on notice, because you could see in George Bush's face that if he said something, the opposite was true.  The same goes for Scott Walker.  He is, like Bush, a Divider, a Sunderer.  Sunderers, says Lawrence, wield "the knife-edge cleavage of the lightning / cleaving, cleaving."  The only thing Sunderer politicians know how to do is cut.  As to creating true wealth (or, for that matter, jobs), they haven't a clue.  Lawrence laments:

     Lo, we are in the midst of the Sunderers
     the Cleavers, that cleave us forever apart from one another
     and separate heart from heart, and cut away all caresses. . . .

When a society is attacked by the Sunderers, even Lincoln's "better angels" can be hard to summon, for, as the poem concludes,

     It is the day of the Sunderers
     and the angels are standing back.

This is what Rimbaud meant by "the time of the assassins."  This was Whitman's meaning when he wrote, "Let sympathy pass, a stranger, to other shores!"  Rimbaud and Whitman both wrote in the 19th century.  Lawrence's poem dates to the late 1920s, as the beast of fascism began its rise in Europe. 
    Let's not pretend we weren't warned.

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