This week, Lee Miller delves into Congressional bickering's barbaric endgame.
Yale Law School Professor Stephen Carter defines civility as “the total of all sacrifices made for others for the sake of living in a community; [not] living as individuals seeking only our own self-indulgences and desires.” Under this definition, current members of the US Congress failed miserably in crafting a debt “reduction” plan during this past week. In short, they maintained the status quo by borrowing more and cutting a little. Congress increased the debt ceiling to $2.4 trillion dollars (enough to continue borrowing until 2013) and cut $2.4 trillion over the next ten years ($900 million cut immediately). With a US debt estimated at $14.5 trillion dollars and rising, these are miniscule acts.
Lack of compromise among representative Tea Party members, Republicans and Democrats demonstrates entrenched protection of political self-interest. Like the shooting of US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords this past January and the latest egocentric rap lyrics, Congress reflects a general decline of civility in United States society, as defined by Prof. Carter. A similar social pessimism existed post-World War II when Nobel Prize winner William Golding wrote the literary classic Lord of the Flies.
Published in 1954, Lord of the Flies follows a group of British schoolboys who are abandoned on a deserted island after a plane crash, without any adult supervision. Amidst the initial confusion, two of the main characters, Ralph and Piggy, discover a giant conch shell. They blow into the shell and a primal sound draws all straggling survivors out of the island wood to one meeting place. Here a new society begins.
At first, the boys (ages 7-12) imitate civil traditions of adults. Ralph assigns work tasks like gathering wood, building lean-tos and maintaining a signal fire for rescue. Ralph is elected chief over Jack, and it is decided that whoever holds the conch shell is the only one allowed to speak at group meetings. Initially, Jack agrees with the democratic and communal organization noting, “We’ve got to have rules and obey them,” he says. “After all we are not savages. We’re English and the English are the best at everything. So we’ve got to do the right thing.”
Within a short time, though, Jack discovers wild pigs on the island and gathers a small tribe (of former choirboys) for hunting. The blood thrill of their first kill feeds a strange transformation. Jack’s tribe is less and less interested in the signal fire and more interested in killing pigs. As he eats more meat, Jack’s confidence grows, and he wants to lead the whole group, to replace Ralph as chief. The group is reluctant to name Jack as the new chief until fear blossoms on the island.
The younger boys have bad dreams at night, fueled by the rustling palm leaves and nocturnal critters. Soon the rumor of a great forest beast circulates, which Jack confirms. The younger boys become more fearful of the Beast, while Jack makes meat offerings and erects a pig-head effigy to the creature—a dawn of primitive religion. The pig skull, mounted on a stake, swarms with flies and becomes “Beelzebub” (literally translated from Greek to English as “Lord of the Flies”) or “the devil.”
With fear entrenched, the boys look to Jack’s tribe for protection from the fabricated beast. The hunters now wear war paint, do as they please, commence rituals of killing using human actors. Jack’s tribe splits to the other side of the island, taking most of the boys, a few by force. They return to Ralph’s camp at night and steal Piggy’s thick glasses, the only thing that effectively starts a fire.
In a last effort at civility, Ralph and Piggy travel to Jack’s camp and suggest sharing the glasses. One of Jack’s band launches a huge rock off a cliff which kills Piggy and shatters the conch shell. The hunters immediately turn on Ralph and a two-day island manhunt begins. The hunters start a huge fire and flush Ralph to the beach, where they surround him, chant, and prepare to kill. Unknown to the boys, a Naval Officer is watching on the beach. Astounded, the officer interrupts the boys
“What are you doing?” he demands. “Having a war or something?” The officer and the boys realize their state—the absolute disintegration of civility—and all are embarrassed.
Sometime soon, the US Congress will have a day of reckoning and embarrassment. American citizens need to assess our level of civility, relinquish our fear and sacrifice more toward community, compromise and true democracy. If not, we may end up in the primal dystopia similar to the powerful and vivid story, Lord of the Flies.
Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com).