The Universal Notebook: The evolution of (my) consciousness

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The year I was born, 1949, was an ominous year. In June, George Orwell published “1984.” In August, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb. And in October, Chairman Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. The world hasn’t been the same since.

As much as we all come into the world wired in a particular way in terms of intelligence, aptitudes and personalities, world events cannot help but make an impression on our young minds.

In 1962, for instance, I was 13 when the Cuban Missile Crisis raised the specter of nuclear annihilation. The absurdity of the human condition attracted me to writers like Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett.

Edgar Allen BeemIn high school, the distant drumming of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement shaped my distrust of authority and awareness of injustice everywhere.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, the Democratic Convention in Chicago erupted in police violence and there were race riots in every major city. America went to hell in 1968 and it has never fully recovered. Neither have I.

Then in 1970, while I was in college, Ohio National Guard troops fired on and killed unarmed students at Kent State without any provocation. And the public seemed to approve. The sickness in the American psyche had become terminal.

So I spent more than a decade in denial, fighting anxiety and depression as I entered my adult years. In 1972, I got married for the first time, moved into a new apartment and started a new job. In 1980, I got divorced, quit my job and re-married.

A renewal of a kind was completed when I joined the staff of the weekly Maine Times in 1981. I was hired as the art critic and to write “lite ‘n’ brite” features to entertain readers who might not be interested in a steady diet of politics and environmentalism. At the time, I would have listed myself among those disinterested.

My political consciousness-raising coincided with the reigns of George I (1989-93) and George II (2001-09) as they presided over the invasion of the Middle East and the endless war on terror it begat. Still, in 2003 when I inherited this column, which once belonged to former Maine Times editor John Cole, I mostly wrote personal pieces of the sort collected in “Backyard Maine” in 2009.

Gradually, with age and anger, I became increasingly partisan and political, culminating in an admitted case of Trump Derangement Syndrome, a state of apoplectic disbelief that the country I love had become so ignorant, prejudiced and mean-spirited that it elected a deranged conman to lead it.

When the Republican Party embraced Trump’s Big Lie, it became a criminal enterprise and then Supreme Court became an arm of the GOP.

As Orwell wrote in “1984,” “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” To this Orwellian doublespeak, Trump added, “Treason is patriotism.”

And so we have entered a new era of hopelessness.

The environment is not going to get better. There will be no end to gun violence. Christian fundamentalists will continue to persecute the LGBTQ community and try to dictate how, when and where women will give birth. And racism will define America, as it always has.

So rather than rant and rave any longer about America going to hell, I’m inclined to try to relax and enjoy what’s left of my life and to do what I can to make those I love happier.

“Reality,” wrote Orwell, “exists in the human mind and nowhere else.”

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen review column.

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