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COVID-19 is a cruel reminder of the human condition

By Monte Bute | 05/12/2020

“Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, “because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” Welcome to the United States.

The first principle of the American creed is that world is redeemable. We believe that we are exempt from the constraints of the human condition. I disagree. As Albert Camus suggests: We are Sisyphus.

Whatever their faith, ideology or party, most Americans are utopians. Since the Puritans washed ashore and John Winthrop foresaw “a city upon a hill,” the American experiment has been a perfectionist project, an exceptional escape from nature and history. No matter if you believe in free markets, a welfare state, democratic socialism or anarchism, your agenda is grounded upon an unshakable faith in human perfectibility and the inevitability of creating a heaven on earth.

Awash in cognitive dissonance

Every so often, a calamity of such magnitude occurs that it shakes the foundations of our taken-for-granted reality. COVID-19 is such a moment. The United States is awash in cognitive dissonance: Our illusion is that America is redeemable, that the Promised Land is just around the corner; the truth is that we are embedded in nature and history, tossed about by their unpredictable vicissitudes.

Monte Bute

Monte Bute

“The world is a hellish place,” said singer-songwriter Tom Waits.

In all societies, power struggles between groups are ubiquitous and perennial. The powerful are predators who prey upon the vulnerable — they always have, and they always will. In all environments, natural and human-made calamities are ubiquitous and perennial. No amount of Shangri-La prophylactics will shield us from injustice and cruelty, from death and destruction.

To acknowledge this is not a brief for quietism; by no means does unblinkered realism absolve us from acting against suffering, cruelty, and injustice. Nevertheless, we are Sisyphus, forever condemned to push the rock of righteousness up the mountain, only to see it roll back down, perpetually. The world is not redeemable.

But what if we have it all wrong? What if redemption is not a “forever after” thing? Perhaps it is more like extended epiphanies, interludes in which we transcend our mundane lives.

Redemptive moments

For sure, communities do not experience forever-after redemptions; nevertheless, they do have redemptive episodes. Throughout history, exemplary communities have stood up against pestilences, disasters, and social catastrophes like war, human slavery, ethnic cleansing, and climate change. Regrettably, too often these redemptive communities have faced unresponsive dominant communities and nation states. In this time of COVID-19, our essential workers are redemptive communities, inspiring the rest of us to listen to our better angels, ignoring the shrill voices of our demons.

During this plague, the selfless acts of courage rise to a heroic level when speaking of health care workers, first responders, transit workers, and workers in essential industries. At a more prosaic level, we must not overlook a contagion of kindness, the millions of small acts of care and compassion that emerge like blades of spring grass. Amidst all the death and destruction, this too is a redemptive moment in American history.

Still, Camus closes “The Plague” with a cautionary note:

“None the less, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had to be done, and what would assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”

The world remains a hellish place. It cries out for our attention. We must create what Martin Luther King Jr. called “beloved communities” who answer those pleas by pushing the rock of righteousness toward the peak, acting against suffering, cruelty, and injustice. I am one with Camus: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Monte Bute teaches sociology and social science at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.

As someone who has written many op-ed articles for newspapers and magazine, the sage advice in this column will improve your chances for getting published.

This is a 22-minute documentary by Vice reporter Elle Reeve. She embedded herself within the storm troopers who descended upon Charlottesville. This will provide you a gut-wrenching, experiential understanding of the White nationalists who endanger us all.

​Karl Marx once wrote, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

If you will permit me a bit of literary license, Charlottesville was a tragedy; President Trump’s reprehensible responses to that event were a farce.

Nothing that President Trump has done since the Inauguration has so exposed that he has a cancer of the soul, something he is inflecting upon our nation. That he sits in the same White House that was once occupied by Abraham Lincoln is an indelible stain that we shall never expunge.

Even if the American people eventually remove Trump from office, we will never again be the same. As William Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ​

Here is what a leading neo-Nazi website had to say about the woman THEY killed yesterday in Charlottesville. These forces of evil are the walking dead, souless mutants, seeking death and destruction wherever they roam.

Some of you occasionally read my posts about our constitutional crisis. Most of you just randomly spot something of mine when you are scrolling through a thread of posts from your friends. If you appreciate some of what you have seen from me, check in on my FB page once or twice a day and scroll through to see what I’ve posted that day.
Since his inauguration, I’ve turned my FB page into “A Virtual Trump Teach-in.” I spend several hours a day finding 5 to 10 news, commentary and analytic articles, plus cartoons. They are often from sources you may not regularly access. I try to post materials for well-informed citizens who are resisting All-things Trump.

This is an excerpt from something that he once wrote for the New York Times.

“You might consider them romantics, fighting in a doomed cause for something greater than their self-interest. And even though men like Mr. Berg would identify with a cause, Communism, that inflicted far more misery than it ever alleviated—and rendered human dignity subservient to the state—I have always harbored admiration for their courage and sacrifice in Spain.

“I have felt that way since I was boy of 12, reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in my father’s study. It is my favorite novel, and its hero, Robert Jordan, the Midwestern teacher who fought and died in Spain, became my favorite literary hero. In the novel, Jordan had begun to see the cause as futile. He was cynical about its leadership, and distrustful of the Soviet cadres who tried to suborn it.

“But in the final scene of the book, a wounded Jordan chooses to die to save the poor Spanish souls he fought beside and for. And Jordan’s cause wasn’t a clash of ideologies any longer, but a noble sacrifice for love.

‘“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for,’ Jordan thinks as he waits to die, ‘and I hate very much to leave it.’ But he did leave it. Willingly.”

Not everyone realises that to write a really good piece of journalism is at least as demanding intellectually as the achievement of any scholar.

This short essay captures the “Trump effect.”

“I puzzled over this for some time. Eventually I sensed that Trump wasn’t inducing people’s self-destruction so much as he was acting like a divining rod, revealing rot that existed already but was not apparent. . . . It’s a general malady. Trump is exposing our collective rot. The rotten flock to him. And there’s so much rot to go around.”

Together through life: My bond with my only sibling

We had ways to fill our time, but all that mattered was that we were together again.


The Bute brothers, Monte and Tony, at a recent Twins game.

This may not be true for everyone, but for me there is no other lifelong bond like that with an only sibling. We have shared seven decades together. In the words of the Grateful Dead (Tony has always been a Deadhead), “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” Given our age and living far apart in different countries, an unspoken question now hovers over our partings: Is this our last rodeo together?

We did the usual stuff, including considerable time reminiscing about our lives. Several times, one brother would recall events that the other could not recollect. Over the weeks, both of us became addicted to binge-watching seasons of TV series like “Fargo” and “Better Call Saul.” He and I devoted endless hours trolling and casting for elusive fish (my bad). We did leave the hermitage a couple of times, for my youngest daughter’s graduation and a Minnesota Twins game. However, those activities were of small consequence. All that mattered was that we were together again.

We began our odyssey in the 1940s, isolated brothers on a small southwestern Minnesota farm in Mennonite country. Today we are facing our twilight years as elderly relics of the Sixties. In between, we celebrated and commiserated much together: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll; political protests, spiritual quests and existential angst; marriages, children and grandchildren; vocational callings, social-change commitments and accepting that we, too, are Sisyphus.

Peter and Brigitte Berger, a couple of iconoclastic sociologists, wrote, “One should be very careful how one chooses one’s parents.” Of course, you had no choice as to who your parents were. So what is their point? “If one has been careless in the choice of parents,” they ask tongue-in-cheek, “what are one’s chances of making good this mistake?” By intentionally choosing how to think and behave, we can opt to improve our lives and, in turn, improve the world around us. The Bute brothers have spent their lives rewriting the twist of fate that was their birth.

Nearing the end of the voyage, we recognize that our bodies are but a shell of the youthful athletes we once were and that our memories and mental firepower are fading away into the coming darkness. Despite all those frailties, there is a singular blessing of a long life, well-lived — practical wisdom. Carl Jung once said that the first half of life is about achievement and the last half is preparing for death. In my eighth decade, I now realize how fortunate I was 40 years ago when I discovered a Reinhold Niebuhr prayer.

We usually know this prayer as the popularized rendition used by self-help groups. Few know that an eminent theologian actually wrote the original version. Niebuhr, one of the 20th century’s wisest public figures, intended this counsel as equally applicable to personal and civic life.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

Perhaps the most difficult lesson any of us will learn during our sojourn on this earth is “the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Farewell my brother, until we meet again.

Monte Bute teaches sociology at Metropolitan State University.