“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Charles Dickens from A Tale of Two Cities
Most of us know this quote as the opening paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities by the remarkable Charles Dickens. And you likely also know that in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens was offering us a close-up view into 18th century England, and across the Channel, in France. If you know about the disruptive state of affairs in England and France during this time, perhaps you’ll appreciate the allegorical reference of these phrases for us here today, more than two and a half centuries later.
With these remarks, Dickens described an age of radical opposites taking place just a few miles apart, separated only by the English Channel. It speaks of contrasts and comparisons between two cities in the midst of a revolution. And while it kept its storyline focused on London and Paris, it was certainly representative of far more. He was pointing to a major conflict between family and love, hatred, and oppression, good and evil, light and darkness, wisdom, and folly. Now if that doesn’t sound frighteningly familiar, you may want to just cease reading this now…
On Wednesday of this week, the absolute best and worst of our Nation were on full display simultaneously. While an armed rabble of seditionists breached and occupied our Nation’s capital in what is arguably the greatest threat to our democracy this nation has ever known, in Georgia – yes, I said Georgia – the very spark of that same democracy was being rekindled and casting light on what we must all now pray is a new era of American greatness. I would truly never have believed either of these stories if I hadn’t been witness to them as played out right in front of me on Wednesday, January 6, 2021.
The first of our two stories is how, after four years of his lies, deceit, greed, and indifference, an immoral, would-be tyrant whipped up a small, but dangerous band of misinformed followers and instructed them to descend upon our nation’s capital building – “The Peoples’ House” – to take and keep what he had lost in a safe, fair and solemn election. There, they breached the doors of that sacred shrine to freedom, occupied, vandalized, and desecrated its hallowed rooms and halls. Even after the people had spoken and said no…not you…and not this anymore. History will write the remainder of that story, but It was, hopefully, the final act of a maniacal autocrat and his last trampling of the long-respected principles, practices, traditions, and laws that set our nation apart.
The second of our two stories is one of triumph. Of longshots paying off. Of the mighty being brought down by the lowly. A story where two champions of democracy, against all odds, are triumphant in their pursuit of victory in their races for the US Senate, becoming two crucial stones in the great wall defending our republic. It is the story of how sanity, stability, reason, and safety are restored to a nation savagely abused and neglected for four long years, but ultimately unbowed.
Yes, Wednesday, January 6, 2021 may well be the second date on the awful, but thankfully very short list of days that will “live in infamy,” but I cannot help but wonder if in the longer arc of history, we won’t look back and recognize it as a day that may well have ended in the tragic death of the greatest experiment in representative democracy the world has ever known but was instead given a rebirth. I wonder if the tragedy of that day will be the near-death experience that was needed to shock this nation into recognizing the weakened and ignoble state in which we now find ourselves because of our own corrosive, petty, spoiled, child-like actions.
It has been said that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” And like so many things of late, this quote is most often used badly out of context and far from its initial meaning. It comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to William Stephens Smith on Nov. 13, 1787 regarding Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts. While Jefferson was sympathetic to that cause, he did go on in his letter to note that such seditious acts were all too often fomented by treasonable actors to enrage ill-informed factions, and that the remedy to these uprisings, was to “set them right as to facts…” In short, truth!
As did Jefferson, I too believe that democracy must be vigilantly protected, and truth be the sword it wields against the mischaracterization and falsehoods of those who would have us ultimately lose our freedoms by telling us that they alone are the only means by which they can be protected and defended. History is replete with tyrants who subdued and subjugated a people in the name of protecting and defending them. Our only hope against such evil is the cold, glaring light of truth, so that we may never fall prey to the darkness and fallacy of specious promises ever again… Vagaries and platitudes such as those we have heard, over and over, these past four years.
Okay, I’ve given you Dickens and Jefferson, but I also promised some Dylan, so I will finish with this: “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call. Don’t stand in the doorway. Don’t block up the hall. For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled. The battle outside ragin’ will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls. For the times they are a-changin’. Wow! Could he have been more prophetic?
Less than a month after Dylan recorded that song, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. The next night, Dylan opened a concert with “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” He later told biographer Anthony Scaduto, “I thought, ‘Wow, how can I open with that song? I’ll get rocks thrown at me.’ But I had to sing it, my whole concert takes off from there.” What Dylan didn’t yet fully understand is how truth is democracy’s only real defense.
Democracy requires “the truth,” however good or bad it may be. And it must be repeated with more volume and greater frequency than the corrosive falsehoods of the would-be tyrants and depots who are always circling democracy, looking for a chink in its armor. Because the greatest truth is that democracy is fragile, and beautiful, like a glimmering piece of crystal or a small, delicate bird. If we learn nothing else from these past four years, we must come to understand that democracy is tenuous at best, and always, always under threat. Then, when the vigilance of true patriots becomes the very sunlight, air, and water that feeds that same “tree of liberty,” precious democracy may be kept from crashing down around us. Because, as Bob Dylan told us, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”