They were just a bunch of retired old guys who had outgrown the need to be authoritative. They met every Friday after four at the village saloon for drinks and a review of the week’s updates. They were: the former long-time town manager who now ran the community farm, the former publisher/editor of the island newspaper, one of his former columnists with a mysterious past, a poet/novelist who was respected if little read, and a rock-music reviewer/song writer. They were an institution unto themselves and no threat to the womenfolk. It being New England, not one of them was a Republican.
The name of the establishment where they converged was the Narragansett Café, though it did not serve coffee, never had. It was where the guys in outdoor work clothes drank when they got off work, where the village alcoholic widows felt at home, a block up from the waterfront. There was the requisite pool table, juke box, bar shuffle board along one wall—a proper chapel of ethanol culture with four muted flat-screen TVs.
The past and its players played a part in the group’s disputations—Brian Wilson, Bill Russel, JFK, Roy Orbison, Ted Williams, Fidel Castro—but the commonest theme was generally how to make sense of what was happening in America. As all Americans who cared were aware, this was a daunting task; but to these septuagenarians, the current social/political landscape was especially disconcerting. “It’s like a trailer park after the tornado,” one of them observed, “with survivors searching through the wreckage for whatever fond possessions they can salvage, like pieces of the Constitution.”
In their shared opinion, the democracy had been mutating into a financial oligarchy for some time. It seemed inevitable. Socrates and Mencken had predicted it. But the latest collapse of old values did seem extreme. They all had assumed that true social chaos would arrive after their departure, like the rising sea levels that would drown this oceanside saloon, but decades hence, long after their last drink. They had worried how their grandkids would cope. But like anything headed downhill, the disintegration had picked up speed.
One thing the old farts weren’t was naïve. They had been paying attention for more than half a century, through Vietnam and Watergate and a dozen bogus wars. They had heard all the prevarications, the dishonest disavowals, the “unknown unknowns,” and flat-out misinformation. They’d been around. Sometimes their leaders had lied. But those were lies that at least paid tribute to the truth by pretending to be true, and politicians caught in a lie paid a price for tarnishing the truth. Truth was different than belief or shared opinion or repeated assertion. Truth was provable. Truth was rational and scientific, based upon observable fact. Truth was undeniable and would win out in the end. No longer.
Truth, like politeness and courtesy, was no longer fashionable. Truth, in fact, had become the enemy of many. Unfortunate truths could be ignored, despised. Now it was the facts that lied, if they contradicted what one wanted to believe. Untruths were now just “alternative facts.” Reality was whatever best served your purpose. And no one seemed to care very much that the basis of all honest discourse had just vanished. If you don’t like my truth, make up your own. They shook their heads—unsustainable.
And then there was social media. None of the old guys quite knew what to think about that, except that it was not their mode of communication. It seemed to be all about speed and brevity and surface. Three qualities they no longer valued. An embarrassing constant contest of self-important distraction, a crowd to be lost in, and at least coincidentally complicit in the larger cacophonous chaos. One thing they were certain of was that any endeavor without gatekeepers could not maintain or even appreciate quality. It was emblematic of the society as a whole—all about more, not about better.
They had a lot of laughs. There was much to laugh about. It was hopeless, of course, which made humor all the more essential. Selfie-sticks, Twitter accounts, a newly elected illiterate buffoon for President who personified the tragic-comic punchline of it all. They never drank that much. Those days were behind them. They flirted with lovely Caitlyn behind the bar, young enough to be their granddaughter. By six they would disperse, their inconsequential council taking a recess until the next Friday, but never adjourning.