The upswing in homicide in Little Rock has so alarmed the citizenry, not to mention the authorities, that Gov. Asa Hutchinson has requested closer cooperation between federal, state and local police. And, as elsewhere in the nation, tension between law enforcers and those they are sworn to protect, simmers.
City streets, county roads, state highways and Interstates in Arkansas go begging for fresh asphalt and concrete, but there is too little money and the General Assembly adjourned with no serious attempt to provide it.
Rural Arkansas, less in need than ever of unskilled labor and, in the eyes of its most promising young, offering too little to anchor them to the hills and fields of their ancestors, watches as both the hopeful and the uncertain depart for cities that struggle to meet the demand for municipal services.
The party governing Washington cannot agree on a replacement for the health care program it vowed to, if nothing else, simply repeal. Nothing definitive, yet, from Arkansas’s two U.S. senators on where they stand. The minority party, meantime, is locked in a struggle for identity.
It is never clear which high-ranking executive branch officials speak with authority for the president, since he as often as not quickly contradicts them.
The distance between the haves, and especially the ultra-haves, and the have-nots grows, and with it racial divisions and resentments.
Not even the most sanguine of observers could fail to note the gloom.
“The hour may be too late for a high civilization. We are frightened to think that the very rich grow richer, the very poor poorer, the dark-skinned more violent, our cities simultaneously more crowded and more desolate, our countryside more ugly.”
Those words were written not yesterday but a half-century ago, written by one of the greatest stylists, and most astute and even-handed of journalists, to have worked at the trade. He was Eric Sevareid, for decades the sage of CBS News, and a frequent contributor to one or another print journal. North Dakota born, seasoned by war and the uneasy Cold War peace, his place among those who regard the planet as their beat was secure decades before our first and only conversation, a brief one, following his appearance at Searcy’s Harding University in the early 1980s. I was awed, so much so that I recall hardly a word of our chat. No matter; the prose he composed for public consumption is what matters, thoughts on craft, on country.
This, in 1976, in his forward to a new edition of one of his books: “It was a lucky stroke of timing to have been born and to have lived as an American in this last generation. It was good fortune to be a journalist in Washington, now the greatest single news headquarters in the world since ancient Rome. But we are not Rome; the world is too big, too varied. The ‘American Century’ concept of Henry Luce was an absurdity, too. We were not born to be imperialists; we never learned the style, and the time for this is gone. We understand the concept of citizen, not that of subject.”
And: “This is the age of the journalist more than the age of the artist, the teacher or the pastor. It is the age of nonfiction because imagination cannot keep up with the fantastic daily realities.”
Those fantastic daily realities, a few noted above: We cannot keep up with them because they are coming too quickly, in multiples, often daily. We will always need our artists, teachers and pastors; but we need our journalists, and our honest journals, as never before, more even than in Sevareid’s time, the “American Century” he dismissed as especially dangerous hubris.
Sevareid would, I feel certain, regard our present America with equal alarm, not for any appetite for overseas conquest, but its almost opposite — a retreat from global leadership, international engagement. The substance of today’s politics would have appalled him; its rhetoric would have sickened him.
A few days ago an Arkansas newspaper, the Atkins Chronicle, died. Sevareid’s voice, his typewriter, fell silent 25 years ago this month. His long view remains, reinforcing.
“Travels in all the continents have not lessened my love and respect for America, but deepened both, in spite of the distressing spread of our vulgarities,” wrote Sevareid, who would have loved Paris, Arkansas as much as the Paris he fled just ahead of the Nazis. “There is a civilization of the heart, too, and the goodness in Americans, the evangelical strain, has not disappeared. We have often been innocents abroad and at time have done unintended harm, but no other great power has the confidence and stability to expose and face its own blunders. We are a turbulent society but a stable republic.”
One should like to think so. Yet despite his never diminished optimism, one cannot but believe that Severeid today would consider his America, our Arkansas a part of it, and — wince.