Stray Thoughts 1/20: Year Zero

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From Watchmen, script by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons

Many liberals are mourning the United States today; we have arrived at an easy moment for it.

America’s vast and beautiful national parks stand among the resources the incoming administration plans to sell off to vampires in the drilling and mining industries. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities lie across the chopping block, as well, according to reports on Thursday. Trump may even stop measuring climate change data, the better to support the self-serving denialist posturing of his cabinet, a bottomless pit of capitalist ghouls.

The mobbed-up game show host Donald Trump, whose sole accomplishment in American politics so far is propagating a minor but curiously effective libel against his predecessor, has assumed the highest office in the nation on earth with the largest military and the most bountiful economy in human history. And he has control over methods of killing ranging from a remote-controlled flying robot called a Reaper, which can blow up a wedding party on a moment’s notice, to the B83 nuclear bomb, which can turn Manhattan into hot glass with fallout that reaches Boston and cancer clusters that extend tentacles down generations.

For the American left and the American liberal establishment, reflection beyond the endless recriminations that dog discussion of the spent political season seems necessary. Why can’t the left find a toehold in national policy? Why can’t liberals shake their characterization from both leftists and conservatives as out-of-touch elitists, and why does that characterization concern them so?

Part of it simply has to do with the hard sell of the American dream, I suspect. As successive administrations from Ronald Reagan forward eroded freedoms, many of us always assumed a guarantee that power would be used wisely, if not always in ways with which we agreed, even as the power itself rapidly accrued to a very few at the expense of the masses who willingly gave it to them. It was never anything but a laughably empty promise, if it was a promise at all, and not an easily exploited misunderstanding.

The truth is that we have rotted from the bottom up, and that our fear and sorrow over what we will lose obscures the mourning we shamefully neglected over what he have already lost. Overhanging this dreadful hour are truths about the American public that ought to have upset and disturbed us during times of greater peace: Huge swaths of the country are held captive to opioid addiction. Huger swaths still are in thrall to corporations more powerful than most governments, forced to compete with other workers for subsistence, to work until they die without hope of respite, to go without healthcare or in many cases bathroom breaks. Many of these people are in the country without documentation; against them, fears of deportation and sundered family bonds are wielded like clubs.

Our workforce is immiserated; our labor force participation drops even as our officials tout economic improvement. The people in this mass are carefully kept from adequate representation: through the refusal of Puerto Rican congressional seats; through identification laws in crucial swing states designed to suppress the votes of black people, who are disproportionately represented in our underclass; through the electoral college, founded in slavery for slavery’s preservation.

WEB DuBois put it best in a header to a section on the white worker in his essay on the reconstruction: “[F]locking here from all the world the white workers competed with black slaves, with new floods of foreigners, and with growing exploitation, until they fought slavery to save democracy and then lost democracy in a new and vaster slavery,” DuBois writes. It is that vaster slavery that now, finally, may threaten without fear of answer the symbols of the great lie of the American Dream kept carefully intact so as to prevent us from fearing the tightening of our chains.

We are a nation that rallies around signs and wonders as naturally as breathing; that is our strength. But it is not the symbols that give us strength – it is the rally. Divided, set against one another, eager to believe any whispered lie about the foreigner who forms the bedrock of this nation of persecuted expatriates, we are united only in name, and perhaps by the dream of a prosperity that ends at our doorstep, available to and achievable by us, and only us, to be extended to our neighbor at our sole discretion.

And yet the well of sadness is still bottomless; and yet the wealth of culture and invention, of happiness and opportunity still seem such sudden and immediate losses. It is evidence, I think, of a failing on the part of so many, including myself, to see our neighbor’s misery and respond to it with compassion and bold action, rather than with bromides about America’s greatness, past or present. If Trump’s supporters glory in that sadness, perhaps they are right to do so, however wrong they are to believe in some utopian past and however disappointed, angry, and unwilling to accept the blame they deserve they are destined to be in the destruction inevitable in our future.


Goodbye, America!

At your heart, you were lies, but I loved you so much!

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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