By Chris Sick
This column marks my 12th for Blitz; a full year of month-in-month-out efforts to tackle controversial issues with all the nuance, context, and complexity I can pack into (and frequently over) my word limit. After a year, I’ve decided to get out while the getting remains good, and move on before I begin to repeat myself.
Writing, for me, is a selfish act, and this column has been an incredible privilege. I use the writing to clarify my thoughts and think through my arguments toward a conclusion I can stand behind. My monthly task has been to pick – without any editorial interference – a subject to explore, dive into the available information and opinion, sort through the mess, and arrive at a(n unpopular) opinion.
If my motivation is inherently selfish, however, the animating conviction of my writing is not. When I sit down in front of the keys I believe, in my heart of hearts, that with the right information and the right argument, it is entirely possible to change minds.
I do this despite all the evidence – some of which I’ve written about before – to the contrary; and I do it because, at bottom, I believe people to be essentially good and decent, and fairly bright. I am convinced most people are persuadable, and able to think for themselves if only treated as the adults they are.
I have a dark and abiding suspicion that this central conviction is not widely shared.
Over the recent holidays, I finally read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ more recent Between the World and Me. The books share a subject – race relations – and literary conceit, framed as letters to loved ones. But despite the more than 50 years that separate their publication, they also share a focus on the endless capacity for self-delusion that Americans possess.
Both Coates and Baldwin analyze the ways in which the condition of black America is maintained by whites who are all too willing to believe that those conditions are either imagined or deserved. Both authors focus a sizeable portion of their anger – as did Dr. Martin Luther King – on the white liberals who feint towards equality, but are too comfortable within the system to risk dismantling it.
For my part, I can’t help but not only agree with these two incredible authors, but see the easy ways in which their arguments could be extended. The United States is, perhaps more than any other country in history, a place deeply invested in its own myths.
We believe this is the land of opportunity, where anybody can “make it” with hard work, despite the ongoing evisceration of the middle class and the grinding down of social mobility. We’ve spent eight years flattering ourselves as post racial while every metric of socioeconomic status shows a dramatic gap between white and black Americans.
We invest our foundational myths with such power we can barely recognize the uncomfortable realities that face us. The United States now occupies an extremely unhappy valley between the promises of our myths and the reality that gives lie to them.
When the Occupiers took to Wall Street, it’s worth remembering that they didn’t begin with a radical call to tear down the existent economic order. Rather, their complaint was that they had been told a college education would lead to a middle class life. After taking on the astronomical debt of the devil’s bargain, they got to the other end of their degree to discover no jobs were waiting for them.
The shock of recognition, as has been said, often is painful. And it will go on being painful as again and again – from college campuses to unemployment lines and the unhappy overlap of the two – as we’re forced to recognize the fallacies of our premises.
Our painful recognition might not quite rise to the strictest definition of interregnum, yet we meet all the conditions of Gramsci’s famous diagnosis: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” And our morbid symptoms include no shortage of those willing to lie to us for their own ends.
Republicans insist that the U.S. is the greatest country in all of history, blessed by free markets and indomitable national character. Whether the insurrectionist campaign of Trump or the establishmentarianism of Jeb Bush, their campaigns are predicated on mythos. They argue that they can return our nation to its natural, ideal state simply by doing the exact opposite of Barrack Obama.
The Democrats are only better insofar as I find their hearts in the right place; despite the corporatist/neoliberal wing of the party being always ready to sell out the heart for a few dollars or a few votes. But they’re just as frequently promising easy solutions to endemic problems. The party pretends mass incarceration can be solved by releasing the nonexistent, nonviolent drug offenders and that government should help college students despite nearly half of recent grads underemployment.
What is needed is a radical reimagining of our political, social, and economic orders. We face immense problems in the 21st century – both nationally and globally – but we insist on retreating to comforting myth rather than confronting these challenges.
We are, constantly, lied to in this country; and far worse, we lie to ourselves. We perpetuate our lies and take refuge in them. We evade history in favor of myth, and we ignore the threats we face to avoid the discomfort addressing them might cause. It isn’t behavior that’s worthy of responsible adults, and if we have any hope of leaving a better world behind us, we’ve got to start facing up to these truths.
No matter how uncomfortable.