A Nation, Darkly
We live in strange times. A man at a desk in a building outside the capital of a nation signed a sheet of paper. A 65-year-old mother of an Army sergeant was put in handcuffs; a daughter wishing to visit her terminally ill mother was denied entry; a husband was separated from his wife; an estimated 60,000 legally issued visas were revoked — all with the stroke of a pen.
I’ve seen that phrase (“stroke of a pen”) in article after article, often accompanied by the precise time (Friday, January 27, 2017, 4:42 p.m.) and location (The Pentagon, Alexandria, Virginia). As if the pen’s very tip was the epicenter of an earthquake with global reverberations. As if the detentions and denials and deportations and mass protests and federal judge rulings and Secretary of Homeland Security statements and Department of Justice appeals were secreted in the pen’s very ink, waiting to be released.
Like I said: strange.
I think the strangeness is temporal. I think Trump’s greatest power isn’t his cruelty or racism or ability to channel this nation’s darkest undercurrents — although those are all important — but his ability to reframe time, to focalize our linear conception of past/present/future into a single point of Constant Now.
“The rules and regulations are changing by the hour, by the day,” said Iran analyst Ali Vaez in an article published on February 2nd (which already feels like ancient history). “There’s a huge amount of uncertainty.”
Plenty of people have remarked on the unpredictability of this new administration, how the daily act of waking up and checking the news seems like an exercise in continuously reconstructing reality. Lurking beneath this uncertainty, I think, is the notion that the Trump Administration, and Trump himself, is somehow outside time — that the man with the pen is an apparition from a parallel world, unbeholden to neither history nor futurity.
If this is true, then we who object to Trump’s policies are beholden to his will. We the “opposition” (a term I use loosely) are placed in a fundamentally defensive stance, anxiously awaiting today’s violation of the norms that circumscribe our idea of America.
To give an example: I think the protests that erupted from election day onward are an essentially allergic reaction. This isn’t meant to be a dismissal of the protests. I myself — for the first time in my life on January 29th (again, ancient history) in good old State College, Pennsylvania — stood at the side of the street with a sheet of cardboard, chanting a chant opposing the Muslim ban. We can debate whether these protests “actually do anything” all day long; what’s clear to me is that physically occupying space in the physical world at the very least does more than posting on the internet about how such actions do not “actually do anything.”
But do you see the bind? We are not protesting for a vision of a better future; we are protesting against the Constant Now. We have, on some level, accepted and are operating under the premise that reality and time are ordered around Trump. Which is exactly what he wants.
Now is as good a time as any to acknowledge that I’m some guy on the internet. My crackpot analysis could be completely off-base, and hiding beneath my fancy words is the same fear and uncertainty that seems to be in the air these days. In other words, I don’t purport to know anything you don’t know. I’m just trying to find a way to better understand the predicament we find ourselves in.
But if I were to offer the beginning of some sort of solution, I would argue for a reassertion of the existence of time. I’d argue for more articles like Glenn Greenwald’s on January 28th, which states that the Muslim ban is “the logical and most grotesque expression of a variety of trends we have allowed to fester.” I’d argue for an opposition that presents a coherent vision of the future. I’d argue for an understanding of the present in the context of the past. And on a more basic level, I’d argue for a rethinking of the way we think about America.
Pardon the metaphor: we seem to have this notion that America is founded upon the solid foundation of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; that the capstone of previous generations becomes the cornerstone of the present; that while there are myriad faults with this grand American project, it is still fundamentally sound.
Right now, it feels like we’re in the middle of an earthquake. It feels like the “core norms of America’s liberal democracy” are being shock tested. And perhaps the most terrifying thing about this current moment isn’t that the ground is shaking, but the possibility that the ground itself does not exist.
Maybe it never did.
In the sixth decade in the age of our Lord, a Christian apostle named Paul of Tarsus wrote a letter to the Church of Corinth. The nascent church was beset with infighting, and splinter groups threatened to undermine the tenuous unity of the newly founded faith.
Toward the end of his letter, Paul described a vision of the world to look forward to. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face,” reads the English Standard Version. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
I think the Christian notion of the afterlife — of a world where we know and are fully known — can be misconstrued into an excuse for complacency. If heaven is a place where justice reigns, why bother attempting to bring about justice in the world? But what Paul seems to be getting at is the idea that the world we appear to inhabit is wrong in a way that’s hard to articulate.
I was always partial to the King James rendering of the first clause: “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” There’s something about the metaphor of a darkened glass that’s simultaneously disheartening and inspiring. For now, the world is darker and sadder and crueler than the world we must fight for.