One election doesn’t erase the past four scarring, traumatic, exhausting years. But embracing the joy of the present moment can renew our collective strength to keep fighting
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They were still counting votes in Nevada and dancing in the streets in D.C. when brocialists began warning: President-Elect Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. won’t save you.
After spending three paragraphs describing the misery of the Trump regime and the well-crafted proposals of the Biden-Harris administration—canceling $50,000 of student debt, a public health-care option, prioritizing mass transit, Jacobin writer Ben Burgis then warned readers that “there’s no reason to take any of those proposals seriously.” His piece was headlined: “No Honeymoon for Joe Biden.” This was not a standalone piece: His fellow brocialists trumpeted: “The Trump Era Is Over. Our Leaders Want to Take Us Back to 2015” and moaned “A Lot Went Wrong for Democrats on Election Night.”
“Joe Biden’s empty campaign may well have won over some suburban Republican voters. But the fragile majority he has likely eked out this time should have been many times larger, and without a more serious reorientation, it won’t hold for long,” Jacobin tweeted to its choir.
Twitter filled up with exhortations by white Democrats like Pete Buttigieg and self-styled moderate Republicans like John Kasich to reach out to Trump supporters, empathize with them, make them feel accepted and welcomed back into the multicultural, woman-led coalition they’d spent four years deriding as treasonous.
We couldn’t even get a good dance party in before we were hit with a sanctimonious warning from Republican operatives disguised as “ordinary citizens” saying that we’d better not be too loud in our jubilation, lest we turn off people who weren’t turned off by four years of racism and misogyny.
Jodi Lavoie-Carnes, 48, a dental hygienist who lives in Dover, N.H. [and is, undisclosed by the Times, a former Republican candidate for the New Hampshire statehouse], supported President Trump for re-election. On Saturday, she was shocked and disturbed by the boisterous celebrations of Biden supporters, who had gathered in her town waving profane anti-Trump signs.
The tone was so negative that she wondered what lies ahead for the country.
“I’m like, are you serious?” said Ms. Lavoie-Carnes, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the New Hampshire State House this year. “The language doesn’t need to be there. My children need to drive by that.”
Heaven forbid we offend the children of people who cage other people’s children for the act of requesting asylum at our borders. After shouting “fuck your feelings” for four years, hanging Obama in effigy and fantasizing about “locking up” a former senator and Secretary of State, it’s a little rich to hear calls for comity.
As the day went on, it began to feel as though we were allergic to the joy we were feeling. How dare we dance for the end of Trump when so many Republicans remain in office, after all? Doesn’t dancing mean we think the work is over?
And can we even dance without mourning? A quarter of a million Americans dead of a preventable disease Trump did not prevent, untold damage done to the climate, to international alliances, to civil liberties, to the economy?
Is anyone excited? Please boost my spirits. I am not excited. I am sad. Even if Joe wins. What the fuck did we just live thru?
— FakeJoeBiden (@fake_biden) November 3, 2020
A friend posted something on her local art collective’s Facebook page that summed up the dilemma very well: I’m somehow still sad, and tired, and it seems like this isn’t enough. It’s not just a 2016 hangover, it’s everything: We keep fighting and it seems like things aren’t getting better. Why set off the fireworks today?
It’s natural, in the moments after a burden has been lifted, to remain bent under its weight. We are in the midst of a once-a-centennial upheaval, reckoning with decades of abuse and neglect on the basis of everything from race to religion, and doing so in the middle of a national pandemic.
When your body suffers a trauma, that part of you is always girded for the next one. Behavioral scientists who studied long-term responses to disasters found that many who experienced them had lingering cognitive responses, including “irrational or excessive guilt” and “inaccurate rationalizations, idealizations, or justifications of the perpetrator’s behavior.”
The body politic is no different. Absent the scar tissue that can only form after the close of the wound, the only way to protect ourselves is to curl inward, to wrap our arms around our midsections, to pray to be spared the next blow.
And when something joyous happens, we wonder when it’s going to be taken away. The worst thing trauma does to you is make you distrust anything but it. It makes only pain and misery feel normal, and makes normal feel better than good.
Bracing for a fall doesn’t prevent bones from breaking, and putting a caveat before every hopeful utterance doesn’t soothe the burn when that hope falls short. If you’re hurting yourself, just to feel something familiar, you’re still bleeding.
Eventually there’s no way forward but with joy. This country’s greatest songs began as melodies in bondage; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sing them. They’re an argument against bondage, not singing.
We need to give ourselves a moment, not to live love laugh, not to pat ourselves on the back, but to feel the enormity of what’s just happened so that we have the strength to do it again. There may not be a finish line, but there are mile markers all along the way, and as we pass them, they should be celebrated. We will need the memory of how good this victory feels, to motivate us to the next one, and the next, and the next.
As contagious as trauma can be, and as lingering, so can joy. “Joy is all about our connection to others,” according to Harvard Medical School Professor George Vaillant. “It’s a subconscious, almost visceral feeling that appears to stem from the brain’s limbic system, which is believed to control emotions, including pleasure. Unlike happiness, joy involves little cognitive awareness—you just feel good without thinking about it—but it’s more enduring.”
My grandmother was born in 1918, the year of the last great pandemic. She survived the Great Depression as one of 11 children, so poor a potato was a treat. For the rest of her life she washed and folded tinfoil to use it twice and mended socks until they were more mend than knit. Her root cellar could have withstood a siege of a thousand years. There was no part of her present that did not tremble with aftershocks of that past.
But my most cherished memories are of her generous table. Her backyard apple trees and garden, patio swing and poker games. And her laughter, always, always, her laughter.
In the early days after the 2016 election a colleague said, as we planned a project that turned into a party, “Joy has to be part of our practice.” Maybe today we practice celebrating. Maybe we do it over and over again, until it feels normal again. Until sorrow and rage are the aberrations, and our dancing fuels the fire of our determination instead of distracting from it.
And maybe everyone worried about the future will see that we go into it bravely, with laughter and love, or not at all.
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