In the face of crisis, American society has cultivated helplessness, from either trauma or denial. Is there a future for a nation on the brink of failure?
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I used to think of my childhood going up in smoke. The World Books and leather-bound tomes handed down from my grandmother, my cherished stuffed orca whale, the school papers and projects worthy enough to bring home would crinkle and blacken at the corners, catching and spreading the flames as pockets of trapped oxygen and decay burst and crackle. My Batgirl bike would be reduced to a charred ruin; my LEGO sets and Barbie dream house would be melted into an unrecognizable mass. This, I told myself, would have been far preferable than the truth of my parents having to choose between maintaining a storage unit and keeping a roof over our heads, and with no choice at all, leaving what little I had of childhood memory to pass into landfills or be bartered into the homes of strangers. The tragedy would at least take the loss and pain out of the realm of agency; no one could have done anything to stop it.
I get the same feeling reading headlines now: a sense of inevitability and reckless exhaustion that makes me want none of this to be my problem. The news of this era makes it easy to imagine and see the world aflame—consumed by literal and metaphoric fires as climate change meets an inert and inept government. Where the public sector is asked to act, chaos reigns; where private actors fill the void, exploitation is a rule. It does not feel like we can do anything anymore, and so we fervently wish to do nothing.
The loss of agency is tied to the reality that the institutions we have built to channel our popular sovereignty have become entirely detached from us: We seem to hold no power at all. Our votes are being canceled out; our personal autonomy curtailed by government prescribed bounties; our calls for change drowned out by the self-important roar of senatorial egos. Those who broke us are unpunished—even flourishing—as they plot their next, possibly fatal wound to the American republic. We were asked to do our utmost to prevent the worst-case scenario, and we did so in unprecedented numbers. The worst case happened anyway.
It is easier to embrace apathy in the midst of this, to focus on one’s own situation and abandon the world to its whims. We can hardly fashion ourselves a government of the people in which a small minority of voices dominate the consensus of the majority, where we skirt by the implosion of the American economy or the shutdown of the federal apparatus once a legislative session, and our duly elected representatives routinely negotiate in good faith with people who deny their elections are legitimate. We are asked to recall the days of enshrining Constitutional amendments (three were passed in the tumultuous 1960s), but in our present time, we can hardly manage to prohibit a man from running again after inciting an armed insurrection to overthrow the government. We are left with the perverse relief that at least a government of the people can’t be stolen when the people abandon it first.
This too is preferable to the truth: We gave up on a government that would represent the interests of the people as soon as it defined “the people” as including the dispossessed global south, the descendants of the enslaved peoples of America, and the personhood of women. We dismantled the instruments of state through malice and neglect, and allowed tradition and structure to stifle our best impulses. We refused to imagine a future, trapped in the mentalities of the first generation to experience the replacement of memory by mass-media nostalgia. The tinder was gathered; the matches lit, and we were told it wasn’t happening because it couldn’t.
In the face of crisis, American society has cultivated helplessness—either from trauma or denial. Those of us left out of the republican experiment of self-government have borne more than enough stress and pain and damage to ever believe that the system can function for our benefit, and see the arson as a mere reversion to norms. Others would prefer to pretend that this calamitous, yawning schism in our politics is merely the product of disagreement and incivility, and this pile of ashes needs nothing more than good grace and elbow grease to repair us to a state of consensus that never existed. And so the blaze rages and consumes, swallowing our institutions and our climate and our generations yet to come, because we are too tepid or too tired to challenge the ones who set it.
From personal experience, I can say that this is not a fertile strategy. I spent years choosing tragedy over acceptance because I did not want to confront the reality that the systems around that decision were designed to collapse. Yet seeing the structure allowed me to recognize that the loss was not the responsibility of a senseless force of nature, but a haphazard meeting of factors like the increasing cost of living and raising children in Brooklyn, the structural racism that undervalued my parents’ labor and contributions, and the barriers to buying the larger property that accumulated many of these memories, requiring their forfeiture to a storage unit and our resettlement to a smaller apartment. Attacking those elements directly would be futile, but knowledge of their existence let me abandon the comfortable illusion of powerlessness in building a future without the artifacts of my past.
In the face of an age of difficulty, we, the people are asked to yield up our grief and apathy and choose instead imagination and resilience. The calamity of our present circumstances is not a natural disaster or an unavoidable tragedy; it is the product of choices made and abandoned. Our collective decision to treat it as spectacle, to make it weightless, to set ourselves free from investment is as much an accelerant as any tinder. And so the inverse must be true: It will require engagement and grappling and tenacity to reconstruct. We cannot look to what we have destroyed as a guide to what to build; instead, without the tangibility of memory, aspiration will have to suffice.
For a long time I imagined that fire, took comfort in it, let it mend my grief. It was safe to watch all that I could remember engulfed in a blaze I only envisioned and never touched. We are a society desperately convincing ourselves to be content enough if we cannot feel the heat, to find satisfaction in making the costs abstract. But we are not safe, and the threat is not an invention. When everything is on fire, the danger is not from the flames—it’s from the smoke.
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