2021 has arrived, and America is on the verge of rounding the corner of both the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged us this past year, and the Trump administration, which has ravaged us for the past four. Trump and COVID will be eternally twinned now; the respective failure of Trump and the success of the virus in killing over 300,000 people in the country form an almost perfect collaboration of incompetent narcissism and virulence, forever entwined in a collective dance of madness, propelled by absolute fealty to a delusional idea of individualism. To have lived through this time, to have personally made massive sacrifices of time, social interaction, artistic connection, concentration, and yet, to know that these sacrifices are small, that over 300,000 people have lost their lives without a single gesture of condolence or acknowledgement– it remains unconscionable. To stare into the heart of my country as each of those sacrifices– personal, collective– is undermined, day by day, month after interminable month, by an unwavering, delusional minority, has been absolutely enraging.
There is no point in denying it; my belief in other people, in the value of empathy (which has completely framed my adult life and been the guiding motivation of my work), has been forever altered by the experience of watching self-interested, cynical, criminal buffoons hammer a wedge between us, and by the willingness of so many to not only welcome it, but to help drive it as deep as possible. This has illuminated new, unforeseen limits in my own capacity for concern for and the understanding of others. I have never felt at home in a culture that celebrates patriotic kitsch, performative religious practice, and anti-intellectualism, but as these longstanding strains of American identity have found common cause in the cynicism of Trumpism, turning the obvious hypocrisy of their supposed purpose into their full reason for being, I see that my attempts at understanding are simply unilateral exercises in self-preservation. There is no return of these gestures, only the construction of unbearably ridiculous straw-man versions of my values, spit back into my face with a sneer. I want to understand because I want to preserve the version of myself that seeks a compassionate understanding of others, but that version of me has no place here now.
So, how best to get through these times? I have been reading more, which is good, but the pandemic has taken away my ability to focus for too long without succumbing to an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion. I spent most of 2020 reading Volker Ullrich’s HITLER: ASCENT 1889-1939 and HITLER: DOWNFALL 1939-42, and they have been very useful to me in understanding the power of propaganda in forging a false “unifying” national purpose in service of a lying, cynical abuse of political power for criminal ends. These books are also a stern warning about the way in which the lack of accountability only escalates and emboldens criminality, allowing unfathomable crimes to be committed in secrecy. It’s not that the crimes are comparable between our time and 1930’s-40’s Nazi Germany, but the playbook being deployed is shockingly similar; lies, misinformation, loyalty purges, institutions bent to the service of corrupt interests, the deformation of language to disguise purpose, and with every incremental step enabling a deeper descent into the madness of antidemocratic power, the burning need for accountability grows more and more urgent.
Yesterday, home from my morning walk on the beach with our dog, with Ullrich’s DOWNFALL on my mind (I am still in the middle of reading it), I took a detour to revisit Alain Resnais’ NIGHT AND FOG. I wanted to be reminded of the incomprehensible horror, of Resnais’ visual evidence of the Nazi’s crimes, but much like the book I am reading, it was the text of NIGHT AND FOG that struck me on this viewing. I can’t draw contemporary parallels to the Holocaust in America; as an example, the criminal negligence and cruelty of our immigration prisons are unconscionable, but they are not nearly the same in scope or brutality or outcome. Unforgivable, but nowhere near. Still, I was taken by the film’s concluding narration, spoken over the shattered concrete and twisted iron of what then remained of Auschwitz. The point was not just the unfathomable horror of the Holocaust, but how we live with the collective responsibility that lingers in its wake, and how civilization itself can come to terms with the aftermath, when we know that the society that produced it was never properly held to account.
“Who among us keeps watch from this strange watchtower to warn of the arrival of new executioners? Are their faces really so different from ours? Somewhere among us, there are still lucky Kapos, reinstated officers, and anonymous informers. There are those who refused to believe, or only now and then. We survey these ruins with a heartfelt gaze, certain the old monster lies crushed beneath the rubble. We pretend to regain hope as the image recedes, as though we’ve been cured of that plague. We tell ourselves it was all confined to one country, one point in time. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to the never-ending cries.” – Jean Cayrol, NIGHT AND FOG