I ended last year by asking what kind of year had it been. My answer was that it had not been a particularly good one. 2017 did not seem much better. We seem divided as a nation. Words like “polarized” or “partisan” do not have the fullness to describe it. The division is more deeply rooted, more existential. America is not in a major war, yet our people do not resemble a people who are at peace.
The year was violent, it was exhausting, and it was disillusioning.
There was physical violence. In Las Vegas, 59 people were killed and 546 wounded in the largest mass shooting in history, just a year after a shooting in Orlando first claimed that title. Mere weeks later, some 26 more people were killed at a shooting in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. They were just a portion of the 37,000 Americans killed with firearms this last year. Futures were robbed and worlds were shattered, but there does not seem to be any meaningful attempt to prevent future tragedies. All that is changed are the names. “Las Vegas” and “Sutherland Springs” can now replace “Orlando” and “San Bernardino,” which replaced “Charleston” and “Sandy Hook,” which replaced “Aurora” and “Columbine,” as the names of massacres that have yielded mourning but no action. The streets of Las Vegas, the pews in Sutherland Springs, were not the scenes of an America at peace.
Each week it seemed that there was some new risk of violence reported in the news. Fires, floods and hurricanes devastated thousands of homes across the country, turning once proud communities into war-zones. In Puerto Rico, tens of thousands of Americans still live without power and access to proper medical supplies and clean water. Every month it feels like there is new legislation being rammed through Congress that risks tearing at a portion of American life, such as children losing healthcare, children of immigrants being deported, and refugees being turned back. All the while, an escalating exchange of words between our President and North Korea’s dictator is inching us ever closer to the risk of nuclear war.
Perhaps the most troubling violence occurred when a sort of violence we thought could only belong to the past reared its ugly head in Charlottesville, Virginia. Mobs of our fellow Americans, armed with ideologies and symbols that our country fought wars to defeat–Nazis with swastikas, Klansmen carrying torches, white nationalists waving the Confederate flag–took to the streets to preach a sermon of hate, violence, ignorance and prejudice. Dozens were injured in fights between protesters and counter protesters, and one counter protester, thirty-two year old Heather Heyer, was killed by a white nationalist driving a car into a crowd.
It was an ugly moment in our history, one that we never thought we could see in this time, and one most Americans from all political backgrounds would be quick to condemn. But it became uglier. President Trump waited days to condemn the violence, then blamed both sides, and said there were “many fine people” on both sides of the rally. The rally may have degraded one community, but the President’s response degraded the nation. In wake of this bloodshed he argued that there was a moral equivalency between those who practice the hate preached by Nazis and white supremacists and those who march against that same hate.
This was a critical moment for our country. Surely we did not fight a Civil War, cross an ocean and liberate death camps at Dachau and Buchenwald, and trudge across a bridge on Bloody Sunday in Selma, just to create a country where a President can conflate Nazis and dealers of bigotry and hate with those who oppose them. Surely we had some different ending in mind. We cannot expect to always agree with our leaders, but expecting our leaders to unequivocally condemn Nazis and Klansmen is a threshold all should pass. Moments of moral clarity that can be dealt in black and white terms are rare in our world, but this was one of them, and our President failed.
This national tragedy, and the reaction that followed, best encapsulated all that has been wrong with this year.
Some Republicans condemned the President’s remarks and then withdrew their support. Others disagreed with the President, but soon focused their energy conjuring up radical leftists as the real threat, in essence affirming the President’s narrative. The majority of Republican leaders, however, criticized the President’s remarks but continued to support him and help him carry out his agenda.
That has been the real tragedy of Trump; never what he says, but what his actions and existence says about us. It took decades of resentments and divisions to create a country that would even elect him as President. Then, with every act and tweet, he tests our limits, assaulting our standards of decency and fraying the ties that bind our democracy, redefining what is normal and acceptable behavior from a President. His supporters in Congress and the general public, whether out of party loyalty, fear of the President’s wrath and the wrath of his supporters, hatred of liberals, or a desire not to admit that their party has sunk so low, commit themselves to a Faustian bargain. Many Republican Senators-like Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz–all called Donald Trump unfit for office before he was elected, yet have voted for his agenda in lockstep. They and others on the Right will muddy facts, create false moral equivalencies, slander journalists and discard their own convictions sooner than turn on the President. Burke or Goldwater even would not find anything conservative about that, yet here we are.
Perhaps the most distressing consequence is this; with each low that the President sinks to, the list of ways he has reduced the Presidency becomes more difficult to recall. The President still mocked a disabled reporter, still called John McCain not a real war hero, still denigrated a Gold Star family, and still bragged about sexual assault. Those actions and more have not ceased to exist just because more outrageous events have occurred since then. And, with the bar of what is acceptable being so low, the wrongness of his behavior is now diminished. The revelation of a secret “enemies list” helped sink the Nixon Presidency; President Trump published a list of enemy journalists and it was not even the biggest story on a Monday. All the while radical and dangerous laws that would never have been passed years ago are being pushed through Congress, and the laws seem reasonable, for anything seems reasonable when compared to the misdeeds of this President. Things have fallen apart, the center cannot hold, and the bottom has fallen out.
That’s how Nazis became fine people. That’s how award-winning journalism at the Washington Post became “Fake News.” It’s why a President can regularly criticize the FBI and our Courts on his Twitter and still claim to be strong on “law and order.”
It’s why the Republican party that once prided itself on fiscal responsibility passed a tax plan that will add $1 trillion to the deficit, and why the Heritage Foundation characterizes Obamacare as government tyranny even though they proposed that very plan in the 1990s.
It’s why a President can suggest a sitting U.S. Senator offered him sexual favors and have that not even be the biggest story of the day. It’s why a child molester got 48% of the vote in Alabama, and a man who bragged about grabbing women by their genitals is sitting in our nation’s highest office.
It is why America does not feel as if it is at peace. We are a country at war with ourselves. Just as the Greek Poets said, in war, truth is the first casualty, and it was the first casualty this year as well. Democracy can only work when we start from the same basic truths. We used to agree on truth, and then we would debate on policies in light of those truths. Now we do not even agree on reality. A new relativism has taken hold that has made it a subjective question whether the earth is warming or not, whether gangs of Mexican illegal immigrants maraud the suburbs or not, whether crime is rising or not, whether the CBO budget numbers are lies or not, and whether or not the last President was even born in this country. This problem is not helped with a President who started his bid for the Presidency by peddling in conspiracy theories. I am certain that many who have read my post think I am operating in a wholly different reality from them. There can be debate between separate views but not between separate realities. Policy debates are good for democracy, values debates are sometimes necessary, but truth debates are much harder. The last time we had a major truth debate, it was over the truth of whether all are created equal and we fought a war over it. Today we have a similar divide; not a debate between parties over policy, but competing existential views of what reality do we live in.
That is the violence that cut deepest in 2017; a moral violence among ourselves, where we act as a country at war with itself. We fear our political opponents and their agendas as much as we fear an enemy on the battlefield; we view them as solely political beings, and not fellow human beings who have similar hopes and cares like ourselves. We regard one another, not as fellow citizens, but as aliens, as people of an almost separate country, from the blue states or the red states. We view them with undue suspicion and derision, while we tolerate mistakes and failings among our own. We have more than different understandings of our country’s future; we have different understandings of our country’s past, who our country was built for, and who real Americans even are. We are, at the last, a people who share a common dwelling, but not a common home; we share a common flag, but not a common purpose. We share, in the end, only a common fear of one another, and a common cynicism about ourselves, our politics, and our fellow human beings.
This violence does not end there, for it spirals. It drains us of our idealism, of our hope, and our belief in one another. It takes prisoner our ability to believe in government, and our willingness to exercise our birthright and engage in politics. It claims as casualties all those who demand our attention but languish without it; the hungry children with swollen bellies in the Mississippi Delta, the young lives strangled by opioids in Appalachia, the impoverished Native Americans at Pine Ridge Reservation, the failing schools of Kansas and Louisiana, and the diseases that still need cures, for our attentions are instead on the latest twitter rant, scandal or gaffe. This is not sustainable.
This feeling of war is exhausting, just as 2017 is exhausting, just as I am sure reading this has been exhausting. It is exhausting to feel outraged all the time, but with each week, and often each day producing events worthy of outrage it seems worse not to treat them with the outrage they deserve.
At this point, it is not clear how we should move forward. The easy answer is to say that both sides are at fault and need to find ways to work together, but most problems in a country like ours do not have easy answers. Both sides do need to show more grace and see the humanity in one another, but we cannot somehow suggest that some meeting in the middle, if that could even occur, solves our problems. The middle has been dragged towards the unthinkable. Normalizing the erosion of our democracy’s principles by simply compromising them halfway seems morally impermissible, while at the same time, writing off half the country seems equally unconscionable.
I don’t know how we all agree on what is true again, read the same newspapers again, expect the same standards of decency from our officials again, or undo decades of events that have helped cultivate such fierce resentments and discord. With or without President Trump, it is hard to imagine the tenor and tone of our politics changing, and more difficult to imagine us living together as a country again.
I am an optimistic person, but the events of 2017 have made me more cynical than I have ever imagined.
Until I saw the courage of American women.
It was not just the women’s march, the largest political protest in American history, that gave me inspiration. It was the #MeToo movement. With how fast this all happened, it is easy to forget just how remarkable this moment was. Woman after woman came forward, risking careers and privacy, and facing backlash, shaming, reliving both past pains and the pain of being disbelieved, just so future women can be spared from the same indignity. They weren’t up against easy foes; beloved actors, charismatic politicians, folksy TV hosts, and business titans. They were an assortment of the most powerful men in America.
And yet, they persisted.
What they did, in sharing their stories and in waging a war against sexual assault, took true moral courage, a courage of the rarest and most extraordinary kind. Arrayed against them was money, power, and a previously disbelieving public. They marched against history. If they looked to the past, they would see a history of a public that typically did not believe their stories, and would assault their character and integrity sooner than listen. But Alyssa Milano, Sarah Blair, Ashley Judd, Lindsey Reynolds, Sara Gesler and so many others, they did not look to history. They looked to the future; to future men abusing power, the faces of future women who would endure future abuses at the hands of men, and then boldly broke the silence and said “Me Too.”
One woman after another, and some men as well, recited that creed of empathy. With two simple words they changed a nation, and shined not just one spotlight on injustice but many, enough to light up the sky. They boldly claimed their birthright, that they ought to be respected and heard, that they are people cloaked and endowed with dignity and worth. America’s women both bravely asserted and poignantly recognized that a society that tolerates sexual assault is a society that tolerates violence, and does not consider it a self evident truth that all women and men are created equal.
This fight, a fight which at its core is for equality, for our nation to live up to its ideals and say that no one has the right to abuse another, is far from over. But it is a powerful example. It shows that in the face of systemic oppression, violence, and a suspicious and cynical public, courage and hope still count for something. People’s minds can change on an issue. Just look to voters in Alabama, to two newly sworn in Senators, to television programs with new hosts and film sets with replaced actors, and you know that in this country, people can change, cynics are inevitably wrong and right can still win. If you do not believe that change is possible; if you think the actions and words of everyday people do not matter; if you believe that you are unable to make a difference, then surely you have not heard the words “Me Too.”
America’s women are why I remain an optimist going into 2018. We have serious challenges ahead of us, and we should be sober about that fact; binding the wounds of our nation and learning how to be a country again will take a commitment akin to that of the Greatest Generation. But these challenges can be met. Grasping for truth in today’s political climate may be daunting. Engaging in debate, and hoping to bridge competing views of reality may seem impossible. But surely it is not more difficult than sharing one’s story about sexual assault to a country that often calls such victims sluts or liars, and hoping to convince them to finally hear the truth in these stories and then be moved to action. Political debate and change can both be painful, but not more painful than any of these Silence Breakers publicly reliving past abuses. The forces that divide our country are powerful, but surely not more powerful than Harvey Weinstein or Roy Moore appeared to the women who first broke the silence on their crimes.
In America we carve the images of men of the past on mountainsides in order to help us remember who we are as a nation, but in 2018 we need to look to the women of this last year to discover what is best about America, for the Silence Breakers truly embodied all that is good about our country. They were vast in their identity; they were artists, dishwashers, businesswomen, activists and mothers. They were high-minded and big-hearted. They risked losing themselves in the present for the service of others in the tomorrow. They refused to believe that people would always ignore their stories, and they hoped that hearts could be changed. They were bold, and did not resign America or their fellow Americans to being forever what they once were; they were more interested in what they ought to be. They were suspicious of power and showed no fear towards those who abused it. They weren’t fragile; they did not scare easy. They fought, they made noise when they had to, and they overcame, not to honor themselves–they put their honor on the line–but to be, as Langston Hughes described, “the builders of the temples of tomorrow, as best as we know how.”
That is who the Silence Breakers were, and in America’s better moments, that is what all of us can be.
2017 has come to a close, and many of you may count yourself as exhausted or disillusioned, but because of the women of 2017 I remain an optimist. Like all of us in 2017, the Silence Breakers grappled with violence, exhaustion and disillusionment. But in face of the memories of violence, these women sought to heal. In face of exhaustion, they discovered their own strength. Instead of disillusion, they found hope.
That is where I find myself now. One year older, more wary of our challenges, but more certain of our ability to meet them.
For whenever there is a year like 2017, when it seems we have found a greater capacity for cynicism, violence or despair, we are reminded that we can meet that with an even greater capacity for goodness and greatness, as there is nothing so wrong in this world that cannot be overcome by what is right in it. Courage still persists and hope stays alive if you’re willing to look for it and fight for it. That is why I still love and believe in this country, and why I know that its capacity for goodness and greatness is not just still with us, but may well be limitless. Because before we said “Me Too” we said “Love Wins,” and “We Shall Overcome,” and “We the People.” Because before we were Silence Breakers we were explorers and minutemen, and then we were abolitionists and pioneers, and then we were Suffragettes and Freedom Riders, and then we became astronauts.
I know with the spirit shown by women in 2017 that our best days can still lie ahead if we are willing to follow their example. Our country has great challenges that require our attention that will not get solved if our divisions remain. There are people to feed, cures to discover, veterans to care for and children to educate, and they deserve our best efforts. They need the kind of common effort shown by countless women in 2017.
We can demonstrate their courage, and in so doing we can work to bind our nation’s wounds. We can have the debates that need to be had, change the hearts that need to be changed, and stand by truth just as they did. We will do this, not with boasts or bluster but with grace, and look for the humanity in each other rather than searching for the wrongness in each other, all while not surrendering what we know to be true and right.
We will persist. We will do what is hard, and we will build the temples of tomorrow, as best we know how. We will build it with the strength of a woman from 2017.