Saturday, December 3, 2016

Wonder Bread and Circuses

It's just a matter of time.

There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile. --Marcus Aurelius, Gladiator, 2000

Apologies for the spoilers: in 2000's Oscar-winning Gladiator, wise emperor Marcus Aurelius is on the verge of handing his job to his top general, Maximus, who he knows will work to restore democracy to Rome, but is instead murdered by his evil son Commodus. Rather than become Caesar, Maximus is now sold into slavery, his family slaughtered, and becomes a gladiator in the games Commodus uses to stir up support for his corrupt regime. In the end, Maximus has his revenge on Commodus, but at the cost of his own life. His last words are to hoarsely whisper Marcus Aurelius's words about the dream that was Rome before joining his wife and child in Elysium. It's an old school Hollywood epic, Ben-Hur for the 21st century, stirring, violent entertainment.

And it feels like we're living it.

There was a dream that was America, a dream of a land in which white men enjoyed vastly more privileges and respect than any other cohort of Americans: women, immigrants, persons of color, individuals whose sexual identity differed from the norm, all knew and kept to their place. White men maintained their advantages through the application of power, deporting persons of Mexican ancestry (many of them American citizens), lynching African-Americans, putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps, putting down demonstrations with water cannons and police dogs, refusing to rent or sell property to anyone but white men, exploiting workers to the extent that labor laws permitted, busting unions when they threatened profits...

That laundry list of abuses could go on for paragraphs. To put it simply, the greatness for which so many Trump voters long came at a price. A great white America is an unfair, unjust America, and the country he wants to restore never existed. It's an illusion, vanity, a longing after wind. That he was able to sell this vision to millions of Americans is a testament to his gifts as a con man.

There's another dream of America, a dream of equity, diversity, expansion of human rights, people treating each other with dignity and respect. It's a dream exemplified by our outgoing President, a dream his voters hoped was achievable through him when they elected him twice. This America is a fragile whisper, a place that feels just out of reach, tantalizingly close to realization, if we can just get one more justice on the Supreme Court, two more Senators, one more term in the White House.

And this dream, to, is an illusion.

America is a land of dreamers. The great musicals about its founding--1776, Hamilton--give us great men dreaming of a democratic paradise, being confronted with the harsh realities of human fallibility and selfishness. Our greatest visionaries have presided over times of crisis and conflict and have been snatched from us just short of beginning to realize the dream: Lincoln, assassinated before he could rebuild the Union; Kennedy, dead before he could accomplish anything; King, gunned down as he was on the verge of expanding his quest for civil rights to include poor people of every color. In their place, we get corrupt politicians, populists who pander to voters' baser instincts, scoundrels who work the system to their own advantage, smooth-talking dissolute party boys squandering their gifts in pursuit of a little fun. Washington is where dreams go to die, and there's no better proof of it than the disappointment of the Obama Era. 

And taking his place, the first truly imperial President.

The partisan deadlock of Capitol Hill has led Presidents in the last two decades to consolidate power in their office. Presidents Bush and Obama have accomplished much of their respective agendas by virtue of executive orders, recess appointments, signing statements, administrative rules. and broad interpretations of legislation granting powers to the White House. Donald Trump will enter that office with a whole new tool box at his disposal, and we cannot expect him to exercise anything approaching the restraint of his predecessors. He won the office through populism, and now that he has it, we can expect him to use it to reward his followers with bread and circuses.

Ever since the election, I've been grieving that rather than vote to solidify and social gains of the Obama era while breaking down another barrier to equity, young American voters chose apathy, and permitted a mercurial bully to become Caesar. I'm worried about what this means for my dream America, for democracy, for the continued existence of my country.

And yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize that what I'm grieving for was never really America. My dream America is as much an illusion as the Leave It to Beaver America Trump promised to restore. The haters who are aggressively cutting me off with their giant pick-ups and SUVs, who are threatening black, brown, and queer classmates at school, who are indulging all their worst instincts in the wake of the election, didn't just come out of nowhere. They've always been there, as much a part of America as I am. This is, after all, a country whose police disproportionately shoot and lock up young men of color, whose small business owners hide behind their Christian faith as an excuse to discriminate against gay couples, whose economy is built on the cheap labor of immigrants it wants to expel, that spreads "democracy" by invading Third World countries. During my two years as an expatriate, much of the dialogue I had with Europeans was marked by apologies about the policies of my Presidents and the rudeness of my fellow Americans.

It's time to stop dreaming. The America I live in is a land of extremes. Americans can be generous, idealistic, principled, open-minded, people. They can also be narrow, xenophobic, selfish, and violent. The identity of one individual, however powerful the office he or she occupies, does little to change that. For four years, one segment or another of society will feel itself affirmed, empowered, and will respond accordingly, but that won't make the other parts of our collective identity go away. Our parallel Americas will continue to exist for as long as we must tolerate Emperor Trumpus Disgusticus; and when he finally descends from his throne, to take his place in ignominy among all the other failed despots of the world, displaced by some new embodiment of the dream that was and is America, I will join the celebration and permit myself to hope once more. But only for a little while. For the nature of dreams (and, thankfully, of nightmares as well) is that, in the end, we must awaken from them to continue working out our existence in a world of disappointing reality.

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