My old friend Vincent Cannato, an accomplished historian, wrote his first book on John Lindsay, the one-time liberal golden boy and mayor of New York City. The details don’t matter right now, but the gist was that Lindsay was a flawed mayor who contributed to New York’s problems. Lindsay to this day has passionate defenders, and when Vin’s book came out it was not received well by the Lindsay caucus. The upshot of their argument was “Shut up, everything was awesome in New York City, right through Lindsay’s last day, and then the city went to Hell on January 1, 1974.”
The whole episode has been coming to mind of late as the reality of Trump’s victory — and Hillary’s loss — sinks in across the left. For decades, the old joke was that homelessness “spikes” under Republican administrations, solely because the New York Times and Washington Post were blind to the homeless invisible under Democrats but, under Republicans, they are a living indictment of “trickle down economics.” We’ve already seen that the deficit is now a big problem for Paul Krugman, who, a few months ago, insisted that a President Hillary Clinton should do even more stimulus spending.
But what I find particularly jarring is how, 24 hours after Trump was sworn in, the last eight years under the first black president seemed to have vanished from American consciousness and how some people seem to think the racial climate in America is worse than ever, or poised to be.
A case in point. I had the misfortune of catching the end of Melissa Harris-Perry’s poem-essay-thingamabob at the Women’s March on Saturday. The basic set-up is this: She took some students to D.C. There was one of those psychotic guys with a bullhorn shouting crazy stuff on the street. And I’ll let her do the rest:
While we were trapped in this area with the gray skies and drizzling rain overhead a man on a loudspeaker about a block away was shouting about murderous Muslims, baby-killing abortion doctors, and Hilary Clinton’s need to repent. Other than that it was silent. Trump supporters were not chatting happily with each other as Obama supporters had done in inaugurations past. No one was playing music. Just gray skies, high fences, and loudspeakers spewing hate.
Lauren, one of my students, turned to me and said, “Is this normal?”
I knew what she was asking. Having never been to an inauguration before, she was asking me, as her professor, if this is the way inaugurations always proceed. Should she be worried? I could sense her rising panic, because I felt it too.
“Is this normal?”
I had to decide to answer.
Do I say, No?
We’re Americans. We move freely and joyfully at inaugurations, celebrating the choices made in voting booths across our land, knowing that even if we did not prevail this time, [we] will have another chance in just a few years. Even the losers in our democracy know we will we shape our arguments, get new candidates, assess our tactics, but that our liberty is secured by documents centuries old and instantiated in the very soil on which we stand.
Or do I say, Yes?
Yes, this is normal. We are Japanese Americans. We were ripped from our homes, our property stolen, labeled enemies of the state even as or sons fought and died in war. We shivered in horse stalls at the racetrack as we waited to be shipped to American concentration camps.
Yes, this is normal. We are black Americans. Our tax dollars build glittering edifices we cannot enter and solid prisons we cannot exit. We pay the salaries of those who slaughter us. We have never moved freely across this free land. We came shackled in the hulls of ships, were pushed into Jim Crow’s crowded ghettos, and are even now pinned in the penitentiaries of profits.
Yes, this is normal. We are women. Every boy and man lays claim to our bodies. The state’s compelling interest lays claim to what’s inside us. Some supposedly woke fool calls us the community’s greatest resource while he uses us up. Fathers, brothers, dates, and strangers will pin us, trap us, and silence us as we struggle, then call us liars if we tell.
Yes, this is normal. We are children. So precious as embryos, irrelevant once born. No one even asks what we want before imposing change on us. Assuming we can’t possibly have a preference or deserve a voice.
Yes, this is normal. We are the undocumented. Separated. Walled. Removed. Voiceless. Betrayed by friends and foes alike.
Yes, this is normal. We are Sikh. Turbans of faith misidentified. Slaughtered in silence.
Yes, this is normal, we are Muslims. Called enemy, deemed foreign, tested, registered, rejected.
Yes, this is normal, we are queer. Our very being deemed unnatural, our love unworthy, our families laughable, our identities criminal.
Yes, this is normal. We are disabled. Locked out of homes, and jobs, and classrooms, and sidewalks.
I did not know what to say. Is this normal?
We are going to decide today if this is normal.
I think this is all really quite inane and morally grotesque. In no way whatsoever — literally, figuratively, theoretically, hypothetically, phantasmagorically — was the Women’s March poised to decide whether or not blacks can be slaves, Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps, women forced into sexual slavery, etc. It’s all unalloyed paranoid nonsense, even if you allow for “poetic” license.
What is remarkable about this applauded drivel is that it collapses this thing sane people call “time” into an undifferentiated mass of collective white male sin and minority suffering. Nothing is forgotten, time heals no wounds. It rejects both the idea of progress and the fact of progress in order to elicit an unjustified and ridiculous emotional response of grievance and oppression.
This is a perspective that Barack Obama himself always rejected, insisting that many on the left refuse to acknowledge the extent of racial progress in this country. Yet the moment he walks out the door, all of that progress — including his own presidency — becomes either provisional or non-existent for Harris-Perry. Yes, there was a lot of griping and writing about “white privilege” and whatnot during the Obama years. As Jon Gabriel put it a couple years ago:
“My favorite part about the Obama era is all the racial healing.”
But what does it say that, after eight years of Obama’s transformational leadership, some of his biggest fans think — at least in some figurative, imaginary, paranoid way — that slavery and other evils are once again live questions in American life? Everyone here knows I am not Donald Trump’s biggest booster, but he is not poised, or interested in, dragooning blacks into the hulls of ships, and suggesting otherwise with haughty sanctimony to great applause is not the path back to winning the White House for Democrats.