The Brood: The period November 2016 through January 2019 has been existentially dislocating. A period just over two years long has felt more like two decades, with time slowing in inverse proportion to the speed of events. We, or at least I, have been exhausted and bewildered. What has changed since that fateful election night, and how have I changed?
Election night 2016, I walked into a bar to watch results come in with friends. I looked bedraggled. I was growing a very bad goatee, and my long Shaggy-Doo style hair was covered by a gray beanie. I wore a, loose, grayish-tan, patterned collared shirt. My forehead, recently, and unbelievably, ravaged by shingles, was bandaged up on the left side. I’d only just come out of a weeks-long period of quarantine. I looked like a Beat poet who’d gotten in a fight, and lost.
I was working at UNICEF as a consultant. It was my first “real” job out of college, and a good one at that. But my contract there, handled like a football in a bureaucratic game high above my head, would expire early January 2017, a full 6 months before my boss had predicted only weeks before. I didn’t know what was next.
That is to say, months before New Years Day 2017, I was not feeling like myself. The year-and-a-half period between my college graduation and the election had already taken on the quality of unreality now so pervasive in this new year, 2019. Donald Trump had ridden down the escalator into what we now know was an inexorable descent to, and of, the Presidency. Now that we’re enveloped in the morass, it can be easy to forget that, at the time, the period between 2015 and election day felt like slipping into a horrible, fevered hallucination.
In that bar, nestled in the heart of Manhattan, the fevered hallucination became a real life nightmare when the Midwest flashed red on the TV screen. Wolf Blitzer, in his monotone, declared Donald J. Trump the winner. It felt like the floor had disappeared beneath my bar table chair and I was in free fall. Everything happened in slow motion, as middle-aged businessmen in suits nearby taunted me, the seemingly bedraggled hippie. I distinctly recall using the words “end of the world” with the friends I had around me.
And It was, in its way, an end of things. It began a more than two year process of utter existential re-assessment for not only me, but for nearly everyone I knew. That creeping sense of unreality had now become the fun house we all lived in.
None of the sense-making tools we had developed and relied on worked anymore. Over that next two years, the way we saw each other, and ourselves, became distorted in the mirrors. The handles we grabbed onto for support, shape-shifted constantly. Dear relatives revealed disquieting bigotry or indifference. Insightful comedians, like Louis CK, showed themselves to be predators. Social media, once the hope of the world, became its Orwellian doom. Trust dissolved quickly, and without it, truth was harder to determine, and virtue still harder to identify.
Before the election, my plan was to position myself to join the Foreign Service. Fresh off of graduation in 2015, I got a State Department scholarship, and I happily drank their Kool-Aid. I had subscribed to the Economist and read it page-to-page, which people in-the-know had said was the way to study for the foreign service exam. I had begun looking at graduate schools in international affairs.
The best laid plans, as they say…
In this new world, I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow the orders of a President who looked to dismantle the state department, and use what was left to attack allies, aid and abet enemies, and provoke barely-contained antagonists.
I had made State my north star because, despite the flaws, I really believed in what my country stood for. I, like many of my progressive peers, had read the Obama era as one of a resurgence in American values and confidence. It felt like we’d entered an era in which we were going to get closer to fulfilling the credo “all men are created equal.”
Which is why we couldn’t comprehend the backlash. Just before I left the country in mid-2017, Neo-Nazis terrorized the streets of Charlottesville, VA, and killed a woman. It struck close to home, too, because my brother’s friend was injured in the very same car attack. It felt like I didn’t know what my country stood for, anymore. How could I work for it?
So my north star went black. I didn’t have a sense of direction, and I wasn’t alone. Many peers were radicalized by similar experiences. They began to speak in real life the way twitter reads: brash, angry, sarcastic, contemptuous, righteous. They became pithy, and therefore, reductive. Yet I sympathized with it. I was there when we channeled all our angst into chants of “NOT MY PRESIDENT” that echoed off the walls of skyscrapers outside Trump Tower, as we rolled like a tempest through the streets.
In retrospect, though, I also began seeing ideas and dispositions that would come to make me feel alienated from my fellow lefty millennials. Trump hung in effigy that night on 5th avenue, and around his limp, stuffed body, the crowd was still thronged with “Stronger Together” signs, but peaking through were more subversive, radical pickets that read “End Capitalism Now”, or “Socialism, not Barbarism”.
Fringe ideas and publications, like Jacobin and others, took on a new a strange prominence, even though they treated Vladimir Lenin as a “misunderstood” hero of working people, and not the well-intentioned architect of the world’s most influential ends-justify-the-means rationalization for totalitarianism. Burn what is unpure, flesh or stone, to the ground, and start over again. Utopia.
Even now, I find writing about this sense of alienation difficult. Describing the feeling can give a certain type of listener the impression that I disagree with the ideals of the progressive movement, when in reality, it’s simply that I have begun to find tendencies and trends within its coalition that give me pause. It had been gathering steam since the Bush years, but by this time there was such a religious faith in the righteousness of it all that, when put in one room, progressives became competing preachers, adopting the most “liberated” or “woke” positions they could find.
That process distorted their views and platforms, radicalizing the most committed and insulated until, to those on the outside, they became space aliens, spitting iron-melting vindictive to destroy both monsters and skeptics alike the name of restorative justice. If you find yourself feeling defensive about this description, think to the recent news about the organizers of the women’s march, and you can begin to see the toxic dynamic I’m describing play out.
I entered the progressive space as a teenage organizer for Elizabeth Warren in 2012. I felt like a foot soldier in a larger fight against rapacious capitalists and their racist stooges. I had a team, and I was a welcome member. Where I revealed my ignorance, someone would nudge me in the right direction, assuming my good faith.
By 2015, I was entering similar spaces, but there had been a shift. I no longer felt like a member of the team — I was someone who had the face of the oppressor: the straight white cisgendered man. My participation was suspect, and my ability to empathize with the people the movement fought for was questioned. Any revealed ignorance could be treason. Any slip-up evidence of bad faith.
In the Obama era, these rituals of acknowledging my privilege (“as a straight white cisgender man, I understand that…”) felt like a part of a cathartic process of collectively moving on from past injustices. I was learning from the experiences of my peers in a way that I would never have been able to, given the homogeneity of my childhood.
In the Trump era, it began to feel like an excuse for many so-called progressives to feel big, while making others feel small. It was a way to process trauma that was vindictively reciprocal — you who have oppressed me will now feel my centuries of anguish. Seeing this play out on college campuses across the northeast, and online within my own social circles, I began to think of Lincoln’s 1865 inaugural address, “…until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
It had begun to feel like the only lenses a good progressive was allowed to see the world through were call out culture and intersectionality. Although the nominal object was “restorative” justice, often the anger I felt from peers was more of the “eye-for-an-eye” kind of justice. Online, the progressive internet would periodically lunge to call viral transgressions out, whether perpetrators’ violence was physical, or, disturbingly, the violence ascribed to mere language. Self-policing one’s thoughts became key, to the point that even victims of the dog-piling were convinced they deserved their punitive lashing.
Weren’t we the ones who had preached against pre-emptive strikes? Who preached for rehabilitative programs for thieves and murderers? Was there not, in those concepts, the ideas of mercy, and the inevitability of mistakes? A belief in radical transformation? Was the object to achieve restorative justice? Or in our quest to right half a millennium of wrong, would we create our own system of injustice, using the burned foundations of the old one?
The ironies felt suffocatingly thick, and being someone who had been thoroughly ideologically trained in the progressive paradigm of the 2010s, the introduction of doubt felt like sharp, painful white noise. Having the wisdom to tell the difference between who was a good faith organizer, and who was an angry bully became increasingly difficult. Especially because politics had gone from a specialized topic, ignored by so many, to something that had relentlessly latched itself onto daily life and personal relationships. Where did I belong in all this? I needed space to find out.
I found that space on the other side of the world when I was accepted into the Princeton in Asia fellowship program, where I was given the opportunity to teach English at a university in Wuhan, China during the 2017-2018 school year. It was a way for me to test my interest in China, and foreign affairs writ large, in the wake of the 2016 elections. It was also a way to get space from and perspective on America and its politics. Whatever was going to happen, I would come out of it with a clearer idea of how I felt about the two topics that had dominated my idea of my own future for years: service for the US abroad, and progressive politics.
In fact, living in Wuhan was the context in which I started this very blog. I needed a place to record my experiences, and work through the evolution in my thoughts, however imperfect and unfinished they might be. You can see me processing culture shock in the early posts, then getting homesick and reverting to a series of more comfortable, easy, generic, unoriginal posts in the progressive mold. Finally, you can see me come out the other side, writing more interesting pieces that reflected what I was seeing in the moment, day-to-day in China, even as I used those experiences to analyze my own country on the other side of the world.
The ways living in Wuhan changed my understanding of the world are too numerous to list here, but I can do my best to summarize.
Learning in a deeper way about the history of modern China, I saw the good intentions, and the idealistic hopes of a generation of people who fought and killed to make China liberated, and later, red. Each of those movements found their origins in the 1910s, with the May 4th movement, and the larger New Culture movement.
They sought restorative justice. They sought the end of internal empire. They sought an end to feudalism — to us, a 14th century anachronism, but one that had persisted into the 20th century in China. They wanted an end to the dominance of foreign corporations and external foreign empires over their country. Some of the first feminists in Chinese history came with the arrival of Marxism-Leninism. So too did some of the first calls for an end to Han chauvinism, the rough Chinese equivalent to white supremacy.
But I also saw how, if not carefully and deliberatively managed, passions for social justice can lead to anything but. After half a century of civil conflict, the wheel of dynasties came to an end, and the Communist Party, after decades in the wilderness, came to power in 1949. But in the name of protecting their social revolution, and to carry out the Leninist vision of a “vanguard party“, the communists forbid any party but their own from ruling.
Competing with one another to carry out their revolutionary vision, without taking in skeptical and dissenting views, they radicalized themselves, until they could justify the vigilante murder of landowners, and an agricultural system driven so ruthlessly ideologically, they starved 50 million people in 4 years. Those few who resisted, like the minority Uyghurs and Tibetans, were re-conquered, and despite all rhetoric of fighting Han chauvinism, became listed as counter-revolutionaries, and thoroughly suppressed.
Later, to protect his own power, and his vision for social change, Mao used a generation of indoctrinated students, “Red Guards”, to conduct a witch hunt for skeptics and dissenters. It was a “Cultural Revolution“. Sons called out their mothers, sending them to their executions. Sisters beat siblings in the streets. Parents forced to bury their children alive. Historic temples and priceless artifacts were systematically destroyed, in a bid to right 5000 years of injustice, erase the past, and build a new, utopian future.
What had begun as a movement for social justice in 1911, had, by the early 1970s, lead to virtual anarchy, and a country so dedicated to its own twisted vision of justice, that it devoured its own, and tore the soul out of its culture by setting fire to its past. Suddenly, I had a language to describe my uneasy feelings for American politics. I could articulate that the feelings of uneasiness I had at home with my fellow progressives were not for what the movement is in 2019, or even in 2024, but what it could be if our call-out paradigm and overweening confidence doesn’t shift by 2079.
On a personal level, I saw China experience its own slide back towards totalitarianism. The dictatorship of the party is snuffing out counter-revolutionaries who don’t tow the party line, and censoring any cultural contaminants that might pollute the minds of their citizens. I saw firsthand the rising islamophobia in China, that would, only months later, lead to Uyghur concentration camps in the 21st century.
I saw my students make their way “Marxism class”, passing government slogans that said, in effect, that patriotism meant the party, and the party meant patriotism. (Eerily similar to signs in far-off Xinjiang that would claim that refusing to speak Uyghur was a sign of “patriotism“.) Many friends I made there believed the party line, and pursued it with the kind of cheerful idealism and sense of service that brought me to Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. At the same time, a few others confided in me that they dissented in the one solitary place that, for the moment, belonged to them: their mind.
It made me feel a little more confident about the state of American by comparison. We have our own history of oppression, and suppression of dissent. Yet, reading American history, there has always been a space, however small, between the state and the dominant culture, where dissenters, if not exactly safe, operate, preach, convert, succeed, fail, try again. We don’t always tell our story this way — often among conservatives it is a messiah-like nation, born to heroically save the world from its sins. Among left-wingers and liberals, there’s a narrative gaining popularity that America was, from the start, evil empire, built on genocide and slavery, always hungering to achieve its Manifest Destiny: the conquest of the world under its fair-skinned boots.
The truth is uncomfortably messy. I’ve come to believe that the real value of the country exists in that liminal space that the dissenters have always lived in, from the moment Native peoples, Europeans, and Africans were thrust by history onto these shores. Books like “The Crisis of the Middle Class Constitution” by Ganesh Sitaraman, “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition” by Manisha Sinha, or Jill Lepore’s “These Truths” have helped me get a more complicated understanding of our country.
There was always a progressive tradition in American history, even if, for most of history, it was either defeated, or, unbelievably, betrayed its own cause. Little-known names leapt from these books. Benjamin Lay, for example, the abolitionist hermit of the early 18th century, or Phillis Wheatley, the incredible, black female poet who wrote about the ideals of the revolutionaries, even as she, a freed slave, exchanged letters with people like George Washington, making their hypocrisy clear. There were voices like theirs that sound shockingly modern all throughout American history, and it’s possible to own that just as much as we should own up to the things they fought against.
When I got back from China in the summer of 2018, I was still processing what had been a year of very intense experiences. But in the last 6 months, I’ve come to a handful of conclusions about myself, my future, and I want to carry with me into 2019:
• I have regained faith in my country, having found that its strength didn’t lie in the inevitable march towards justice, but in the liminal spaces, where ideas were allowed to do combat against humanity’s natural gravitational pull towards chaos and injustice.
• I regained my faith in the progressive movement, not in spite of but because I gained the ability to critique elements within it without feeling like a traitor.
• I’m more comfortable with the idea of serving the country abroad, knowing that the goal isn’t to carry out a particular foreign policy, but to do our best to protect that fragile liminal space that our experiment has, so far, been able to maintain.
• I will not be cowed, bullied, or intimidated into believing something. I will do my best to think out loud, remember making mistakes is okay, and try to develop the wisdom needed to parse out what is constructive feedback, and what is cheap.
That last part is going to be hard, but, for now, I’m comfortable with the remaining tensions. After all, if there’s anything the last couple years of my tired dislocation have taught me, it’s that the world is a complicated place, and sometimes, all you need is the self-compassion and patience to make sense of things.