The domestic U.S. news cycle and social media streams, in the summer of 2020, became wrenching after the murder of George Floyd. To say the least. It wasn’t just the protests for racial equity that were being covered (protests that were often made violent by antagonists or wayward disruptors, there for the thrill) nor was it just the sudden, overt, vivid manifestation of naked hate from the radicalized right; what needed processing too was the grief and rage from Black people all over the country. Not just content creators telling their stories, or walking us through history, evoking with color the stories of Juneteenth and Selma, Eric Garner, atrocity 1 through Z. It was everyday people talking about their experiences. Comedian Jay Pharoah, for instance, coming forward with security camera footage of police officers stopping him on the street, pulling him to the ground, and kneeling on him after they allegedly mistook him for a perp, and then only releasing him when he kept saying, “Google me, just Google me,” and one of the officers finally did–clearly determining this Black guy was too famous to assault.
There was a feeling, in those weeks, of some monolithic Truth unspooling, like a scroll, except this particular Truth had hooks in it, and those hooks were ensnared in so many crevices of our culture, our society, it seemed a start-from-scratch was in order. Like the issue of racial violence was too huge to address without the torturously meticulous reconsideration of everything from housing to voting to…
And nothing goes from Empire to Scratch without violence.
Something approximating that desolate feeling has come back this week, just more than a year later, with respect to global news instead of domestic, as every outlet reports on the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, and the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti.
The earthquake in Haiti shows an unraveling of the progress that was made (was still being made) to rebuild the country after its last major earthquake, in 2010.
200,000 people died in that one.
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, similarly, shows the unraveling of two decades’ progress toward protecting the region, strengthening the government and its army, so that insurgency could be avoided and, ideally, an enduring democracy might prevail.
And then, with concussive abruptness, it was all undone. Undone, and then some.
Trillions of dollars committed to those efforts. Eternities of labor hours.
Scroll way down on the front page of The New York Times and you’ll see coverage, beyond these calamities, of a “Code Red” climate situation, of businesses suffering around the country and the explosion of the Delta variant, a Pope’s precarious health, a grief-shrouded Olympics…
I’m reading Louis Menand’s most recent book right now, a tome of cultural history called The Free World. It shows the development of western culture through the Cold War (which begins, essentially, in the immediate postwar period of the 1940s). This morning I was going through the chapters about Hannah Arendt and Jean Paul Sartre. Two thinkers, artists, each of whom survived World War II in Europe, each of whom had seen horrors in that war, and each of whom emerged, afterward, with trauma and insight and a role to play.
What they did was provide a kind of grammar for the post-war world. A way of conceptualizing what had happened to them and their countries. A way of articulating it.
It’s a fruitful enterprise.
In finding a way to articulate the problem, steps could be made toward remedying that problem.
Sartre spoke of isolation, of nothingness, of solitude. His philosophy sketched a portrait of an isolated survivor, an exile, a person without a country. In particular, the Jewish Survivor.
Arendt, in turn, explored the roots of totalitarianism. Looked through history to find the warning signs so that, generations hence, we could have our guard up when, inevitably, it happened again.
These were things that needed to be discussed.
By cultivating a vocabulary for that solitude, for that governmental tyranny they’d endured, people were able to discuss it. To bond over it. And through that bond, to find a remedy.
What’s that got to do with what’s happening in Afghanistan? Or in Haiti?
Not much, explicitly.
But Menand describes a milieu, in these chapters, of ruined homelands, of exiles, a generation of refugees who were made to wander into foreign and unfriendly lands with nothing. What I think Menand sketches (if I’m understanding his Sartre chapter correctly) is that the way these exiles would later choose to repopulate that emptiness, the nothingness with which they were left by having found themselves ensnared in history, became the bedrock for a new generation of thought, of politics, of art.
That in people’s efforts to make sense of the horrors they’d seen through the war sprang something like hope. A new horizon.
Long before that bedrock could take hold, however, these exiles had to survive.
This afternoon I listened to the latest episode of The Daily, a podcast from The New York Times, in which an Afghani woman (going by the monikker “R”), trapped in the country and moving from home to home with her whole life collected into six bags, describes via voicenotes what’s happening around her, and begins to process her experience. The shock and the horror of what she’s hearing. The panic. How horrified she is that the whole world has abandoned them. How the collapse of each city, in the eyes of the world, is little more than a vague geopolitical reality whereas for her, a native of that country, it’s a vivid jolt, an intimate awareness of souls being crushed, neighbors losing everything, like an existential sinkhole expanding, encroaching, her world toppling in over its edges.
And then her tone shifts.
From grief blooms contempt.
She says that history will never forget the names involved. The perpetrators of atrocity, the victims, the allies who abandoned them…
It’s a sobering thought, atop an awful reality:
That there will be a future here. That tyrants fall and nations rebuild. And when that future comes, this pain will be History.
And on the basis of that History, subsequent scores will be settled.