”The problem is not that there is evil in the world, the problem is that there is good, because otherwise who would care?” — V. M. Varga from the TV show Fargo
I collapsed in the driveway as I felt a stinging pain rocket up my leg. I was six. I suffered what was the first of too many ankle sprains to count during my underwhelming adolescent athletic career. As I fell to the ground, I skinned my knee on the pavement, saw the blood coating the cement in front of me, and began to wail. My mother ran out to grab me, took me inside, patched me up, and ensured that I still made it to my little league baseball game that weekend. America’s pastime has a way of healing wounds, but now, it serves as the site of this week’s American tragedy. That is, until the next one wipes Steve Scalise and the other victims off the front pages.
I grew up in an America that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Perhaps it never did. The one we inhabited just a couple of years ago feels like a distant memory, let alone the world housing that boy alone in his driveway, crumpled in a heap of agony—certain that the blood pouring out of his knee would continue into infinity. Today I feel very much like that fragile child, but the blood is metaphorical, and anguish emanating from my soul has taken its place.
A sitting congressman was shot and remains in critical condition—a congressman who once referred to himself as “David Duke (the former Grand Wizard of the KKK) without the baggage.” Three others were shot as well, including two capitol policeman who were hit by gunfire, but remained undeterred in their mission to help those in desperate need of it. As inspiring as Crystal Griner’s and David Bailey’s actions were, the fact that the conditions we tolerate necessitated their heroism to stop an awful situation from becoming worse obscures the silver linings hidden in this uniquely American tragedy.
We have nearly as many guns as we do people in this country. This fact is not wholly exclusive to America—as countries like Switzerland, Canada and Sweden are teeming with firearms—yet they do not experience and tolerate the rote horror that our laws and culture enable. Japan and Germany play just as violent, if not more violent videogames, yet they do not obsess over their impact on the nation’s collective psyche like we do. We have acceded to a patronage relationship with bloodshed. American exceptionalism is a sword that cuts both ways.
We seem to be at a breaking point in the American experiment, with all sides determined to drive it down into their own custom-made ditches. The amorphousness of “winning” has overtaken the certainty of reality.
Donald Trump did not impose this cult of selfishness perpetuated in some way by every single American. He is simply the logical conclusion of our culture of greed. The result of a country of Israelites, sitting at the base of Mount Sinai, worshipping a golden calf. We speak about how much aid to cut from our most needy in budgetary terms. Human lives that can be added or subtracted in the service of reaching an arbitrary financial goal. A goal that always—no matter which party is in power—results in more for the super-rich and less for everyone else.
We divide ourselves along a fictitious 50-50 partisan split while 20% of our citizens own over 80% of American wealth. Demagogues aren’t the problem. Their demagogues are the problem. Our only responsibilities are to ourselves and our tribe, and reality is the victim in this exchange. The built-in divisiveness housing us in our invisible partisan cages is what enables hucksters like Sean Hannity to not even wait before the blood has dried before descending upon the site of a tragedy to issue a completely unrelated demand: that the special counsel appointed by the Department of Justice to investigate the president for obstruction of justice be fired by the president. The simplicity with which we can describe our modern contradictions is utterly poetic.
The Republican Party is trying to pass a wildly unpopular health care bill in secret. They are doing this because as one senior Senate GOP aide said, “we aren’t stupid.” This bill will kill people. People like my mother, who would eventually succumb to the seemingly infinite power of cancer. And for what? Because the Republicans must “win.” Even if victory means the loss of life. A winning campaign paid for by the blood of the innocent is still a winning campaign. The costs of reality have little value on the D.C. chessboard because an overwhelming amount of time, money and energy has been invested in telling us that what we see either is not true, or is a nefarious plot to gain the upper hand on “us” by “them.” The next generation is literally being mortgaged in the service of maintaining this unreality.
The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once said that “love, friendship, respect, do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something.” America is proving this maxim true. “Republican” or “Democrat” or #MAGA or #Resist have replaced our identities as fathers. Mothers. Children. Parents. Those roles are still of vital importance, but they have been coopted in the name of protecting those we love from “those people.”
We take our American family for granted. Some decry the “useless” government while drinking clean water, breathing leadless air and driving on interstate highways to and from our jobs—all made possible by the efforts of our neighbors, and not some amorphous and indescribable bureaucracy operating in secret. Others insist on concentrating ever more power in the world's most powerful system that is still vulnerable enough to cede its controls to a man like Donald Trump.
It feels hopeless right now. So hopeless that I just succumbed to what I just decried as a “fictitious” left-right split, because that's how naturally it comes to us. Battle lines have been drawn amongst allies while our major institutions continue to fail us. The Grey Lady breaks vital news on a story that implicates the President of the United States as a potential pawn of an adversarial government. But even one of the most important stories of the year is but a mere footnote in their service of perpetuating the eternal tale of more for the powers that be and less for their subjects. The New York Times heaped blame on Bernie Sanders for the shooting because he called Trump a “demagogue” while Hillary Clinton avoided any criticism, despite saying things like a plurality of the country is a “basket of deplorables.”
The Times launched an advertising campaign that seems to imply that Truth is only now of the utmost importance, all while they hire a climate change denier to their opinion page—and in the wake of another attempted political assassination, their entire editorial board pushed a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory about our last attempted assassination of a national politician, which falsely ascribed responsibility to conservatives for a crime perpetrated by a mentally unstable man whose obsession with former congresswoman Gabby Giffords has been proven to exist long before Sarah Palin invaded our national discourse.
Even the Truth itself has become nothing more than a marketing term. Nothing feels real anymore. Everything is up for interpretation and everyone is the final arbiter—which means that no one is. I think back to that helpless boy crying in the middle of his driveway, and I feel an overwhelming sense of envy. He had a problem that could be fixed by the wonders of his reality and a warm embrace from a woman who has since left this world. Today I feel the same level of fragility, but with none of the confidence to put it all back together. We are a lost people, wandering the desert in search of a salvation that no one can agree on. I don’t know what country this is anymore, but as I look around the globe I am certain that it is my own. Who else’s could it be?
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.