As protests unfold night after night in city streets across the United States, President Donald Trump, never previously accused of being camera shy, was nowhere to be seen. The New York Times reports on his newfound taste for discretion: “The president spent Sunday out of sight, berating opponents on Twitter, even as some of his campaign advisers were recommending that he deliver a televised address to an anxious nation.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Out of sight:
Not visible or available to be seen, a clearly aberrant behavior when practiced by public narcissists, possibly a sign of serious trouble in their lives or careers
Trump had good reason to avoid cameras this past weekend. His incapacity to adopt what in traditional US politics is called a “presidential” tone means that whatever message he tries to convey in times of exacerbated tension will be fraught with risk.
The Times mischaracterizes the US as “an anxious nation.” Anxious is the wrong word. People are upset and unsettled over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, while in police custody. Different groups are seething with indignation against the powers they believe oppress them: the government, the media, political parties, technology and the police. The hyperreal government no longer even tries to govern. It puts on a show. For some time, the nation has been on the brink of a civil war, but with no armies to battle each other and no leaders capable of exercising authority.
The idea of an “anxious” nation is a relic of a past, a time when people could expect their leaders to produce reasoned action plans that promised workable solutions to new problems. When the coronavirus pandemic settled in just months ago, it was a new problem but with no viable political solution. Unlike today’s urban uprisings, the COVID-19 threat did create anxiety. It impelled them to look to their leaders to find a solution. The nation in its overwhelming majority could even accept a lockdown as an innovative — though temporary — solution to a new problem. In the name of solidarity, people were ready to make sacrifices. Unfortunately, evidence of solidarity from the leadership quickly went missing.
This crisis is different. Racism is an old problem. Everyone — including President Trump – senses the meaning of the depressing lesson history has taught Americans: that solving will always involve violence. That’s what happened in 1860. It began again in 1960. Everyone also knows that the “solution,” once the violence had abated, turned out to be no solution at all. At best, it was a truce in a perpetual war.
Psychiatrists explain that anxiety is a typical symptom of neurosis. When applied to US culture as a whole, what is unfolding in cities across the nation reveals something closer to national psychosis. The fact that the nation’s leader is himself unbalanced may produce anxiety for the most lucid among us, but certainly not in the traditional optimistic sense of eager expectation, as in the expression, “I’m anxious to know what you think.” There is no simple cure for extreme paranoia.
In the 18th century, the American colonies were peripherally involved in a conflict between Britain and Spain known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear. The conflict brewing today may one day be referred to as the War of Floyd’s Neck. For the moment, it isn’t a war. It’s an uprising. Whether or not it leads to some form of more structured conflict, it marks a significant phase in a developing cultural war, not between two races, parties or ideologies, but between two orders of social organization.
The current individualistic, competitive neoliberal order has attained a level of instability that was already seriously aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic and the lack of any coherent political or social response to it. The failure was systemic and not attributable to Donald Trump or any other person or group of people.
Most “responsible” commentators, clinging to an outdated notion of political reason, have insisted that serious reforms and new laws will provide the solution to the current troubles. But on the two historical occasions when laws were changed — at the end of the Civil War and following Martin Luther King’s organized protests — the result has been the mere displacement of the problem, the postponement of its solution. Jim Crow replaced slavery in the South. The rest of the country resigned itself to a grudging tolerance of the presence of former slaves in its midst. The civil rights movement transformed that grudging tolerance into grudging respect, focused primarily on the black success stories in the world of sports, music, entertainment and ultimately politics, with former President Barack Obama being its ultimate star performer.
Throughout its history, the US has been plagued by two distinct but convergent problems that have resisted every proposed solution: racism and economic inequality. Both were present in exaggerated form in slavery. But at the historical moment when slavery was legally abolished, economic inequality began to soar. The end of the Civil War marked the beginning of the Gilded Age, that of the robber barons and uncontrolled capitalistic exploitation.
Today’s protesters, of all races, demand justice for George Floyd and the countless victims of social brutality, not just police brutality. But justice means more than convicting the culprits. The insurgents are clamoring for a change of direction, a sight of the elusive “arc” of moral history cited by King that “bends towards justice.” They may not have a clear idea of what that direction may be, but the first thing they require is proof of its acknowledgment by their democratic institutions. And not just acknowledgment. They want the “change you can believe in” promised by Obama in 2008 and perpetually postponed over the past 12 years. This time, the protesters want change you can see.
Famed basketball star Michael Jordan, always a model of caution, has spoken up in terms that go beyond encouragement and reassurance. “Our unified voice needs to put pressure on our leaders to change our laws, or else we need to use our vote to create systemic change,” he said in a press release. For two decades, in contrast to engaged personalities like the younger LeBron James and the older Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan played the role of the sports icon who, when the discussion became political, deferred to his and the NBA’s commercial interests. He preferred not commenting rather than risking upsetting any of the customers addicted to his popular Nike shoes. If Jordan is calling for systemic change today, things really have become serious.
Al Jazeera quotes former National Football League player Colin Kaepernick, who was banished from the sport for kneeling during the national anthem to protest against police brutality. “When civility leads to death, revolting is the only logical reaction,” he said. “The cries for peace will rain down, and when they do, they will land on deaf ears, because your violence has brought this resistance.”
Back in 2018, Fair Observer’s Atul Singh presciently wrote: “A number of people are starting to resent their serfdom bitterly. They intuitively realize that markets collapse when masters own all assets and indebted serfs can merely sell labor for a pittance, that too if they are lucky. Politics collapses too because the gulf between the haves and have-nots becomes too deep and too wide.”
Now, the entire black community in America has discovered in the video of Floyd’s death the spark that will make it impossible to return to the past. Their message focuses on the permanently oppressive culture that continues to victimize them as a race. It resonates and coincides with the denunciations of economic inequality felt across wide swathes of the population. From Occupy Wall Street to the Bernie Sanders movement, the level of impatience has reached an intensity that has made serious social conflict inevitable.
It’s clear that Trump will never attempt to lead by being “presidential.” It simply is not his style. Joe Biden, not a very competent actor, is attempting to follow the script. But the people already understand that presidentialism from either party, if it existed, will not answer the literally burning question.
Moral of the story: Don’t count on the November election to provide the answer.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.