The Year That Killed American Mythology
As we come to the end of 2020, it is natural to reflect on what we have lost and what we have gained. This year the gains seemed too few when stacked against the losses spreading like kudzu. There are too many empty chairs at holiday meals this year, either due to the almost unimaginable loss of life or the loss of connections that tie us together.
Probably the only people who got through this year without being blocked, unfriended, or unfollowed on one social media platform or another by someone they considered a friend or even a family member are the people who did not throw their opinionated thought-babies into the fiery mouth of that modern-day internet-Ba’al. With the anger of Moses throwing down the tablets, many broke connections with loved ones because they were worshiping the wrong golden calf. How could those people have been so blind when clearly their calf was shinier and much more golden?
Those golden calves had replaced the Golden Rule as civility and community were replaced by rancor and division. Without regard to the topic, descending into any comments section was like traveling a path forged by Dante each level worse than the last. Salvos that were once only tossed at strangers found their way into the arguments between people who, were it not for the Coronavirus, would have broken bread together over the holidays.
This year we saw the demolishing of our American mythology, our innocent belief that simply by being American we were safe from the tricksters and monsters that wreaked havoc in the legends of weaker nations. The divisions that were laid bare were not ideological but optical: how we experienced this year depended on the version of the country that we saw.
In 2020, our country became a labyrinth, and the path forward depended on how well someone was navigating the maze. Unfortunately, there were some walking atop the walls who could see the whole configuration and told their side that every sound was the Minotaur coming to devour them, all the while knowing that the sounds were just the others trapped in the maze. So we learned again to fear each other as we stumbled blindly searching for a path as the walls shifted all around us.
This side of our country was always here and from time to time the curtain gets pulled back, and we wipe our faces clean of the shiny make-up of delusion and dreaminess to reveal the ugliness that lies underneath.
America’s greatest strength is its ability to reinvent itself, which often results in our greatest weakness: our ability to forget. 2020 was bad, but we have been through all of this before.
This election may have been nasty, but no one got shot or stabbed. Teddy Rosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy, and George Wallace were all shot while campaigning for President, and Shirley Chisholm was attacked with a 10-inch knife. Yes, names were called and civility lost, but that’s nothing new either.
In 1824, John Quincy Adams accused Andrew Jackson’s wife of being a bigamist, and Jackson responded by saying that Adams was a pimp. James Blaine’s 1884 campaign claimed that Grover Cleveland had raped a woman and then forced the child into an orphanage and it’s mother into an insane asylum. Blaine stood accused of selling favors while a member of Congress, even going so far as to write “Burn this letter” in a missive outlining the graft. The election of 1800 was so contentious that John Adams did not attend Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration. Watergate was nasty campaigning taken to its extreme, except for perhaps Lincoln’s election, which led to the Civil War.
Today we are facing Covid-19, but this isn’t the first plague America has faced.; it’s not even the first time that we’ve lived under lock-downs and mandates. There were fights over wearing masks during the Spanish flu in 1919, and Polio shut schools and churches during the 1950s even though 95% of people exposed to the virus were asymptomatic.
In 2020, we wrestled again with the issue of race, and sadly, this was nothing new either. Reconstruction, Red Summer, and Riots: the fight for equality has always been messy. Bloody Sunday, Birmingham, and Boston: the problem is not bound by geography either. Martin, Malcolm, and Medgar: the bloodshed didn’t begin this year, but perhaps this time we can finally understand that all lives can not be said to matter until black lives matter.
When our children’s grandchildren ask them about this year, what will they tell them? Will they say that we finally reached the rock bottom, stopped ourselves from eating more pomegranate seeds, and escaped the depths before it was too late. Or did we fail again to learn the lessons that have been forgotten before as we pushed to reengage in the Bacchic festivals of wine and pleasure, fiddling while it all burned down around us?