The First Year of the End of the World

A day after the Las Vegas massacre, there were reports of an active shooter at Fertitta Hall on the campus of the University of Southern California. Police arrived on scene and put the school on lockdown. It was a false alarm, fortunately, so you probably never heard about the incident. But I did, because my mom was working in the building that day. I got her text informing me she was safe before I knew anything had even happened. She would later send a link to a YouTube video from the day, showing terrified people fleeing the scene. She was in it, running.

This last weekend, Hawaiian residents received an emergency alert that proclaimed an imminent ballistic missile threat. “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.” It read. “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” It took half an hour before a clarification came via Twitter: it was a mistake. Of course, everyone heard about this incident. I did too, first when my sister posted asking for more information about. See, she and her husband live in Hawaii; they had gotten the alert. They saw people running in from the beach, and they too went around filling buckets, gathering supplies, fearing the worst.

My family was lucky; I was lucky. But it does not take much to imagine a world in which we were anything but, and the false alarms weren’t. There might not have been a mass shooting at USC on October 3, 2017, but there was one that day in Miami, Florida, another two days later in Casa Grande, Arizona, and one more the day after that in Chicago, Illinois. There might not have been a nuclear exchange over Hawaii on January 13, 2018, but there might be in coming days, as the military continues to prepare for war with North Korea, and nuclear brinkmanship reaches new levels.

Somehow, this is the state of my country.

A year. Has it only been that?

It has everything to do with him. He has been made infinitely more dangerous by virtue of his office. His inflammatory words have mass audiences; his erratic behaviors carry global consequences. We take some solace in the fact that his every action confirms what we already knew. He is what we thought he was: a racist, a sexist, a bigot. Proudly ignorant, fundamentally lazy, obsessively self-centered. Not a modicum of decorum or intelligence, no sense of ethics or shame. Every trait he possesses runs counter to values we hold dear. That won’t change – he’s 71 years old.

But it has nothing to do with him. Despite his egotism, it has become abundantly clear over the course of the last year that the American president is not all that ails the United States. Liberal fantasies of impeachment or the 25th Amendment may be correct to pine for the predictability of a Pence or Ryan presidency (if not the politics thereof), but these too often neglect the fact that the rot in the country is confined to no individual. Certainly the current chief executive is a uniquely comprehensive manifestation of the rot, its vessel and beneficiary. But he is the symptom, not the disease.

To begin, the media remains a mess. Overcorrecting for sins of yesteryear, they bend over backwards to stay “objective”, giving voice to jackasses and trolls, seeking logic even when none exists and understanding even when none is deserved. Issue coverage remains sparse; heads talk that shouldn’t. In the face of the regular gaslighting exercise that is the daily briefing, the corp has not united nor strategized. They instead legitimize the forum by attending it, still faithfully adhering to rules and norms their subjects discarded with contempt long ago. “Lies,” no one is blunt enough to scream. “LIES.”

There is no room to contextualize, to unpack, to inform. And so the significant is marginalized, the abnormal normalized. It matters in a situation like this, when consequence needs time to manifest, when accountability requires space to permeate. Instead, the ever-present cycle rolls on. Sensationalism dominates, emanating from those with the courage of their agendas. Commentary masquerades as journalism, opinion as news. Opponents are vilified as not only wrong but malicious, through the invocation of the infamous and now rendered meaningless phrase: “fake news.”

That truth is contestable, that facts are politicized – the burden is not the media’s alone. This is a matter beyond insularity and bubbles, but a conscious decision: party over country. Hypocrisy reigns, adopted as strategy. Confirmation of unqualified appointees one after another, first in the Cabinet and now the courts. Obstruction of investigations into Russian interference, a direct insult to the intelligence community. Widespread support of a racist and accused sexual assaulter, the price of Senate control. Democrats are the enemy, bipartisanship is treason, and the president – even this one – must be kept above reproach.

Too much of the populace serve as willing lapdogs. Some buy in because they want to believe in easy answers, because they like having scapegoats identified for them, because they hear words that do not come from a black man or a white woman. They see the world changing, their dominance waning, and they lash out – a last gasp against the rising tide. The policies they enable, the damage they indirectly inflict, will reverberate for generations. Still, the Pyrrhic victory appears to them as some semblance of triumph. Not a whimper but a bang, I suppose, and even a self-inflicted bang is noise at least.

There is raging Islamophobia when it is Christian theology that informs extreme policy positions and fuels cultural wars; there is persistent xenophobia when most work point to the social, cultural, and yes, economic benefits of immigrant groups. There is more outrage over a young black man kneeling than there is over police brutality and the systematic persecution of minorities. There is a convenient link drawn between terrorism and religion, and an accompanying shaming and ostracism of that religion’s followers, only as it pertains to the non-Western world.

He is a symptom.

Symptom of a system that has done nothing five years after 20 elementary schoolchildren were gunned down, presumably because there still hasn’t been an “appropriate” time to have the conversation even on the margins of the issue. Symptom of a system in which one person can drag us to the precipice of nuclear annihilation, making oblique dick references all the while, as the so-called “adults” watch and the communication platform on which he issues his impulsive declarations turns its back and counts its money. Nothing matters. Fucking nothing matters anymore.

Education is seen as elitism, ignorance as accessible. Compassion is dismissed as weakness, indecency heralded as honesty. There is false equivalence between the vast scientific consensus concerning man-made climate change (accepted by 195 countries) and the handful of quacks and special interest groups that deny it. There is a misguided belief that American isolationism is possible when the supply chain for a single computer involves dozens of countries and hundreds of companies. America first? The arc of history feels too often like a closed circle.

A Supreme Court seat is stolen; the coming 2020 Census under threat. Districts continue to be gerrymandered, and voting access across them curtailed. A massive tax reform benefits corporations and the wealthy; a nascent health care system finds itself under regular attack. A Muslim ban is imposed, then another, and then another. An American territory sits months without electricity. The racist and accused sexual assaulter still manages 48.7% of the vote (in a loss, thankfully). Then again, the racist and self-proclaimed sexual assaulter got 62.9 million votes and became our president.

He is a symptom, but it is not just a disease. It is an epidemic.

Year one.

[Previously: “The First Week of the End of the World.”]

(Photo by Bryan R. Smith, AFP, Getty Images)

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