Midnight in Atlanta: Thinking about the Catastrophe Two Years Later

No real best-of this week.  Instead, we at Tropics of Meta are taking stock of the extraordinary and terrifying last two years, since the Catastrophe enveloped our nation and, indeed, the world.  The occupant of the White House is a deeply venal, ignorant, bigoted person, but he has a certain savant-like talent for spectacle: two parts PT Barnum and one part Hermann Göring (or perhaps it’s the other way around).  The possible elimination of birthright citizenship is just the season finale plot twist in the sick reality show that Trump has cast all of us in: two parts Black Mirror, one part Truman Show.

That our most sacred principles, ideals that hundreds of thousands of people have given their lives for, are just playthings in the hands of a sociopathic man-baby is bad enough.  But the endless stream of new assaults on reason and human rights does what it’s meant to do: keep us so disoriented and frantic that we feel powerless.  And then there are the tragedies: the mass shootings, the hate crimes, the gross neglect of desperate people in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Syria, Yemen, all the deliberate cruelty for its own sake.  It is hard to maintain any sense of perspective or a bigger view of events when unthinkable things come so hard and fast, without pause.

Yet we have to take stock.  We have to integrate all these things into a bigger picture.  For those of us who are historians, journalists, or social scientists, this imperative is all the greater.  It is literally our job to make sense of life’s rich pageant and try our best to interpret and explain it to others.  The last few years have left many of us normally Chatty Cathies thunderstruck and speechless.

It feels nearly impossible to make a full accounting of all that has happened: the Women’s Marches, the Muslim Ban, the March for Science, the repeated attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act, the ludicrous Wall and the equally ridiculous Caravan, withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and the Iranian nuclear deal, Trump’s bromance with Kim Jong Un, the killings in Louisville and Pittsburgh just in the last week or two, the installation of two hard-right ideologues on the Supreme Court by an unelected and criminal president, the bald and shameless effort to disenfranchise voters across this great land by ever more brazen tactics.

One could go on and on and on.  The friends and family we’ve lost because we don’t talk to them anymore, and the neighbors and fellow citizens we’ve lost because they were literally murdered by men (always men) consumed with hate.

But there are other things too.  There are the millions of us who worked the phones to save the ACA and wore out our shoes knocking on doors for candidates (some successful, some not so much).  There are the children we’ve brought into the world amid all this chaos, and the new friends and allies we’ve made as we came together with total strangers to try and stem the tide of hatred and authoritarianism.  There are the books we’ve written; the piercing insight and humor of commentators who have taken the absurdity of the day head on; and the great art that testifies to an enduring human spirit in the face of grinding poverty, cruelty, and injustice. (The film Moonlight, released in 2016 but awarded the highest distinction just weeks after the monster entered the White House, comes to mind.)  We have learned a great deal about ourselves, our neighbors, this country, and life in general throughout this midnight voyage.

There is, too, the unvarnished and clear-eyed honesty that comes with recognizing how bad things are and still getting up and choosing to do something about it.

Two years ago, when this disaster first fell over us, I did what I almost always do in this kind of situation: try to bounce back, counsel sound judgment, and rally the troops to keep going, even if I sort of know I’m lying to myself by doing so.  The first piece I wrote on the day when we all woke up and hoped that it was all just a bizarre bad dream was called “Stiff Upper Lip, Friends.” Its willful, if chastened optimism feels a bit off-pitch in retrospect.

Soon after, as the full scope of the Catastrophe became increasingly clear, I turned to despair in the piece “Things We Lost in the Fire” — a post about the comprehensive blitzkrieg we could soon expect against everything good and decent in American life. The years since suggest that an at-least-plausible case could be made that things didn’t turn out quite as badly as I predicted in that pitch-black moment.  But admittedly, they have been pretty damn bad.

The cliché goes that it’s always darkest before the dawn.  In the same way, the sun is at its zenith at the moment it begins to set and retreat.  We don’t know if it is now midnight or merely dusk, and the night will get blacker still.  But we look for the light.

Tennyson comes to mind:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Lincoln’s famous words in the Second Inaugural ring through the mystic chords of memory too:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

We see the light as we are given to see the light.  We keep looking.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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