A Christmas letter to the undiscovered country | Essay
In a letter to an absent friend, a writer sums up nine years of news that has left our heads and hearts hurting
The late Kansas author Phillip Finch’s typewriter and his novel, “Sugarland,” a 1991 mystery published by St. Martin’s. Photo by Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector.
You’ve been away for a good long while so here’s a Christmas letter to catch you up on all the news you’ve missed. So much has changed. Time steals like a shadow over the living, rendering us all Henry Adams at history’s eclipse. There’s much I want to share, because you could have helped make sense of it.
I’m tapping out this message on your old portable typewriter, the trusty Olympia, out of a sense of nostalgia or maybe magical thinking. Rat-a-tat ding, just like the old days, when all good journalists came to the aid of their
Where to start?
When you left, Barack Obama was near the end of his first term as president. The “arc of history” seemed indeed to be bending inexorably toward social justice. Although there was still much to be done, most of the nation felt we were going in the right direction. Oh, how naive we were. Obama won a second term, but with a slimmer margin than he had his first. Funny, but as much I disliked GOP nominee Mitt Romney at the time — binders full of women! — I admire his steady and thoughtful style of conservatism now.
I miss John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, even more. McCain died in 2018 of brain cancer, and part of the country seemed to die with him. Gone is the integrity he brought to Republican politics, the willingness to correct lies about his opponent, the sense of pride in civic duty and sacrifice, the belief that democracy is about the peaceful transition of power whether or not your candidate wins.
After Obama won his second term, there was a shift in the country. Things moved farther right at an alarming pace. In the 2014 midterms, fueled by a base that increasingly regarded those of a different skin color or a different faith as the enemy, the Republicans held the House and took the Senate.
The arc of history seemed to falter.
Many of us thought Donald Trump’s candidacy was a joke, but the joke was on us. A tape emerged late in the campaign that caught him bragging about grabbing women by their private parts, and he still won (insert longing again for McCain and Romney). Trump, a documented womanizer and a liar and a business fraud, somehow had broad support among evangelical Christians. Trump lost the popular vote but won the electoral college (ouch, we really need to fix that), defeating Hillary Clinton. The pollsters and the pundits, who were nearly unanimous in their smug predictions that Clinton would win, had failed to gauge the grassroots backlash against the first Black president and the first woman candidate to have a real chance at the office.
The arc of history was blunted.
This change in the American psyche, this hard turn toward the right, was mirrored by an acceleration toward authoritarianism around the world. I have yet to read an adequate explanation of this phenomenon, but I fear the longing for a dictator is hardwired into us, a kind of death wish of the political soul. Trump was more than ready to indulge that urge, from military crackdowns on peaceful protests to calling journalists the enemy of the people. The response from the extremists was enthusiastic, and in 2017 neo-Nazis marched with swastikas and Confederate flags in Charlottesville, Virginia, at a torchlight rally where they chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
As deeply divided as we were, things were about to get worse.
By March 2020 the nation was paralyzed by COVID-19, a virus that likely jumped from animals to humans in a meat market in Wuhan, China. OK, I know this sounds like the plot to a Michael Crichton novel, but stick with me. The pandemic prompted lockdowns around the world while scientists scrambled to find a vaccine. Here at home, we were thrust back to measures that had worked during the 1918 flu pandemic, including mask wearing and compulsive hand-washing. It was a terrible year, with schools and businesses closed, and a lot of working lives were conducted online. Things were made worse by Trump’s incompetence, his insistence that the virus would just magically disappear, his touting of ineffective treatments, and his efforts to minimize reporting of the virus’s death toll. His pandemic leadership was based on lies. He got the virus himself, of course, but survived with medical treatment unavailable to most Americans.
A few days ago we surpassed 800,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States, the most of any nation in the world. We are still in the midst of the pandemic, with about 1,200 Americans dying of the virus every day. This, despite safe and effective vaccines that have been available since the spring. The scientists did their job, the medical equivalent of a moon shot, and although the vaccines are safe and effective, a stubborn fraction of Americans refuse the shots. The political divide extends to public health, and many Trump supporters believe the vaccines are a hoax, or a plot by the government to change our DNA, or some other conspiracy theory that would be refused by Crichton as implausible. This rejection of medical science and civic duty has prolonged our suffering. This science denialism has been abetted by Republican lawmakers who have been busy blocking common-sense measures like mask and vaccine mandates in the name of personal and religious freedom. I don’t have the time or the energy to tell you about all the madness over public health measures, or describe the anger and dismay of rational individuals.
Kim and I are vaccinated, Phil, so don’t worry about us. We’ve been careful during the pandemic, both for ourselves and others, but I have to say the prospect of beginning yet a third year of pandemic has worn us down. I can’t remember a time that was harder. Others are feeling it, too, and you can see the confusion and depression in the eyes of others. Death is now taking mostly the unvaccinated, but the strain on hospitals and medical staff continues, and ties up resources needed for other medical emergencies. I am having difficulty with my anger over the stupidity of it all, although that anger has mostly been expressed through a drink or two before dinner. That’s dangerous, and something I have to watch.
In May 2020, there was the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white cop in Minneapolis. The nation erupted in marches and protests and righteous rage over America’s racial divide. It was both similar and different to the racial unrest of the 1960s. There was even a march here in Emporia, Kansas, and Kim carried a hand-lettered sign that said, “Stop the Killing.” The fuse is still burning on that issue, but the Republicans have pivoted and claimed victimhood for themselves over “critical race theory.” They have twisted the term, and are engaging now in witch hunts to stamp out CRT in our schools, claiming that it causes white parents and children discomfort. But any white discomfort from the study of systemic racism in America seems small compared to a knee kept on the neck of a Black man until he dies.
Back to Trump.
Trump was impeached (of course!) on charges of obstruction of justice and abuse of power, but was acquitted by the GOP-controlled Senate. He was impeached a second time, for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, but was again acquitted because there wasn’t the two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict.
Oh, the insurrection!
Even before the Nov. 3 election, which was decisively won by Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Trump had started sowing seeds of doubt about the integrity of the election. Trump and his hench people kept repeating the lie that the election was stolen. When it came time for a joint session of Congress to count electoral votes and formalize Biden’s victory, a mob of pro-Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol and briefly held the building. Lawmakers hid while a Confederate flag was paraded through the halls. There were calls to hang Vice President Mike Pence, because he wouldn’t block the certification.
The arc of history was broken.
The electoral vote was certified, hours later, and Biden sworn in Jan. 20, but we are still left with a democracy shaken by a failed coup attempt. There really isn’t a Republican party any longer, it is simply a party of Trump. There are no ideas, just a cult of personality, and their only platform is to suppress minority voters, install Trump loyalists in the statehouses, and give the power to certify elections to Trump loyalists.
That brings us just about up to date, except for Trump having successfully nominated three justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court seeming poised to reverse Roe v. Wade. I can’t even begin to explain the dangerous fruitcakes in Q-Anon. Oh, and guns. Remember how carrying a concealed weapon in Kansas used to be a crime? Well now it’s not only legal, but even college students can pack heat in the classroom.
Phil, you wouldn’t recognize the state or the country you left.
You were a singular friend, someone who always saw me as my best self, and an advocate for Kim and me from the first time you saw us as a couple to the champagne you bought for our wedding. You shared our happiness, knew our private sorrows, and were unfailingly generous through it all. You were difficult sometimes, in that way that smart and true friends can be difficult, but we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Times are hard in ways that I couldn’t have imagined nine years ago. The pandemic will end, yes, but the toll will take years to reckon. Democracy may survive, but only if we fight hard enough to make all votes count. America is a promise we must keep. How desperately I wish you were here now to offer some personal observation or insight to help us get through this.
But you died of cancer in 2012.
Even now, these nine years later, I miss your shadow on our steps.
We’ll never get another chance to talk, Phil, at least not on this side of the undiscovered country. In the meantime, I’ll keep banging out columns, incurring the wrath of the radically wrong, and trying to bolster the trajectory of the arc just a bit.
This essay first appeared in the Kansas Reflector, a member of the States Newsroom network and sister-site of the Minnesota Reformer.
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