The day after November 3

[I’ve been speaking to students for a few days who are a quite unnerved about recent/not-so-recent events, and wanted to acknowledge the possibility that everything might explode after the election. We discussed this on Thursday in my graduate introductory class, and then I sent this follow-up today – MPG]

I wanted to return to our closing discussion yesterday about the coming days and weeks leading up to – and following – the Presidential election. If you are like me, you are having troubling sleeping or relaxing. You can’t look away. You are worried and concerned – and much more than usual. 

None of this is normal. Some of this is familiar. All of it is dangerous.

It is not normal to have a President who preemptively disputes the veracity of mail-in ballots, who threatens to close down all vote-counting if it appears to predict his loss, and who appears to be installing friendly voices on the Supreme Court to ensure that he wins the election. It is not normal to have a President who says these things out loud. It is not normal to have a President who openly embraces the suffering of his self-described enemies, and who seeks to make them suffer more. It is not normal to have the Department of Justice enlisted to lay the groundwork for legal challenges to the vote. It would be a mistake to laugh this off as buffoonery or clownishness. It is very possible that the days of representative democracy (such as it is) are coming to a close. If so, and if the man who is President seizes power on November 3, it would mark an earth-shattering break with the history of the United States. We have no idea what comes next.

The base beat of the plotline is familiar, though. Such a break would link us to the history of other democracies that have lapsed into authoritarian states. There are other echoes of our history out there, too. The resurgent racial state, coming after the faintest and most tentative and imperfect gestures towards “post racialism,” seeks to “make America great.” That sounds familiar. Such massive retreats from minimalist advances towards a racial democracy are routine in America. Big-tent fascism has a long history here, too, as does racial violence, public lynchings, and the surging warfare of political camps in the streets, storefronts, and waterways of the nation. Some of what we are hearing and feeling is an echo of the past, redounding across the present. That echo is hardly reassuring; it is the repetition of terror.

And, once more, all of it is dangerous. Metaphorically so, in the sense that we feel numb, or outraged, or broken from the shock and assault of the violence we see on our phones and our laptops and our televisions. But also physically so, in that we worry about friends, loved ones, and intimates who confront, at every street corner, traffic stop, or chance encounter the staccato rhythm of Black death. Or who brace themselves, with each departure from home, for a confrontation with the modern Klan, having swapped white hoods for red caps, who are now engaged in widespread voter suppression and intimidation and urban assaults. Maybe you can’t sleep. Maybe you know someone who has been hit or stabbed or shot. Maybe you worry that someday it might happen to you.

We cannot know what will happen the day after the election. I cannot imagine that any of these trends will be lessened. I fear that they might be significantly worsened. These are the reasonable fears of someone who writes American history and who has taught for twenty years, a middle class white dad with two kids and two dogs.

Universities are medieval things. They have survived the rise and fall of republics and empires. In the short term,  if things go even more sideways in November, we all might have to confront a hard choice between the routinization of scholarly study and a call to action. We will receive plaintive emails from administrators, concerned about the university, asking us to stay the course, to keep hammering away at the books, the lectures, the tests. Some of you might want exactly that – might well want, that is, to confront an unprecedented period of reckless political warfare by turning back to the books. Others might be drawn to march, to speak out, to rebel. 

This will be a time of choosing. I am here to support you in your choice. Whatever I can do to help you – or all of us together – I will. One perverse consequence of COVID-time is that we are now quite comfortable with creative improvisations and digital infrastructures that allow us to slip free of shared time and space, but that also allow us to continue to work together on a common ambition. Indeed, whatever changes we need to make to our schedule we will craft together. And whatever support we can provide for each other, we will do as a group. Between now and November 3, I am here if you need to talk, individually or in small or large groups. As always, if we meet in person, wear a mask – the symbol, these days, that you care about others. 

I ended our discussion yesterday with the story of W.E.B. Du Bois, a young scholar working in Atlanta in the early 20th century when he heard that a Black man, Sam Hose, had been accused of killing his landlord’s wife. Du Bois was an innovator, a sociologist working in the mediums of history and political science and philosophy. He set out to write a persuasive piece for the Atlanta Constitution. And on his way to deliver it, he happened across Sam Hose’s knuckles, on display in a butcher shop window. A “red ray” came across his life that day, changing the work he did, adding greater urgency to it, compelling him to weaponize his considerable intellect, to sharpen it until it was deadly and wicked and lasting.

We are here today, in part, because of what he chose in another moment of choosing. What comes next is uncertain. We will work through it together. None of us will walk alone.