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In this decade, author Ta-Nehisi Coates’s case for reparations for descendants of enslaved people has evolved from a curiosity to an idea that many consider real and perhaps achievable.

Voices / Viewpoint

Amid uncharted waters, the 2020s begin

It is easy to focus on unprecedented political evil. But for those who yearn for a better United States, one true to its founding principles, perhaps there is some space for hope.

MacLean Gander has taught English and journalism at Landmark College in Putney for more than 30 years, but the views expressed are entirely his own. (By way of transparency, we note that he is serving on the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, publisher of this newspaper, where he is temporarily lending his considerable educational and administrative talents. In between these roles, he has been our investigative journalist in The Commons’ newsroom.)

West Brattleboro

The season is Advent, when we turn toward the dark of the year and prepare for holiday rituals, a Christian gloss laid over deeper beliefs and ways of knowing that extend further into the past.

Not long ago, we experienced the longest night of the year, and the light is slowly starting to return. But it is a dark time right now.

I’ve never known a darker time than this. I’ve been alive since 1957, the year that Sputnik was launched, so this coming year will mark the eighth decade I’ve lived in. I came to political consciousness early because my father was a journalist. I remember the assassinations of the 1960s, and I remember Vietnam.

In my times, there were the police killings of 28 leaders of the Black Panthers, COINTELPRO, and Watergate; the Reagan years and their unbridled greed; the Iran-Contra affair; the lies that led to endless war in Iraq.

Our savage economic inequality was unleashed by the discredited theory of supply-side economics in the 1980s, and has deepened ever since. A racist “war on crime” started in the 1970s and has resulted in one out of four black males being enmeshed in the criminal-justice system.

Those were difficult days, and their consequences are still with us.

But nothing in our current moment compares to that history. It is hard to find hope in the mire of our current moment, and yet we must.

* * *

It is easy to focus on the unprecedented political evil that has taken grip on us. But it is also the case that for those who yearn for a better United States, one true to its founding principles, perhaps there is some space for hope.

The evil is palpable. There have always been liars in public places, but there never has been a time when lies have had such extension in the discourse of society or been so easily trusted by part of the electorate.

It started when Donald Trump promoted the lie that Barack Obama was not a United States citizen, something millions of Americans still believe. It extends now to whatever lies Rudy Giuliani is going to push out after his most recent trip to the Ukraine.

Fake news and alternative facts lead us straight into Orwell’s 1984. We’re all living it now.

At the same time, there has never been a better time in U.S. history for open and authentic conversation about the reality of our history or acceptance of the forms of identity that make up the mosaic of our society.

When Ta-Nehisi Coates first pushed out the case for reparations in The Atlantic, his argument was largely treated as a curiosity. Now, public figures talk about reparations as something real and perhaps achievable in some fashion.

We now have profound awareness of how the genocide waged on indigenous peoples and the original sin of slavery lie at the heart of every dimension of our history as a nation.

A president with brown skin guided the nation for eight years, bringing it from crisis to stability. In the last presidential election, a white woman won the popular vote. The fact that she is not president right now owes to laws created to accommodate chattel slavery in what became the Confederacy.

This is a time in which so many forces tear us apart, from the fascism of the alt-right to the rigid identity politics of call-out culture on the left.

Yet most people live somewhere in the middle of things, looking for ways to get along and move forward. Most people are of good will and want to do the right thing.

* * *

I don’t know what will happen next. None of us does. We are in uncharted waters now.

To reference what things were like in Germany after 1933 doesn’t seem like hyperbole. History has taught too much for anyone to assume things will turn out for the best.

The deepest sorrow is that it is clear now that because of our impact on the climate, the rising generation will face global upheaval on a scale for which history has no lessons, except maybe the Black Death in the Middle Ages in Europe.

We may have reached the tipping point. Maybe not. But climate disaster is already here, and it will only get worse.

The best we can do now is manage the disasters. The disarray into which our current state of politics have cast us — as the most powerful nation in the world — makes the outcome seem bleak.

* * *

In this season of Advent, the loss and mourning precede the feast days to come.

There is so much courage and openness to change among those who hold a progressive vision of the nature of human history.

There has never been such openness in our conversations about race and class, gender and sexual orientation. There is a freedom of identity now, at least within those who come from socioeconomic advantage, that could not have been imagined when I was younger.

Concepts like “white fragility” or the right to choose one’s own pronouns are no longer strange ideas — they are part of the mainstream discourse within the progressive community.

* * *

The illusions of our holiday consumer season, with all its false bright lights and tidings of great joy, should not shroud the reality of a society that is, in some ways, so good and open to the potential to be better, yet so benighted by racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny.

In the coming year, we will find out who will be the next president of the United States. If Trump receives a second term, then it is difficult to know what things will be like. If he doesn’t, it is hard to know how we will repair the damage.

As the last year of this decade slips away into the new one, it is impossible to predict what will happen next, but my post-holiday wish for everyone is that whatever happens, you will be ready for it.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #542 (Wednesday, January 1, 2020). This story appeared on page D1.

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