In one of those sunset-rosy history-channel specials, the imperially-jawed Simon Schama claims that in the 1930s London one could almost see specter of history stalking like a wooly mammoth, parading down the streets of London, as soldiers and civilians blinked and realized that their world had changed.
This beast doesn’t belong among Americans. Maybe some people always know what this beast of history is. Children of immigrants and journalists, children of politicians, children born in revolutions or depressions have prescient intuitions of change as children born in leafy suburbs never do.
I saw the beast of history for the first time last night. It was slinking through our electric city of San Francisco, marking the doors of hipsters and intellectuals with ram’s blood.
They didn’t know it; by morning many of them were back to talking about ideals that had to come true, even if it takes a hundred years: gay marriage, a multiple party system. No, my darling angel-haired idealists, those days are over. Your parents and grandparents fought for pluralism and civil rights. Your own children will inevitably be able to marry their gay lovers. But this is not the time. What passed in front of us was ever so much more complicated.
Hold on for a moment and tell yourself that you’re still in the same world. The slant of light across the electric stove where my teakettle sits will return tomorrow. The bad man in the white house can’t do that much, even in another four years.
But what happened last night was that the last feather of hope floated away. The last soft imagination that we had just enough consensus in this country to fix the forces that are pulling us apart, gone. Common sense isn’t going to triumph over sentimentality and melodrama. Neither security nor intelligence nor welfare are going to be fixed; all will be handed over to the security billionaires of San Diego and the economists in the pay of DC.
Do you remember the towers going down? The freshmen in college this year don’t; they were fourteen and barely paying attention. But in the cities, the urban youth in their twenties and thirties remember wondering what had happened, remember waking and getting a cup of coffee and first seeing the frozen looks on the faces of strangers, then the terrible faces, then the reports and months of analysis. Something had started then that wouldn’t finish for a long time.
And yet for those years there was a possibility of it turning into something else, less destructive; a chance to reach across the aisle to the other party, a chance to reconnect across America, a chance to reapproach the problems of global poverty that lead people in strange lands to become terrorists; a chance to reaccount Israel: all of this was possible.
But for four years none of these rifts of possibility turned out anything better than the grim world from which they had come. And still, resentment and anger and hope brewed across the country. Watching from the coasts, we were convinced by the Michael Moores and Deaniacs and the force of our deepest desires that something could be done.
But I assure you that it cannot, now. Not after the dark noises I heard winding through the streets last night. On the West Coast we watched as polls closed in waves, the shadow of night spreading across the country, until we in California should have been the last. As the lines continued to stand in Florida and Ohio, as newscasters measured the possibility of any Democratic chance remaining. But it was too late to influence anything. We sat around with glasses of Cabernet in a warehouse by the ocean, watching DC and New York reporting on New Mexico and Oregon, feeling horribly like it was too late. Now neither the church, nor ideology, nor science, nor economics, nor foreign policy, nor pressure, nor hope, nor organization could save us. No angry Marxist professors, no brilliant editorials in the Times could reach what needed to be reached.
The beast of history is in. Lovers in each others’ arms, wake up and look. Poets and anarchists, put down your pens. Stop all the clocks, put down the indy rock music, stop reading psychology. Move to Vancouver or Paris maybe, where it would still be possible to continue thinking that history had not happened. But if not, everything has changed where we live. Get a degree in political science or economics and rejoin the fight in another incarnation. Because whatever we were doing isn’t working, and the deadline is past. If there were a practical way to build something out of what has happened, we’d turn to that, but the moderate conservatives have already been exiled from Washington, and none of our friends will have influence for a long time yet. What has happened is too big for us, too big for our loose ideas of a hundred-year-plan for peace and happiness. There is no more road by which to get there: the storm of the last four years has swept it away, and the wind in the street last night blew out our last bridge to safety.
All day long I had been praying, calming myself with old psalms about how the universe was all one, how God had made it, all of its corners and controversies, how providence would follow us all the way through the shadow of darkness. When I woke up this morning the only psalm I could remember was this one: Lord teach my fingers to make battle, and my hands to make war.
JO GULDI is a historian at Berkeley and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org