Make America Normal Again?

Photograph by Derek Jensen

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

–Walt Whitman

“We’re better than this,” Congressman Elijah Cummings sternly told his colleagues at the conclusion of Michael Cohen’s public congressional hearing, exhorting them and all Americans “to get back to normal,” to, as it were, Make America Normal Again. And yet, within that plea from “the grandson of sharecroppers,” there lurks the erroneous presumption that this nation at one time was, well, normal. If we have learned anything in the age of Trump, it is that America is not nor has it ever been remotely “normal.” It is precisely its lack of normalcy and failure to recognize it that today has led it to the edge of the abyss. A nation built by slaves on stolen land obtained though genocide is not normal. A nation that despises those whose sacrifices were instrumental to its rise to world domination is anything but.

The problem is that so much of what is presented as a departure from “normal” has been a perennial fixture of American life. Indeed, social movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Time’s Up – have arisen to challenge this normalcy. This is the ugly nature of “American exceptionalism” that the nation itself fails to acknowledge, one that has taken a daily barrage of reality-checking cell phone, Internet and social media imagery, and the election of a petulant, narcissistic charlatan to finally begin to dispel.

Nowadays we speak of the “new normalcy” under Trump and his ilk, when in fact it is a continuation of the old with only a few superficial tweaks. The old and new normal are substantially the same: both fail to recognize and reconcile fundamental contradictions between America’s lofty ideals and the sordid reality of their betrayal. The difference is the latter throws its transgressions in our faces, smugly confident in our inability to challenge them to realize fundamental change. The brief interval of subtle, “polite” racism of the old normal has given way to the rude, open disdain and hatred of the new.

・The new normal is rife with the contradictions of the old. Blackface was once part and parcel of that normalcy, its imprint stamped into virtually every artifact of Americana.  Historical revisionists would have us believe that at one point it disappeared like the feeble memories of those who once performed and enjoyed it, replaced by a more mature appreciation of black people and their contributions to American culture. And yet today from college students to Marines, the practice thrives, as do the excuses, denials, and crocodile tears of “accidental” contritionists who claim they didn’t realize that it was and remains offensive.

・The new normal is Maryland lawmaker Mary Ann Lisanti warning a white colleague against campaigning in “nigger districts,” then claiming  to be “sickened that a word that is not in my vocabulary came out of my mouth,” as if that word like an errant fly somehow stealthy flew in there and had to be spat out. This is the same Lisanti who when asked previously by Huffington Post if she had ever used the epithet before responded with a nonchalant “sure,” confidently adding, “I’m sure everyone has used it. I’ve used the f-word. I used the Lord’s name in vain.” Apparently Lisanti is a big fan of Whitman – and wayward flies.

・The new normal is North Carolina congressman Mark Meadows taking pouty, beet-faced, teary-eyed umbrage at Representative Rashida Tlaib’s accurate observation that his use of  a Trump employee as a human prop (or is that “human shield”?) was a racist act during the same congressional hearing to counter Cohen’s depiction of Trump as a racist. It can be seen in Meadows self-defensive assertion that his relationship with his “good friend” Cummings “is not based on color” (which really does beg the question of what relationships are, unless you are a slaveowner – or Roger Stone) and in his offer as further proof of his color-blind munificence of the depth of his relationship with his nephews and nieces who, he quick to inform us, are also “people of color. (By the same logic, if having a family member from a discriminated group disqualifies you from harboring bigotry toward that group, misogynists should not exist, assuming, of course, they have mothers.) Still, I imagine that if Meadows had been forewarned of Tlaib’s objection, he might have had them seated behind him during the hearing to serve as his own protective props. Mind you, this is the same man who as a congressional candidate in 2012 said Barack Obama should be sent “home to Kenya, or wherever it is.” While evidently Meadows does not have a bromance with Obama, like Lisanti, it would appear he does not know how those pesky little words snuck into and came out of his mouth, a matter that might be easily clarified if the media deigned to pose the question to him. In the meantime, perhaps a national emergency should be declared to build a wall between his brain and his mouth, at least until his relatives of color are sent back to their land of origin.

・The new normal is CNN holding a town hall with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and taking questions from the audience without fully disclosing to viewers the background of those questioners, many of whom, it turns out, far from being everyday Americans, are political operatives, a line of work with which CNN is keenly familiar and proud to reward given its recent decision to hire as its new political editor Sarah Isgur Flores, someone who while no stranger to the profession has no journalistic bona fides whatsoever. Fake journalism? Perhaps not, but certainly unfair in a media landscape hell bent on taking down progressive democratic socialists by misdirection and editorial hit jobs that would give David Copperfield and Steve Pecker, respectively, a run for the money.

・The new normal is Ivanka Trump presuming to speak for these average Joes and Janes by proclaiming, “I don’t think most Americans, in their heart, want to be given something.” No living wage and Green jobs for these self-reliant, by-your-bootstraps, red-blooded Americans. Still, at the risk of stating the obvious, Ivanka Trump is not most Americans, having benefited from her doting father’s inherited wealth. Why settle on bootstraps when you can outsource the work to Chinese and Ethiopian sweatshop workers to manufacture them for even lower wages.

・The new normal is a government that celebrates family values while, under the direction of its own would-be Maduro, it forcibly separated immigrant children from their parents, resulting, when the policy was reversed, in its failure to place unknown thousands of them back with their families. Had America existed in a state of true normalcy – old or new – this tragedy would not have been allowed to happen in the first place.

・The new normal, borrowing a page from America’s nativist past, rejects Emma Lazarus’s“Give me your tired poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”– as it presses to replace that golden door with a steel wall along its southern border. As the New York Times reported in February 2018, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that issues green cards and grants citizenship dropped the phrase “a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement, a sobering sign that our nativist past is beginning to look more and more like our nativist future.

・The new normal devotes several hours a day to Jussie Smollett while the plot by Christopher  P. Hasson, U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant, white nationalist, and  Charles Manson wannabe, to start a race war garners only a modicum of national attention, not surprising since the media reserves its most sensationalist coverage for suspected Muslim terrorists, despite the fact that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, white, right-wing groups on the rise and are responsible for the  majority of incidents of domestic terrorism.  Moreover, if, in fact, Smollett did lie, its consequences serve not only to undermine victims of real hate crimes but also to provide a pretext for the Chicago Police Department– which, according to a 2017  U.S. Department of Justice investigation, treated minorities “as animals and subhumans” and  tortured hundreds of suspects to coerce false confessions – to present itself as professional, a matter which Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who lamented the lack of media attention on gun violence, has yet to confront with equal passion.

・Last but by all means not least, the new normal swaps out white hoods for blue police uniforms; though the strange fruit it produces does not dangle from trees but is captured on cell phones and uploaded to the Internet, providing photographic evidence that while the means of execution has changed, the continued disregard for those lives remains, with no Kerner Commission in sight to offer even a pretense that they matter to a society ostensibly based on the rule of law.

It seems America, too, contains multitudes.