Imagine America as a gigantic mahogany table around which sit the writers of America, deciding, as things fell apart, that it was time to step up, and therefore writing—and signing by the hundreds—an “open letter to the American people” declaring that “as a matter of conscience” they opposed “unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.” And having done that, imagine them leaning back in their padded swivel chairs at the gigantic mahogany table, sighing with satisfaction, Well, that’s our two cents’ worth, and reaching for the bowl of jelly beans set out as a reward.
What happened next was completely predictable: Aleksandar Hemon, a writer who didn’t sign the open letter, said that if writers wanted to oppose Trump, and the sorry trajectory of American life that led to Trump, they should be writing books, not useless letters.
But where were those books? Hemon didn’t see any. “If some future historian attempts to determine what occupied the American writers’ minds since the beginning of the millennium by reading all the Pulitzer Prize fiction winners between 2002 and 2016,” wrote Hemon, “s/he would find few traces of Bush, or Iraq, or Abu Ghraib, or Cheney, or the financial collapse, or indeed any politics.”
A recent essay in The Point by Jonathan Baskin offers a sympathetic overview of Hemon’s dissent. Maybe, wrote Baskin, the problem is that most American writers live in a “tolerant, pluralist” bubble of “enlightened citizens” and don’t recognize that Trump didn’t subvert democracy, he made the most of it. And maybe the reason the great post-9/11 American novel has not been written is that the authors living in that bubble would have to confront their own complicity in “the increasingly prevalent illusion that it is possible to wall ourselves off from the America that disappoints, frightens or disgusts us.”
The persistent idea of a “national conversation” is a component of that illusion. Urgent appeals for a national conversation on race show up in the media all the time, and whenever I see somebody call for one I wonder what planet they’re living on. Don’t they realize we’re having that conversation right now?
In this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Wesley Morris says a few things about the national-conversation nostrum that needed to be said. “The belief in a national conversation is a belief in positive outcomes, in correctives, in shoulds,” writes Morris. “The races should, for instance, better understand each other.”
(Here, here, everyone around the mahogany table would say, reaching for the jelly beans.)
Morris isn’t biting. “The phrase substitutes rhetoric for actual discourse,” he goes on, “and urges placation over protest. For one thing, the country is so far apart on race that an actual conversation. . . feels impossible.”
But that’s where he’s wrong. A polite conversation feels impossible, but a polite conversation on race would be no conversation at all. The most decisive conversation on race this country’s ever had was the Civil War. A lot got hashed out then—though a lot didn’t. Now, to a considerably lesser degree, the national conversation on race is again a shooting war—Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter—and nobody’s being polite.
America’s letting it all hang out.
Donald Trump, in the view of the writers of America who signed the open letter, is a “political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities.” So he is, and when he offends and frightens us it is necessary to speak up. But what we mostly don’t notice—or at least refuse to acknowledge—is that Trump is making this the most cathartic and exhilarating presidential election of our lifetimes. Look past the vile belligerence of those chest-beating Trump supporters the media keep throwing in our faces and recognize how happy they are! They are finally getting their say and America is finally paying attention.
It’s good for them and good for everyone else. The wall between ourselves and “the America that disappoints, frightens or disgusts us” is finally down. Each side of the wall is talking to the other. Of course they’re screaming. After all, how much time do they have before the wall goes up again?