Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?
Of course not.
As a year ticks into its final hours, old acquaintances are front of mind, sometimes painfully so. It lends a certain melancholy sweetness to the whole ritual. We mark a milestone reached, but we also remember all that we have lost along the way.
Meaning personal losses, yes: a dad, a friend, a child, a husband or a sister who once was here but has since turned to memory. But it’s a moment for remembering our public losses, too.
Like Sen. John McCain and former President George H.W. Bush, two towering statesmen who died at a time when statesmanship is in short supply. We lost Dennis Edwards, whose raw, serrated vocals lifted the Temptations to “Cloud Nine.” We lost the Queen, Aretha Franklin, whose voice was a kinetic fire, burning away everything but truth. And we lost Stan “The Man” Lee, the creative genius who made generations of us believe in spider powers, misunderstood mutants, a rainbow bridge and the sovereign nation of Wakanda. ‘Nuff said.
But the signature loss of this year was neither personal nor public. No, 2018 will go down as the year we lost ourselves. Although, granted, we’ve been losing ourselves for a while now.
Americans cherish a self-image as a people who, while they may make a wrong turn here and there, are ultimately noble, ultimately compassionate, ultimately selfless and ultimately driven and defined by vision, values and verities that make us unique among nations. Or as Bruce Springsteen sang in a song called “Long Walk Home,” “That flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone — who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t.”
He sang that back in 2007, using the walk home as a metaphor for bridging the gulf between what America is supposed to be and what it too often was back when the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina were still fresh wounds. But his assertion of American identity seems critical now in ways that were unimaginable then.
Meaning, back before we were a nation where survivors of a mass shooting were derided as “crisis actors.”
A nation whose president defends Russia and Saudi Arabia against the American intelligence community.
A nation where the government ignored a government report forecasting dire climate-change consequences.
A nation where Republicans commit voter suppression and other acts of political thuggery in plain sight.
A nation that used tear gas against children in diapers.
“This isn’t us.” That’s what people keep saying. But it is. That’s the entire point. The abiding anger, the situational morality, the disregard for fact, the cruelty, the political gangsterism, these things are what America, writ large, now stands for. And when Springsteen sings of “who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t,” well, who the hell knows anymore?
And yet …
This was the year women ran for office in blockbuster numbers, as Democrats won the House, picked up red-state gubernatorial wins and served notice. Because for all the talk of a blue wave, this was actually a wave of youth, femininity and color as Democratic voters sent to Congress its first Native American and Muslim women and the youngest congresswoman ever, a 29-year-old Latina activist named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Yes, 2018 was also the year Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke lost their races in Georgia, Florida and Texas, respectively, but even in that, they electrified the electorate, fracturing the conventional wisdom that a progressive agenda cannot gain traction.
The aforementioned political thuggery suggests the GOP knows better. You don’t try to stop people from voting (as happened in Georgia and elsewhere) if you don’t think their candidates can win. You don’t strip winners of power (as happened with Wisconsin’s incoming Democratic governor and attorney general) if you don’t fear what that victory means.
So yes, conservatives understand what happened here, and it has them scared. Liberals must understand it, too. It will lend them hope. And hope, one hopes, will breed new activism and involvement, will help people who may not have considered politics before to realize that they have the ability and the responsibility to create government that looks like all of us and reflects the majority’s values. Maybe this, in turn, will breed more waves of youth, femininity and color, as more of us decide to take America at its word about forming that more perfect union.
Maybe this year means all of that. Or at least, so we are now empowered to hope.
There’s an old Chi-Lites song that says, “Give more power to the people.” But in a democracy, power is not a thing you wait to be given. Rather, it is a thing you take — something the left once knew but somehow forgot until, perhaps, just now. In reclaiming that knowledge, we write a cautiously optimistic coda to a godawful year — properly sobered by all that we have lost but also buoyed by what we have perhaps found.
Springsteen was right. It’s going to be a long walk home. But at least now, for the first time in a very long time, we seem to remember the way.