Uncanny Country

We were shoulder-to-shoulder moving east on 42nd, united in our rejection of the new administration’s regressive policies and the hateful rhetoric that fueled its rise to power. And as the Chrysler Building loomed overhead, I became disoriented: How could this America possibly become that America?

In the accounting, the Women’s March on NYC was a success. City officials estimated that 400,000 people filled the streets. And across the country (and world) hundreds of thousands more marched in solidarity with the demonstrators assembled in D.C. the day following the inauguration. The message to the president: We march because we do hear you.

His aides and surrogates subsequently offered their response. Unforced errors aside (e.g., advocating “alternative facts,” scolding the news media), the spin was both impressive and appalling. Based on its campaign, we had reason to suspect the new administration would stake its success on preventing the press from reporting its failures. Still, this display of political hucksterism, only days into office, was shocking.

And yet, I was struck most by their pervasive incredulity.

The president’s special council claimed on ABC’s “This Week” that the inaugural address was a call for “unity, patriotism, giving America back to its people, its government back to its people.” However, the theme that most sticks with me is “American carnage.” His message is far from one of unity but instead a vision of populism, dystopia, and propaganda. And his spokespeople have already mastered the art of incredulous frustration, offended by the mere implication that this could be the message we heard—and have been hearing all along.

In peacefully marching alongside hundreds of thousands of my countrywomen and men, I saw no evidence of disunity, disloyalty, or destruction. A diverse crowd making its voice heard is the very essence of American democracy. The president spoke of now being “joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people.” Yet the March was a concerted and unified effort on the part of disparate individuals to maintain our country and protect its promise. It’s as if we not only see two different Americas but also occupy different nations all together.

And if you read the news or watched television over that weekend, you might think that this was not the same country on Friday as it was on Saturday. On January 20th: an America, once great but now chaotic and depraved (plagued by “crime and gangs and drugs”), on the verge of rebirth. On January 21st: an America, once great but now jingoist and authoritarian (propped up by a “historic movement”) on the verge of collapse.

In his essay “The ‘Uncanny’,” Freud investigates phenomena that are frightening and disorienting precisely because they are strangely familiar. And on all sides of the political dialogue, America has become uncanny: “the class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar,” as Freud writes.

Much has been said about the thesis that undergirds the new presidency. “Make America Great Again” implies we have fallen from grace. For some, the disorienting change of the last 15 years—from making a new enemy in radical jihadists or relinquishing our rights to privacy to electing a black president and granting rights to the LGBTQ community—has rendered America “unrecognizable.”

And in the months following the election, I heard so many friends and loved ones mourn a country they no longer recognize—a hateful and xenophobic place where diversity is a symptom to be cured not an outcome to be celebrated. In “America first,” they hear the articulation of isolationism or, worse, white nationalism.

A pivotal speech by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium tells the myth of primeval men with “four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike.” The playwright continues: “Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods.” In a sort of proto-preemptive strike, Zeus splits them in two so that they will be “diminished in strength and increased in numbers” making them “more profitable” to the Gods. “Each desiring his other half,” they then “entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one.” In other words, severed from the other, each longed for the part of himself he or she had lost—struggling to return to a state of oneness that was no longer possible.

In his effort to make America great again, I can’t help but picture the president in this same search (to say nothing of any godlike effort to divide us). It is a quixotic endeavor to rediscover, if it exists at all, something that is impossible to grasp and, if he ever finds it, certainly not what he imagined: his America.

This pursuit—and the country he re-envisions—strikes me as uncanny. And “America first” is the purest expression of the collective id, a concession of power to someone so unpredictable because we are too exhausted to suppress our own impulses. The truth is America’s borders (like our own minds) are permeable—if not to people then to ideas. And a wall along the southern border will be as ineffective in keeping change out as it will be in containing our influence within.

Great or not, America has an obligation to the rest of the world.

Since November, I’ve had debates with colleagues about the degree to which the new regime predicts an authoritarian future. More than a few have invoked Germany in the 1930s, explicitly comparing the president to Hitler. This isn’t my new America. For me, this uncanny country is the America we have always been but for so long willfully ignored: a sanctimonious evangelist of profit and self-interest. In spite of its promise, the American project is stained by a legacy of slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration (see: “law and order”). And our preoccupation with “rugged individualism” contributes to the de facto caste system this new president repudiates in his claims to give power back to the people.

And yet, contrary to some of my fellow marchers, I don’t draw such a hard line with my friends (or otherwise) who voted for this man and his uncanny vision of America. I see that vote as not so much an affirmation of him but instead a declaration for oneself—for he built his campaign on an “us or them” equation. But his platform is one of pure avarice. We cannot mistake lofty promises to eradicate “from the face of the earth” those terrors that stand in the way of our liberty. A vote for that worldview is a proxy vote for one’s personal gain at any cost—responsibility to community and country be damned.

That’s why we must fight for and alongside the most vulnerable in this country, those among us left behind in the administration’s self-aggrandizing and greedy vision of America.

The Women’s March wasn’t just about re-asserting women’s rights—it was an opening bid. The president claims to be a dealmaker. And on January 21st, people around the world began the negotiations with a fundamental question: “How much of our country are you willing to sacrifice in the gamble for the America you wish to have?”