The night of the election, I was so oblivious to a different outcome that I was not only confirming travel approvals for tech people I’d help recruit to the Clinton transition team, but my husband and I also had dinner plans with a friend. We figured the whole thing would be wrapped up by 7. For dinner, we ordered the special, which was octopus for two. It was prepared in a way I’d never seen before: basically just an octopus, not cut into bits, so you could see its shape and picture it swimming around, doing its beautiful octopus thing. Later, when another friend told me she’d stopped eating octopus after reading about their deep but different intelligence and capacity for human-like emotion, I felt like I’d eaten the family dog, or a dolphin, or a chimpanzee I’d met and hung out with.
The octopus became a metaphor for every thoughtless injustice I’d inflicted on others — friends, family, colleagues, collaborators; those who voted for Trump, those who voted for Clinton, those who hadn’t voted (hi, Uncle Bob!)—and I thought about the price we must pay for our thoughtlessness, for our failure to account for and pay our debts, to acknowledge our past crimes, to stop slip-sliding toward a future we hadn’t quite anticipated, an accidental version of ourselves we didn’t mean to become. Those first weeks, I awaited the coming reckoning.
n. the action or process of calculating or estimating something.
n. a settling of accounts
Just before the election, my friend Eric Liu wrote about reckoning, which he calls “facing history and ourselves.” He reckoned why reckoning is so hard in the United States, as compared with, for instance, South Africa after apartheid, when reckoning was necessary for the “truth” part of truth and reconciliation.
In South Africa, the truth-telling, though painful and courageous, was in one sense simple. The system of apartheid was fresh in the memory, it had been created by the state, and it was dismantled by the state. Its victims and its perpetrators alike could unburden themselves of the moral and psychic costs of their roles.
In the United States, reckoning is by orders of magnitude more complex. There are no clean breaks in recent American history between good and evil, no single line of culpability that leads to a single large group of living Americans being called perpetrators.
This was, of course, before Charlottesville. Perhaps the Nazis aren’t a “large group of living Americans,” but they are a group, and I will admit to not really understanding then how real they are. I had been warned, in no uncertain terms, by a member of my family who spent the summer organizing to respond to their march, and still, I watched the news unfold that day in a degree of shock I had no right to. Liu says that reckoning “means naming the inherited power inequities that have brought us our contemporary conflicts.” I should have known; I should have reckoned better.
Shouldn’t Charlottesville — and so many other things that have happened this year — have given us at least the gift of clarity, a simpler equation for our reckoning? Why, then, does so little seem simpler? In part, because our accounts have been unsettled for so long. Liu talks about “recent American history,” but Ta-Nehisi Coates made the case for reparations back in 2014, reminding white America of our very literal debts to black America that have been piling up for centuries. (I am white, in case you can’t tell.) We haven’t settled that account, and we know it; we are unsure we even could; we don’t really try. Simultaneously acknowledging the debt and failing to settle it makes “a clean break between good and evil” a nonstarter.
With whom must we reckon? Not just Nazis, but also ourselves. In what may be the best essay of the year for liberal, white, middle-aged, middle-class women exalting in and reeling from Harvey Weinstein’s great reckoning, Claire Dederer struggles with the monstrousness of men and the art they create, and women’s not-so-simple relationship to it.
The psychic theater of the public condemnation of monsters can be seen as a kind of elaborate misdirection: nothing to see here. I’m no monster. Meanwhile, hey, you might want to take a closer look at that guy over there.
The monstrousness Dederer claims is, in the end, nothing more than women asserting their right to time and space for creative work, but she lands in the same general vicinity as Liu: the worry that the math of our reckoning might be fuzzy, open to interpretation. It’s not just the size of our accounts to be settled; it’s our fear that we may owe more than we think.
We seem to be trying to reckon with everything at once. What does it mean that our public spaces have been decorated with statues of Confederate generals? That our movies were produced by sexual predators? That social media divides us more than it unites us? That we have a monster of a president “whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president?” (Ta-Nehisi Coates again.) That elites and J.D. Vance’s “hillbillies” are in a class war?
Reckoning is a word that sounds Southern, or biblical, or both, but it just means doing the math. The algorithm-makers of Silicon Valley and the financiers of New York and the economists of D.C. work with ever more complex models, aided by ever more sophisticated supercomputers, but they are no match for the ever-increasing complexity of our lived experience. We don’t know how to factor the legacy of our unreckoned-with past — or the the effects of the technology of our present and future — into our models.
I have not eaten octopus since the night of the election, but I have been to many dinners. The Do-Gooder Industrial Complex has a lot of them, in hotel meeting rooms mostly, sometimes at restaurants when there is a private room good for group conversation. It is my job to go to these. They are about ideas and connections. At times there are glimmers of outrage or panic. But mostly there is fish, chicken, or beef (no one serves octopus at these things, of course). And wine. At the last dinner I attended, the facilitator kicked it to a famous journalist to wrap up the evening. “We just all need to keep doing the good work we are doing,” were her closing words.
In a sense, the journalist is right. Look at all that unpublished reporting on Weinstein; it was good for something, after all. But what finally tipped the scales and put it in print? It was not just continuing what we’ve been doing all along.
The year 2017 was not the year of reckoning. We have been A/B testing different scenarios and drawing shallow conclusions. We go to close our Facebook accounts and end up wishing everyone a happy birthday. We go to settle our accounts and end up shadily refinancing our debt. But at least we are starting to ask the right questions.