“The US empire is crumbling before our eyes,” declared Rebecca Gordon in a short but poignant essay published by The Nation just a day after President Joe Biden took office. “With unprecedented economic inequality and massive overspending on military expansion, America now looks a lot like 476 CE Rome.”
The factors that fractured the Roman Empire and many others since – gross economic inequality; overspending on military expansion; political corruption; deep cultural and political fissures – are indeed distinctly present in the United States today, even after Biden’s inauguration. Moreover, the US is trying to sustain its imperial dominance amid a growing global environmental catastrophe. It may well remain the most powerful military in the world for a while longer, but signs indicate that soon there will not be much of a world for it to rule over and terrorise, no matter who is in the White House.
Meanwhile, there are also those who think with the Biden presidency the US has finally entered “the promised land” and criticism of its political, economic and military machinations is no longer necessary.
“Almost no one’s opinion matters any more and it’s great,” declared Ban Mathis-Lilley in a recent jubilant piece for Slate. Anyone who dares to criticise Biden, or express a negative opinion on his agenda, he mused, is either a reactionary conservative, or a supercilious lefty. We have entered the promised land. We better shut up.
Between the sensible warnings of Rebecca Gordon and the lulling assurances of Ben Mathis-Lilley, a nation and the world around it are wondering whether they will be able to survive the deadly combination of a pandemic, literally earth-shattering environmental calamity, insane economic inequality, and maddening militarism.
Is there any hope, or is it all despair?
In his iconic The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the towering American thinker WEB Du Bois (1868-1963) coined the term “double consciousness” to refer to the internal clash between the two sets of identities in a Black person, or any other human being, subjected to the damning gaze of a racist, colonising power that comes into conflict with his or her own self-perception.
Du Bois’s conception of “double consciousness” has assumed a new meaning in America these days. Now, Americans in general have two clashing sets of identities: their self-perception as the privileged residents of a “shining city on a hill”, as Ronald Reagan repeatedly told them, and the outside world’s perception of them as the subjects of a dysfunctional, crumbling empire that poses an existential threat to humanity at large.
Until January 6, Americans were able to dismiss the world’s opinion of them and their country by claiming that it is rooted in jealousy and thus irrelevant. But after watching a white supremacist mob ransack their Capitol, they found themselves unable to ignore America’s crisis of identity. Was it really the US – and not Chile, Guatemala or Iran – that faced a violent coup attempt, supported by the US president himself, amid a deadly pandemic and a deepening economic crisis?
Trump forever diminished the office of the presidency, dismantled the naïve presumption that the US is immune to fascism, and unleashed so much fear and distrust into the US Congress that American legislators are now scared of their own colleagues and police officers tasked with protecting them. Meanwhile, more than 440,000 Americans lost their lives to COVID-19 and many more are struggling to feed their families.
Two iconic moments
In this context, Biden’s inauguration on January 20 was a sigh of relief, a spectacle of reassurance, a deliverance. It was an opportunity for millions of Americans experiencing an identity crisis to briefly have some semblance of normalcy.
Two events marked and distinguished this historic ceremony that officially brought an end to Donald Trump’s reign of lies, cruelties and corruption: a young Black woman reciting a powerful poem, and an old man sitting with his arms and legs crossed in a folding chair away from everyone. Who would have thought?
Amanda Gorman recited a poem of sublime hope and judicious inspiration, transfixing an entire nation unto her every word. Somewhere inconspicuous behind her on the same stage sat a solitary old man, masked and bespectacled, wearing an old beige parka and rough-looking mittens. While Gorman looked alive, hopeful and excited, that old man, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, looked as if he was about to take a quick nap – or else, experiencing a moment of Nirvana, of bliss, of Vahdat al-Wujud (unity of being).
Gorman’s poem almost instantly became the talismanic phrasing of a desperate hope. A photograph of Sanders sitting alone in the background, meanwhile, equally instantly became a meme, with millions around the world placing it at the epicentre of a fictive hole in the heart of their humanity.
Gorman had found hope in despair, as the photographer who shot that picture of Sanders, Brendan Smialowski, had captured something deeply hidden in the American psyche. Her poem was powerful, beautiful, reassuring. She became a household name in a frightened country, her words recited by millions of her fellow Americans.
But it did not last long. Before long the news came out that “America’s youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman has signed with one of the world’s biggest modelling agencies … the 22-year-old Harvard graduate completed a deal with IMG Models”.
Capitalism sells everything, including posters of Che Guevara with a beret on his head and a Cuban cigar between his lips. Not the contents of Gorman’s precious mind, but her striking looks were to be bought and paid for.
The lonesome mystic
As the powerful words of Gorman were eclipsed by the news of her blossoming modelling career, the snapshot of that grumpy old socialist became the iconic vision of an impossible dream.
What is the fascination with this lonesome photograph of Sanders? An older man, sitting alone, keeping warm in cold weather, wearing a mask, a worn-out jacket and a pair of oversized mittens, staring into the distance.
In an insightful essay for the Intercept, Naomi Klein has joined countless others musing over those mittens and their symbolic power. She presented us with five possible reasons why those oversized mittens may have captured the imaginations of millions.
They are all plausible and poignant. But the fact that the snapshot, the memes it has occasioned, and particularly the mittens have drawn the attention of people ranging from ordinary internet trolls to critical thinkers points to something entirely different.
Solitude: the single most compelling aspect of this snapshot is the utter solitude it captures, its moment of overwhelming human abstraction, caught against the pomp and ceremony that sought to reassure millions of Americans rightly fearful not only for their democracy but their future.
There were two signs of salvation for that future – one was the glorious poem of Gorman that lifted that spot and re-sanctified that space more than any other habitually cliché-ridden pastor could. But that eloquence and that poetry paled in comparison to the silence and solitude of Sanders’s photo.
There is no mystery but a profound mysticism to that photo – an inner solitude staged publicly – a forbidden space always desired but destined never to be attained. Khalvat we call it in Persian and Islamic mysticism – a condition or stage in practical mysticism that has both external and internal manifestations, of being physically isolated from others and also being in isolation internally. The COVID-19 social distancing requirements had conditioned the external, but the picture also captures the inner solitude, the soulful peace and serenity, the khalvat, the old man and the sea of troubles around him. This was the picture of God and Man in the iconic artist Michelangelo’s fresco on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel – both in one.
It is not accidental that a descendant of the survivors of the Jewish Holocaust and a descendant of the survivors of African slavery come together to define the lost soul of American politics. Something in this culture cries for freedom – against all the forces that Republicans and Democrats alike have historically mobilised to suffocate and deny it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.