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We walked up to the edge — and did not jump
A Thanksgiving message, part 1
I’ve spent these past weeks with breath held, fingers crossed, afraid to look away, but also afraid not to. To just put all this down for a minute, and take a breath, and look up, out, see again the horizon and the sense of movement toward it that has always defined the expansive land and spirit of America.
America is a constantly morphing and adaptive idea. But fundamentally we are still, as we have always been, a nation of madness. Mostly good madness — but madness still.
The people who would build this nation must have been mad to seek where there be dragons — to cross storm-riven seas, arrive on the shores of this wild and magical land, and embrace the idea of living in the haunted wilderness to have the chance — just a chance — of shaping something new. Something removed from the mental and physical confinements of history.
In that time of wilderness, each one of us here was a zealot of some cause — a zealot of gods, commerce, ideas, quests, adventures. We came here running from things, or toward others. And this strange amalgamated zealotry was somehow integral to our survival, the good and bad forces that shaped us in their conflict. A core belief that old rules didn’t apply. That the frontier could be pushed ever outward. That we could survive against the odds. And that always, always, the sins of the past could be overcome by achieving a righteous future.
We embraced the idea of fate when it drove us, pulled us toward success — but we were just as quick to cast fate aside when she was a cruel mistress who defined us against our will. We none of us like to be defined by others here — not those who ruled us, enslaved us, indentured us, constrained us. Give us the rod, we say, and we will rule ourselves. Give us the hammer, we say, and we will shape ourselves.
This madness that drove us here was sustained by the distance from the past, nurtured, cultivated, fomented until it became the kind of madness that makes you believe you can take on a king, and win. That you can envision a system where we are the forge, fire, and hammer that works our own metal, shapes our own steel, sharpens our own edges, bangs out the dents from use honest or rough to get on with the work of the day.
We have never been a nation of stillness. America is nothing if not restless. From the beginning, we have pushed — forward to the top, outward to the west, upward into the stars and the infinite night — a new frontier always on the blue horizon. The land and the people, wild and unknowable, forge and field the same to hone the edge. Along the way, we wrote the myths and legends that have driven us never to turn away when the task is hard, when the way is perilous, when the impossible is before us.
This embrace of risk — this madness — is a part of who we are. We rush to the edge, and where other men would balk, we jump, soar, sink, thrive, fail. It’s that madness — that bravery — we hail and celebrate as a nation.
A nation of madness — but not a mad nation.
Not yet, anyway.
This time, though, we came pretty damned close. We rushed right up to the edge — and did not jump.
Did not jump — because the uncrossable abyss before us was not one that was unknown. It did not require maps to be drawn with dragons and bravery to be traversed. We looked up, and across, and remembered we had seen the other side, long ago, on our shores and across the ocean, and paid with so much blood and so many lost sons to bring back a sun that could cut through the smoke and the lingering dark and guide us out. Guide us forward. Guide us home.
Who knows what it was — the smell or the sounds or the silence of those wars that could not be lost. An echo from the void that made us catch our breathe, dig in our heels, and not jump, not fall, not lose forever the promise of the dawn’s early light because we were mesmerized instead by the sullen red glow of a setting sun.
For four years, we rushed right up to the edge — but we did not jump.
And it’s just so important to understand that this is a huge and significant achievement.
* * * * *
The smallness of these last four years has been the hardest to define but most crushing prison. The smallness of perspective, of vision, of horizon. If it’s good inside my fence-line, it must be good everywhere. But how small it is to feel no duty to others, to lose sight of the horizon so far away that it pulls at you like a second force of gravity.
Americans seemed particularly blind to this smallness, immune to the feeling of contraction as we drew in upon ourselves and retreated back away from the world we built. A world that is challenged from many sides, many forces — a world which needs us, and which we need.
These past years, I have written stories of our friends abroad who know how much we are needed, the friends who have been waiting, hoping, praying that we step back from the edge and do not jump.
There was a heavy weight from the waiting in the days after the election. A collective nervousness amongst our allies and friends and global aspirants of actual and not cartoon freedom that we would falter, somehow. Lost sleep on the shores of many continents, eyes glued to American news streams, many pillows with no heads laid upon them. And then, a collective exhale when we narrowly missed the abyss. And then a beat. And then a goddamn cheer from so many corners reminding us of why and how these allies are so vital. Because the weight of what matters is just so much less when you don’t have to carry it alone.
The day that the election of Joe Biden as our next president became certain, I got this message from a foreign friend, via a list of people who, like me, are mired in winning these shadow wars:
Tonight America rejected a dime-store dictator who has wrought cruelty, corruption, and regression on the people of America for 4 years. There are not ‘two sides’ to this, only reality and MAGA hat red fiction. Tonight is a victory for diversity over division. Hope over fear. Rules over gangsterism. Decency over destruction. Integration over isolation.
America has shown us the deep resilience of their democracy — against all enemies.
Looking to a country that taught me about aspiration, creativity, and achievement of the impossible as a child, I see for the first time in 4 years the embers of hope being given fuel to flame. I am excited for America and to now slowly watch it coming back to the country I loved.
We don’t know this, we Americans, as we tend not to look abroad as much as we should. But it is so hard — so hard — to step to the edge, and then step back without toppling in.
Many countries in the world are reviving and revamping technology-enabled systems of control and authoritarianism, or are dabbling with varieties of populism and charismatic leadership with autocratic tendencies. There seem to be a lot of comedians and pop-culture buffoons making the case they will be a better political leader than the political leaders who have proven themselves to be so malleable and disappointing. Democracy is hard, and getting harder to show the dividends of — because the world grows more unequal, and because compromise is hard. It’s hard and it’s so much easier to just take things over and not listen or negotiate or understand how the revolutionary rights and ideas in the founding documents of this nation can be best achieved. So much easier to succumb to the seductive calls of ill-gotten power than to constantly strive toward ideals that sometimes seem impossible to achieve.
Showing that the rush to become a mad nation can be undone from *within the system* is just so vital. Yes, we have more work to do — to disarm the hostilities within the nation, to reinvigorate our alliances, to rebuild momentum toward a world where more people have freedom and opportunity than physical, mental, or digital oppression. All of humanity is right at the edge of — something. There’s a lot of reason to fear dystopia — but also so many reasons to believe we will do more, better. Especially when we maintain our cheering section here for the right allies and friends. And they saw that we rallied back to the right flag — that it can be done, even against the tide of lies and corruption and abuse of state power. Now others know this can be done, and they will ask again for our aid, and we must be ready to again build a system that brings more people along.
* * * * *
When President-elect Biden announced his first cabinet picks this week, they each gave brief remarks. Their stories represented so many parts of America that have seemed absent these last years. Their language was jarringly different from the slimy bombast to which we have become accustomed from maybe the least worthy crop of men ever to lead us. The nominees used words like: Earn. Privilege. Humbleness. Humility. They are people who view America as the shield against the darkness — just as our best allies do. They understand that our history is truly unique — but representative of values that resonate in the world. Even now, even after everything. We’re still the necessary steel in the architecture of the free world. Biden’s nominees understand what this means, the duties it entails. And they embrace them, rather than whinge at the unfairness that power comes with responsibility.
What a relief it was, to hear their words. What a relief to hear another rendition of Biden’s disarmament narrative as he tries to talk all of America into putting down their political knives and exiting the thunderdome back into normal life. They aren’t the enemy, they are Americans is something we all need to embrace again after years of the outgoing president doing little besides setting fires and defining conflict. Not engaging in the mud-wrestling was the core psyop of the Biden campaign, and now of the Biden transition. Diminishing schoolyard behavior back to the pursuits of fringe actors while the serious people focus on the many, many challenges facing our pox-ridden nation. The gutted institutions of our government must be revived. The gutted alliances of our prosperity and power must be redefined and reinvigorated. The gutted idealism of our nation must be replenished.
The election of Joe Biden is still, in a way, a condemnation of America — a defeat of Trump, but not Trumpism, a small-minded, self-centric view of the world that is anti-system rather than collaborative, brittle rather than resilient, hollow rather than vital, and fundamentally defined by the idea that others must suffer for you to do well.
With any luck, this particular red-hatted cult madness will wane, its power less effective when it is viewed in the rear view mirror, a neon-lit road-side mirage that seemed so marvelous in the night, but now garish and rusted and cheap in the light of another day. A realization that the identification of problems is not enough to solve them, that if dehumanization and cruelty are the “policies” you like, maybe you need to have a look at what that says about you.
But Trumpism could also become sharper with smarter, less lazy champions of its dark and anti-democratic ideals. Personalities who are more acceptable, and better able to hide the intention behind cruel policies. While many were drowned by the surging tide of Trump, and others seemed to ride with him a while only to be smashed into the rocks when he crashed into the shore — there were a small number who rode the wave, never at the crest, never subsumed, but surfing, surfing the edges, carried along by the madness, now alighting unscathed, and waiting, waiting to fight for the crown that Donald Trump never attained but made real for too many who should know better and want more.
Biden’s relentless task has been to convince us that we are better. Remind us that we do best when we embrace the fullest definition of our values, rather than the narrowest possibility of them.
“You have to reprogram your brain to get used to being leveled with,” offered CNN host Alisyn Camerota during her Thanksgiving broadcast — and in many ways, this is true.
We stepped back from the edge. But edge is not a fixed point, it is eroding, crumbling away beneath our feet. We must step back, once, and again, again, again, before turning to a direction that will guide us again to embrace the best madness of this wild and vast nation, without threatening again to become a mad nation aligned with other mad nations in the pursuit of madness that diminishes the many rather than seeks to elevate us all.
And I am thankful, friends, so thankful, that we have a chance — maybe a small one, but a chance still — to continue the mad experiment of America and the fulfillment of its promise.