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The Soul of America

Osita Nwanevu
5 min read
Protestors demonstrating against the killing of Jordan Neely walk down NYC's Madison Avenue.
A protest over the killing of Jordan Neely (Legoktm)

Hey all. I’m going to be out of the country and off the grid for much of the rest of the month, but I ought to be back to posting regularly upon my return. Feel free to send in questions for Mail Time in the meantime if you have them: I’ll answer them when I get back.

I feel like I’ve been spared some of the wretchedness of the past couple of weeks in politics and social commentary as I’ve been traveling a good bit and been mostly off of social media. Most of my chats with politicos have been in and around events for the Biden administration and its boosters. The mood around the White House and in the agencies is by all appearances fairly buoyant. Biden will leave this term having passed a respectable legislative agenda; you should read Eric Levitz on the extent to which, as the administration is now claiming more openly and proudly, the Inflation Reduction Act, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and the CHIPs Act represent a genuine shift away from neoliberal orthodoxy. I might have a piece out on the same subject in the coming months. Beyond legislation, I think all those at work trying to revitalize antitrust policy in particular have much to be proud of ⁠— the agencies involved there seem refreshingly committed not only to using the powers they’ve been granted to the fullest but discovering new ones and interpreting them broadly to progressive ends. Good things are happening; even if one isn’t prepared to call Biden a “good president,” I do think it is basically inarguable at this point that he is a better one than his Democratic predecessor.

It also goes without saying that this administration has critically failed on multiple policy fronts; with time, I think we’ll be galled in particular by how thoroughly Democrats have folded on immigration policy post-Trump. Comprehensive reform was never seriously on the table in Congress, and in its attempts to get its arms around the issue and the situation at the border, the administration has aped Trump substantially. But the failure I’ve been thinking about most in recent days isn’t a policy one. Let’s ask ourselves a stupid question: more than two years now into Biden’s term, does it feel like the soul of America been restored? What did that phrase ever really mean to begin with? I’ve been harping on this since Biden entered the presidential race and it might seem odd that I’d get and stay so het up about what might be read as an idle bit of rhetoric. But I still feel like there was something deeply irresponsible about Biden framing his candidacy this way – playing on hopes for a return to normalcy and stability post-Trump with a lie that papered over divisions in American society which, as Biden himself must know by now, cannot actually be bridged.

Obviously, voters want to hear that things will get better. But they’re also entitled to honesty about exactly how much better things are likely to get in the near term and what that will cost them ⁠— the price of progress, not only in dollars and cents, but socioculturally and spiritually. There are days coming that will feel like they’ve fully broken us; the projects we’re engaged in on the left and the reactions to them will produce more moments, not fewer, where it will seem like we’ll never be able to escape what ails us. We’re told often that there is always darkness before dawn. This is true. But unfortunately, the night is still young.

There’s been a lot of solid writing around lately about fear. One of the things that ails us, obviously, is the paranoia gripping much of the population ⁠— this compulsion to see those who might otherwise be seen as neighbors, friends, objects of sympathy, or at least as people as threats to be walled off or exterminated. But fear can only explain so much. I don’t know that Tucker Carlson earnestly fears much of anything. Talking about fear in this way has also come to sound exculpatory to my ears. After all, we don’t always choose what we’re afraid of. Daniel Penny’s defenders have been making something like this point. Encountering mentally ill or homeless people in distress can be frightening, of course it can. But to move from fear to this other place ⁠— where you can literally take the life of someone who has merely frightened you or others into your own arms and hands, where you can simply shoot the unfamiliar figure at your doorstep ⁠— what accounts for this?

Fear is no license, in New York state law or in common sense, to do what you will to someone who frightens. Bigotry ⁠— habitually seeing the worst in the disfavored ⁠— often operates as one. And so does boredom, though it’s less often discussed. How many people in this country go about their days desperate to do something out of the ordinary ⁠— daydreaming about being the protagonist of some extreme situation? This, I think, is much of what the guns are about. The fantasy that one might wind up heroically repelling a home invasion is sustained by the blood of schoolchildren. This is one reason why Jordan Neely is dead. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons we invaded Iraq. This hunger for a bit more drama, vitality, and meaning in otherwise flat lives ⁠— this also kills.

I’d like to believe we can weaken that solipsism with better politics. A fuller democratic life ⁠— engaging and working in concert with the people around us for our collective benefit in more ways and more often than during elections ⁠— might help. But much of what ails us ⁠— as Americans and as human beings ⁠— obviously lies beyond the realm of politics and policy. Those are the things I know well; confronting the rest, as I’ve tried to this week, often leaves me despairing. And I think this, finally, may well be why I find the project of recovering or restoring the national soul so perverse. Nations don’t have souls. It’s more plausible to me that people do. And politicians can’t tend to or nurture them for us. I don’t read poems often, but I came across one recently that reminds us poets can.

Don't Hesitate
Mary Oliver

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.