Writing in the time of the pandemic is proving to be much more trying than it ought to be. Although there has been a dumbfounding dearth of interesting political material, as the global conversation has been centered almost exclusively on the coronavirus, nevertheless there has been an abundance of content for an unprecedented sociological study. Alas, we have wasted far too much time mired in fatalistic self-pity, that most exquisite of soothing narcotics. “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” Nietzsche wrote that somewhere, and while he, a man of the nineteenth century, could not have been a stranger to human decay, he could not have known the thoroughly rational pessimism and anxiety that are the birthright of the twenty-first century American. We anticipate our own environmental downfall, we expect infinite economic despair, and we know we will walk in the hellish aftermath of these past several months. We speak, think, and write only of our own existential demise, a demise with which we have come to be enamored—for what would do without it?
Our depression, disillusionment, and disenchantment are our motivation, inspiration, and identity. If the late-twentieth-century was a party, a party we attended only momentarily, then we must be the incurable hangover, the most wretched regret of all: the regret for having fun. Must we forever know ourselves as Bill Clinton’s filthy afterbirth? Once one has considered this possibility, then it is difficult to drum up sincere and sober excitement for the ghosts and illusions of the modern day. The most insipid of these gossamers, these hollow attractions, are the politicians, and it cannot be an innocent coincidence that they are the most prominent celebrities of the present day. Consider Kamala Harris, the sideshow performer du jour, but surely one for whom we couldn’t attempt an honest enthusiasm, at least not without embarrassing ourselves before the generations. Then again, that is precisely the point: it is Harris’s generational, historical futility that is her greatest asset and the source of her only political intrigue.
We can’t browse the digital newsstands without glossing over some platitudinous praise for Harris and her “historical”, “unprecedented”, “novel”, “unique”, “singular” . . . je ne sais quoi. Harris did not win anything, she did not accomplish anything, and she certainly did not earn the right to brag, but she was selected, passively and sans impassioned inspiration, to accompany the atavistic Joe Biden in his degrading (but not yet doomed) campaign for the American presidency. Needless to say, there isn’t any evidence that Biden had a say or volition in this matter, as the unseen, largely anonymous, and omnipotent apparatus of the Democratic Party obviously made the choice on his behalf, but such a frivolous detail hasn’t stayed the hands of corporate journalists. On the contrary, they have written joyously, and with handsome compensation, of this engrossing “selection”, for never before has a colored woman been “selected” to stand beside a white man on the Democratic Party’s presidential ballot.
If this is an achievement or cause célèbre, then it is only for the older, more moribund generations, the generations who were raised in and compelled to adore a more visibly hateful and racist nation. For those of us who were, at the moment of birth, sold the tragicomic lie of American equality, it is hard to understand what, exactly, we should be commemorating. If this country were as just as its affectations suggest, then Harris’s nomination would be unremarkable or commonplace. Yet, the neoliberal press is littered with imagery—though, strangely, no accounts—of black Americans embracing one another and shedding cathartic tears because a white man, or a committee of white people, selected Harris to be the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee. In theory, they are raising a toast to the end of an era of bigotry—which is to say, they are commemorating a very long history of ethical failure.
The incongruity is as striking as it is illuminating—but only for the white, and specifically for the white Americans who have preserved their ignorance of the menace Harris represents. We will not trudge our way through Harris’s dispiriting, bloodthirsty, and authoritarian record as the Attorney General for the State of California, not when so many other writers and commentators are tackling the subject. We are more concerned with the startling contrast between this record (one which can be described only in terms of the far right) and Harris’s repetitive words of homage to racial justice. She claims to dream of a post-racial society, one that will transcend crude and simple bigotry, but she has done everything in her power to exacerbate and elongate the unnecessary suffering of the same people whom she purports to represent. Would “the represented” fall for her chicanery? Not for a moment—but the people who lack any personal experience with this suffering would. Ergo, it was not concern for disadvantaged people of color, but a desire to exploit the naïve sentimentality of the white bourgeoisie, that compelled the Democrats to nominate Harris.
Last year, I described Elizabeth Warren as “a fashion statement for upper-class white women who have never met a black man in their lives”. Harris is a hollow ornament, too, plucked from among several other meaningless symbols to decorate Biden’s dull, shopworn vehicle. In misplacing their priorities so badly, especially in the time of a global pandemic, the Democrats should be ashamed of themselves—but then again, so should we, for caring about it.