On the Collective Personification of a Year and the Devil in Our Current Politics

It’s two days after Christmas, and I’m sitting in the coffee shop down the road from my house mulling over the news and the past year and what the new year will hold.  I just heard about Carrie Fisher’s passing, and I’m bracing myself for the social media onslaught of people bawling that 2016 is the absolute worst, that it couldn’t even let one celebrity’s brush with death pass unclaimed.  The year’s taken on this bizarre psychic form of a beast that ravenously devours everything we looked to for hope; it’s taking our beloved icons from us, it’s giving a platform to bigotry, it keeps hurting us.

Y’all.

I am under no illusions that the period of time we call CE 2016 doesn’t contain within its boundaries a hellacious number of terrible events; however, I’m pretty much over the memetic personification of the year.  There have certainly been lots of victims this year, but it strikes me as dishonest to suggest that the culprit of all our collective angst and trauma is the anthropomorphized year.  People die, even beloved famous ones.  Sometimes that’s because of directly malicious actors, and sometimes that’s because human beings are fragile creatures who wear out after a while.  Most of the famous people who died this year did so because of the human condition; Bowie had cancer, Prince had a bad reaction to his pain medication, Ali was old and living with Parkinson’s, Fisher had a heart attack.  These are natural ends to human lives.  They still suck, and they still deserve to be mourned, but they’re not the result of some great malicious entity scheming to make us all more anxious and depressed and afraid.  There’s nothing of the devil in this aspect of the year.

Where I do see the devil (and I mean that in the most metaphorical sense; Satan is, after all, a fictional character) is in the political movements of the year.  My Christianity’s been severely battered over the last few years, and these days I struggle to imagine a supernatural universe.  The Christianity that I was fostered in during my early adulthood has shown itself to be a callous, hypocritical farce concerned more with maintaining its own Empire than actually doing the work of Christ in the world.

Let me be explicit on this point: I’m speaking to white evangelical Christians.  In America, eighty-one percent of you voted to elect an antichrist for president.  Your vision of the universe is more horrific to me than abject nihilism.  You have no moral credibility in my eyes, and you never will again.  Your lord is Power, your love is yourself, and your mission is the glorification of monstrosity.  I believe Christ is ashamed that you bear his name, and I weep that you’ve so poisoned a message that was meant to be for all people.

I see a lot of the broad political movements this year being rooted in a concept that Richard Beck explored in his book The Slavery of Death (I did a series a couple years ago on that book, and its been popping back up in my thoughts somewhat frequently in the last few weeks).  Beck’s basic thesis is that the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin misses the mark, and a more accurate model casts out this concept (which is deeply misogynist in its construction) in favor of something that reverses the causality in the relationship between sin and death (to wit, “sin leads to death” is more accurately reformatted as “death leads to sin”).  We commit sin because we are afraid of dying, and the purpose of Christ was to demonstrate to us how to live without fear of death in order to allow us to be freed from the anxiety that leads us to sin.  We struggle to find some semblance of permanence, and because we implicitly understand our own mortality (probably the greatest curse that came with sentient intelligence) we’re attracted to things that appear greater than ourselves.  I see this instinct playing out on a massive scale with the political backlash progressivism has experienced in the past few years (don’t forget, our psychic troubles didn’t begin with 2016).  Conservatives, specifically older generations of conservatives, are more acutely feeling their mortality these days.  The world is changing, and people and problems that were previously invisible to the beneficiaries of the status quo are refusing to remain invisible.

This existential dread that the older generation is feeling, combined with the wave change coming with the new generation that threatens to wipe out what they see as their legacy, leaves so many people vulnerable to exploitation by nihilists, narcissists, and solipsists.  That man is all three together, though I doubt the internal workings of his mind are sophisticated enough to recognize these as the systems of thought that drive his actions.  He’s just as lost and scared as his followers, but he has the amoral temperament necessary to arouse in them their worst impulses to sin.  He’s looking for a permanent legacy, and he’s both unconcerned with the consequences for others and unaware of the futility of such a course.  The world outside his mind is irrelevant to his happiness, and we’re all going to suffer as he clutches for something he can’t have in the last few years he has left on this planet.  With his careless, irresponsible talk of reigniting a nuclear arms race, I fear that he’s going to drag us all into oblivion with him.

Here’s the thing that most infuriates me about this specter of universal destruction for the human race: every person of the older generation I speak to about these concerns dismisses this fear categorically.  It’s inconceivable to them that something that bad could happen.  They share a common faith in the strength of institutions and safeguards that they elected that man to break apart.  He was a “shake up” candidate, someone meant to stick it to the government elites who are out of touch with real white Americans.

You can’t vote for someone intended to be a brick through the storefront window and then turn around and claim that the window won’t even be scratched now that the brick is thrown.

I think this widespread headblindness about the risks involved in electing that man are rooted again in existential dread for the older generation.  Subconsciously they’re aware that they can’t keep what they have, and that dread is driving them to act selfishly.  When you’re only looking at another decade or two of life, short term benefits outweigh long term ones, especially if you’ve bought into the nihilism that accompanies fear of death.  The older generation voted for what they think will benefit them, and they’re refusing to acknowledge that the consequences for the younger generations will be dire.

I see parallels with this attitude in the housing crash of a decade ago.  One of the things I remember from the time just before the crash was my mother frequently complaining about the stupidity of what they called in the mortgage industry ARMs — adjusted rate mortgages.  These loans were built around the idea that you buy a house and use a repayment plan that starts off with a minimal payment so the buyer can afford the house in the short term, but it’s backloaded with ballooning payments that quickly become unsustainable unless the buyer’s income drastically increases.  These kinds of loans were designed to short the buyers; the loan company made more immediate profit irrespective of the financial ruin awaiting buyers who were signing on to ARMs.  Short term profit for one party was prioritized over the long term consequences for the other party shouldered with the burden.

This is what I see in the thinking of the older generation and their collective decision to back a candidate who represents long term instability in favor of short term gains for themselves.  Our parents bet against us, and they’re too scared to admit it.  To do so would undoubtedly be devastating to their sense of self; imagine living with the knowledge that you betrayed the interests of your children after a lifetime of paying lip service to the idea that you want them to live better than you.  If I ever have children and knowingly do something like that to them in the future, then God forgive me.

There is room for hope in this dark assessment of what the elders are doing to us.  In the weeks since the election, I’ve spent a large amount of time dissecting what’s happened and why various people acted the way they did in that moment with some close friends.  One of my best friends, in one of those collective grieving sessions we’ve had regularly in the last two months, told me the story of her father’s vote.  He was an ardent supporter of that man, someone who genuinely believed the rhetoric about helping white blue collar workers.  He wasn’t deluded into thinking that man was a person of any moral integrity or worthy of admiration; he just heard a message that he believed would benefit him.  In the days leading up to the election, he called his daughter for a serious conversation.  “I believe this is what’s best for me, but you’re my child, and you have a lot more time left than I do, so what do you think is best for you?” he asked.  She told him she thought Hillary Clinton was the better choice for her future.

And that’s how he voted.  Not as a man looking for the short term payoff he could enjoy, but as a parent trying to do what parents are supposed to do: thinking of what’s best for his child’s future and trying to enact it.

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