A week on from the US Presidential election of 2020, and with still much controversy and confusion involved, though a consensus among the media and global leaders that Joe Biden of the Democrats is the President-Elect, I think it might be opportune to give my 2c on the matter.
A succinct metaphor which has been suggested from time to time relating in particular to American politics, and its divisive two-party system, is “one screen, two movies.” The metaphor works because it proposes the idea that there is a set of events, what we might call reality, upon which two separate narratives are projected.
We can see this happening in America, and indeed in quite a few other places, if we choose to look. Partly this is a product of binary thinking, our (often false) predeliction arising from having hemispheric brains that there are two things to choose from in any scenario. There is black and white, up and down, left and right. But there is also brown, yellow, blue, green, opaque or transparent. There is sideways. There is in short always perpendicular options to the binary. There is, in short, nuance.
But let us return to ‘one screen, two movies.’ What happens if you try to watch BOTH movies at once, in real time? Or even simply flick back and forth between the two, like a magic eye picture? It’s obviously disorientating. A bigot Nazi righteously thrown out of office becomes an isolated victim of mass electoral fraud. A fifty year career political veteran becomes a senile old coot with a druggie son who’s been compromised by China. And so on. In short, there is such distance between the narratives that they almost cannot be comprehended simultaneously.
Critically, it seems almost impossible to reconcile them. There is no possible Hegelian synthesis here. These perspectives are oil and water, all the more unmixable for being all the more fundamentally rooted in a sense of tribal identities. The wailing despair which greeted Trump’s election four years ago, a gutteral howl from genteel middle-aged women captured on camera, is matched only by the outcry of relief and triumphalism of Biden’s supporters, a cohort who only a few years back were meming about how he was the dumbass idiot foil to a wise and weary Barack Obama.
Once practised a little, it becomes a parlour game of whimsy. Pick any topic and try to guess at the polarised views. Immigration controls are either a racist rejection of non-white humanity, or else a belated attempt to shore up jobs for Americans. Transgender storytime in libraries is an act of education and acceptance or a sign of enforced degeneracy and an attempt to destroy families and identity. And so on. But it goes beyond whimsical games of course. These viewpoints are not reconcilable and no amount of calls for unity will make them so.
The biggest tragedy is that there is no attempt at empathy from either side to the other. Both feel under fundamental attack from friends, neighbours, even family. This is tearing natural human relationships apart, inside and outside America. People don’t want to watch two movies on one screen. They can’t tolerate the cognitive dissonance. Instead, they are forced to demonise those who are watching the other movie.
One wonders therefore how it will end. Half the US electorate will feel inevitably disenfranchised no matter what, as has been the case for Trump’s entire term of office. America is, of course, an empire in slow decline and has been for quite some time. But, not unlike the bankrupcy of Mike in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, empires tend to fail very slowly, then all at once. And the power vacuum a collapsed America would create is highly concerning. No wonder Russia and China look on with interest.
I of course am no expert on the matter, having only a couple of years as a political correspondent for an Irish newspaper, and a lifetime’s passion for the sport of elections, to fuel my speculations. But if journalism taught me anything, it taught me the importance of being able to speak to people you do not agree with, to be able to genuinely listen to them and what they think and why they might think it, no matter how bizarre or repellant or even threatening it may seem. However, I am tiring too of watching two movies. The double vision is not conducive to clarity. For the next while, I will instead focus my attention on just one thing, and as a literary critic and academic scholar…
Dystopia seems like a good choice.