Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Transfigured at the Polls?

History as progress.  The idea that human societies and nations are on a trajectory that tilts endlessly upward has been a recurring feature of historical thinking.  Few professional historians entertain such an idea--the recurrence of heartbreak, violence, suffering, and inequality dictate otherwise.  But I think it is nonetheless an idea that lurks in the backs of most of our minds when we think about our families, societies, and world.
Tomorrow my students are discussing the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I am re-reading Desmond Tutu’s account of his experience with the TRC, No Future Without Forgiveness.  
At the beginning of the book, the South African archbishop and anti-apartheid activist recounted how in 1994, the very act of lining up and waiting to vote, in a deeply divided and unequal country “helped us South Africans to find one another...they found fellow human beings...who had the same concerns and anxieties, and aspirations.”
Tutu went on to write that for South Africans, the country’s first democratic election in 1994 “was a veritable spiritual experience.  It was a mountaintop experience.  The black person entered the booth one person and emerged on the other side a new, transfigured person.  She entered weighed down by the anguish and burden of oppression, with the memory of being treated like rubbish gnawing away at her vitals like some corrosive acid.  She reappeared as someone new” (7).
Of course, ending the effects of apartheid proved to be more complicated than a single election or the single act of voting.  
But I was struck, reading Tutu’s words today, about how different the election was for many of us yesterday.  How waiting in line I, too, surveyed my fellow voters, sipping coffee or checking their watches or digging for driver’s licences in the soothing desert morning sun.
When I surveyed them I couldn’t help but wonder which among them voted for the candidate who pledged to strip away the rights of my fellow citizens on the basis of their race, religion, or and sexuality.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether any of them had stood at rallies and cheered when the candidate sneered about ILLEGALS! and insinuated that people murder his opponent.   I couldn’t help but be curious as to which of my neighbours, the people I pass on the street, voted for a ticket that wants to subject people to therapy because they love another man or another woman.  

I wanted to know who was voting for a candidate who has committed himself to making millions of Americans feel frightened in our own country, and in our own communities.   We've experienced our own kind of transfiguration, but our elevation is to the status of the "enemy within" that needs to be monitored, disciplined, or perhaps eviscerated.

I hope that we can work and organize and do whatever it takes to ensure that this election doesn’t come to assume the reverse significance of South Africa’s 1994 election, and that our communities didn’t emerge from this election and the era it ushers in defaced by the misuse of the law, savaged by dehumanizing language and violent acts, and stripped of the rights that provide a path to economic security and keep the oppressed from social death.

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