Thursday, January 21, 2021

Counting to 400,000: Mourning on the National Mall

Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

Joseph Stalin once infamously observed, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Knowing the consequences that may follow from the reduction of many lives to a number – trivialization, and in the worst cases, a forgetfulness that encourages the suppression of otherwise overwhelming truths concerning the terrible things we human beings are capable of doing -- we want to resist thinking in such reductive terms. But when we try to imagine how to grieve mass death as a public, how can we otherwise memorialize, how can we remember, how can we grieve?
As the number of deaths in the United States from the Covid-19 virus have mounted at an accelerating pace, following the merciless laws of multiplication that accompany uncontrolled contagions, a common measure of comparison has been used by many members of the commentariat. To whit, the daily toll from the pandemic has now exceeded the total number of deaths suffered on 9/11. Another comparison has been to deaths suffered in American wars. (Indeed, in his inaugural address, President Biden himself noted that more Americans have now died from this plague than died in World War II.) But for some reason, perhaps because war itself involves volition and deliberation, if not always explicit declaration, we do not immediately think of casualties of war as being victims, but as being heroes.
The vacillation between hero and victim is but one expression of the many simplifying dualisms in the American lexicon of power. In this case, heroes are powerful; victims are powerless. (Of course, another dualism pits the hero against the villain, the enemy of the good. The villain too is reducible to the binary logic of absolutism, judged regardless of context, without any attempt to learn of the circumstances that created their villainy, to absolute condemnation.) But dualisms of power only work when there is a conscious refusal to acknowledge the imperfections of all, to imagine that there a conclusion to our grief, a psychic closure that gives one permission to move on, move away, from the site of such difficult pain.
But many of us who have directly experienced grief – and who hasn’t? -- know that there is no certain end to it, and that when we attempt to evade the pain of loss through suppression or distraction, or conversion of pain into anger, we do damage to ourselves and to those around us. Judith Butler has noted the destructiveness of blocked grief, especially in her meditation on 9/11, Precarious Life. There she suggested that all grief has a public dimension, and she realized that as a consequence of that public dimension of grief, it is inevitably politicized. When there are mass deaths, especially, the politics of grief becomes more visible to all.
The public life of grief didn’t have any noteworthy face during the Trump Administration, Trumpism being the quintessential dualistic ideology. (Simple binaries have supported the rule of tyrants throughout history, but they are especially well fitted to modern fascistic regimes.) By political imperative, but also by personality, it is abundantly clear that Trump was unfit to lead the country in grieving. In fact, his actions throughout 2020 and into this year were largely based on his denial of the seriousness of the pandemic, as has been extensively documented.
Every milestone in this plague – whether the initial explosion of cases in the states of New York and Washington, through the ongoing documentation of 100,000, 200,000 300,000, and now 400,000 deaths as the virus has spread throughout the country in a second wave – has passed, not only without meaningful comment by the Trump Administration, but with ridiculous lies and an absurd politicization of such basic precautions as wearing masks in the name of a freedom of choice, a freedom akin to that of choosing to drive on whatever side of the road one might prefer. (The significant failure of Trump to act as head of state and chief executive should be one more reason for a general rethinking of the present constitutional system of governance. But that is a subject for another time.)
And so it came to pass that the citizens and denizens of the United States, following the catastrophe of an insurrection incited by Trump and the Republicans in Congress in support of the Big Lie of a stolen election, came to the nation’s capital, virtually if not in person, on the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration, at dusk, to witness the first national ritual of grief for those deaths approximately one year after the first recorded mortality from Covid-19 in the United States.
    The event was staged at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. Four hundred obelisks of light lined the sides of the Pool, one for every thousand deaths, counting to 400,000, stretching from the Memorial to the Washington Monument, devoid of people, not only because of the ongoing pandemic but because of the lockdown of the capital following the attempted putsch on the 6th of January.
There were brief comments by the by the president and vice-president elects, and the singing of two songs. The first was “Amazing Grace” (the lyrics written by a reformed slave owner in 1788 (the melody adapted from the song “New Britain” in 1835), a song deeply familiar to all, a song of hope that was sung by President Obama at a memorial service for one of the nine murder victims of a white nationalist in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.
   The second song was, to me anyway, a more surprising choice. Although famous in its own right, Leonard Cohen’s 1984 sorrowful love song, sung in the voice of a person broken by his lover, now has entered the pantheon of national recognition for a reason far different than its origin might suggest. “Hallelujah” has been transformed into an anthem of mourning and resolution, with the use of its title word serving as the chorus, both ironic and beyond irony, in its singing.
A key lyric in that song, one Yolanda Adams chose not to sing that evening – it is a long song when fully performed – was this: 

And I've seen your flag on the marble arch

and love is not a victory march

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

I wish she had. It would have been fitting. Cold and broken, flag still flying, no victory march: what better describes that which we still may call the national mood?

This country’s national grieving has begun. What we might make of that fact I do not know. But as our morning progresses, we may begin to see glimmers of hope.



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