The images of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. are too shocking. In the immediate aftermath of the impact, it would be wise not to lock ourselves into a summary explanation tailored to meet the fastest turnarounds in the media news cycle. In particular, I believe we should not succumb to simplistic political analysis or facile moral judgments that lead us to suddenly think that, in the face of the obscenities we witnessed, we now know everything about the motivation, way of life, thinking and feelings of the 74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump.
Two elements of the iconography the invaders displayed are brutally enigmatic, and the concern they cause demand that, at a minimum, before any deeper reflection, we take the time to simply describe them.
On the one hand, then, we saw Confederate flags, clearly wistful for a system that ignited the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, and one in which the political establishment and social mores depended on specific mechanisms of oppression, particularly the enslavement of Black people. At the same time, some of the protesters exhibited markers (animal skins, horned headgear, painted faces) borrowed from historical symbols linked, directly or indirectly, to Native American nations.
Between the political anachronism of the Confederate flags and the figurative nostalgia of the fake natives, a portrait begins to emerge that combines a sense of denial with the absurd. In truth, it’s not easy to reconcile within the same event the values embodied by the political project that was the Confederacy with the exaltation of Native Americans as the symbol of any sort of revolt grounded in those same values.
Among other things, perhaps what we are seeing is a very raw symptom of a nihilistic sensitivity that is far from unique to the United States; I believe it may well apply to other contemporary societies. The difficulty of dealing with its existence starts with the fact that people are not expressing this sensitivity in traditional political discourse, but rather by denying the relevance of classic (i.e., democratic) political engagement. This is why this nihilism affirms itself, blindly, by opposing anything it deems “the system.” The man who invaded the U.S. Capitol and sat triumphantly with his feet up on a desk is someone who believes, above all, that he is exposing the evil contradictions of the “system.”
We shouldn’t oversimplify matters, of course. Neither should we regard as laughable the disquieting scorn we saw manifested in the images on display. It’s worth remembering, after all, that candidate Trump, just a few years ago, was viewed as a largely comedic figure, widely mocked by many.
It happens that these images, in their harshness, perfectly represent our times, and from this point forward, become part of “a sad day in the history of the United States,” as Spike Lee noted, reminding us that this happened in the “so-called cradle of democracy.“ These are images, furthermore, which can be seen to stand in contrast with others, such as those that have come to us from Hollywood, through which we have experienced (and continue to experience) a very different representation of the U.S. Capitol.
I am reminded, for example, of the emblematic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” directed by Frank Capra. In the movie, we follow the odyssey of a young and naive senator played by Jimmy Stewart, who is confronted with a perverse political machine riddled with lies and corruption. There is, however, an ethical difference in this tale that is far from trivial: His fight is predicated on a profound belief in the system’s capacity to deal with its own internal convulsions.
It’s barely worth noting that the America (and the world) of 1939 has little in common with a modern world that is always connected, and in which everything that happens is shared with everyone, while sometimes, there is not much communication at all. Capra’s legacy is not a fixed model for us, frozen in time. But it is, at least, part of a cultural legacy which reminds us of the need to reflect deeply, beyond the immediacy of the day-to-day media cycle, on what we are seeing.
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