The Broken Hallelujah


Baby, we've been here before.

Well, not exactly here, for better and for worse - but, to all the young people who have considered feminism superannuated and outmoded, who have thought the civil rights movement a largely finished story for the schoolbooks, who have felt the arc of history as bending easily and inevitably toward justice: welcome to the struggle.

This is what it feels like. This is what it feels like to face a self-assured, patronizing, xenophobic, self-congratulating hegemony that really is in power, and to know that tomorrow's news and tomorrow's will not be happy. This is what it really is to have a dream and to have stood at the mountaintop and to say, "Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead." And this is what it feels like to be willing to die for and to hold on for dear life to a vision in which "one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed" - one day.

Your parents know, and mine. They've been here before. And, for the most part, they didn't think you'd have to be. And I didn't either. In that regard, perhaps, we have failed to prepare you.

In the Torah's story this week, God says, with regard to the notorious and ill-fated cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, "I will go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come unto Me; and if not, I shall know." (Genesis 18:21)

Midat S'dom, "the character of Sodom" - throughout classical rabbinic literature, it is a designation and a byword for an attitude toxic to healthy and safe society. In what does Midat S'dom consist? The essence of the condemnable character, according to the sources, is summed up in the statement "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is yours."

Really? Wouldn't "what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine too" be the characteristic contention of the wicked? No, say our teachings (Pirkei Avot 5:10), that is the "ignorant." But what, you may ask, is so bad about "what's mine is mine and what's your's is yours?" Surely that's merely a common-sense account of property rights, individuality, and respect-worthy boundaries. No again, the teachings of our heritage answer; the fatal failing of "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" is a denial of interdependence, a negation of mutual partaking in a larger and shared world.

According to Midrash (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Shirata, 2), the people of Sodom say, "We do not desire anyone from outside to sojourn among us. Foreigners diminish the food and silver and gold and precious stones that are ours. Let no strangers come among us anymore!" At that, the Holy Blessed One says, "Fools! You comport yourselves arrogantly with all the blessings I have lavished upon you. I will cause your memory to perish from the world.'"

Midat S'dom - "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" - says, "You stay over there, where you belong - in your foreign-ness, your woman-ness, your worker-ness, your other-colored-ness, your Northern- or Southern-ness, your queer-ness, your horrifying not-I-ness. Don't menace me with the suggestion that we have anything in common, that we are created equal, that your capacity to fulfill yourself has anything to do with mine. Don't you dare tell me that challenges we face in common ultimately will render ridiculous the ways I insist you have nothing to do with me."

Most heartrending of all last Tuesday and Wednesday was to hear how many friends had taken their young children, their daughters especially, into the polling-booths, to forge memories of voting for the first female President - only to wake them the next morning in a country consigned to a boorish and proud sexual predator. Or perhaps worse was to hear how many had said to their kids, "Watch closely, he's being a bully, he's being mean, that's why he's going to lose" - only to find themselves trying impossibly in the wee hours to figure out how to tell the children over breakfast that the mean man had won.

In the spirit of President Obama's amazing grace, one wishes to wish a President Elect only well. But it is difficult not to find consolation in the likelihood of the signature Trump pattern prevailing. The Trump Taj Mahal - bankrupt. Trump's Castle and Plaza casinos - bankrupt. Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts - bankrupt. Trump Entertainment Resorts - bankrupt. The Trump White House - fill in the blank. If you need some help, consider the failures of Trump Steaks, GoTrump, Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, Trump Mortgage, Trump Magazine, Trump Network, Trump University, Trump Ice, Tour de Trump, and Trump: The Game. Behold the swamp-denizens rising as cabinet candidates amid the invertebrate silence of soon-to-be complicit Congressional leaders. It is hard not to look toward a vindicating flop of Trump America (but also the signature Trump pattern by which it will be everyone else's fault, with the Trump brand sailing clear, on the winds of sheer bluster, as ever, a sucker's synonym for success).

The problem with such consoling Schadenfreude: what's ours is not just ours, but very actually his now, and what's his is ours.

If that is just too nauseating to realize, there is this:

Roughly half of the electorate is baffling and unknown to much of a community like ours at Harvard. In that, there is an aspect of "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours," a Midat S'dom, an 'othering' of fellow people in this country, to use a liberal byword for what it really is.

Contempt for Trump is one thing, and is reasonable, and fight we must. But if we wish to avoid contempt for half of the electorate - and I refuse to believe that half this country is just evil and stupid - we have to get in some vans and drive to some places where most people voted for this President Elect and sit in some diners and coffeeshops and have some real conversations. Because the folks in those places were not sufficiently dignified in our dreams, and we failed to make their dreams ours. And I don't mean dreams of white supremacy and ultra-nationalism, I mean dreams of simple dignity in search of the basic preconditions for self-respect.

We presumed and we forgot and we alienated, and we concluded that anyone to whom Donald Trump's tin-pot dog-whistle campaign appealed in any way could not possibly have anything at all to do with ourselves and with our dreams, except as a dimwitted and bigoted antagonist. If we continue to think that way, it will be Midat S'dom on our part, Trump and not we will be vindicated, and our memory, God forbid, may perish from the world.