Rebecca Lerner: A fall from grace

Monday, November 14, 2016 - 10:53am

In the midst of an anxious and turbulent election, on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, I fell asleep at 10:30 P.M. I attribute my ability to doze off in this time of intense pressure to both my self-diagnosed “stress-induced narcolepsy” and the melatonin gummies I took from my roommate. Either way, I woke up at four in the morning on Wednesday, November 9 to discover that President-elect Donald Trump won the over 270 Electoral College votes necessary to secure the presidency. 

I got up, turned on my light and took out my copy of “Swamplandia,” by Karen Russell. “Swamplandia” is not strictly apocalyptic in a traditional sense, since it doesn’t detail a societal collapse with zombies or a plague. But at its core, it shares a common theme with all apocalyptic literature: survival. The story centers on the Bigtrees, a family that runs an alligator theme park in Florida. Within the first few pages, the matriarch of the family dies of breast cancer and her death catalyzes their financial and emotional collapse.

Flipping to page eight, I read the lines that I was specifically looking for, the ones that could so perfectly capture how I was feeling. I strained my eyes to read the words, their poignancy echoing in my silent house.

“The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it ... If you’re short on time, that would be the two word version of our story — we fell.”

This fall takes place at the start of “Swamplandia,” and it’s a subdued descent that hits you all at once. The kind where in a single page, any semblance of safety or magic evaporates. That page might be in the weathered copy of “Swamplandia” on my bookshelf, or it might be a web page on a phone with its blue light broadcasting the glaring red of an electoral map.

There’s a downward momentum and uncertainty to this election that makes people who diverge from the white, straight, male norm lie awake at night. Of course, people who voted for Trump are entitled to their vote and free speech. They are not all racists or sexists, but to have voted for him, they needed to look past some damning evidence of sexual assault and countless examples of prejudice and ignorance. We’re hearing the same hateful rhetoric that has been simmering under the societal surface for years, at a much higher pitch.

This rhetoric can be alarming and frustrating, especially on this campus, where students of marginalized identities are constantly forced to speak as experts on diversity while simultaneously combatting intolerance and hate. Conservative news is attributing the drastic reaction of students to the way we see ourselves as special snowflakes who can’t stand to have people disagree with us. In reality, what we can’t stand is violence and hatred directed towards women, minorities and queer and trans people.

This feels like the part of this piece where I should say that we need empathy, that in apocalyptic literature there’s always a societal divide and that polarization is normal, even encouraged in political races. That empathy could save the day, start a dialogue and create space for understanding both sides. I could even bring it back to literature and say that reading fiction increases the human capacity for empathy. (It does. By reading we slip into the lives of people who are so unlike us that we learn what it’s like to be someone else, improving our social skills and compassion.) Trump and his supporters are asking America to trust him, and empathy seems to be a first step to trust and unity. 

But trust must be earned. Trump’s speech throughout his campaign was fueled by racism, xenophobia, homophobia and sexism. It’s not my place to tell anyone whether they should move past that or not in the name of uniting the country. There have been hundreds of hate crimes across the country since last Tuesday’s election. People have a right to be scared and angry.

This has been a confusing and disjointed year — in 2016, Beyonce’s Lemonade was released, Donald Trump was elected to be the leader of the free world and the terrifying force of Harambe memes were unleashed upon the internet. We live in troubling times. It’s hard to take seriously a plea for unity coming from the same people who allowed or perpetrated rallying cries of division. It’s hard not to see the transition of power from President Obama to President-elect Trump as symbolic of something bigger and more sinister coming our way. 

But this is not the end. Obama told us that now is not the time to get cynical, that the sun would come up no matter who was elected. Thus far, he’s been right. So this isn’t the apocalypse. But it could be the start of a fall.