The morning of November 9, nobody in my subway car was looking at each other. Normally, avoidance of eye contact is a gesture of civility, the way New Yorkers grant each other pockets of mental space when physical space is scarce. And normally, a moment of mutual acknowledgment precedes the retreat into aloofness.
The morning of Trump was different. People entered the train already staring down at their telephones, and staring down they remained. Looking up might have obligated us to communicate with each other on the subject of our collective failure, and we didn’t yet know how to do this.
My own under-slept, hung-over brain dimly scrolled through a disordered list of signifiers: the word “post-racial” and the word “artisanal,” mini-cupcakes, irony in general, the ubiquity of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ hardcover in white hands, “nasty woman,” “bad hombres,” pantsuits — all these things now belonged to a bygone era.
During the bygone era, people sucked other people’s blood through discreet straws. People at the bottom of the food chain — the ones who voted for Trump and the ones who didn’t bother to vote for Clinton — took a massive, inaccurate swipe at the straws, and hit what civilization we had going. If Steve Bannon indeed described himself as a Leninist, who intended to “bring everything crashing down,” he certainly got his wish. The election of Trump ushered in the Era of the Pitchfork, in which people were invited to discard the straws and gore each other openly.
What had to happen to avert the Era of the Pitchfork was that the people at the top of the food chain had to ease up on their blood sucking — get thinner straws or something. Clinton endorsed thinner straws during her campaign, but only after Bernie Sanders lent her the script. By then, the pitchforks were already out. Before Bernie, there had been Occupy Wall Street. A bunch of people brought handwritten signs to Zuccotti Park. The common thread in their disparate complaints was this: It’s time we take a look at the food chain; there is too much misery at the bottom. Occupy protesters were dismissed pretty much on aesthetic grounds — because they didn’t have a cohesive brand (also known as “clear agenda”); their signs sucked, they were smelly. Besides, they were mostly white and presumably privileged — who but bloodsuckers and their spoiled kids had the time to sit in the park all day?
Zuccotti Park, was cleared, and life went on. We, mid-food chain bloodsuckers continued to accept inequality and racism as unfortunate yet unavoidable features of our habitat. Anyone fluent in White Parentese knew that in New York, “good school” meant “school with the fewest poor black kids in it” and “diverse school” translated as “school with a couple of black kids per classroom.” Because we wanted “the best for our children,” we used the instrument of segregation within the public schools, the “gifted and talented” track. Because our kids needed pajamas, we went to a large store and, encountering a cashier with no front teeth, briefly wondered how a person in America can have a job, yet be unable to afford teeth, briefly wondered about the third-world factory slave who made the pajamas — but bought them anyway.
Maybe we even fleetingly asked ourselves, “Who exactly profits from all this collective misery?” and “Why should they?” But the pajamas were cheap and adorable, and we wanted the best for our kids. We weren’t actively trying to exploit anyone. We felt attenuated and able to take care of only our own. The food chain got so top-heavy that we all felt one dental emergency, one job loss, one rent hike away from its bottom. People at the top of the food chain locked themselves in a golden tower, obscure and unreachable. Not all Trump voters were KKK misogynists. It’s likely that most simply swung their pitchforks in hopes of hitting something. What they did was tear a Trump-sized hole in civilization rotted by injustice.
At the start of the Pitchfork Era, the first thing we heard were screams of pain. On election night, Van Jones’s lamentation of a “whitelash” was the loudest one. Women described themselves as “gutted.” The pitchfork mob was still hopped up on election results, but the high wouldn’t last: The monster they unleashed would soon wreck their lives even more, pillaging what remains of their schools, incapacitating their police, taking away their last glimmer of hope of ever getting front teeth.
After President Obama, his face a mask of dissociation, sat down with Trump in the Oval Office, people settled into the reality of the Pitchfork Era. Striving for clarity, they began to describe their pain, and at the same time, critique other people’s pain for being less painful than their own.
Then came the “What to do?” A Russian might say, “There is nothing to do, what’s there to do?” Get some vodka or tea, and disappear to the kitchen for the next 70 years. But we Americans took to the streets of Manhattan. We replaced our profile pictures with Safety Pins, clicked “going” on the Womens’ March page, and passed around instructional comics about Islamophobic attacks. White people accused other white people of being facile, of Facebook activism, of making themselves feel better via memes. Once again, we were arguing about aesthetics.
Now is exactly the wrong time to have this argument. We heard Mayor DeBlasio’s shaky voice. He met the president-elect but sounded as though he just encountered Godzilla: It is here now. We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not time to bicker over the tastefulness of poses we strike on Facebook. We must trust each other – because we don’t know what will be the source of our moral strength – and if it’s liberal guilt, so be it.
A few days after the election was over, fliers appeared in my neighborhood. “Windsor Terrace/Kensington LOVES Our Black, Brown, White, Latino, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Gay, Female, Refugee, Queer, Asian, Middle Eastern, Disabled, Immigrant, Intersex, Mentally Ill, Interfaith, Mixed Race Neighbors… We trust you. We love you. We will stand by you.”
Initially, I was turned off by this promise of LOVE. I love some of my friends and some of my family, but I’m a stranger to several hundred people in my building. I make small talk with them in the elevator, but I don’t love them. It’s easy to stand by the ones we love. It’s harder to make the right choice about people with whom you simply coexist. Will I stand up for my neighbors if it means endangering my family? Will I stand up for my neighbors if it means inconveniencing my family?
But these questions are impossible to answer until they’re no longer theoretical. And I realized that my problem was less with the fliers’ awkward language than with its anonymity. Whose promise was taped to my streetlight? The problem with these safety pins is not that they’re an empty gesture – the problem is that they mostly appear in the safety of Facebook. I’ve seen very few people wear them in real life, and I seriously wonder if people are actually afraid to wear them. Not so much afraid of the physical danger, but afraid to fail again, as we have failed before.
But we have to believe that we will do better now. We will stop being careless and oblivious. We will give careful thought to the country we live in, not just to our personal station on the food chain. While we’re waiting for the Trump administration to start fulfilling campaign promises, it’s totally okay to find some safety pins. And, to make things clearer, it may be a good idea to use them to pin some actual words to our chests. Words such as “I’m a Jew,” “I’m an immigrant,” “Black Lives Matter.” And let’s keep those pins on not just on the NYC subway, but also at a gas station in upstate New York, or at a Denny’s in small-town Arizona.
Anya Ulinich’s most recent novel is “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.”
Anya Ulinich is the Forward’s Contributing Art Critic.