The ‘then leave’-Mentality and the Death of American Optimism

America, like any place on earth, is problem-riddled, and has been from the start. No matter where we claim that beginning to be; whether it’s the moment Pangea split open and the world unfurled into its current shape, ravenous magma regurgitating up out of cracked tectonic plates; or when the first homo sapiens crossed the Beringia Land Bridge onto the great-plained continent, shivering and starving in big and battered animal skins; when these tribes spread out, their cultures pushed into distinct directions by cunning responses to climate, flora, and fauna; when Columbus arrived in the Bahamas, convinced he had not only found Asia, but the actual Garden of Eden, immediately beginning a vicious process of enslavement and genocide that would last more than four hundred years; or when large cases of tea plummeted into the suddenly distinctly Earl Grey flavored saltwater waves of a Boston harbor, a match thrown in a revolutionary powder keg, unleashing the last guerilla-war favorably remembered by the American consciousness: the U.S. is in continual crisis, its identity is forged by disaster, its culture defined by it. This millennia long domino line of one catastrophe clattering down onto the next one; native genocide falling onto trans-Atlantic slavery, onto brutal civil war, onto Jim Crow apartheid laws, onto ruthless suppression of race riots, onto the continuing existence of institutionalized racism; or 9-11, onto rampant islamophobia, onto unjustified oil wars in Iraq, onto complete and global American disillusionment; all this wanton bloodshed, all of it, has been met with optimism. Great, heroic leaders give overpowering soliloquies in which they have teary eyed dreams, stand up for truth, justice, and the American way of life; they urge us to ask what we can do for our country, not what our country can do for us, and to do those things not because they are easy, but because they are difficult.

Postmodern cynicism has, I would argue perhaps rightfully, blunted our blade of hopefulness. Were these aforementioned speeches, these recitatives of righteousness, delivered in our time, they would be met with more eye-rolling than hand-clapping. I hope the ultra-American style of this essay, full of self-aggrandizing rhetorical trickery and rather pretty but gross overgeneralizations, is equally met with a well-earned eyebrow-raise. Too much misery has been met by too much inaction for us to be so mouth-gapingly impressed by the morals of the United States. American political speeches of the twenty-first century veer into angry lashing out at enemies foreign and domestic, or nostalgic reminiscences of a better, yet wholly unspecified time of prosperity, peace, and whatever the fuck the American way of life is supposed to be now; they still aspire to action, but no longer to real ethical heights. I should specify that I do not necessarily believe this to be an entirely negative development. It’s a new age with new ideals and beliefs; politics adapts, as they should. Well-worded but shortsighted Kennedyan optimism doesn’t work anymore, and that Biden speech, with his heavy brow grimly lit like a Star Wars villain and his words gravely yet candidly labeling the alt-right as domestic terrorists, was the first time I’ve liked him since he was that guy I vaguely associated with Obama. Yet, there are trace amounts of that old optimism to be found in speeches from both sides of the isle, seeds of hope hibernating under a thick coat of December snow, waiting for the first raving rays of May to prove that the permafrost wasn’t so permanent after all, or whatever other metaphor Jerzy Kosiński’s Being There lampooned.

A new mentality is rising, however, that I fear will kill this ever-American tendency of starry-eyed, widely-smiling, practically-aimed hopefulness; something I will call the ‘then leave’-mentality. I first noticed this in the world of comedy, where nearly all criticism of comedians’ material is met with ‘it’s just a joke’, or ‘if you don’t like it, just don’t watch it’. These arguments especially blossomed in the wake of Dave Chapelle’s abhorrently transphobic special The Closer. The special is almost entirely about transgenderism, with Chapelle aligning himself squarely with the TERF-ideology and jokingly deadnaming a transgender woman who committed suicide, calling her a man in an absurd conversation with the deceased woman’s only surviving daughter, all while defending himself with a slightly updated ‘I can’t be racist, I have black friends’-argument, now spun into ‘I can’t be transphobic, I was nice to a transwoman, who I refuse to call a woman, on several occasions’. The special ends with Chapelle noting that too many are offended with his material on trans people, so he’ll simply cease speaking on it. Despite the fact he did not do this, this statement also comes at the end of a full hour of him riffing on trans people, and it’s in the last few minutes of a special dubbed The Closer because it will be the last recorded special he’ll do for the coming years. A promise to stop the violence from an attacker who’s already broken eight ribs and dislocated a shoulder rings a little hollow on bloodied ears. Still, any rather rightful critique of this special was met with the old ‘if you don’t like it, don’t watch it’, which, in a world where comedians have a massive sway on the cultural consciousness, is a response entirely devoid of merit. Late night comedy shows inform us while screamy, faux-angry comedians provide us with opinions. While simply turning off a comedy special, or just not attending problematic comedians, is still an option, their cultural influence is inescapable; their part in the normalization of transphobia is not something one can simply walk out of. Excusing this contamination of modern mentality, this calm perpetration of a cultural plague, by asking people affected by it to simply not look at it, is deeply shortsighted. Things do not stop existing when you look away. Their effects do not dissipate if you pretend not to notice the cause. Symptoms do not care if you fail to see the disease.

I soon noticed this mentality in politics, where some republicans somehow simultaneously exclaim a desire to make America great again, while meeting any critique of America with a brief ‘if you don’t like it, leave’, whether that be ‘back to your own country’, or just to some vaguely European locale with hastily scribbled question marks as latitude and longitude coordinates. The latest domino in the calamity-list that is U.S. history is no longer met with an optimistic belief that it could be a moment for self-improvement, but with a staunch reminder of where the door is. If any of those previous dominos had been met with such idiotic indifference, with doing nothing, I doubt America would still have people living in it.

To fight against the speechy, preachy, and pastoral style I’ve adhered to until now, and add a little nuance to this piece, it should, of course, be mentioned that this mentality is nothing new. My favorite historical example of this is Martin Luther’s curt reply to the blasphemy-blaring critiques of his revolutionary Bible translation. Martin Luther’s translation of the Good Book was the spark that turned the whole of Europe into a bonfire of religious wars: it caused the church to split, splintering into hopelessly devoted factions of ever-angry fanatics, followed by inquisitions, burnings, gruesome torture, merciless raping, pillaging, destroying and despoiling, and continent wide massacres seemingly without end. When confronted with initial criticism of his German translation of the Bible, Luther responded with his Open Letter on Translation, later compellingly translated by Jennifer Tanner, in which he calls his critics incompetent ‘asses’ and writes ‘I have not forced anyone to read it but simply left it available and only done so as a service to those who cannot do any better … Whoever does not want to read it can leave it alone; I am not begging or cajoling anyone to read it’. The civilians caught in the crossfire of religious eradication based on a book he rewrote could not simply look away, could not just decide not to read it; nor can transgender people simple refuse to watch Dave Chapelle, while being forever unsafe on every unevenly lit street-corner and side-alley, feeling forever unaccepted in their own skin; nor should Americans throw their hands in the air and refuse to rebuild what is broken, mend what is bent. This mentality is old, but its regurgitation, like magma out of a gaping earth, is worrying.

I fear I cannot stick the landing of this political monologue, this thespian soliloquy. I do not think I can follow through completely in the supposed style of this piece, a style I now fear is more ‘writing-exercise’ than ‘tool for societal change’. I am too cynical to end this piece with a heroic call to action, a Braveheartian cry for collective progress. I’m too postmodern to believe in the idea that history is a rising line, clinging to clouds now that it’s clambered out of the mud. Too self-analytical for complete sincerity. And I know I am probably far too flawed to convincingly command others to improve themselves. But I do manage to see blindness is no response to barbarity. Nothing can only ever be a response to nothing. 

Written by Arthur Mulder


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