This blog recently addressed the pervasive sense of political unease in the United States, an unease which is only growing as the midterm elections approach. Everyone acknowledges how important the election results will be for the country’s future. At the same time, many of us believe we’ve already embarked on a dark path which cannot be stopped or altered, no matter how we vote.
But is this true? Are we really powerless to change the direction of our country?
Well, the empirical evidence does not look good. Election deniers already hold offices in many states and are in a position to tilt the results. The January 6 Committee is likely to be shut down in just a few months, assuming Republicans take back the House as expected. And ex-President Trump is likely to run for reelection, although by law he should not be permitted to run for any office whatsoever.
One of our best writers, the Booker Prize-winning George Saunders, has just published a new collection of short stories—Liberation Day—which takes our current situation as a starting point and imagines what life will be like in the near future.
Perhaps the most direct of these stories is “Love Letter.” It takes the form of a letter written by a grandfather to his grandson after dark times have descended, a letter which tries to address the issue of injustice and whether or not anything can still be done to rectify it. It is also a love letter to that which has been lost, namely the democracy we once took for granted. Plausibly (and chillingly), the letter is dated February 22, 202_.
The grandson challenges his grandfather, asking why he didn’t do more to stop the nation’s descent. The grandfather replies reasonably, noting all the things he and his wife did do. They voted. They called their elected representatives, they signed petitions. They wrote letters to the editor. After the third such letter, the grandfather notes, he was stopped by the police and told to stay off his computer.
Both generations are aware of people who have been wrongfully imprisoned. Indeed, the grandson has written to his grandfather seeking assistance in freeing someone from prison. Neither knows whether the person in question, named only as “J.” for safety’s sake, is in a state facility or a federal prison. J. refused to identify someone who lacked the proper papers. And J. appears to be romantically involved with the grandson, who wants to expedite her release.
The grandfather replies: I advise and implore you to stay out of this business with J. Your involvement will not help (especially if you don’t know where they have taken her, fed or state) and may, in fact, hurt. I hope I do not offend if I here use the phrase “empty gesture.”
Yet the grandfather cannot help but offer his grandson monetary assistance, even though he believes it is pointless and fervently hopes his grandson will keep a low profile.
He—the grandfather—is full of regret for what was lost. And for how it was lost, so gradually and imperceptibly. There was a certain critical period, he says. I see that now.
We have entered that critical period. Is there anything we can do?