Why is the pres­i­dent leav­ing us to grieve on our own?

Orlando Sentinel - - Opinion -

More than 100,000 lives have been lost to the COVID-19 pan­demic in the United States, and while in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies have cer­tainly grieved for their loved ones, there has been al­most noth­ing in the way of a pub­lic re­mem­brance of the lives lost. No na­tional ad­dress; no mo­ment of si­lence or of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion be­yond the oc­ca­sional tweet. No sense from the pres­i­dent or his sub­or­di­nates that these were un­timely deaths — need­less losses that ought to oc­ca­sion col­lec­tive mourn­ing. There will be no speech like Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s in the wake of the Mother Emanuel shoot­ing in Charleston; no ad­dress like Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan’s af­ter the Chal­lenger dis­as­ter.

Civil so­ci­ety has tried to fill the gap. Both The New York Times and The Wash­ing­ton Post have de­voted their pages to memo­ri­als, as have lo­cal and re­gional news­pa­pers across the coun­try. But the po­lit­i­cal vac­uum mat­ters. It’s also pre­dictable.

The pres­i­dent’s in­dif­fer­ence to col­lec­tive mourn­ing is of a piece with a po­lit­i­cal move­ment that de­nies our col­lec­tive ties as well as the obli­ga­tions we have to each other. If Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump rep­re­sents a rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal solip­sism, in which his is the only in­ter­est that ex­ists, then it makes all the sense in the world that nei­ther he nor his al­lies would see or even un­der­stand the need for pub­lic and col­lec­tive mourn­ing.

In the face of col­lec­tive tragedy, mourn­ing can’t help but be pub­lic. And in a democ­racy like ours, that means it also can’t help but be po­lit­i­cal. In her es­say “Vi­o­lence, Mourn­ing, Pol­i­tics” — writ­ten in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks and the nascent “war on ter­ror” — the philoso­pher Ju­dith But­ler ob­served how grief and griev­ing can bring the foun­da­tions of our so­cial ar­range­ments into clear view.

“Many peo­ple think that grief is pri­va­tiz­ing,” she writes, “But I think it fur­nishes a sense of po­lit­i­cal community of a com­plex or­der, and it does this first by bring­ing to the fore the re­la­tional ties that have im­pli­ca­tions for the­o­riz­ing fun­da­men­tal de­pen­dency and eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

When we grieve as a pub­lic, we do not just sense our own vul­ner­a­bil­ity, but that of those around us who, in our col­lec­tive con­fronta­tion with death and loss, share that grief. We see, acutely, that the world is be­yond the full grasp of our con­trol, de­spite our il­lu­sions to the con­trary. And that re­al­iza­tion, But­ler sug­gests, can pro­vide the grounds for col­lec­tive po­lit­i­cal ac­tion.

Per­haps the sin­gle great­est ex­am­ple of the po­lit­i­cal power of col­lec­tive grief and mourn­ing comes from the Civil War. It is


Lin­coln’s speech ded­i­cat­ing the Soldier’s Na­tional Ceme­tery in Get­tys­burg, Penn­syl­va­nia, bet­ter known, of course, as the Get­tys­burg Ad­dress. In it, Lin­coln gives voice to the great loss of both the bat­tle and the war up to that point. But he does not leave things there. From grief and sac­ri­fice, Lin­coln says, comes a kind of pur­pose: “It is for us the liv­ing, rather, to be ded­i­cated here to the un­fin­ished work which they who fought here have so nobly ad­vanced.” Amer­i­cans will mourn to­gether and use the con­nec­tion forged by that ex­pe­ri­ence to con­tinue the fight to save the Union.

Af­ter the end of the war and Lin­coln’s sub­se­quent as­sas­si­na­tion, this mem­ory of suf­fer­ing would help fuel the ef­fort to re­con­struct the South. The first Me­mo­rial Day cel­e­bra­tions, the his­to­rian David Blight notes in “Race and Re­union: The Civil War in Amer­i­can Mem­ory,” had a po­lit­i­cal char­ac­ter: “They mixed re­li­gion and na­tion­al­ism in a vic­tory cult that pro­vided North­ern Chris­tians with a nar­ra­tive through which to un­der­stand their sac­ri­fice of kin and friends.” Mourn­ing would, again, give way to pur­pose.

All po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties ex­pe­ri­ence trauma and mourn­ing and how we han­dle it, whether we bother to do it in the first place, shapes and di­rects our col­lec­tive re­sponse. I think that the par­tic­u­lar trauma of a pan­demic is one that could pro­vide a foun­da­tion for sol­i­dar­ity and col­lec­tive ac­tion.

But that, un­for­tu­nately, is the ex­act ethos to which Trump stands in op­po­si­tion. He is un­able to see be­yond him­self and his im­me­di­ate con­cerns, and he leads a coali­tion that re­jects col­lec­tive ac­tion and de­nies our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to each other.

If we are not to mourn the COVID dead to­gether, it will not be be­cause the cir­cum­stances don’t de­mand it. It will be be­cause, although Trump may not be able to ex­press him­self in these terms, the pres­i­dent knows that to take this grief se­ri­ously — to med­i­tate on what it means for us as a community — is to un­der­mine the very foun­da­tions of his po­lit­i­cal project.

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