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A Year Later...
January 6… A year. Already a year.
And yet the abyss seems to have only widened, and deepened.
I’ve lived through a lot of dates “which will live in infamy.” Such is the inherent nature of a long life in eventful times.
I remember the first one, the one that coined the phrase. I had just turned 10 years old. My family and I gathered around the radio on December 8, 1941 to hear President Roosevelt’s speech. “ Yesterday, December 7, 1941 a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
In the years and decades that followed, dates of infamy have accumulated. There have been assassinations, wars, terror attacks, and other moments which tore at the heart of our nation, its security, its sanity, and the hopes we have for the future.
I have never witnessed anything that matches what happened at the United States Capitol a year ago.
But throughout all of these, I have never witnessed anything that matches what happened at the United States Capitol a year ago, an event seared forever in our collective memory. To be sure, many dates of infamy have been bloodier. Others constituted more immediate threats to the territorial security of our country. And others were more sudden and unexpected.
January 6 stands alone, however, for the peril it posed, and certainly continues to pose, to the most fundamental, and I had hoped sacred, tenets of our American democracy. Even I am not old enough to remember the firing on Fort Sumter, perhaps the closest historical analogy, albeit a very imperfect one.
January 6 did not launch an armed civil war, at least not yet. As such, it has allowed those who wish to excuse what happened that day to try to gaslight the nation, and our history. They would have us believe that it was no big deal, just a bunch of “tourists.” But we all saw it, with our own eyes, even as it unfolded live. And what we have learned since only clarifies how gravely the fundamental character of our nation was pushed to the precipice that afternoon.
We can hear it in the harrowing and heroic accounts from the police officers trying to hold the line, while fearing for their lives. We can read it in the frantic texts to President Trump to call off his army from Republican politicians and right-wing media hosts who now deny the reality. We can feel it as the lines of culpability to those in positions of prominence grow stronger.
That it wasn’t more violent, that they were not successful, that all of it can be laundered through the bright studios and coiffed hosts of Fox News, does not diminish what took place on that date, what led to it, and what has followed.
This was an armed assault, with the intent of overturning the will of the American people in a presidential election.
Just like “Watergate” has become a shorthand which sanitizes the full scope of events (a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy run from the Oval Office), I worry when we talk about January 6 we risk downplaying all that really took place. This was an armed assault, with the intent of overturning the will of the American people in a presidential election. This is the face of authoritarianism. There is still much we don’t know about who organized it and urged it on at the moment. But even from the public record, we can see a heavy involvement from Republican politicians, including the president himself.
It is not helpful to speculate about events that are so serious. It is why we need as many investigations as possible into what happened. We are seeing some results with the Congressional committee. It is far less clear how much priority the Department of Justice is giving the matter. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s vow today to hold “all January 6th perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law -- whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy" is a hopeful step. We shall see.
Looking back at other dates of “infamy,” it is striking how many of them brought this country closer together, whereas this one is driving us apart. Others were attacks from the outside, against all of us. This was an inside job. But what happened a year ago must also be seen as an attack on all of us, because it is an attack on the rule of law and the stability of our democracy. I used to think that no matter what our differences were, we could at least agree on respecting the results of elections, even if we had supported the losing candidate. I was wrong. And that still leaves me stunned, and deeply saddened.
What we have seen in the wake of the last year is the “Big Lie” has only grown more central to the political gospel of much of the Republican Party. Rather than shock those who had normalized Donald Trump to their senses, the retellings of January 6 in the right-wing echo chambers have turned those who participated in a brazenly unpatriotic act into heroes who are somehow saving the country. In truth, these insurrectionists have disdain for the noble ambitions under which this nation was founded.
There will be no shortage of commemorations for this day. But they will not be marked equally by this nation. The historical framing of this insurrection is already being stretched across our fractured political landscape. So it is not surprising that the fight for what to teach about January 6 has migrated to our classrooms. It is part of a larger movement to deny future generations a full account of our history in order to preserve the simple mythologies upon which many cling to assert their place of privilege.
We must remember that the road to progress in our national story has always been one of struggle against the forces of injustice and oppression.
While the challenges of our present time is unique, we must remember that the road to progress in our national story has always been one of struggle against the forces of injustice and oppression. What motivated those rioters on January 6 was the fact that they and their beloved leader had lost, that the country had chosen, in overwhelming numbers, to move forward. But the threat remains, to be sure. We have elections looming in which the battlelines will not be over policy, they will be over democracy itself.
What I seek to ultimately focus on today is how those who love and want to protect American democracy can respond. What I have seen in my years covering American politics, and democratic movements in other countries, is that ultimately the tides of history are shaped by who is willing to show up, to act, to be counted. I have also seen that the most successful engines for progress are built through the power of community more than the energy of any one leader, no matter how talented or charismatic.
It was only a few weeks after January 6, when we launched this Steady newsletter. We had been thinking of doing something along these lines, but the events of that day and its aftermath jolted us into action. I was greatly disturbed by how social media, even while it provided a wonderful platform, has contributed to the dangerous distortions of truth that plague our nation and larger world. I was worried about information being controlled by opaque algorithms. Recent reporting on January 6 has only made the culpability of at least Facebook more clear. I was seeking a different venue to communicate with all of you.
I have found that hope, no matter how tenuous, is more likely to flourish when we feel connected.
What we hoped to create here was a community where we could talk to one another, see the dangers as they exist, but also recognize the joys and wonders of life. We wanted a place for reflection, and thought. We understand that the posts can be long, but it takes more time to paint the world with the complexity it deserves. It is very easy to channel anger, but that only gets one so far. I have found that hope, no matter how tenuous, is more likely to flourish when we feel connected.
There will be future anniversaries of January 6. I hope to still be here communicating with all of you. And I hope what you are helping build here can flourish. To those of you who have not already signed up for Steady, please consider joining us. Most of the content has been and will always continue to be available to free subscribers.
We do not know what the world will look like in a year, or a month, or even tomorrow. But the future is not beyond our ability to help shape. And on a day when we commemorate the destructive surge of mob mentality, let us also marvel at the power and resilience that is possible when we come together.
America has become more just and more inclusive over its history because of the struggles of those who would not bend to cynicism. That is the story of our past. We can also make it the fate of our future.