July 4, 1776--November 9, 2016
By Sarah Einstein
It’s with a heavy heart that I join the din of people announcing that American Decency has died. Like Mark Twain, reports of Decency’s death have often been exaggerated, but this time, Decency is good and truly dead.
We knew that Decency was in critical condition when the President Elect—then the Republican candidate—spoke disparagingly of the Kahn family. It’s long been a hallmark of Decency to respect the grief of parents, particularly when they mourn a child who died in service to the country. It is not something that Decency would have permitted, had they (Decency has always preferred gender-neutral pronouns) been able to take a stand.
The symptoms got worse from there. An angry white man at a rally for the President Elect looked into the camera and shouted “Go back to Auschwitz! Go back to fucking Auschwitz,” and Decency wasn’t there to remind us that we cannot let ourselves be led by a man who would let this pass without comment. At other rallies, men beat and kicked people—particularly young black people—who came to voice their opposition, and this candidate just said—of a particularly protestor—that he’d like to “punch him in the face.” Clearly, no matter what he tries to tell you at the wake, this man and Decency weren’t even passing acquaintances, much less good friends.
The list goes on: pussy grabbing, the whole piss imbroglio, false assurances that the then candidate, any-moment-now President, has a “great relationship with the blacks,” accusations of sexual assault, and so many white nationalist dog whistles that we’re now all a little deaf. But you know the litany. None of these would be possible if Decency had been healthy and robust.
Still, many of us hung on to hope. We were, after all, the country that had—against common wisdom that it could not be done—elected a black man to the presidency not once, but twice. Decency had campaigned heavily for Obama. They had promised us that we were better than we knew ourselves to be during that first election cycle, and they had made good on that promise.
To paraphrase Barry Franklin, on the morning of Obama’s inauguration, it was as if we’d all died and gone to America.
We were, as the world knows now, overly hopeful. We placed too much faith in the opposition’s moral character, we believed that they—perhaps even more than we—cared about Decency. We’d believed, although we should have known better, that Decency was immortal.
We saw, over and over again, the worst of countrymen, but we felt certain that this worst was a tiny minority. We said, smugly (and Decency would compel us, if they were still with us, to acknowledge this) that the Republican Party was reaping what it had spent so much time sowing: racism, misogyny, ableism, homophobia, white nationalism, and Islamophobia. And we said to each other, “This isn’t what the old-style Republicans want. Remember when it was the party of table manners and genteel condescension? Those guys are still around. Decency won’t allow them to vote for this man. They’ll have to vote for Clinton.”
But Decency is dead, and so can no longer compel anyone to do anything. And here we are.
Decency was preceded in death by their longtime companion, Civility. They are survived by the good people of United States of America, who are gathered together in small enclaves and at big demonstrations to mourn them. Graveside services will take place across the US and abroad, and continue for the foreseeable future.
Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014). Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK and other journals. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is an Asst. Proffessor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.