I keep hearing and reading two phrases in regard to the twin conflagrations consuming ever more real estate on the home pages of the New York Times and Washington Post: “It will get ugly” and “We are fucked.”
The first fire is the coordinate effects of Bob Woodward’s new book and the anonymous Times op-ed by a senior White House official; the second, the Senate’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Though we longed for the implosion of Donald Trump, we didn’t want the implosion of our republic to go with it. “It will get ugly” owing to the unhinged chief executive but more so to the void of democracy known as Republicans—this lockstep conglomerate of testosterone who will devastate the country with their minority rule until either January 2, 2019, or forever.
“We are fucked” because for the past 40 years, right-wing dollars have greased a conservative legal movement to wrest control of the nation’s courts. This calculated takeover of the people’s government relied on Republicans’ sinister gerrymandering to control both the House and state governments and their unearned advantage in the U.S. Senate (all those population-challenged Red States getting the same two votes as the 39.5 million residents of California). Republicans have used these exploitations to win the Electoral College and shape the Supreme Court.
It’s been clear since July that, because of Republican manipulation of the undemocratic quirks of our political system, Brett Kavanaugh has the votes in a Senate confirmation process. We know the outcome—we know the car wreck’s coming—but we can’t look away. When he gets the 51, we are fucked. Then it will get ugly.
Even though Republicans have come to own Tyranny by the Minority as a brand, it seems that the “we” I am referring to are also a relative minority when you consider all the Americans who share our views but do not get their personal feelings involved until something makes a direct hit on their wallet. A new C-Span survey of likely voters found that 52 percent could not name one member of the Supreme Court.
“We” (you know who you are) are in a sense designated mourners for the great swathes of Americans who have no desire to lose their right to an abortion, to collective bargaining, or to remain on the voting rolls. Despite the impressive efforts by mostly female protesters in the Senate chamber this past week, battle fatigue is setting in. Being shocked, terrified, and bereaved is exhausting.
Meanwhile, on Instagram, white women of means continue to post pictures of themselves and their families living their best lives while being #blessed. The hashtag canonization of “blessed” was already absurd at a time when religious belief is less consequential to most Americans than the difference between one and two percent milk. At a time when our very democracy is in jeopardy, it is downright mocking.
I was thinking about the American obsession with being blessed last Labor Day weekend, during a drive for which I brought several albums from years back that I felt I hadn’t adequately listened to because of one song that I liked too much. The verdict on each album didn’t really change, but my love for those single songs was reaffirmed, especially “We Are Unhappy” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham), from the 2011 album Wolfroy Goes to Town.
The six-and-a-half-minute ballad is slow, stark, and despairing—and also heart-wrenchingly beautiful, with Oldham’s signature aching-and-breaking voice and Angel Olsen’s disembodied crooning. The sentiment is wide and deep, not temporal. The refrain minces no words:
Nothing is better
Nothing is best
We are unhappy
We are unblessed
When I first heard the song I wondered what prompted Oldham to write it—presumably he did so in 2010 or the beginning of 2011. It’s about Americans because he’s an American but also the condition of the world, about human nature, about awareness and honesty. Back then we were coming out of a recession and the Republicans had taken control of Congress. But Barack Obama was president and we finally had healthcare for all Americans. The Affordable Care Act was enacted on March 23, 2010. We had troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the Syrian Civil War didn’t start until March of 2011.
Still, Oldham saw a state of affairs that most people’s eyes shot past:
We are unfound
We are unseen
Nothing is coming
Nothing is clean
My own eyes teared up on the drive at the uncanniness of those lyrics today. A few days later—on September 6, watching the Kavanaugh confirmation proceedings on C-SPAN—I thought of the words as the camera gawked at the line of Catholic schoolgirls in plaid behind the future Supreme Court justice. Here was this 53-year-old dad willing to unleash the devastating effects of climate change on the future lives of these assembled children, all for the sake of corporate interests and a few more bucks. There he sat like a guy who’d do anything to get out of a fight in a Whole Foods parking lot but as lethal as Patient Zero in Contagion.
Earth it is shaking, people have fled
And lord she is taking the eyes from the dead
All Republican members of the Judiciary Committee enthusiastically embraced their role in this malevolent campaign to railroad Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the detriment and debasement of congressional protocol. C-SPAN online provided a live Senate Twitter feed, so you learned during these show trials that Ted Cruz yard signs were now available.
Who was even watching C-SPAN but the designated mourners who have been set up by swindlers because of our common flaw of carrying the gene for enlightenment values? We are progressives because we never turn away from the truth even when we know how ugly the story can end.
Mind it is going
Faith is destroyed
Its emptiness showing
god’s cruelty deployed
Lovers have left
Friends close their eyes
We all are unwise
“We Are Unhappy” is a song about powerlessness: we can’t lie to ourselves; we can’t comfort our children when they see other children torn apart from their parents. Still, it is by no means a declaration of surrender; nor is it an invitation to feel sorry for ourselves. It is, rather, confirmation that sometimes the only thing you can do with despair is live it.
When I Googled for a link to “We Are Unhappy” I learned that Oldham reworked that and other songs from Wolfroy Goes to Town for the 2014 album Singer’s Grave: A Sea of Tongues, with the uplifting spiritual thrust of the McCrary sisters and lots of snappy, Ken Burns-worthy banjo work. You can’t even find an official YouTube video of the song’s somber six-and-a-half-minute progenitor. Instead, the tune gets belted out in half the time, like an anthem.
Is that good or bad? At this moment in 2018, the McCrary sisters are so, so right. There are really two questions to ask: How did Will Oldham know in 2011 the burden we would be living in 2018? And how did he know three years later, in 2014, that a shot of cognitive dissonance would help us persevere? Whatever this is, it is for us. We needed something. Like an anthem. Because we will (eventually) overcome. §