Three years ago, I visited the diocese of Quebec as a foreign journalist writing about the sometimes weird, sometimes wonderful world of anglophone Christians in a place where neither group is the social norm.
During this time, I participated in a Lenten book study of A Canticle for Leibowitz—one of my favourite books. A group of parishioners from a handful of Quebec City’s churches got together to discuss Walter M. Miller’s post-apocalyptic speculations about the future, faith, hubris and humility. Included in Miller’s vision was “the Simplification,” a violent purge of all scientific and academic knowledge following a devastating nuclear holocaust. Leibowitz was published in 1959, and Miller participated in the Allied bombing of the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino, so such possibilities must have swirled in his mind.
After we finished reading, our discussion leader raised a question from its pages: Do you think something like the Simplification is possible? Sandra Bender, then-choirmaster and music director at Holy Trinity Cathedral, offered her view: “The Simplification has already begun.” Her rationale? The United States of America had recently elected a reality television celebrity (a bad one) to preside over them and over a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the world. This, she argued, suggested that knowledge and reason were already in steep decline in the world. We were already simplifying. In the post-truth world, opinions and fantasies are conflated with facts and knowledge.
Many are fighting to improve circumstances in the United States. Yet it should also be quite clear that many are actively working against the interests of progress, decency and compassion.
I agreed. I’m known to be a bit of a “doomer” (the Anglican Journal’s writers can attest that I was an early adopter of the idea that COVID-19 would radically alter our lives), but I’m also an American. I lived in the United States in 2016, and I cast a ballot in that election. I voted for Hillary Clinton—not because I liked her, but because my spouse and I lived in a mostly Black neighbourhood in Rochester, New York, and we shared our home with Kurdish asylum seekers. Donald Trump’s rhetoric made very clear that the path to America’s re-greatening would be paved by white people, and the Lord commands me to love my neighbours. My neighbours were unhappy with the possibilities raised by a Trump victory; I voted for Clinton out of love for them. On the night after his election, Kate and I joined a local Black congregation for a spontaneous gathering in which people prayed that, somehow, God would soften Trump’s heart and open his eyes to the misery of the unemployed, the disabled, the dejected and the discarded. When I think about it, I still cry.
I have said this to many Canadians and Americans, and I am often met with confusion: Donald Trump can never be un-elected. Yes, in the waning days of his term, he might be impeached (again) and convicted, and thus removed from office. Or the 25th Amendment might be invoked, deeming him unfit to lead (without criminal proceedings). And yes, he lost this election to Joe Biden. And yet, he can never be un-elected. That’s part of history now. Millions and millions of Americans looked at him in 2016 and said, “Yes, that’s our guy.” They decided to entrust the fate of their country to a man who was clearly unsuited to lead a corporation (as multiple bankruptcies attest) or to participate in a marriage (as multiple divorces and affairs attest)—a man who seemed most at home barking orders on semi-scripted television. And not only did millions of people make that decision in 2016, they did again in 2020—in spite of Trump’s Marie Antoinette–styled response to the pandemic. Let them drink Lysol! Trump was very nearly chosen to remain in his position. In Joe Biden’s election we speak not of landslides but of grains of sand.
While some headlines this morning may declare that democracy has prevailed in America, I’m hesitant to make such claims. It has, perhaps, lived to see another day, but barely so. And just as Donald Trump cannot be un-elected, the U.S. Capitol can never be un-sieged. We cannot un-see yesterday’s events, in which a mostly white crowd stormed America’s halls of power with, it seemed, little resistance.
Americans aren’t wanted much of anywhere, especially if they lack resources and refinement.
I offer these thoughts not to speak only to the traumatic nature of the events, but also to illustrate their transformative power. Once America elected Donald Trump, it became the country that elected Donald Trump. Once an angry mob violently seized the U.S. Capitol building, America became the place where said mob can overthrow the government, albeit temporarily, under the watchful eye of police. That can’t be un-lived, un-done or re-told. It just is. These are defining events that will help many Americans forever understand the country they live in.
Many are fighting to improve circumstances in the United States. Yet it should also be quite clear that many are actively working against the interests of progress, decency and compassion. The staggering number of Americans lost to COVID-19, long-term failures to reform policing systems and the massive scale of imprisonment in America all suggest, at least to me, that the country is not ripe for societal transformation. We see America’s problems becoming increasingly complex while proposed solutions are evermore simple and reductionist. We need strength! We need healing! We need leadership!
But what do these things mean, and how do they help? As I argued in my November 2020 editorial, the backdrop to this war of talking points is real human suffering. Many Americans live in a kind of sub-refugee status—incapable of escaping the bonds of their caste (racial, ethnic, geographic, gender, etc.) but not quite persecuted enough to warrant special status in any immigration process, anywhere. Contrary to a confusing piece written by the Toronto Star’s Heather Scoffield, Americans aren’t wanted much of anywhere, especially if they lack resources and refinement. And thus, Canadians might rightly consider the plight of Yemenis or Yazidis—and how to help them or bring them here—but they’re less likely to discuss the nearly inescapable problems faced by people in Puerto Rico or on Parsells Avenue, where I lived in Rochester. Or to consider those problems inescapable in the first place. Rather, those are Americans with American problems, and Americans need to solve those American problems with American solutions. And so, we all wait for solutions. Indefinitely and for decades, we wait. The railroad has long been closed.
As an American living permanently in Canada, please let me say: I believe this needs urgent reconsideration. As many Canadians have already said on video calls, phone calls and social media in the past 24 hours, yes, there is a need for Canadians to pray. Please pray. But there’s also a need for action. At present, Canada’s immigration system provides no consideration for Americans of little means who find themselves in unbearable circumstances, in a nation of mass death and attempted coup d’état. America’s most destitute and helpless people have nowhere to go. They have no means to leave. They are wanted nowhere. And many of their own people don’t wish to see their suffering end. What should Canada say to them? What should Canadians do?
What will you do?