I started writing a note to myself to help me understand what this year 2020 meant.
I am posting it here in this low-key way for those I’ve come to know over the years. You can also read it here: End of Year Thoughts 2020 – Google Docs
Thank you for your support over this year and for giving it a look.
End of Year Thoughts 2020:
Hello dear newsletter recipients!
I hope your 2021 has started well. Before I put 2020 to bed, I wanted to wrestle with the year one last time. What is printed below is something I started for myself. Events interrupted, as they so often do. Then they interrupted again– the last spasm of a twitchy year. I’m more or less done with this writing I started five months ago, and I’ve decided to send it to all of you. You are a forgiving audience. You’ve also watched some of this work over the year, so you might even be interested. These paragraphs started as my reflections on a collection of my work from 2020, but now it has become an essay on some other warm rivets bouncing around in the bucket.
It is long, but I hope you find it worth the effort, and I hope you don’t find it too much effort at all.
All best, John
Various things I said or were said to me this year:
-“What can walls do about a pandemic?” — European Central Bank president, Christine Lagarde, 2019. (This wasn’t said this year, but this quote from 2019, before Covid-19 hit, about our connected world, was in my head all year.)
-Impeachment I: “You know you had a chance to hear about those shoes before they dropped.” (Twitter link)
-“You’re one keg party away from a disaster.” — 60 Minutes story on re-opening college.
-“The Virus doesn’t know federalism.” — Face the Nation interview with Mike Pence
-“You’re not saying that women can’t think for themselves, are you?” – 60 Minutes piece on Arizona and the election.
-“You don’t get credit for walking after shooting yourself in the foot.” — CBS This Morning
-“They knew better and they did nothing.” — November 8, 2021 about The Big Lie
I have said goodbye to the year 2020, but I couldn’t just let the year go by.
“I write to know what I think,” said Joan Didion. This is my stab at that. Or maybe I mean to quote E.M. Forster, “How can I tell what I think, ‘until I see what I say?”
What did I think of that awful year? Why did I think what I thought about those days of riot? [I wrote that sentence before January 6th sharpened the word riot. I’m leaving it in. It’s a reminder: in this brisk age, even expressions can turn on you.]
Spare Some Sorrow
I learned about the size of the pandemic from the death of a stranger.
In March 2020, 60 Minutes producer Andy Court called to tell me that Joseph Santacroce had died from Covid-19. I had never met Joseph. I’d only learned his name the day before.
Twenty-four hours earlier, I had interviewed his daughter Francesca for a piece on the emotional toll of pandemic. We sat in lawn chairs in the driveway of the family home. That’s where her father, retired from working at the Transit Authority, had spent his afternoons. He was in the hospital, on a ventilator, being treated for Covid-19. She was running things now. I asked how she shouldered the weight.
March 2020 represented the high siren phase of the pandemic. The wail of ambulances speeding Covid-19 patients to a dwindling number of free respirators never stopped. Normally, sirens are a momentary interruption. We wait. It passes. We pull back onto the road, or re-start our conversations. But you can’t resume when the sirens don’t stop. As the year 2020 ends, the pandemic in America still hasn’t stopped. It is as bad as ever. One California hospital is so overrun, they’ve stored patients in beds in the gift shop.
Sirens had not accompanied Francesca’s father to the hospital. He had driven himself, the last act of duty to his family. Joseph Santacroche put himself last, and others first even when he was sick. He took care of the house. His wife had Covid-19, and she was on dialysis. He took care of her, cooked for the family, did the laundry. When he was done with all that, he went to the spare room to sweat it out. When he couldn’t breathe on his own any more, he drove himself to the emergency room early one morning while the family slept.
Covid-19 would test us all. What kicked in when that test came? Defense Secretary James Mattis used to tell his Marines, when he was a General, that their training was necessary because when war stripped all of the comforts and traditions and norms of civilization, their training would get them through.
This might be one of the lessons of Covid-19 and the calamity it unleashed. Train your habits of who you are, because when the storm comes, you won’t have time. You’ll have to rely on those instincts to get you through. This is worth doing, because while the pandemic was a once in a generation event, in life, the storm always comes.
Francesca was thrust into her father’s role. Neighbors couldn’t help much. One put a candle in the window that the family could see. That’s about all they could do. We were in the driveway to tell her story– masked, outside, six feet away, stepping carefully in the infected world. Covid-19 had interrupted Francesca’s life– her dreams of medical school, the job where she was earning money to pay for that school. She was just one of the tens of thousands forced to live in excruciating uncertainty.
Once a day the doctors called with an update. That phone call created nervous weather of dread and anticipation. Had the call come? Maybe they’d missed it? They heard phantom phone rings, felt phantom buzzing in their pocket. All of these currents around the phone call initiated chains of emotional spikes and the collapse that accompanied realizing that the phone had not actually rung.
In an interview, you open as many empathy channels as you have. You try to feel what a subject feels, and see what they see in order to understand and most vividly capture the experience for your audience. You are an enthusiast in the face of events. Ears up, you react to what lands in them. You are shocked, concerned, outraged, on behalf of the audience. You register the human impact of what is being said.,
Having strained to understand what the family was going through, I felt a lift at the end of our visit when the doctors called. It was good news. Joseph was improving. They might even take him off the ventilator that night. Everyone exhaled a little.
Slowing the News Cycle
Less than 24 hours later, the doctors called with the bad news. When Andy called me, I sat down to write in order to slow down what had happened. Most of the time in journalism we hurry to keep up, as we chase the news cycle. In the Trump years the pace increased to the relaxing fervor of a gatling gun. We must hasten to do our jobs: quickly framing an issue helps people get an immediate handle on uncertainty. That’s useful. Also, when public officials are acting in bad faith, explaining an issue quickly is an immediate core requirement. You’re trying to beat the misinformation, which is a task that goes beyond merely trying to provide information. We know from studies that once people are misinformed, it’s harder to rewind the lies.
However, journalists are also supposed to reflect. Speed is the enemy of reflection. We are supposed to slow down, make people notice, make people pay attention. What is signal, what is noise? We should explain not simply what happened, but why it happened.
The story we were working on was already an attempt to slow things down. In that early period of the year, Covid-19 coverage galloped after case numbers, treatments, lack of testing, protective gear. That was necessary, but we were asking about a deeper emergency, one that was harder to see. How was the pandemic psychologically affecting patients, their families, first responders, and how was it affecting the rest of us on the edges of the blast zone.
In retrospect, I want to slow things down even more. We slow things down to give context, but what if there is another reason to slow things down. What if that’s part of our job because it is actually a public health good. Clearly slowing people down from the pace of their day was beneficial during a pandemic. Our inclination was to white-knuckle our days worried about our narrow self-interest. If we all did that, public health would deteriorate. When we are contagious– or possibly contagious– we have to think more broadly and empathetically. That’s good for societies.
Beyond Covid, there are a lot of stories we cover where the rush makes people less informed. Do we in the press have a circuit breaker role that goes beyond just slowing down things to explain them? Do we have a duty to slow things down to contribute
Not easy. Our political life, which dominates our news life, is faster than ever. It’s not just that events follow after events so quickly. In addition to the pace, we are more invested in what we hear. Many of us tie our politics to our identities more now, so our sense of self is on the line with every political development.
Nevertheless, we must slow down to stay human. If you live at the pace of the news cycle, you’ll become a wraith. That’s why I’m typing all of these words. I want to avoid that by forcing myself to figure out what I think. Or, as writing teacher Don Murray asks in his journals, “Do we discover by writing or does writing make our discoveries visible.” [ed: no one misses the fact that you’ve now offered four quotes on writing. Jfd: speaking in the voice of an editor when it’s really just you is going to make people think you’re weird. Ed: they already know that.]
I watched my parents die in hospital beds. As I type this I’m having actual flashbacks to my father’s last day. (Which, in the brain’s haywire jumpiness sends me an impulse to call him.)
I knew something of what Francesca and her family were going through, but the story was in recognizing the differences from my experience. Or, ignoring my experience completely. They couldn’t say goodbye. Hospitals were closed to visitors. Their loss was not private. It was part of a national story, which meant all of their personal anguish was pinballing around in the swirl of news.
After processing these ideas that afternoon, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic: “Spare a Moment for Sorrow.” I won’t recapitulate my thinking here, but I hope you have read the piece or will read it. Written when 40,000 were dead, it’s still true now that the number is north of 300,000. [It’s now on the way to 600,000]
What are my obligations as a journalist and as a human being? How do they connect with the larger obligations in national life? In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s book on writing, she describes the social connection between writer and reader. When you read something well said, it creates a connection. It speaks for you and, since humans are social animals, proves to you that you are not a lonely isolated animal. What is true of writing is true of television journalism too– maybe more so, judging from the bond people form with television anchors and correspondents they’ve never met. Journalism connects humans in ways that we crave.
Isolation breaks that human connection. The death-count rises, but we lose a sense of the toll. We get cut off, which is dangerous. If we become anesthetized to suffering, we compound the pain of those who suffer and we coarsen ourselves.
That’s why Francesca’s story was so important. Details make large stories real. It brings the story home when you hear her describe driving home in her father’s car from the hospital. You understand the national toll better when you hear her describing the guilt she felt when Covid restrictions made it impossible for her to visit. Removing the abstract helps us from becoming inhuman. At the very least, it softens us. This is why we need to tell stories and to set aside time to listen to stories, and why those of us who pick the stories to tell need to really make sure we are telling the right ones. 
This obligation propelled the Excited Delirium story I worked on with Sarah Koch and Chrissy Jones at the end of 2020 on Sixty Minutes. The story was not in the main gallop of the news cycle, and it was not a diversion into entertainment to escape from the news cycle, but it represented the core of what we do as journalists.
Are You Talking about Doin’, or are you Doin’?
After Francesca’s father died, we interviewed another grieving child: Wynton Marsalis. Ellis Marsalis, who died at age 85 from Covid-19, was a New Orleans legend. He mentored a generation of jazz musicians, including the incandescent Jon Batiste.
Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, sat with me on the stage of its largest performance space. Just the two of us, the camera crew and rows of empty seats. He’d also brought his trumpet.
This differentiates Sixty Minutes. The piece on the emotional toll of Covid-19 could have just told Francesca’s story, but the producers– in this case Evie Salomon– are always looking for ways to serve something richer and bigger.[F] The conversation with Marsalis opened the piece and put it on a much larger canvas. It gave a sense of the sweep of the pandemic– it touched even the famous– and it allowed us to have a conversation about life and meaning.
Musicians think about meaning a lot. When you get paid so little, there’s got to be something keeping your mind off the orthodontia bills. (How do you make a million dollars playing jazz piano? Start with two million dollars). It’s also, of course, that meaning is the target of their work: to create something that puts people in touch with the power of art, that moves people to action, that connects the wandering soul to something bolted down and real. This is a cousin of that connection I was talking about above– a route to feeling at place– or at least not alone– in a churning world.
That’s medicine for any day. In a pandemic, meaning is vital. During the pandemic, artists were the ones who helped us explain what was happening, helped people re-connect with hope, built understanding about the long term to help us jump over the contemporary twitch to think only about today. And, they helped us with loss.
You can’t just come to an understanding of those things in a snap, though. It’s like an administration’s ability to combat a disaster. “You can’t exchange business cards during a disaster,” is one of my favorite quotes about the failure of the Trump effort to fight Covid-19. The same is true with disaster in life. Disasters strip away the constructions we build to avoid facing the ambiguity at the heart of the big and bracing truths of life — about death, love, etc. Artists (and theologians) spend more time in those spaces every day.
I’d started the year with a Sunday Morning piece on the conductor Gustavo Dudamel who leads the LA Philharmonic. He has the energy to power a small town. He’s famous, weighed down by commitments, but he strives to inspire kids to play classical music. I interviewed him on the just-hanging-in-there folding chairs of a Trenton, NJ middle school. It’s good for the soul, he says, “to touch art.” It opens you as a person and human. “The power of transformation that music have, you know, in the life of children, it’s unique, you know, especially for disadvantaged children. What is the worst thing? To be poor, to be no one. You are excluded in the society. When you give an instrument, that is something sublime.”
The pandemic made a lot of us feel rootless and overwhelmed by the big questions in life. Facing the prospect of death has been known to do that. (It also fuels car sales for middle-aged men.) Or, the rootlessness came from people just having difficulty handling the free time. They needed the structure of the workday. There’s something called Sunday Neurosis which is the psychological condition that occurs when people don’t know how to spend their leisure time. “To make the best use of free time, one needs to devote as much ingenuity and attention to it as one would to one’s job,” the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in Finding Flow, the classic examination of the optimum state for productive work. “Active leisure that helps a person grow does not come easy.”
I wrote in The Atlantic about a regimen I used in an attempt to order my days based on an interview I did with a wonderful corporate coach, Marshall Goldsmith.
But back to our story…
Wynton Marsalis wasn’t just managing his father’s death, he was trying to keep Jazz at Lincoln center alive. All the performances had to be cancelled, tickets refunded. The revenue from swish functions booked by outside organizations disappeared. The musicians had no gigs and no paychecks. Wynton saw his father’s struggles in their past-due rent and dwindling bank accounts.
Ellis Marsalis would rather have played to an empty room than not play. Sometimes the crowds were so thin, it was as if the room was empty. He’d taken his young son to shows where he played for only a handful of people. Why did he bother, his son asked him? “Because this music is important,” his father said. It stuck with Wynton: “If I could tell you how many times I’ve walked out on bandstands and some of the best halls in the world, when I walk out there I think about that time when I was 13 and I saw him do that,” said Wynton. “He had a belief.” Wynton was trying to keep faith with that belief.
What would Elis Marsalis say, I asked Wynton, if he were still alive, about the challenges his son faced at Lincoln Center. “You know, he would say, you know– ‘Where you at, man? What are you gonna do?’ He said, ‘You talkin’; about doin’;? You doin’? Do Sumpin’. Let’s go.”
Covid-19 tested Marsalis’ ability to improvise, the great skill of all jazz musicians. Marsalis talked about “embracing this space.” Making the most of the materials in the instant. This is jazz. You practice and you plan, but when the improvising starts, every performer has to fill the space that has been created. Covid-19 had called for emergency improvisation. “When everything is normal, it’s easy for us to be full — full of– arrogance and– commentary,” he said. “Now we have to be for real. Our morality, our concept, our integrity, All these things are coming to bear in this moment.”
As parents, the little movements we make propel our children. Francesca Santacroce had the grim task of identifying her father after he died. She spoke to him through the protective gear they’d given her to visit the isolation room. “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” she said, stroking his face. “I’ll take care of everyone.” The obligations for the daughter, willingly embraced, existed because she’d watched her father keep the faith with those same obligations when he was alive.
Everyone was trying to keep the faith in 2020. What does that mean, exactly? Keeping the faith means holding on to hope for its own sake; its own reward. No matter how small an audience shows up, no matter how dark things seem, you hold on to what drove you. C.K. Chesterton said hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate. (He also said a chore is an adventure wrongly considered. It’s another of my favorite quotes, and proof that he didn’t do much of the housework).
Hope is the Lembas bread crumbling in our pocket on the long road. “By hope…the abstract and impersonal become …intimate conviction,” wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. “What I believe in faith, I possess and make my own by hope.” Hope in the unseen. Hope in a better future. Hope in heaven. This is worship. If you hope that hope will carry you through, it will. (You can also write that sentence a different way: If you hope, that hope will carry you through. It will. The first is an instruction and the second one is a promise. They are saying the same thing but also something slightly different which contributes to the liquid boundaries of hope.)
This is what prayer does for you. It puts you in touch with hope. It is the daily refreshing of hope. By praying you are testifying to the reality and power of hope which then becomes more real by your reliance on it.
Wait a minute. When you think about this idea of hope, you can get the feeling someone is trying to sell you something that will lose a wheel the minute you roll it off the lot. Or, it feels like an optical illusion. You look at it one way and it’s a cat. Look at it another way and it’s an old woman, or it’s the interchange just outside Newark airport. If you fiddle with your mind and make it see that way. The image seems clear, but then you lose it.
Merton is describing a perpetual hope machine. He’s saying that what will help you know that your hope will be rewarded is that you have the hope in the first place. But it’s not just Merton. This is the artistic promise too: if you are true to your craft and true to your work, it will reward you for investing that deeply. (Don’t believe that? Hope more and look to your devotion to your work as proof.)
I typed that sentence as both its author and its disciple. And maybe its skeptic.
Covid-19 tested our aphorisms. “A small stock of proverbs I found to be very useful in emergencies of the head, heart and hands,” said prairie wiseman Henry Scadding of aphorisms. One of my favorites aphorisms about writing also applies to life. “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night,” said E.L. Doctorow. “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It works, mostly. Don’t sweat what you can’t see. Manage what you can and you’ll get there.
The pandemic was quite an emergency though. Do the words on the inspirational poster run down the wall when things get hot, when the restaurant closes, when you can’t afford to go to college, or are they durable?
The passage from Thomas Merton about hope was part of my eulogy to John Lewis. If you thought all this hope business was abstract, or a trick of the mind, Congressman John Lewis’ life was a bright rebuttal. At the march for voting rights at the Edmund Pettis bridge in 1965, Lewis carried Thomas Merton’s famous account of his journey to becoming a monk, Seven Storey Mountain. Lewis knew he’d be thrown in jail and wanted reading material. He brought a toothbrush and apple too.
Lewis ended up in the hospital instead. His skull fractured. His hope was not fractured, though. His life was a monument to just the hope that Merton talks about. Lewis had held on to a simple hope: that non-violence and loving his neighbor would overpower the forces of racism and bigotry in America. He held on to that hope under the gale of police clubs that crushed his skull, when he was being spit on, when he was flicked into jails. It wasn’t happy talk hope, but durable, tempered, saving conviction that a belief in love and common humanity will win in the end. In the face of such hatred, hope was a shield and a walking stick.
Lewis’ hope had been rewarded. Before Barack Obama was sworn in as president, he told Lewis that without Lewis, he would not be there. On that day in 2009, the two men were standing at the opposite end of the Washington mall. On the other end Lewis had given his famous speech to the March on Washington in 1963. Before Lewis died, he would visit the replica of a lunch counter at the African American museum which sits between the Capitol and Lincoln memorial in part because Lewis had pushed for the museum in Congress. I interviewed him there when I moderated Face the Nation, sitting at the lunch counter. He cried, as he watched the images of civil rights leaders who had died in the cause, projected on the wall across from us.
Obama referred to Lewis again during the Democratic Convention in 2020. He spoke from the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, near Independence Hall where the nation’s founding document was written during four hot summer months of 1787. He chose the site to raise the stakes, but also to conjure the power of American history– from the founders, to Lewis, to the present day.
“What we do echoes through the generations,” the former president said.
Obama was testifying to the durability and importance of looking at the past and taking nourishment from it. Not uncritically, not all in one swallow. A community organizer who’d grown up to face death threats based on the color of his skin, Obama knew how far we have to go as a country. He was no filiopietistic sky-writer, but he also knew that the past was serious enough to light the way today. For some, the ideas of dead while men are useless. Obama was saying they were life-saving. That was one of the values at the center of my book.
I was on set in Washington during the Democratic Convention trying to account for all of this that was pinballing around in my head while the cameras were rolling. Anchor Norah O’Donnell turned to me for my reaction– and God love her for doing so; it is the great thrill to try to meet a moment like this– I felt like one of those game show contestants in a wind tunnel stabbing at the swirling cash. There was a lot to say.
I’ve tried to slow it down here:
America’s first Black president was championing the principles of a document written by slave owners. To bolster his case he was citing Lewis, who believed enough in the power of those ideas that he put his life at risk to fight for the right to vote and his success in doing so ensured that one day a Black president could be elected to be in a position to stand at the Constitution Center.
Obama wasn’t conjuring struggle from another generation. Lewis fought people who tried to deny Black Americans their right to participate in democracy. Barack Obama faced identical legitimacy challenges, when the lie was spread that he was born in Kenya, not America. Birtherism wasn’t just used to drag Barack Obama down. It was the ladder used to raise Donald Trump up. It was, Trump had said, the issue that helped him get to the White House, because it made him so popular with Republican voters.
I developed a better framework for understanding the appeal of birtherism after reading Isabell Wilkerson’s Caste. (I interviewed Wilkerson about her book for the New York Public Library). Her argument is that the idea of caste helps you understand contemporary race relations better than the word “racism” does. Without doing damage to the book, caste is the set of expectations about race that make up the internal structure, the bones of contemporary society, that operate on us in deeper and less identifiable ways that race– the skin and exterior of society.
Or, you can think of it as the script we expect everyone to follow. The birther lie feeds on the idea that as a Black man, Obama was playing a role not assigned to him. In this mindset, it’s like casting Glenda Jackson as King Lear. For some, that’s a genius move. For the caste mindset, King Lear is a man and therefore the whole play is upset if his part is played by a woman. (Missed my interview with Jackson two years ago, did you?)
Therefore, there must be some trick– some cheat– that elevated him to his position, because the proper order of things would not otherwise allow it. Those who believe in the Birther lie don’t say it this way. Some who believe it in their bones would be offended to hear it explained this way, but Wilkerson points that caste expectations don’t need articulation. The idea of caste, and its influence on our views of what is normal and proper is deep and works on us in ways we don’t see and don’t want to admit. When someone like Obama challenges this basic idea about the way some people believe the world should operate, it destabilizes those people at deep level. It upends everything for them, though they may not be fully able to articulate why.
In a diversifying America, where the next generation will be majority-minority, there are going to be a great deal more people challenging the caste system. This creates more instability for some Americans because it means their status at the top of the caste system is threatened. Even if it’s not threatened, the perception that it is threatened can roil people to a boil.
Diversity is a threat to status. Status, the fear that we are going to lose it, or won’t be able to attain it, is one of the most powerful forces in American life. It can lead to deep resentment from what some populations experience as a defeat or insubordination — “a loss of centrality and what they perceive as their growing invisibility,” as the journalist Tom Edsall puts it. (More on this idea from Bill Galston of Brookings). This is the energy behind popular figures like Tucker Carlson who say “The country you grew up in teeters on its foundation.”
The source code of our beliefs, including caste, comes from traditions. We struggle to keep the good, toss the bad and keep the clippers handy when the ugly weeds of the past rocket to the surface. This source code was addressed in another book that John Lewis carried in his backpack on the Edmund Pettis bridge: The American Political Tradition, by Richard Hofstadter.
The book is a challenge to the American traditions and stories we tell ourselves, to get a clearer view. It’s important, because how we think of the past, shapes whether we think we’re on the right path in the future.
The book starts with a quote from John Dos Pasos: “In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.”
John Lewis was that kind of lifeline. Even after his death, he still is. What his story provides– the sustaining lesson Dos Pasos anticipates– is the durable proof that ideas can win in times of crisis and chaos. Essentially, he affirms that it is worthwhile to hope. More than that, though: hope is a gift that helps you get through. For Wynton Marsalis, his father was also a lifeline in that sense. Ellis Marsalis kept the faith, which nourished his life and nourished his son’s life. As a nation, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves gives us that same sustaining hope.
America needs stories about durable hope. The idea is under threat at the moment. Our campaigns, which unfortunately dominate a lot of our public life, are not built on hope. They are built on negative partisanship– an industry that exists to keep us inflamed about the other party. Since those campaigns never end, that negative partisanship is always there in public life, ready to corrode hope. Republicans contribute more to this condition than Democrats. The two presidential campaigns that focused most intently on destroying the opposition were George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The big difference is that Donald Trump carried that mindset into the presidency. He created a market in which people who believed in abstract ideas like hope, character, selflessness and truth were considered suckers for doing so.
But faith in a better future is the American promise. At the heart of that promise is hope– that word again. Hold on to that hope and the promise is you will have a place in a country defined not by heritage or birth, but by the strength of an idea. This is one of those American traditions we’re poking at in our stories: is America still a land of opportunity.
Kill hope and a country goes dead inside. Its citizens think they have no road to prosperity. They storm the road they think isn’t available to them, because they think there isn’t a political process that rewards their hope for a better day. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible,” said Kennedy, “will make violent revolution inevitable.”
We saw the fight play out in Arizona a few weeks before the election for a piece on the political changes taking place in the state. The teenagers canvasing for Joe Biden had no faith in the American Dream. The idea wasn’t a sustaining hope. They saw it as an impediment to their progress. “The American Dream isn’t real,” Alexis Delagdo Garcia told me. “The ideology of the American dream isn’t real at all. It continues to put a specific narrative on people, the narrative of meritocracy, the narrative that if you do better and if you have these goals, you can accomplish ’em. But the reality is that there’s so many barriers that continue to be in front of us that we can’t even– go over, right?”
They didn’t believe in the dream, but they had not lost hope. In fact, they were participating in one of the most hope-fueled things you can do in the American system. They were knocking on doors trying to get people to register to vote, or to mail in their ballots. In the afternoon heat– which sometimes reached the 90s– they were putting on masks, protective shields and devoting their days to walking the soft, hot pavement. They were refused time and time again as they knocked on doors. One woman, a Trump supporter, threatened to call the police on the three Latinos who had come to her door.
America is not for you, was the message those kids have been fed since growing up under Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Still, they knocked. They may not have believed in the American Dream but they were a symbol of one of its most powerful aspects– the belief that hope can change the system. Arizona went for Biden and is sending two Democratic Senators to Washington for the first time in 70s years. That is what they hoped for. That is what they were working for.
The hope in the future was real enough to inspire Katherine Trejo’s mother to give her daughter a law textbook when Katherine was in the fourth grade. I met Trejo during the summer, working on a story about colleges in the age of Covid-19. How could they reopen given the plague? How could they stay closed, given how many students counted on them? Trejo was one of those at risk. She lost both jobs that helped her pay for college and helped her support her family. “What if I still don’t make it after all of this?’ she said after describing the financial squeeze. “Just sometimes I get really overwhelmed and I do feel like the dream is slipping away.” The stakes were high because it was not just her dream to succeed, but her mother’s too. Earlier in our conversation she had characterized the way first-generation immigrants felt about success– in this case simply graduating from high school. “I made it for them,” she said of her mother and family. “And now they feel like they’ve made it too.”
In this story we were trying to slow things down too. It wasn’t just fall classes that were in danger. The picture was bigger than that. Covid-19 was threatening an entire generation. “What I worry about for those students, who because of the financial pressures on– on them, on their families, and on their higher ed institution, who drop out and leave school, is they see that window of hope sort of closing,” said John King, education secretary in the Obama administration.
The pandemic wasn’t just threatening students by depriving them of lessons about statistics or Howards End. For those who come from families in the lower socioeconomic ranges, college is where they learn how to operate in the community. As W.E.B. Du Bois said “Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life.” What was in danger was the kind of in-person interaction that teaches kids how to network and socialize in the way they will have to later in life.
King knew about that window of hope from personal experience. It wasn’t abstract for him. He was the durable product of a system that tried to fulfil that American promise by offering opportunity to kids, no matter their background or circumstance. King’s mother had died when he was in fourth grade. His father couldn’t take care of him because he had undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease. Teachers stepped in. “New York City public school teachers, that is the– that is the reason I’m alive today,” said the former Education Secretary. “If not for them, I– I’d be– dead or maybe I’d be in prison. I mean, they gave me a sense of hope and purpose.”
This sharpens the heartbreak of Elijah McClain’s story. The system lifted John King. It saw the potential in a young man. When Elijah was walking down the street minding his own business, the system crushed him. This wasn’t an opinion. It’s all there on the brutal and stomach churning video footage of the arrest, which his mother Sheneen McClain said she sometimes watched just to feel connected to his final moments.
So what does all of this mean at the end of 2020? I think I have emerged with a stronger feeling about why we do what we do as journalists, a greater appreciation for the role of hope, even in a time where there are so many examples of stable traditions coming under assault. I also am floored by how much I had forgotten in this past year. Perhaps it is age, perhaps it is the pandemic, when every day smeared into the next day, but that feeling, that so much flew by– so much that was important– makes me feel a little fragile heading into 2021. This exercise helped settle that feeling a bit. Perhaps I’ll do it again next year. Given that it took me more than five months to get this all down, I may have to start the End of Year Thoughts for 2021 now.