November 4, 2020

WILK | The Paradox of Election Harm Reduction

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Around 2 a.m. on Monday, my roommate and I were going through a slideshow of quotes from Joe Biden and then Donald Trump, in desperate need of entertainment. Our aimless procrastination had us following her mouse to online galleries that burned into our eyes with the unsavory clumsiness of the two men who were competing for the prestigious misnomer of leader of the free world. It was supposed to be funny, and for a bit, it was. Until their words stopped painting an image of their indiscretion, instead telling ugly truths of their aptitude to cause suffering. My laughter was interrupted by a lump in my throat.

“We do everything but hang people for jaywalking on this bill.” 

Underneath the quote was a picture of a 50-year-old Biden bragging of his 1992 Crime Bill and the 53 death penalty offenses that it cemented. The Trump quotes were so numerous that I can’t pick just one. By now, most of us are intimately familiar with his painful rhetoric, and how he feels about Black people, women, immigrants and multiple others for whom his presidency has meant vocal, political abuse. The slides that we visited to make light of our electoral doom started transforming as we were reminded how even their stupidest sentences manifest into policy, pain, or an unbearable mix of the two. 

Their thoughtless words, as well as the things they’ve left unsaid, have made me unenthusiastic about either outcome tonight. In response to this heavily shared sentiment, people have advertised the appeal of Biden being elected and stressed the importance of my support for his campaign with the phrase “harm reduction.” But no matter who this election goes to, there will be harm. My fear is that if things go right (or, politically speaking, just barely left of center) and Trump is voted out, the liberal facade of progressive America that will rise in his absence will, again, let harm go unnoticed. When Trump was elected in 2016, our idea of a post-racial nation propped up by the popularity of Obama was shattered — but it was a pipe dream all along. Trump, in his incompetence and idiocy and unabashed bigotry, simply made people who were fooled enough to fall in love with that illusion suddenly aware of its falsehood. 

These past four years of Trump, highlighted by the rise of neo-Nazis, the increase in the militancy and violence of Immigrant and Customs Enforcement and backtracking on women’s rights, have also been filled with Obama nostalgia. Democrats reflect on Barack Obama’s eight years serving as president with undying admiration; he is an angelic icon, a symbol of hope for what this country could be because of what it was under his administration. Of all things beloved, his speeches stand out especially in contrast to errant words from Trump and Biden alike, but Obama’s time serving loses its beauty when you let others tell his story.

In 2013, a boy named Zubair, from Pakistan, testified in front of Congress and told of his life under Obama, saying: “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.” Zubair was thirteen when he and his sister were injured in drone strikes, but they were lucky to escape with their lives; 90 percent of drone killings done by the United States under Obama were innocents. 

Despite the comfort that the past may bring in the face of such an unpleasant present, American history only progresses in its continuation of past horrors. Progressivism and Pax Americana were facades from their inception, they exist as lies to cover up horrors beyond our comprehension and keep us proud and uncritical of the tyrannical place we call home. Forcing ourselves to peer into the abyss of imperfection, violence and global terror that the United States has created isn’t easy. The role our elected officials have played in the destruction of this world and its people is so enormous and dark that it has accrued its own gravity. It has a pull that is enormously, unfathomably dark and heavy with the lives it has taken, the communities it has devastated and the nations it has ravaged. That is something that is true and will stay true no matter who is declared victorious tonight.

Confronting the American presidency isn’t like the responsibility of voting or even the anxiety of helplessly watching election results flood in. It’s never easy or entertaining or something you do only once every four years to be convinced that you’ve contributed to either its betterment or your awareness of its flaws, but it’s necessary. It’s necessary for Zubair and the faceless 90 percent who we lost to the violence he experienced. It’s necessary to migrants being caged along the border, as they have been since before Trump was in office. It’s necessary for people condemned to years or lives in cells or awaiting death because of crime reform of the 90s. And as we prepare for the reality of whichever candidate is elected president, we must keep in mind that harm is something to expect, and complacency is something that we can’t afford, even if the ugliest of truths go unsaid. This election isn’t entirely hopeless, but if we allow it to skew our understanding of evil so we only understand it in terms of Trump, our power to heal a country and a world wounded by him and his predecessors will lose potential that could be revolutionary.

Alecia Wilk is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at awilk@cornellsun.com. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this semester.