It’s tough to be a professional writer, but there are beats you can work. There are roles you can occupy and never go hungry. Few are safer than to be an imperial scribe, the kind of writer who tells Americans that their country is good and that others are evil. Grantland’s Louisa Thomas, an enterprising sort, mashes up that hoary old genre with the perennial moneymaker, the end-of-year retrospective. Cast your eyes back, she counsels a burning nation, and think about those innocent days of Sochi, when we were all united in our contempt for our old antagonists. She describes Russia:
“a country that had recently banned gay “propaganda,” harassed and imprisoned political dissidents, and was run by a man who appealed to imperialist traditions and fear of foreigners”
That the United States is a country of enormous historic and contemporary homophobia; that this is a country that has locked up, sexually assaulted, and tortured to death its own political enemies; that this is the country that has been more aggressive, more blatantly imperial, than any other in the post-1945 world; that this country simultaneously relies on and despises an army of underpaid, precarious brown foreigners — these things are unspoken, because unspeakable.
“It was funny, at first,” she writes of Sochi, and indeed it was, but never in the way she might mean. It was indeed funny to watch a generation of Millennials ho-ho-hoing at their televisions before trumbling off to work as baristas, making $10/hour and carrying $75,000 in student loan debt. It was indeed funny to watch Americans snarking at a broken decorative snowflake while, in New York, the Monstrosity Formerly Known as the Freedom Tower was slowly completed, a monument to the hubris of a country that has no right to any, its purpose to satiate a billionaire land developer rather than the people of the city or the country, its immediate environs an unlivable stretch of cold urban vacuity, every inch of its 1776 feet a sad, unsatisfying compromise. It was indeed funny to see Americans laughing at the rosy, false version of Russian history on display, given that they live in the country that celebrates Thanksgiving, that contains Custer State Park, that publishes textbooks that claim that Moses invented the United States, that releases a torture report after 5 long years of obstruction and then only in pieces. That was funny.
The Cossacks were never funny. Cops never are. I invite you to imagine the international outrage and American horror, had one of Putin’s police choked an innocent man to death on camera for the crime of selling loose cigarettes.
Thomas calls Sochi a mass spectacle of irony, and I suppose it was. But there are worse things in life. Worse than public, open irony is a citizenry who is caught in a kind of arrested half-irony, dripping snark and condescension over everything but those things that deserve them the most, skeptical of most everything except the central lie of their lives, which is the notion that they live in a great, healthy, free, fair nation. I will take the unadulterated version of irony over the desperate, scared, defeated version that people my age stuff into hashtags to distract themselves from their own lives.
Thomas says that every year is the year we’re let down by our heroes, but this implies a lack of agency, like we only let it happen. We do not let that happen. We make it happen. Thomas, in this piece, is making it happen. She is choosing to tell herself a series of lies that she and her audience find more palatable than the truth, and she is being paid for her work. To make the decision Thomas makes, and everyone who LOLs at Russia while their country stumbles around like the violent oaf it is, is to be American. It’s to shake your head at Crimea and not call to mind Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya. It’s to discuss another country’s currency crisis and neglect to mention that your own economy has become a machine for distributing more and more resources to a tiny elite. It’s to laugh at broken elevators for Sochi but to not admit that your country’s infrastructure is a dangerous embarrassment. It’s to talk about what Jesse Owens came home to after the ’36 games but not recognize all the ways he still wouldn’t be home in 2014 America. It’s to see the lie in every other country’s myths but your own.
Like I said: she’ll never lack for work.