In a characteristically timely and insightful essay for The New York Times, Pankaj Mishra has recently mapped out the tortuous passage of the United States from exceptionalism to what he now sees as a turn towards nihilism. He rightly identifies that “extravagant promises by ruling elites, and their unexamined assumptions, are at least partly to blame for this moral breakdown in the world’s most powerful country”.
Mishra shrewdly narrows in on the moment when the eminent American public intellectual “Walter Lippmann worried that the promise of private wealth creation was a weak moral basis for a national community. For many mid-century thinkers, nihilism, a catastrophic breakdown of faith in national ideology and institutions that had occurred in Europe, was also a possibility in America”.
Mishra’s conclusion is disarmingly assertive, compelling, and almost clinically precise: “The world’s oldest modern democracy leads the free world in its helplessness before the dissolution of its most cherished beliefs and values. Rejoining the tormented history of modernity under an obsessive liar [Donald Trump] America has accelerated its most insidious tendency: nihilism.”
Delusions of exceptionalism
Over the years, as a widely admired public intellectual, Mishra has mastered the prose of quiet, piercing, certitude as to how he maps out the global conditions of our despair. What he says is not the run-of-the-mill, fly-by-night liberal exasperation as to why Trump won and Hillary Clinton lost.
Pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, which enthusiastically devoted all their wherewithal for the victory of Hillary Clinton and sorely lost, are these days replete with jeremiads of lamentations against Trump. They are as useless as they are insipid and self-pitying. What Mishra diagnoses is of an entirely different, far more historically grounded character.
But is America, as an idea, an ideal, an aspiration, and yet as a harsh unforgiving reality, and thus a paradox, really turning towards nihilism, away from its delusion of exceptionalism? Or put more precisely: Is nihilism the only way out of the dead end of that dangerous delusion of exceptionalism? – the white settler colonialists in the US and now their Zionist extension in Palestine have been telling themselves this for a very long time.
Mishra’s conception of “America” is very much limited to such white settler colonial fantasies that may indeed twist away from exceptionalism to nihilism. The story of the rest of America, the America now fighting to rise, is entirely different from either of these two tormented fantasies.
We are, as I write, commandeering the metaphor for a whole new vintage: the Native Americans, the African Americans, the new and old immigrant Americans, Muslims and Mexicans, the nightmare of Trump and his ilk is our precious, beautiful dream.
Today what we are witnessing in the US is neither the extended lease on its fiction of exceptionalism nor indeed the collapse into a new nihilism – unless we take that nihilism to mean a cruel and wanton disregard for human decency and a decadent indulgence in self-interest, which of course has never been alien to this country.
But in between exceptionalism and nihilism the more compelling question is whether the vulgarity of the Trump spectacle of white supremacist racism is the deadly sign of the end of “America” as we have known it or the birth of a new vision of its future from ground up.
As it happens Mishra’s essay was published just a few days before Donald Trump led the Republican-dominated US Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a measure of astonishing cruelty and sadistic disregard for human decency targeting the poor and most vulnerable segments of the US society. Is a society under such a concerted attack by its white supremacist leaders really on the verge of nihilism?
Ordinary Americans (children of an older or a younger generation of immigrants) from one end of this country to another are out on the street reconfiguring the moral foregrounding of their homeland. America has always and consistently been a white supremacist country. It was born that way and a xenophobic banality is congenital to it.
But its delusion of a melting pot is now finally catching up with it, and that is the psychotic reason behind the Muslim ban and the Mexican wall that Trump and his basest base are determined to accomplish. The fact that they will miserably fail in these and all other such racist measures is the clearest indication that something other than “nihilism” is in the offing.
The new immigrants and the old white settlers
Today in the US, and smack in the middle of that delusional oscillation between exceptionalism and nihilism that Mishra diagnoses, there is another movement brewing that is deeply rooted in the history of unfathomable cruelty and suffering in this country. Rooted in the Civil Rights and Antiwar movements of the earlier generations, from Black Lives Matter to Women’s March on Washington to Dakota Access Pipeline Protests to People’s Climate Movement, etc, the texture and timbre of this country is once and for all liberated from the whites-only delusions of exceptionalism and nihilism. Remember the spontaneous rush of thousands of people to airports from New York to Los Angeles to oppose the Muslim ban and welcome new arrivals. That was not any sign of “nihilism”.
Deluded by the mirage of that exceptionalism, Trump and his family and friends can have their one or even two terms of power. The Obamas can join the Clintons to deliver their gibberish speeches and nonsensical books for the highest bidder. The Zionists might be giddy with this corrupt lunatic in power helping them steal more of Palestine. The rest of the Americans, however, the immigrants old and new, know only too well on whose stolen land they have mercifully landed and have gratefully joined forces with them to advance forward their struggle to new horizons. Trump has not weakened or divided us. He has united and strengthened us.
We the immigrants, we the Muslims, Jews, working class, women, the LGBQT communities, we the parents negotiating between two to three jobs to make ends meet, we students burdened with backbreaking loans, we conscientious public school teachers, committed environmentalists, responsible scientists … We the liberation theologians, philosophers, theorists, critical thinkers … We cannot afford nihilism. The very idea of it is ridiculously alien. Those anorexic models parading with those ridiculous dresses wrapped around their plastic surgery wounds on the red carpet at Met Gala might have pangs of nihilism if they are off their Prozac. Not us.
We will not bend backward to accommodate power and play dead. We will fight back, the defiant future of this country is already born and buoyant in the beautiful birth of the children we have mothered and fathered in this country, on this blessed land of Native Americans where generations of African slaves have suffered to call it their and now our homeland.
Between the exceptionalism and nihilism of white supremacists is rooted and rising the defiant determination of an entirely different vision of what it means to be an “American”. We are, as I write, commandeering the metaphor for a whole new vintage: the Native Americans, the African Americans, the new and old immigrant Americans, Muslims and Mexicans, the nightmare of Trump and his ilk is our precious, beautiful dream.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.