Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned, raising worries that Trump will end the investigation into his Moscow ties. After the divisive midterms, Washington “plunged into political war,” according to a Post article. And both encapsulating and increasing the political tensions felt across a divided nation, last Wednesday a gunman murdered 12 people in a California bar. “These are dark times,” Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a Princeton professor and author of the 2016 book “Democracy in Black,” wrote on Nov. 1, after a different mass shooting. “The illusion of innocence no longer holds.”
But darkness — the destroyer of democracy, according to one masthead — comes in degrees. And while the illusion of innocence may be gone, the more dangerous illusion of permanent darkness is replacing it. Believing that Sessions’s resignation portends the apocalypse, or that the benighted Trump is destroying America, warps our understanding of the real atrocities that litter history and the world. The United States, for all its troubles, is still a long way from becoming a dictatorship, or a failed democracy. And it makes liberals vulnerable to demagogues, who — as Trump does to the right — exploit a bottomless fear of the awful with promises of surety and security. Recognizing how much worse things could get helps prevent us from getting there.
As a reminder of what that would look like, just try to imagine these latest events occurring in China, the world’s other superpower. People choosing their own representatives! Journalists writing their perceptions of the truth! Open public criticism of the head of state!
Instead, Beijing seems imprisoned by a culture of fear and fealty to Chairman Xi Jinping.
The day before the Acosta affair, Hu Xin, the former editor of an important Party magazine, plunged 19 floors to her death. What happened? “Another famous journalist succumbed to despondency and committed suicide by jumping off a building,” wrote the web portal Sohu, the one mainland Chinese news source I could find that covered the event. Another Chinese news website published her story, but the page “got lost.” Shrug. A Chinese state media journalist told the American government broadcaster Radio Free Asia that “depression is very common in the media, because the amount of fakery we have to write gets to us psychologically.” Acosta’s ability to ask questions, and CNN’s power to sue the White House — inspiring a national conversation about the role of the press — is something that Chinese journalists can only dream about. Instead, on Thursday, China’s largest newspaper, The People’s Daily, greeted readers with three pictures of Xi on its front page.
Despite the humiliations experienced by Sessions, they pale in comparison with the fate of Meng Hongwei, the former president of Interpol and vice minister of the Ministry of Public Security, who disappeared in China in late September and hasn’t been heard from since. (His last known message? An emoji he texted his wife of a butcher’s knife.) Like Sessions, Meng’s crime was probably insufficient loyalty to the leader. Sessions can continue his political career, or earn a lucrative living as a lobbyist. Meng will be lucky to see his wife again.
Mass shootings, appalling in their senselessness, violate the social fabric. Trump has poisoned American political life by awakening latent racism and xenophobia. But in the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang, the government has imprisoned roughly a million Muslims in concentration camps. It does not cheapen the memories of American tragedies to call Xinjiang a worse crime. For all the grimness of public life in America today, we still have the freedoms to make things right — as, indeed, many voters strove to do during the midterm elections.
Yes, daily life for most Chinese remains mercifully free of horror, just like life for most in Washington does not resemble the “unremitting political combat” newspapers describe. But that shouldn’t prevent us from keeping even dispiriting events in perspective. Frustrated by the direction in which America is moving? Don’t curse the darkness. Light a candle, and keep fighting.