Our capacity for imagining the unimaginable

Traditional media has not adjusted itself to the Trump era, I’ve often noted. Accelerating the entropy begun at the height of the Iraq War and continued by the Obama White House’s campaign against whistleblowers, the Trump administration’s insistent, aggressive, and insouciant mendacity overwhelms a news outlet’s corrective efforts, yet, because those outlets need the clicks, they keep interviewing Kellyann Conway, Mick Mulvaney, and Wilbur Ross as if they were respectable bureaucrats instead of charlatans and grifters.

Imagine my dread when I awoke one morning last week to see “concentration camp” trending on Twitter. So accustomed are political journalists to customs learned in another time and era that they’ve lost the knack for reporting the world-historic. They’re the responsible ones; the politicians are the nuts. The BothSideism that became a feature of journalism in the early 2000s cripples their capacity for critical thought. I can understand how reporters, afraid of readers and the assumption that their editors will tire of chronicling a political party’s swinishness and evil, look for targets. Young, a master of social media’s penchant for changing news cycles with a couple pithy slogans, and a woman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, we have decided, is the Democrats’ Michelle Bachmann.

In a New Yorker column, Masha Gessen mourns the collapse of the political press’ moral courage, which manifests itself as a paucity of imagination and curiosity; the three are as entangled as ivy around a trellis. History, Gessen writes, is what already happened:

Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison. As for history, the greater the event, the more mythologized it becomes. Despite our best intentions, the myth becomes a caricature of sorts. Hitler, or Stalin, comes to look like a two-dimensional villain—someone whom contemporaries could not have seen as a human being. The Holocaust, or the Gulag, are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of gray scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially, unimaginable. In crafting the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that couldn’t possibly have happened.

What then for the rest of us? Besides voting no matter how long we have to stand in line, how do we resist the normalizing of Trumpian norms? If what Gessen writes is correct – I think it is – then “it is the choice between thinking that whatever is happening in reality is, by definition, acceptable,” according to Gessen, “and thinking that some actual events in our current reality are fundamentally incompatible with our concept of ourselves—not just as Americans but as human beings—and therefore unimaginable.”

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