Shadows and symbols

Politics may be older than mankind. So might Gene Wolfe’s celebrated story A Solar Labyrinth described by Neil Gaiman as "a short story of brilliance and beauty and, hidden deep in the shadows, danger and darkness" — have begun had it been about our national sport and oldest profession. While Wolfe may have explicitly disclaimed the political in the story, I’m still struck by the analogy. Government is a shadow of our society, acting at its best as an ever-present companion, standing beside us when we might fall and acting to restrain our worst impulses. At its worst, it is the shadow of our lesser natures, acting in the interest of unjust power out of fear. When empowered thusly, it has served as the vehicle for unimaginable horrors, atrocities that must never be repeated. Everyone is afraid of the dark. When we say "never again", it is these shadows we fear.

We have plenty to fear today from the political, but if we fear, we fear the shadows cast by the society that we have (one way or another) helped to shape. It’s too easy, too simple, to boil this all down to one election. No vote reveals as much as the shadows it casts. Those shadows are the result of the society that we, you and I, have shaped. With every decision we make, with every tweet we send, with every opportunity to stand up for what we believe taken or squandered, we have determined the shape of this solar labyrinth.

I know a lot of good people, committed activists, who were unhappy with the Democratic nomination process. On the issues there were perhaps better nominees, that mattered not at all in the general election. Only one plausible candidate was ever going to respond to pressure on the issues I cared about. On justice, on peace, on reckoning for our history and present on race, only one possible president could be held accountable. Only one candidate could reflect better the light cast by the activists I respect so much. Only one candidate could stand as a symbol of equality and could show women that they belong at the very height of American power. No policy matters as much as this, because no policy will have as much of an impact as the symbols that shape our society. Policy is but a shadow cast by our society, and the symbols that shape it will eventually lead to better policy.

We’ll hear many explanations and excuses for what happened tonight in the coming days, trade first among those. I’ve spent a nontrivial amount of my life trying to manufacture consumer goods in the US, and from that experience I can say that fear and protectionism helps none at all. The shadows cast by today’s results loom large on my work.

Now we find ourselves trapped in a labyrinth cast by our own fears. There’s no way out of this labyrinth but to change the light. We must look inward, because to look outward spells doom. If we are angry, if we are unforgiving, if we are unkind, we cannot find the exit. I don’t mean to say that we should ignore fear or intolerance; I can’t cast the light I wish to on our society if I don’t stand up for what I believe in. This is our opportunity to be visible for what we believe in, and to do so for the reasons that matter.

Politics may be older than mankind, but the shadows cast by our society are as old as the symbols and ideas that define it. Dark days may lie ahead, but each of us can with judicious use of our agency change the light and the solar labyrinth of our government. Maybe, just maybe, that idea will be enough to sustain us through the next four years.