"Was" and "Again," Our Failure to Come to Terms with our National Shame
Nobel Laureate and American literary giant William Faulkner once designated the “saddest” words in the English language as “was” and “again.” Although a mythmaker of America’s past, Faulkner was also unerringly prescient. His literature and the saddest words embedded within the body of his work are as resonate today as when his novel The Sound and the Fury was published in 1929.
“Was,” as Faulkner wrote, is “forever fixed and unchangeable”—the past that cannot be undone. “Was” is our American shame as well as history, our flawed character, the verb tense embodiment of the Civil War legacy, the institutionalization of slavery as original sin of this nation. Impossible to wish away history, there are those among us who try to deny it, a danger we are seeing repeated today from the halls of Mitch McConnell’s Republican-controlled Senate, from Donald J. Trump ensconced in the White House, and from Trump’s mouthpieces or, more accurately, his propagandists.
Faulkner reminded us that was—the past—is never past. It is part of who we are, our DNA as a people and nation. As Michael Gorra highlighted in his new critical text, The Saddest Words, William Faulkner’s Civil War, “again” is Faulkner’s other saddest word. Again reverberates in chilling fashion as the sins of our past are echoed once again for political power and monetary gain. “That’s precisely why Faulkner remains so valuable,” stated Gorra, “that very reoccurrence makes him necessary.”
Today, we face neighbors across the great divide who erect huge white signs in their front lawns that scream out at passing cars, “Vote Democrat, You Get Murder, Looting, Death.” In the age of Trumpism in this 21st Century, we have Gettysburg and Confederate statues as symbols of the terrible divide—again. When protesters took to the streets to march for social and racial justice after the killing of George Floyd, they asked for, demanded to be recognized as human beings in the Black Lives Matter movement. The other side of the divide—no longer just below the Mason Dixon Line—shouted back and armed themselves with automatic and semi-automatic weapons to face off against those Black Lives Matter protesters with legitimate grievances. White supremacist Trump supporters wore camouflage, covered their bodies with protective armor and flash bombs in order to intimidate and, in some cases, to murder, pretending to “uphold the law” although they were not legal representations of any law.
A seventeen-year old Trump and police force adherent, Kyle Rittenhouse, recently killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse lives in Illinois and traveled to Kenosha with his weapon, an AR-15 style rifle he used to kill 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum and 26-year old Anthony Huber. A third protester was grievously wounded. Since that horrific event, Trump supporters have raised over a million dollars for the defense fund for the killer. The Kenosha GOP Chairperson said that, “80% of the people [in the city] support what Kyle did.”
Trump, Jr. said of the Rittenhouse killings, “we all do stupid things at 17,” seeming to dismiss the actions as nothing more than boyish rebellion. Trump, Sr. appeared to mouth Rittenhouse’s defense lawyers in insinuating the young man was “acting in self-defense.” “He is playing a very dangerous game,” said former federal prosecutor and University of Michigan law professor Barb McQuade. “Trump’s supporters will see his cues and act in accordance with them. Vigilante justice is the opposite of law and order.”
Previously, Trump, Sr. has made numerous comments that appear intended to trigger acts of racism and violence, such as his statements about protests: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Trump has called Black Lives Matter protesters “Thugs.” Trump has tweeted, “Liberate Virginia, and save your great 2nd Amendment rights. It is under siege,” referring to government actions from a democratically elected governor who is a Democrat.
A young man who conducted an experiment about online Twitter content, reposted Trump’s remarks, and his account was suspended for “inciting violence” until Twitter found out that he was merely repeating “president” Trump’s words.
Black Lives Matter may seem to have begun with the police killing of black men and women, but its roots lie in our continuing sin of racism. Once the North and South fought our bloodiest war, seeming to end in 1865, but that divide never really ended for far too many. Now, the horrific North and South divide may be experienced between streets in Minneapolis, Minnesota or Kenosha, Wisconsin, or further down the same road in Cortland, New York. Demonstration of this division are evidenced behind the likely reasons for painting of a huge wall mural to “Blue Lives Matter,” in Cortland, New York in response to a march by those asking for racial justice.
Master manipulators across time work to widen our national wedge in order to steal or retain power, and for monetary gains at the expense of nearly everyone else. Harkening back to the propaganda of Jefferson Davis, the foot solider fell on bloody fields, unaware of his part in attempting to retain slavery as the law of the land, unaware he had been played by the one percent of his time. Far more eloquent than Donald J. Trump, Davis was actually a gifted speaker but every bit as deceptive. Sharing just one of his quotations reminds us all of the Faulkner word, again: “The principle for which we contend is bound to reassert itself, though it may be at another time and in another form.” That principle was slavery, the economic means of unearned wealth to the plantation owner.
Yet, Davis was skilled at feigning false nobility: “I worked night and day for twelve years to prevent the war, but I could not. The North was mad and blind, would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came.” He followed this absurdity up with statements designed to trick the masses of common soldiers who would die on the battlefields: “The war...must go on till the last man of this generation falls in his tracks...unless you acknowledge our right to self-government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for Independence, and that, or extermination, we WILL have.” Of course, he was fighting for the economic wealth afforded by the inhuman cruelty of slavery.
On the topic of slavery, Davis held the argument that slavery was good for society in his 1858 speech given in New York: “Who gave them a right to decide that it [slavery] is a sin? By what standard do they measure it? Not the Constitution; the Constitution recognizes the property in many forms, and imposes obligations in connection with that recognition. Not the Bible; that justifies it. Not the good of society; for if they go where it exists, they find that society recognizes it [slavery] as good.” Davis’ intentions and racism are unmasked through his own statements: “We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority,” Davis said in reply to William Seward in the Senate in 1860.
At the war’s end, Jeff Davis famously donned his wife’s raincoat and shawl to avoid capture, not a particularly heroic act. Davis, as the anti-Faulkner said, “The past is dead; let it bury it's dead, its hopes and aspirations; before you lies the future.” President Johnson, however, pardoned all participants in the Civil War, including its head in Jefferson Davis.
There is a natural line to be followed again to Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone, a co-conspirator in the Russian interference in our 2016 election. It is no coincidence Donald J. Trump has made the preservation of Confederate statues a centerpiece of a campaign rooted in division and hate. Trump has no love and likely no real knowledge of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee, but he understands well how to create diversions and distractions in this divide. Incite and watch what happens. Kyle Rittenhouse. Like Confederate President Jeff Davis, Trump has his minions, his SPOX, to carry out propaganda campaigns to escalate the violence.
Michael R. Caputo, a man with no background in health care, was appointed by Trump as the top communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services. Caputo, a man so vile on Twitter he had to delete his account for fear of civil and criminal charges, leaned into Facebook to project his master’s wishes. Again, inciting violence, Caputo accused the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scientists “deep in the bowels of the CDC” as “seditious,” working against Trump, these scientists want “people to die so that you can replace the president.” That is “a grievous venial sin, venial sin. And these people are all going to hell.” Caputo’s inflammatory words merely echo those of Trump’s. Both seek to distort but also to distract from the very real failures of the Trump administration, its greatest failure? To prevent over 200,000 American deaths to date in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Caputo went well beyond warning, however, all the way to asking for armed insurrection on his since deleted Facebook posting: “If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.” Caputo’s rant is not worth printing in its entirety, but it is important to note that he claimed the CDC is “conspiring to murder” him. While he is distracting with his mad words of fear and hate, Caputo went about altering scientific reports about the coronavirus.
Trump relishes the role, in his own words, “as a divider” and vows, “now I can be really vicious.” Even the treasonous Jeff Davis would blush at the crass language of Trump as we experience “again.” As Davis lied and manipulated the masses to fight for something like “states rights” and southern honor, he hid from his followers the real reasons they were going into bloody battle in plain sight: for the preservation of the institution of enslaving other human beings for the profits of yesterday’s one percent. The landed “gentry” held on to their wealth at the expense of a people, the expense of the country, the expense of their tainted souls.
Today, Trump, like Davis, has convinced his followers that they should be willing sacrifices on the altar of capitalism in which only the wealthy become grotesquely wealthier.
Harkening back to Faulkner because “was” can never be altered or lessened in its damage, the great American writer chose words from William Shakespeare’s tragic play Macbeth as the title and conceptual framework for his novel The Sound and the Fury. Donald J. Trump’s legacy will be his failed presidency, and like Jeff Davis, as a “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” but heartless ambition, violence, and weakness. Empty, hollow men who have done great damage by leading those who could not decipher their lies.
Faulkner’s words “was” and “again” burn our ears and blister our souls as we read about Jason Compson, the alcoholic failed attorney giving advice to his doomed son, “No battle is ever won…The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools….The saddest word of all—it’s not despair…it’s not even time until it was.”
Trump and today’s Republican Party elites have created another illusion and demonstrated that man’s failure to learn from his past results in repeating our national tragedies “again” and again.