Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Ours is an age of images. While earlier times have been shaped by the power of the word, both spoken and printed, our time has been dominated by the picture. They appear on large screens and small, center front in papers or full page in magazines, memorialized in frames, carried in pockets on phones and tablets. They have emerged as a primary vehicle for communication, speaking volumes without words on Instagram and Facebook and their doppelgängers. Most of the images we consume are relatively banal – people with people, people in front of places, people all alone, animals acting like people, animals acting like animals, people acting like animals, places without people. Now that the preservation of images is freed from the complex process and expense of loading, processing and printing film, we have all become documentarians of lives both notable and unremarkable. Like those compelled to tag monuments, buildings and tunnels with graffiti (from the ancient Greeks who scrawled on the Pyramids of Cheops to modern day Kilroys), our imagery have become manipulated collections of ones and zeros that assert our presence on planet earth; a modern day shout to oblivion that, like the residents of Whoville, demands to be heard – “We are here, we are here, we are HERE!”

A few of these images receive such widespread dissemination that they become memes – a relatively new word indicating an image or piece of text that has become so commonplace through sharing that it is widely recognizable.

Fewer still become icons: frozen moments that so powerfully demonstrate something ominous or chillingly reflective that they take on a life of their own, seared into the minds of millions. These are the images that are our most profoundly disturbing mirrors: ones that reveal to us, like portrait of Mr. Gray through the passage of time, what we are in danger of becoming or have already become. True enough, images of the lovely and pastoral abound, but these are not the ones that haunt, that linger in troubled memory, that emerge in the dark of the night to warn or spur sober reflection on our actions and beliefs.

These images are so powerful that they have changed us, spurred us to re-plot our course, move ahead in a different way.

I suspect that many of the images that have established permanent residence in my mind are familiar to many and that they evoke a similar if not identical emotional response to my own.

Oh, the humanity. Yes, the Goodyear blimp is still up there, but dirigibles as a method of travel? Maybe we ought to rethink that.

Are we really capable of such evil? And even if we wouldn’t do it ourselves, can we possibly tolerate it in others?

How could we have continued this exercise of cruelty toward others after we sacrificed so much to stop it in others? Does she really pose that much of a threat?

Must the insanely evil among us always shape the lives of those in society?

Still not healthy for children and other living things. Thankfully, she is alive and well today and running a charity for those displaced by war.

“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

There must be forces, unseen and unrecognizable, that work ceaselessly for the elimination of progress.

All dreams, all aspirations have a cost. At times the cost is incalculable.

Damn you, child. Damn you. “We have met the enemy, and they is us.” Pogo

Of course, there are dozens more images that I carry with me – dour mothers and hungry children caught in the Depression’s merciless wake, scrounging for simple existence while coal barons and oil magnates dine off fine china. Americans being beaten with truncheons and clubs because they dared to ask that their full humanity be affirmed. Young black men dangling from misshapen trees, victims of cruel and unbounded ignorance and recidivism. Homeless men and women huddled in doorways while Black Friday shoppers shove through Walmart doors.

These images and so many like them have power for us because they demand that we look closely at ourselves and ask if we are becoming who we actually want to be or whether we have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Like the Magic Mirror in Snow White, we come arrogantly to our reflection and ask only for confirmation of that which we have come to believe – that we’re just fine the way we are, no modification necessary.

Herein, I believe, lies the gift of Donald Trump. His accession to the highest office in the land, whether by the honest and uncorrupted vote of the American people or by influence or interference from abroad, is a remarkable gift – he is an honest reflection of all the dark and unsavory things we have become as a nation in recent years. He has demonstrated that like so many Americans, our reality is shaped by what we choose to believe rather than by what actually exists. Like so many of us, he has pursued personal advantage at the expense of fair dealing and honorable practice. The torn fabric of our relational life as Americans is closely mirrored by his own – serial marriages and a clearly debased concept of the sanctity of womanhood with a tendency to objectify all females as existing only for his gratification. He has no regard for the social contract that was a given in American life half a century ago but has been slowly eroding ever since. He is as easily distracted as any American child raised on a steady diet of television. He does not seem to possess the capacity for discerning what constitutes appropriate behavior either with individuals (like foreign leaders’ wives) or in groups (like Boy Scouts). Rather than having a set of core values that governs belief and behavior, the President, like the nation, is driven primarily by feelings, totally absent of the benefit of sober reflection. Like many children of the Me generation, he values those who contribute to his sense of worth (staging public sycophantic groveling in Cabinet meetings) rather than working to contribute to that of others. He is as vulgar and crude as every blockbuster movie hit and excuses his sleaze by pointing to its societal ubiquity. Like so much of American life he is shine without substance, deep as a puddle.

And we lifted him up. Yes, it was a slap in the face to the caste of professional politicians whose primary purpose is to achieve and remain in power, but it is also an unparalleled opportunity to look at who we are and where we are going. Had Hilary been elected, I doubt that would have happened. If Bernie had been elected (or Ted or Jeb or John or Chris or any of the other pretenders to office), it wouldn’t have had the same effect as they were just as much the problem as we are.

He may not be the perfect man for the needs of the world right now, but he provides the perfect opportunity for us to stop and ponder. Is this really who we are? Certainly, there are some for whom he is an accurate reflection. But for me, and I suspect for many others, that which I see in the mirror makes me want to set a new course.