Unprecedented: The Mythos of a Nation/by Katherine Parker

Hey y’all, and welcome to my little corner of the paper. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the future and what it holds both as we begin a new year and as I begin my last semester of my undergraduate career. I want to say the future looks bright, and it does, but as a humanities student, I’m also compelled to address the context that will shape the next year. One of the ways I do this is by reflecting upon the past year. Reflection is a crucial aspect to understanding; I don’t think I can know where I’m going if I don’t know where I’ve been, and I think the same is true for us as a college community and a nation at large. 

The national rhetoric this past year has subsisted on the idea of unprecedented events. On one hand, this is understandable because we are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that wasn’t wholly predictable. On the other hand, using the phrase “unprecedented event” for the entirety of 2020 removes responsibility for the occurrences that were and continue to be preventable. The past month has unveiled some of the basis for this argument, so let’s dig in. 

2020 started like any other year, but better because we had an excuse to throw Gatsby-themed parties and internalize the carefree spirit of the new (20)20s. Most people weren’t necessarily anticipating a year full of extraneous stressors, but the fact remains that we have gone through the collective trauma of hundreds of thousands of deaths while simultaneously witnessing the consequences of both selectively impressed and nationally repressed trauma. 

To unpack that statement, we’ve concurrently witnessed national mourning as well as an unraveling of dominant national narratives. The escalation of this realization hit its peak (hopefully) with the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol building, where U. S. citizens invaded the Capitol building with weapons and hate symbols under the banners of lost causes. Clearly, the past is still prescient. 

Tying into this concept of the past is the prevalence of conversations we have begun to have more earnestly about race. Several flags that were flying at the Capitol on Jan. 6 represented ideals of the Confederacy and the proto-nationalist ideals of the former administration, with the implication that those people flying those flags are the people who belong in our Capitol building, and by extension, those ideals of racial superiority and militant patriotism are the ideals that belong in the heart of our nation. 

The inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Jan. 20 indicated that this might not be the future we support nationally, but that the events of Jan. 6 ever happened indicate an ingrained problem in our society. As a nation, we have allowed (either actively or passively) what should be decrepit ideas of hate to have free range. The differences in response to protests for justice and the “riot” at the Capitol provide glaring examples of this, as do our responses to everyday disputes. Just Google it; the New York Times’ 2020: Year in Pictures is enlightening. 

My thought going into the New Year, then, is shaped as much by my wishes for my own future as it is by my hopes for the nation I call home, and that thought is this: We still have work to do. This past year has brought a lot of perhaps surprising but not unprecedented struggles both personally and nationally, but it is possible to grow from it. We have that opportunity, but only if we choose to create it for ourselves. 

Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” is especially poignant for this sentiment. She says, “We’ve braved the belly of the beast. / We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace. / And the norms and notions of what just is / isn’t always justice.” 

The concept of justice is one that sticks with us as Americans. We learn this as children from animated hero shows where they fight for “truth, justice, and the American way,” but the irony is that, to date, those three things have been incongruous. This has been the precedent, so to say that events over the past year have been unprecedented is a misnomer. This is where we have been, but where are we going to go?

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