The House is On Fire
Notes from the Looming End of America
In the dream, the wildfire comes fast– over the ridge that I can see from my roof that has burned two times before in the last two years. It is moving faster than I’ve ever seen it move before. Within minutes, the homes of my neighbors at the edge of the neighborhood are alight.
I race down the stairs. “We have to go!” I shout to the kids. “We have to go! Where are the dogs?”
I turn to look out the window as I grab the go bag with water and dried food that sits by the garage door. I am thinking about passports, because I left them behind when we evacuated in 2020, when out the window I see the framing of the house next to mine collapsing in bright red embers.
Then the fire is in my house. This has all happened in a matter of minutes. My step-mother is there, and I am shouting at the top of my lungs “We have to go! We have to go!” The back room is burning and I can’t find the dogs and how do I get to the car if the route to the garage is already incinerated?
This is how I woke up this morning. Right there.
Living in America right now is living in a house on fire. To be fair, the house has been burning since our inception, with more or less flareup depending on the moment, but we’ve never successfully put it out.
To put it more bluntly: we’ve never accounted for the fact that this country was built by slave labor and colonialism, extracted through unspeakable acts of violence, and that the blood of indigenous and enslaved people runs through everything we’ve become since.
We have enormous unpaid debts.
White supremacy is a good con. It dehumanizes for the sake of justifying violence. It dehumanizes for the sake of justifying caste. It dehumanizes for the sake of maintaining institutions that allow a tiny fragment of society to rule over everyone else with enormous, extracted wealth from the labor of the many. It is a con that depends, like every good pyramid scheme, on new participants in every generation, so the con can keep going and those who began it and uphold it can get wealthier and wealthier, until at some stage, yet-unreached, there’s nothing more to take.
And dehumanization explains a lot. It explains how people can cheer on airplanes when masks are ripped off next to nursing babies and cancer patients. It explains how a mere one week on, we have all seemingly forgotten about the point-blank police execution of Patrick Lyoyo in Grand Rapids, after he was stopped because his license plates putatively didn’t match his car.
It also explains why we can be outraged en masse about the use of wartime rape as a tactic of dehumanization in Ukraine, where the victims are white, but largely ignore it in Rwanda, where an estimated 250,000 women and girls were raped in 1994 in furtherance of genocide.
The thing about the embers of hate and violence that we have ignored in the structure of America, the still-smoking residue that we pretended, for decades, wasn’t there, is that it doesn’t take much to reignite an all-consuming blaze that will bring down the entire nation.
Think of today’s GOP as an accelerant. Think of the election of Donald Trump as the box of matches tossed in for good measure.
I have gotten acclimated to the fascism on the right in a strange sort of way. I expect them to be violent, outrageous, to lie, to create distractions from the fact that they don’t govern or have any interest in governing, but rather just want to maintain white Christian power. I have come to expect that their most rabid followers act like they’re in a cult, display classic symptoms of sociopathy, engage in abuse and outright terrorism, all incited daily by the propaganda of Fox and OAN and InfoWars and their ilk, spewed straight into American living rooms like so much poison.
What I did not expect was applause, both literal and online, from politicians and friends on the left (waves at Nikki Fried, DeSantis’ opponent for Governor, in her maskless airplane shot throwing a peace sign) at the abandonment of our most vulnerable citizens to a pandemic that has already taken a million American lives and disabled millions more.
I did not expect people on our side of the fence to cheer at being able to infect kids under five and immune compromised people on public transportation.
I did not expect so much discarding of so many lives, let alone the celebration of it.
Perhaps I should have known better, knowing who we are, knowing our American exceptionalism for violence and colonization and hate.
I thought, hoped, that somewhere a societal bargain might exist– that we are in it together, that government is supposed to work for all of us, that at the bare minimum we won’t create the conditions that cause the death and disability of young children and the already fragile, and that we sure as hell won’t do that under a Democratic president.
Who am I kidding? We’re America.
The things we don’t talk about could fill the akashic records.
And now? Now, the house is on fire.
I follow a lot of incredible Black activists and writers and public intellectuals on Twitter. A few weeks ago, one of them (I think it was perhaps The Nap Ministry, but it might have been Mariame Kaba) remarked at how easier it all becomes when you stop trying to prop up the systems that harm and just allow them to collapse.
That idea has stuck with me.
I have been invested for my whole adult life in fighting for the betterment of democracy in this country (and, it should be said, elsewhere). I have been an activist since I was a child. I have been a perpetual optimist and a believer in the collective power of movements to change the course of history.
But the framework of America is burning, and we don’t even have a decent set of firefighters trying to put it out.
This is why we all get so excited when a lone state-level politician takes a stand against hate, why we elevate her to nightly news shows and laud her courage, only to stand by as our national leaders, weak-kneed at not getting another white male vote, stay silent.
We need firefighters. And our leaders are just standing inside the living room, going “Wow, look at that fire.”
Or worse yet, saying “What fire? Have you checked out the jobs numbers?”
Perhaps America is going to collapse.
The fire tearing through us is too hot to manage now, and the chance to stop it before our imminent destruction was decades ago.
Perhaps, at long last, we should let it.
It’s not like we’re going to be able to stop the violence on the right anyway absent some immediate and very serious intervention by the Department of Justice against the highest level organizers of, just as one example, the January 6th insurrection.
It’s not like our institutions aren’t sending the message daily right now that you can engage in the most despicable acts against the nation and just get away with it.
And, it should also be said, it’s not like any one of us has the power to stop this on our own. We’ve ceded so much power over ourselves for the sake of power over others, given that we’ve bought in to the lie that whatever we can do to scrape and cow-tow and creep closer to power for ourselves might, maybe, save us from a worse persecution that’s inflicted as a result on someone else.
While I take some optimism from the new labor movement, which is galvanizing workers everywhere to rebel against the extractive capitalism that began with American slavery and made and continues to make billionaires while their workers need food stamps to survive, that, again, we’ve never legitimately discussed in our national discourse, what happens even if new labor succeeds in unionizing everyone?
Our institutions will still be failing.
Our leaders will still be playing petty political games with the lives of vulnerable people.
Sociopathic every day Americans will still be cheering at ending their own minor inconvenience, even if it costs others their very lives.
I don’t have the answers. I once thought I had the capacity to change many, many things, but now?
Now, I am standing in my own living room, shouting to try to save lives.
Now, I am protecting those I love as best I can from what’s coming.
Now, I am terrified of what’s next in our undoing, as the walls collapse and everything we thought we knew goes up in smoke, and lives are abandoned and ignored.
Now, I am praying, in the only way I know how, for someone to bring the rain.
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