People who are losing their vision often don’t even know it. With most degenerative eye conditions, the loss in vision is so gradual that you don’t notice. Until you fail to see something important in your field of vision and you collide or fall, hurting yourself and others. Then you go to the doctor. They do some tests and the results can be quite a shocker.
I don’t know this personally; it’s just something I read on the internet.
Over the past three weeks, we’ve had a lot of discussion about the blindness of white liberals and progressives. How did we not see this coming? How could we be so wrong about the American public? We’ve also seen an immediate dismissal of this discussion as white liberal self-indulgence.
Maybe for some it is, a public display of dumbfounded realization upon discovering that the unsavory realities of American culture so strenuously disavowed by a certain (coastal, metropolitan) class did not really disappear just because they wanted them to.
But many of us did know that the realities of American racism and misogyny were still there, especially those born and raised in places where these social forms are still ubiquitously and even proudly on display. The problem is not (only) the individual indigo-centrism of liberal professionals, but more specifically, the problem of collective, political imagination.
When I was in Ghana in early October, my good friend Etse Sikanku invited me to be a guest on his Class FM radio show, “America Decides,” discussing the presidential campaign in the US. Confidently, I argued that the narrowing polls were misleading, that all the electoral predictions suggested a strong win for Hillary.
People who poll for Trump are not reliable voters, I said. I grew up in southwest Missouri and I went to a working-class high school. I’m familiar with this segment of our population. Minimally educated white people in the hinterlands may like the populist spectacle of Trump rallies and to some hopelessly misguided rednecks it feels good to spout racist, homophobic, misogynist nonsense.
But many of these people won’t vote (I said). And if they do go to the polls, once they’re in that booth, alone with their conscience, they will surely consider the dire consequences of a Trump presidency and either vote for a third party candidate or write someone else in.
And moreover, Trump’s rhetoric is so abhorrent (I said) that women, immigrants, and people of color will come out in droves to vote for the democratic candidate, no matter what their (legitimate) misgivings about Hillary Clinton.
At home, my husband was not so certain. As election day approached, he became more and more nervous about the outcome.
Don’t worry, I assured him, Trump is gonna get creamed.
Creamed. The heavy, fatty sound of that word was so deeply satisfying that I said it over and over again in anticipation. He’s gonna get creamed.
There’s a song called “Cream” on Prince’s Diamonds and Pearls album. In the days before the election, the words kept cycling into my consciousness.
This is it
It’s time for you to go to the wire
You will hit
‘Cause you got the burnin’ desire
It’s your time (Time)
You got the horn so why don’t you blow it
You are fine (Fine)
You’re filthy cute and baby you know it
Get on top
You will cop
Don’t you stop
Well, we certainly went to the wire but I guess the burnin’ desire was not enough in this case. Not enough to get us on top.
I’m a social scientist, a cultural anthropologist to be specific. I specialize in media and poltiics in West Africa. So I have spent a lot of time thinking about how media create very particular ways of imagining society—and how different media forms structure very particular kinds of dialogue and action within those imagined societies.
Something is amiss in the way that many Americans are imagining the society we live in. In the way we imagine different categories of people, their everyday lives, their social and political desires. And in the way dialogue among those social categories is structured in ways that divide and polarize, making strategic forms of social and political action nearly impossible now.
The Monday after the elections, I go to the eye doctor for something called a “fundus photo.” I lean my head back as the technician gently pulls open my eyelids. “The first drops are anesthetic,” he says, “because the second drops, the dilation drops, can sting a little.”
He is an African-American man, perhaps in his late fifties. For a second, I wonder how it is for him, if he suspects that most of the white people in this chair, even the nurses, the doctors all around him in this suburban medical center—if he suspects that many of them voted for Trump. I wonder if he thinks I voted for Trump.
Everywhere I go now, I wonder but I do not ask, did you vote for Trump? How about that white twenty-something guy in the enormous white pick-up truck, did you? And that middle-aged white woman buying a basketful of artificial flowers at the craft store, did you?
But it’s different for me than for a person of color, I know. Regardless of the answer, no one is going to harm me. If this man has to walk through a near-deserted parking lot late at night, or if his car breaks down in a certain neighborhood…or really, if he walks or drives in a perfectly legal way anytime, anywhere—the answer to that question may be the difference between normalcy and all-hell-breaks-loose.
This is the new normal, always teetering at the sharp edge of monstrosity. Many politicians and media pundits now are urging a “wait and see” approach to the new administration. We hear again and again, Trump deserves an open mind, a chance, our willingness to work together, to find common ground. Maybe he won’t be able to do those awful things after all. Maybe the wall will be mostly fence. Maybe Obamacare will be only slightly amended. Maybe he won’t be able to back out of the Paris agreement. Maybe….
I feel the cool liquid wash over my blinking eyes. I lift my head. It doesn’t sting at all, the anesthetic has done its job. Already, everything is getting blurry, sharp edges melting, colors swimming. Beautiful, actually. As the world around me distorts into impressionism, I have the sensation of suspended reality.
“You can wipe your tears,” he says softly, handing me a tissue, and I realized that the drops have overflowed my eyes, “but don’t wipe out the medicine.”
I go back out to the waiting room to wait for my eyes to dilate completely. There is wi-fi here and though I can barely read the screen, I manage to write an email to an artist friend to see if he knows about any artists doing radical graphic art, something that people can download and use. I want to put up some kind of radical yard sign in front of our house and I want it to be strikingly beautiful. He writes back, sounding depressed, talking about his children. As for protest art, he’ll have to think about it.
I am called back into the procedure room. The same technician is there and he tells me to sit down in a chair connected to some kind of machine. I lean in to the machine, resting my chin on the beige plastic chinrest.
He positions a tiny gold pinpoint of light in front of my right eye. “Focus on this with your right eye as we photograph the left eye.”
“I have lazy eye on both sides,” I say. “So if I use the right one to focus, the left one will wander off to the side.”
“That’s ok,” he smiles. “We can compensate for that.”
I shudder as a bright beam penetrates my right eye, panning across it like a searchlight. I hear clicks, sporadic, like muffled gunfire. The beam crosses through again, going over the same territory but more slowly this time. More clicks.
He pauses then glances over at a screen that I cannot see, checking his work, I assume. I watch his eyes, hoping to detect some reaction to what he sees but his gaze is opaque, unrevealing. Then he tells me to put my chin on the chinrest again and we do the whole procedure on the other side.
He rolls back on his stool, telling me that we’re all finished. He reminds me how to exit the office and again, I am watching his eyes, but if he knows something, he is practiced at hiding it.
That night, on the recommendation of a friend, my husband and I watch last weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live on Netflix. There’s a skit in which Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock are watching the election returns with a bunch of young white liberals in an urban apartment. The running joke of the sketch is the denial and shock of the white liberals who cannot believe what they are seeing on TV as the results come in, cannot believe that Americans are that racist. All the while, Chappelle and Rock trade inside glances, smiling, nodding, feigning the same outrage which only makes it more ridiculous.
The blindness of white liberals. A running joke in Chappelle’s repertoire.
In the relationship between eye and brain, going blind is a silent process of disappearance and replacement. Points of your visual field start to disappear on a daily basis and this loss accelerates over time, resulting in huge gaps in your visual field. In the beginning, the loss is concentrated at the periphery, in areas marginal to your line of sight, then progresses slowly to the center. Until it’s like seeing through binoculars.
The reason you don’t notice is because your brain develops the skill of filling in those points of no information. Hiding them from you—by quietly inserting what you might expect to see there.
Facebook does this. Increasingly, all of our media forms do this. Measuring our interested clicks and minutes of attention, our personalized media give us more of what we habitually look at, what’s in our direct line of sight, actively “disappearing” marginal and contradictory points of view. Facebook and other websites learn over time how to do this better and better, filling in more and more peripheral spaces of attention with a kind of false repetition of what we expect to see.
Like misguided rednecks who don’t vote. Like women, immigrants, and people of color who always vote Democrat.
Unlike the shocked white liberals in the SNL sketch, Dave Chappelle does not live in an apartment in a blue coastal metropolis. He lives on a farm in western Ohio. And he’s a black person living in a society steeped in denial about the realities of race. No matter what was happening on social media, his everyday experiences with smalltown Ohioans kept his vision keen and he knew what to expect from the outcome of the elections. And how not to expect what you’ve come to expect.
Two days later, I return to the eye doctor’s office for two more tests. This time, the technician is a younger guy, also black. He introduces himself as Eric, then confirms my own name and sits down at the computer to bring up my file.
I glance over his shoulder at the computer screen as he types. Along the bottom of the screen, I see my fundus photos from Monday. A row of luminous golden bubbles, with small shadows and striations that may or may not be ok. I know I am not really supposed to see them, at this point. And I certainly cannot ask Eric if they are normal. I gaze at the images, trying to identify distinctive details that might help me remember them later. Then Eric turns his head to me and I look away, embarrassed to be caught staring at my own fundus.
Leaving the doctor’s office, I stop and sit on a bench in the hallway. I take out my computer and do a google image search for ‘fundus photography.’ I can’t find the quick and dirty guide that I am looking for but I do learn a few things about the ‘fundus.’
I realize that I didn’t really know what a ‘fundus’ was, I just kind of assumed that I knew. Like so many things. Due to the difficulties of medical scheduling, I’ve known for over two months now that I was going have my ‘fundus’ photographed. Why did I not look this up until now? I mean until after the actual procedure?
The ‘fundus’ is the part of any hollow organ furthest from the opening. It comes from the Latin for ‘base’ or ‘bottom.’ Oh right, as in ‘fundamental.’ The optical fundus is at the back of the eye. You can’t look in the mirror and see your own optical fundus. The doctor can’t study it in any detail without a very bright light and a special camera.
I don’t know what’s going on with my fundus, not yet; but it’s clear to me that many Americans now have a dangerous impairment of social vision. And it’s not entirely their fault (partially but not entirely). Fundamental elements of American social life are systematically hidden from our view by the very media forms we thought would enlarge and diversify our perspectives, enhance our social engagement, and inform our democracy.
We need very bright lights. We need special cameras. We need new media.
And we need to reach beyond media, finding ways to recognize, to be with, to talk to those people who have dropped out of our social vision. And we need to build a politics that draws people out of their divisive bubbles and into mutuality and coalition.