Grace Dow
27 min readOct 29, 2020

The Declaration of Independence includes this fairly remarkable statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” I’m jealous of their assurance. If you look around at the world today, if you talk to anyone, I think the one common thread of the descent into our current chaos is that no truth is just taken at face value anymore. Everything is up for debate.

It’s been a rough year for everyone, and for me personally it’s been difficult because I do a lot of my thinking through writing. I joke to my loved ones that sometimes I don’t know what I’m feeling until I’ve written it down, but it’s not actually a joke. And when you get hit with one thing after another like we have been this past year, sometimes the words just don’t come. You sit there banging your head against the wall and you get to feeling a bit lost. Overwhelmed by ideas and thoughts and unable to translate them into what you want to say.

But over the course of this year I’ve managed to parse out some thoughts in the form of seven metaphors. And I’ve been trying to think about the “audience,” here. That’s something that comes up a lot when you write. Who is reading this? Who is it for? Who are you talking to or trying to convince? The truth is, I don’t know. It’s late in the game to convince anyone of anything. The people I might have wanted to talk to have already decided I’m not someone worth listening to, like my sister-in-law who called me a “heretic” a few weeks ago or the aunt who unfollowed me on Instagram because I posted a picture that said “Black Lives Matter.”

Maybe this is self-indulgent. Medium tells me this will take you at least 27 minutes to read. Who’s going to take that kind of time to follow this rabbit trail to its end? But if you care about the United States and what becomes of its government, if you got into debates with me in the comments sections of social media posts at any point over the last four years, if you’re one of those people who considers politics a matter of opinion and impolite to talk about, if you’re one of those people who considers politics a matter of literal life-and-death, if you are disheartened and fearful and extremely worried about what’s to come — well, there might be something here for you.

So here they are: seven metaphors for 2020 and beyond.

METAPHOR 1: Duck-Rabbits and Dresses

I think we’re all probably familiar with a particular brand of optical illusion or perceptual puzzle that features an ambiguous image which can be interpreted in various ways.

Some people look at the image above and to the left (which dates back to 1892) and immediately see one thing…

… while others very clearly see something else entirely…

The interesting thing about the Duck-Rabbit, as with other famous illusions such as Rubin’s vase or My Wife and My Mother-In-Law, is that technically no one is wrong. There is both a duck and a rabbit in that image. There are faces and a vase, an old woman and a young woman. You may not be seeing the same things, but they’re both there if you’re willing to look at it in a different way.

On the left: Rubin’s Vase, On the right: My Wife and My Mother-In-Law

Now let’s talk about a newer type of optical illusion, which started in February 2015 when pictures of The Dress first appeared online and became a viral sensation. Some people very clearly saw the dress in the photograph as black and blue, while others insisted it was white and gold. (In years following this there have been a number of similar viral photographs of ambiguously-colored objects, including a dresser and a shoe, as well as an audio illusion with the “laurel”/“yanny” clip).

Pink and white? Or mint and grey?

Many were quick to draw comparisons between the Duck-Rabbit and The Dress, ignoring one very obvious difference: with The Dress, there is actually a right answer. A correct, factual, verifiable truth. A manufacturer created and sold that dress and a person bought it and wore it to a wedding, and both could confirm it was in fact black and blue. The dresser is blue and grey, the shoes are pink and white, and the audio clip is from a entry for the word “laurel.”

But people online were so intrigued with the illusion of the image — how and why people saw it so differently and what that said about everyone — that the truth was basically an afterthought. The most important question to people wasn’t “What’s right or wrong?” but “How could anyone see it differently than I do?”

When it comes to metaphors, I’m not the first to compare such optical illusions to politics. But before we go further, I hope you hold onto that distinction. To conflate a difference of opinion (“agree to disagree”) with a situation where there is a right and wrong answer would be a grave mistake. And yet that’s exactly the world we’re living in today.

METAPHOR 2: The Blind Men and the Elephant

My friend’s fiancé thinks I’m a whiny, cowardly liberal. He would never say this to my face because he’s a good Southern boy and that’s not polite, but it came across pretty clearly in a discussion we had on Facebook. I made a post in defense of mail-in voting as an important option in the middle of a pandemic. I argued (and still firmly believe) that attempts by federal and state government to force voters to show up in person in the middle of a pandemic where an extremely contagious and deadly virus spreads among clusters of people is a form of voter suppression. I feel it’s irresponsible and puts people in unnecessary danger.

His response? “If you can go to work, you can go vote.”

I’d like to think maybe he misunderstood and assumed I was worried for my own safety. I’m an essential worker out in public daily at a big box retailer, but I’m young and relatively healthy. Why should I complain? Over the course of our exchange it became increasingly apparent why he was responding the way he was: perspective, or rather, the inability to consider a situation from perspectives beyond his own. We’re all guilty of this to some degree, but it becomes problematic when we make decisions based on our own perspective that limit the rights of others or negatively impact their health and well-being.

Some things he didn’t consider: (A) I work because I have to in order to survive financially, and am under incredible amounts of stress while doing so because of having to deal with a bored and increasingly lax public who are not taking this health crisis seriously. (B) I live with someone who has severe asthma and could be put at risk if I get sick. (C) I was speaking generally, thinking of the thousands of other at-risk individuals who shouldn’t have to risk exposure to a potentially deadly disease. (Not that it’s important, but I myself had always planned to vote early, in person, and as safely as possible — which I have since done.)

Voters line up outside an early voting station in Asheville, North Carolina. In some states, people waited for hours in order to vote in person.

He’s more worried about the negative effects of economic shutdown than he is the pandemic itself — and there’s no downplaying it, those negative effects have been rough. He’s young and healthy. If he gets sick it probably won’t hit him that hard. He comes from Florida, and his friends and relatives who have caught COVID-19 all had mild cases that required no hospitalization and don’t appear to have had many negative after-effects.

I, on the other hand, have a personal connection to at least 10 people who have had COVID-19. Two have been hospitalized and recovered but with negative long-term effects afterward. Three suffered a mild flu-like illness and had to stay home from work two weeks but have since been fine.

Five died.

When 100% of the people you know who have experienced an illness walk away from it with no complications, then of course you’d think this whole thing was being blown out of proportion. When 50% of the people you know who have experienced an illness have died from it, then of course you’d think this whole thing isn’t being taken seriously enough.

We’re like the blind men and the elephant, all feeling our way in the dark. He feels a leg and says, “Oh, there’s nothing to worry about, it’s just a tree!” I feel the elephant’s trunk and recoil and shout, “No, no! It’s a snake! It could kill us!” But in truth, it’s neither of those things. It’s something else entirely, something that can be both mild and deadly depending on the circumstance.

Our own experience of this thing is not invalid, but neither should we use it to dismiss someone else’s. Especially when facts exist independently of our perceptions and feelings. But what happens when people no longer trust their information sources? What happens when previously established realities are suddenly treated as though they are up for debate?

METAPHOR 3: The World Is Flat

In the fall of 2017 I took a course called The Ethnography of Belief as part of my graduate studies. For my final assignment in the class (a paper and presentation) I decided to focus my research on Flat Earthers. A large group of them was holding a convention in a North Carolina town not far from where I grew up, but that wasn’t the only reason I chose this topic. I wanted the challenge of trying to study and fairly represent the point of view of someone who believed something different than I did, something I held to be fundamentally untrue (definitely a Dress, not a Duck-Rabbit). Was it even possible to familiarize myself with such a mindset while not inadvertently normalizing it or helping it to spread? How do you even begin to approach such people?

While I’ll try not to spend too long talking about Flat Earthers (there are plenty of other articles, as well as a documentary, if you’re interested in that), here’s a quick glimpse of the subject for the sake of illustration. Below is a chart I made to summarize some of my research findings for my class presentation:

As I was sifting through countless videos, blog posts, websites, and texts discussing Flat Earth beliefs, I found that people who claimed that Earth is flat tended to fall into three broad groups. First, there were religious fundamentalists (usually Christians) whose Flat Earth ideology was tied in with their religious beliefs. Second, there were conspiracy theorists who claimed that someone was actively working to conceal the truth from the general populace (that someone could vary depending on the person — big government, lizard people, a certain race or nationality of people, etc. — but most often tends to be NASA. Flat Earthers hate NASA.). These theorists distrust any science that they can’t verify for themselves and often conduct what they consider to be scientific experiments, like using a spirit level on an airplane ride or measuring water levels at various points in a river to “prove” the Earth has no curvature. Finally, a third group I observed were creatives and freethinkers who used the idea of a Flat Earth as more of a metaphor to encourage people to question authority and use critical thinking skills.

As I explained some of my findings to my fellow folklore students, there were smirks and laughter. Follow-up questions were filled with snark and incredulous asides. Even a group of folklorists-in-training, encouraged to acknowledge but set aside their own personal beliefs while discussing the views of the people they were studying, had trouble with this one. Because of course anyone presented with verifiable scientific data — an example of a Dress if there ever was one— who then rejects it in favor of a literally medieval mindset? Well, they must be a fool.

And yet, belief in fake science is on the rise. It’s easy to laugh at when the conflation of opinion and fact doesn’t hurt anyone. But this pattern — people mistaking Dresses for Duck-Rabbits, considering something factual to be up for debate — has serious ill effects when it comes to issues such a climate change, vaccinations, or health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite our first instincts, let’s be clear: mocking, vilifying, and arguing with such people does little to nothing to solve the problem. More than ever, we as a society need to learn how to use critical thinking skills to question what we are told, how to differentiate what is true from what is false, and how best to address those who think we should be able to “agree to disagree” about things that should never be up for debate.

Conspiracy theories have dangerous repercussions in the political sphere as well when they serve to further radicalize extremists (Pizzagate and QAnon are a couple recent examples). But this distrust of authority and inability to believe in anything they can’t prove for themselves extends even farther than the “fringe element.” A public unable to believe in the concreteness and inviolability of even the most basic truths endangers the foundational principles our nation was built upon. Remember that statement I recalled earlier from the Declaration of Independence? The “self-evident” truths it referred to are that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are rights that human beings are born with that cannot be taken away. This is something we take for granted as being the case, they were saying. These are just obvious, undeniable facts.

But “we hold these truths to be self-evident” breaks down at the point where truth is no longer clear and firmly established. It hinges on that wording: self-evident. We hold these truths to be obvious. These truths don’t need to be demonstrated or explained. Except now they do.

We’re living in a world where Flat Earthers can’t trust the work of the scientists who went before them and have to test out the truth for themselves. We’re living in a world where, in the middle of a pandemic, many in the general U.S. populace don’t trust the information they’re getting from health officials. We’re living in a world where you have to actually argue with friends, relatives, and strangers on the internet about why police brutality and police murdering black people is bad. It’s not self-evident that the world is round. It’s not self-evident that doctors have more facts about a contagious virus than politicians do. It’s not self-evident that police officers should not be able to murder people and face no consequence for their actions.

When The Dress looks black and blue and The Dress looks white and gold, “self-evident” flies out the window. Why do we keep drawing a line in the sand when we know sand is so easily shifted? Where then does the line get drawn?

METAPHOR 4: New York vs. the “New” World

In an essay included in his book Mere Christianity, author and theologian C.S. Lewis wrote, “The reason why your idea of New York can be truer or less true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks. If when each of us said ‘New York’ each meant merely ‘the town I am imagining in my own head’, how could one of us have truer ideas than the other? There would be no question of truth or falsehood at all.”

New York City in 1952, the year Mere Christianity was published

There is a contingent of American citizens who see their patriotism as “truer” than anyone else’s. They cling to a Norman Rockwell vision of our past that never truly was. Dreams are a big part of what built this country, but in order for any real progress to be achieved, in order for America to ever truly be great, we have to take off the red-white-and-blue tinted glasses and look at the “real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks.” For many of us whose race, gender, or sexuality give us distinct advantages compared to others, this will also involve taking off the blinders of our privilege to see the world as it exists for others who haven’t had the same leg up we have. (And also, probably, setting aside the feelings of indignation or defensiveness that rear their heads when you hear words like “privilege” or “racist.”)

It doesn’t matter if we think The Dress is white and gold. If the overwhelming evidence points to the fact that The Dress is black and blue, we have to start acknowledging it to be so, even if it is jarring and uncomfortable to our sensibilities or goes against how we have done or perceived things up until now. One excellent example of this is Columbus Day.

This year on October 13th, the White House released a proclamation in celebration of Columbus Day. While many Americans in recent years have chosen to celebrate the day as Indigenous People’s Day in honor of those people who inhabited this land before colonial sailors arrived to exploit and enslave them, this vision of the New World was not in keeping with that Norman Rockwell picture many conservatives prefer. This was very evident in the proclamation.

After painting a rosy picture of Columbus the visionary and explorer, the statement goes on to criticize “radical activists” and “extremists” who would “undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy” and even goes so far as to accuse them of seeking to revise history. “They seek to squash any dissent from their orthodoxy,” it claims. “We must not give in to these tactics or consent to such a bleak view of our history.”

An engraving by Theodor de Bry depicting Christopher Columbus landing on Hispaniola on Dec. 6, 1492.

But the historical accounts are consistent. Countless records, including his own diaries, confirm that Columbus and members of his expedition stole goods and land from the original inhabitants of the place, inflicted violence upon them, forced them into slavery, and introduced a host of diseases that contributed to the decimation of their populations. So is it “radical” to condemn a slave trader? “Extremist” to state the facts of what he did? Is claiming that someone’s positive opinions about Columbus do not change historical facts “squash[ing] any dissent from…orthodoxy”? Not at all. “Orthodoxy” is a religious term, belonging to the realm of belief. But as author Philip K. Dick puts it: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, does not go away.” Just because you may not want to take a bleak view of our history, that doesn’t change the rock-solid fact that this incident in history was very, very bleak for anyone who wasn’t European and Christian.

Dick came up with that particular quote in response to a university student who asked for a one-sentence definition of “reality” to use in a class assignment. In a 1978 speech titled “How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” he discusses the challenge and goes on to warn his listeners:

“But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. . . . So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.”

And here is the crux of the thing, the part we haven’t even considered yet: power. As we try to parse out the truth from the lies, as we try to see things as they really are and not how we wish they would be, one crucial thing to consider is the balance of power. Who has it? Who doesn’t? And who is willing to manipulate the truth in order to hold onto it?

METAPHOR 5: The Egg and the Wall

This is the section where I’m probably going to lose some of you. But that’s okay. It needs to be said anyway.

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, a writer I follow on Instagram posted a quote from author Haruki Murakami’s 2009 speech for his controversial acceptance of a prestigious Israeli literary award. The specific excerpt I’d like to focus on is as follows:

Please do, however, allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: Rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.”

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

This metaphor resonated with me, and it raises some interesting questions: Who is the wall and who is the egg? Who gets to decide?

When author J.K. Rowling tweeted anti-trans sentiments and wrote an essay earlier on this year addressing her beliefs about trans people, she and her supporters very obviously believed themselves to be defending the egg. They imagine worst-case scenarios where a cis man could abuse trans-inclusive laws to gain access to restrooms where they might corner and assault women. They see choosing to define gender as something beyond genitals as a direct attack on the vulnerable.

They do not recognize that a multimillionaire championing an idea of binary genders that has been the mainstream social and cultural norm for millennia is simply too flat, too broad, and too solid to be an egg. Nor do they understand that trans people — who are significantly more likely to live in poverty, experience harassment and discrimination at work or by police, commit suicide, or be murdered—are not, simply cannot be by any feasible definition, the wall.

The egg and the wall doesn’t ask who you agree with, or who you like better. It asks you to consider who has more of the power and stability and who is vulnerable.

I mentioned earlier that my aunt unfollowed me on Instagram when I posted an image that says “Black Lives Matter.”

Here is the offending post, captioned only: “Letterboard needed an update.”

My uncle, her husband, was a police officer for many years and later an FBI agent. To her, this image meant I was “taking sides” and being political and disrespectful. In her mind — at least according to her social media posts — she was sympathetic to the cause of those who mourned George Floyd’s unjust death, but they “ruined it” when they started protesting, and especially going after police. She and others in my family view Black Lives Matter protestors and Abolish the Police advocates as an unruly mob going after the noble boys in blue who put their lives on the line to protect the general public.

So, she cares for the safety and well-being of her loved one and others in his line of work? That’s not the problem here. Believe it or not, I do too. And maybe it seems unfair to go after everyone in a certain kind of job for the actions of specific “bad apples.” But follow the train of logic here.

My mother was a teacher for many years. I love and support teachers, and think teaching is a noble profession (and imagine more and more parents are beginning to agree with me in this accursed plague year of social distancing and work-from-home). But, MAJOR abuse trigger warning here: if teachers molested 164* children in the first eight months of 2020, you can bet there would be investigations, criminal proceedings, stricter screenings and background checks for teachers, increased harassment training, and potentially an entire restructuring of the education system. If this were true, I could still love my retired teacher mother and support the work of other teachers while condemning those who committed crimes and taking steps — even potentially radical ones — to prevent more harm. Why can we not do the same with police officers? (*That number, by the way, was not pulled at random. It’s the number of fatal shootings of black people by police in the first eight months of 2020.)

Follow the metaphor even further. What if teachers molested 164 children in the first eight months of 2020 and very few, if any, of them received criminal charges? What if the majority of them were fired, but because of the way the education system worked they were free to move to a different city or state and pursue teaching work in a new school? How much outrage would not only the families of the victims feel, but also the general public? Wouldn’t you feel like a system like that was so far gone that there was nothing for it but to tear the whole thing down and rebuild it from the ground up?

The “Blue Lives Matter” crowd views police as the victims and protestors — especially black people, or the anti-fascists they label “Antifa” — as violent attackers. But look for a minute at the power dynamics here. Look at the numbers of times police have killed black people and experienced few to no legal repercussions. Look at the cops-as-military-lite ethos that has pervaded the way we think about police, as a sort of brotherhood that closes ranks to protect its own. Look at all the cop shows where “good cop”/“bad cop” is a perfectly legitimate and widely-accepted stereotype (to the point that even kids’ fare like The Lego Movie has embraced it).

The Bad Cop / Good Cop character voiced by Liam Neeson in the 2014 Lego Movie

Compare this to the many black and brown people who live in fear of being profiled, roughed up, or even killed by cops while just going about their daily lives. Compare this to the countless citizens in this country who consider it a necessity to have talks with their children warning them about what to do if stopped by police. Compare this to the immense emotional and psychological damage of watching people who look like you get killed over and over again and having other people — let’s be honest, white people — dismiss your extremely reasonable plea of please stop murdering us with a “but all lives matter” comment or some glib statistics about “black on black crime.”

Who is the wall here? Who is the egg?

If you’re a white, middle-class Christian who gets yelled at on the internet, you might feel persecuted. Maybe you saw the news stories of Twitter users piling on actor Chris Pratt for attending a church with anti-LGBTQ+ teachings and thought, “Wait, I attend a church like that. And he seems like a super nice guy.” And maybe in your mind you’re tempted to view him as the egg in all this. But there’s a distinct difference between having people criticize your beliefs in the public sphere and having your rights taken away from you. Chris Pratt is not suffering long-term consequences from this; he still has an acting career and a net worth of millions of dollars. What’s more, no one is shutting down churches that teach anti-LGBTQ+ views. But some anti-LGBTQ+lawmakers would potentially remove rights for trans individuals or queer couples, such as access to healthcare, legal adoption, or fostering. Can you see the difference?

It’s time we start looking, really looking, and trying to understand the balance of power and struggles for justice in the world around us. We need to evaluate who the truly vulnerable are, even if we may not personally like them or relate to them — “no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg” — and even if it means acknowledging some hard truths about ourselves.

METAPHOR 6: The Bonwit Teller Flagship Store

I made up my mind about Donald Trump in the months before the 2016 election, after reading the book Trump and Me by Mark Singer. In this slim tome, expanded from a 1996 New Yorker profile, Singer makes a brief mention of an early controversy that plagued the construction of Trump’s eponymous tower. In 1979, Donald Trump acquired the Bonwit Teller flagship store with plans to demolish it in order to raise his own building. An art dealer named Robert Miller recognized the value of the art deco sculptures and decorative grille on the historic building, and reached out to coordinate a deal in which Trump would donate the pieces to the Museum of Modern Art.

1929 photo of an ornamental frieze on the Bonwit Teller flagship store

However, when it became apparent that removing the pieces without damaging them would delay his building work and cost him extra money, Trump reneged on the deal, canceling meetings, not responding to phone calls, and casting blame on the undocumented Polish workers he had hired, who destroyed the valuable pieces of art before they could be donated. Later he admitted the workers did so on his orders.

What did this tell me about Trump? Here was a man with a vision, who was willing to do whatever it took to get what he wanted. But here too was a man with no honor. He agreed to the MoMA deal because it would make him look good, but as soon as he realized the personal cost he needed a way out. Undocumented workers were all well and good when you could exploit them by paying them $4 an hour for 12-hour work days in unsafe conditions, but when they started causing him legal problems? Not so much. So what do you do? Destroy the art, cast blame on the workers, and wipe your hands of the whole mess. Two birds, one stone. It was a neat trick, and very revealing: Trump does not care about art or the preservation of history, and he certainly does not care about human lives. Both were a means to an end, and utterly expendable.

I had hoped when he won the presidency in 2016 that I might be wrong about him. Perhaps he might show signs of growth, having moved on from the sins of forty years ago. But time and again the pattern holds: he will destroy or exploit anything or anyone if it’s necessary to get what he wants. His promises are empty; his word means nothing at all. But it’s worse than that. He will say whatever he wants to be true, as if that somehow changes reality. After destroying the Bonwit Teller art pieces, he later claimed to have had them assessed at a fraction of what MoMA claimed they were worth. When looking back at the incident, he called them “garbage” and “junk,” even though researchers and art historians grieved the loss. Why? Because if a museum was wrong about their worth and he took the time to get them evaluated, maybe he somehow wouldn’t come across as the villain in his own tale. It isn’t true, but if he says it often enough maybe people will forget that it isn’t.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale features the chilling and extremely quotable line:

How quickly then have we allowed what is “ordinary” to shift to such a degree that we are now used to news articles reporting on the president’s statements consistently have to follow them with phrases like “but that’s not true”…

Excerpt from this NPR article by Camila Domonoske

…that we are used to our elected officials ignoring our repeated calls and letters in order to go on towing their party line, that we are used to the Attorney General and the White House Press Secretary invoking the Bible to defend inhumane practices, and that we are as used to reports of bribery, theft, and collusion on the part of the president as we are to his many ill-advised and inaccurate Twitter rants.

On election night, I saw many people on my social media feeds acting appalled, bewildered, and even amused at the outpouring of grief at Trump’s win. “We didn’t make such a fuss when Obama won!” read one post. “Get over it. Sometimes things don’t go your way. Stop overreacting,” said another. People tossed around the terms “snowflake” and “poor losers” liberally. (Pun not intended.) To these folks, this election was a Duck-Rabbit, a mere difference of opinion. To the mourners, it was something significantly more.

A meme making the rounds on Conservative social media in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, proving not much has changed in the last four years.

I cried that night. I sobbed and sobbed. And it wasn’t because of the man himself, who wasn’t even in office at that point and had yet to enact his discriminatory travel ban, fuel the hateful (and deadly) rhetoric at Charlottesville, ignore Puerto Rico’s desperate plight, separate immigrant children from their parents and hold them in refurbished box stores and tent camps, announce plans to start drilling for oil in an Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and endanger the lives of American citizens during a pandemic by ignoring the advice of experts, promoting unproven coronavirus treatments, and hosting large campaign gatherings that acted as superspreader events. I didn’t know any of those things were coming, or I probably wouldn’t have stopped crying.


The reason I mourned that night was because I suddenly realized that many of my loved ones and fellow Americans didn’t see this as an issue of right or wrong. It’s not that all of them were trying to elect a bigoted, bullying liar into White House. (I don’t deny that there is a contingent of people in this country who definitely were.) But when it came to many of these voters, including some of my own family members, they looked at Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and somehow saw Trump as the lesser of two evils. They were looking at a black and blue Dress and seeing white and gold, and that’s how they voted. It didn’t matter ultimately what was true. All that mattered was what they saw.

When I started writing this essay, I wanted to blame America’s eroded understanding of truth on Donald Trump. After all, give a liar like him the highest office in the land, and what else would you expect? Call a truth you don’t like “fake news.” Antagonize the media, and accuse those who hold you accountable of bias and lies. Spin the facts to fit your own agenda. Say it loud enough and long enough and soon it’s the only thing they’ll hear. If someone draws a line in the sand, scuff it out with your foot and draw a new one further down. Keep doing that until everyone just gets used to it.

But this has been going on even before Trump. He’s not the sickness, he’s the symptom. What’s scary isn’t that a man like him could become president. What’s scary is all the polite and well-meaning people — my friends and family and neighbors — who put him there. They don’t see that to him America is just another Bonwit Teller flagship store: that he would dismantle and destroy what makes it beautiful in order to make way for his own vision, and that he will just as quickly turn around and screw over all the people who helped him to do it whenever it no longer becomes convenient to have them on his side.

METAPHOR 7: The Line

I probably lost you somewhere along the way, but if you’re still here — thanks. The truth is, I’m not sure how to end this. But I keep coming back to one image, which I’ve mentioned at various points before now: this idea of a line drawn in the sand.

Oxford Languages defines the idiom “a line in the sand” as meaning “a point beyond which one will not go; a limit to what one will do or accept.” And I wonder as I watch Trump apologists or conservatives who are willing to sacrifice their principles to secure Supreme Court justices — where is their line in the sand? Do they have one at all?

I’ve watched the people in my life who taught me the difference between right and wrong completely abandon their teachings in favor of political gain.

I’ve grieved to witness people say that “only” a million people have died worldwide from COVID-19. Or dismiss the full, rich, meaningful lives of the brown and black people killed by police every year as somehow par for the course. Or prioritize their personal comforts over the lives and well-being of others.

I felt an anguished horror the day I told my Christian sister-in-law that Jesus Christ condemned the rich and commanded his followers to welcome foreigners, give to poor people, and provide for widows and orphans, and she called me a “heretic.”

(“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you freeholds about the same meaning as “self-evident” these day, it seems.)

Jean-Luc Picard’s speech from the end of the 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact

“Hold the line” was a military directive used to order soldiers to maintain their position during combat. It’s the kind of “line” the character Jean-Luc Picard referred to in his rousing speech from the end of the 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact when confronted with the decision to destroy his ship in order to stop the evil Borg from advancing. “I will not sacrifice the Enterprise,” he whispers, overtaken by emotion. “We’ve made too many compromises already; too many retreats. They invade our space and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!” And that’s exactly the kind of line we need in the midst of America’s ideological Civil War — a war that has not been without its casualties.

Recently I enjoyed a glorious autumn day on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and on the way home we traveled through Trump country. How could I tell? There were giant gaudy red, white, and blue signs in yards and storefronts, Trump/Pence flags and banners and bumper stickers, “Farmers for Trump” billboards, and one huge “Stop the insanity. Vote Republican” sign as we were entering a small downtown.

But in the middle of all of this, one very tiny handmade sign with firm black lettering on a white background was poking up out of the median. It said: “Good people don’t support a bad man.”

And that’s what it comes down to, friends. In the end. After the spin, the “fake news,” all the attempts to retcon history, all the lies, the corruption, and the harm done. The truth is small but inescapable. It’s black and white. It’s not affixed with spangled bunting and flags and spotlights. Good people don’t support a bad man. That’s it. That’s where I draw my line.

But where do you draw yours?

And are you using what you have — your voice, your time, your money, your resources, your abilities, your influence, and, yes, your vote — to do good in this world, to help and not to harm, and to uphold life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all?