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  • Jan Flynn

Look Forward, or Back?

January is the Month With Two Faces

A two-faced Roman deity gives us the name January

Or maybe not: Wikipedia points out that while “conventional belief” holds that the first month of the year is named after Janus, ancient Roman farmer’s almanacs said it was named in honor of Juno. But with one face looking to the future and one to the past, and being the god of “beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings,” Janus seems the clear choice for January’s Spirit of the Month. Anyway, who reads ancient Roman farmer’s almanacs?

The first week of January 2021 set many of us to whipping our heads back and forth with such velocity that we feel like we’ve got two faces pointing in separate directions ourselves. The tension between hope and dismay, progress and regression, creation and destruction has never been so taut.

2020, finally over. A new administration at last able to plan its transition to the White House. Coronavirus vaccines rolling out. After ten tragic and weary months, our forward-facing eyes scanned the horizon, eager to spot a brighter future even if we had to peer over the projected landscape of a dark winter to do so.

And then on the morning of January 6, what felt to many of us like a miracle: the Georgia senate runoff elections resulted in two Democrats winning seats in a state that has until now been a retrograde Republican stronghold and a bastion of voter suppression. Our future-focused faces shone with joy and relief — until that afternoon when the always-present forces of hate, racism, and misguided jingoism, cultivated and inflamed to a fever pitch by a President utterly contemptuous of his oath to uphold the Constitution, overtook our rearward-facing regard.

Lots of us had seen something like this coming

But it was still a shock to witness the eruption of an orgy of violence and desecration in our nation’s Capitol. By now we’ve all seen the photos: armed insurrectionists swarming the House and Senate chambers. One grinning yahoo as he made off with Nancy Pelosi’s podium; another with his feet propped up on her desk.

Pipe bombs at the headquarters of both the Democratic and Republican party headquarters. Feces smeared in a federal building. Blood, or what looks like it, smeared on a marble bust of Zachary Taylor. The worst impulses of humanity on brazen parade — and, as far as I can see by scanning the photos, all displayed by white people. Not a face of color among them, not even Ali Alexander, a founder of Stop The Steal, who seemed content to stay out of the fracas he’d helped foment even as he praised it as “nonviolent.”

And the baffling response of the authorities. As Vox reported on January 8:

Just 69 were arrested on site despite widespread photos and footage of rioters bashingwindows and scaling the walls of the Capitol grounds. In fact, in some video, officers can be seen holding the hands of the extremists, escorting them down steps, holding the doors of the Capitol open for them to leave, and taking selfies with them.

This is in contrast to the anonymous Feds who roamed the streets of Portland this summer, seizing protesters and bundling them into unmarked cars. And to the tear gas used on peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Square on June 1 2020 to clear the way for Trump to wave a Bible in front of St. John’s Church. And it’s in contrast to the number of arrests — 427 —made by Washington police within three days at the peak of the unrest following the murder of George Floyd.

Meanwhile, the U.S. saw its highest death toll yet from the coronavirus. On January 6, just under 4,000 people succumbed to COVID, more than we lost in 9/11, more than at Pearl Harbor. It’s as if 18 fully loaded 737 jetliners went down with 100% fatalities. On the same day.

Yet not a tickle of a whiff of concern about that from our current administration. Which, despite the exodus of rats from the sinking ship of state, is still in power. The vaccine rollout is, predictably, at a snail’s pace due to logistical snarls, while state and local health officials are once again desperate for help.

And we won’t know for months, possibly years, the extent of the fallout from Russia’s hack of our government and tech industry while our Fearful Leader was preoccupied with overturning an election.

The disease and dysfunction of our past threaten our future

There’s no denying it: we are in as tenuous a place as we have ever been as a nation. Not due to outside enemies, but because of a schism in our own nature that blinds us to the truth, along with a mindless virus that is utterly democratic in its view of each of us as a suitable host regardless of what we believe about it, and an environment that is staggering under the combined weight of our demand and neglect.

We can’t meet unprecedented threats with the weapons of the past. We can’t close our eyes to our flaws and the mistakes we’ve made that have led us here. At the same time, we have to focus on what lies ahead, and our role in creating a future that is worthy of all the people trying to make their way on this planet now, and those who will come after us. None of that can happen if we lose our nerve, or allow our attention to be commandeered only by the negative.

After all, it’s now possible to tell a new joke, one version of which goes:

A Black preacher and a Jew walk into a bar in Atlanta, Georgia. The bartender says, “What can I get you, Senators?”

Janus was also the god in charge of the beginning and end of conflict. The Roman building dedicated to him was an enclosure whose gates, one at each end, were kept open in times of war and shut when peace came. If we can end this month by edging our gates of conflict towards the closed position, we may just make it.

The danger is real, but so is the hope. We just have to get through January. And then keep going.

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