NEW YORK—Anyone hungry for a pinpoint glimpse of early 21st-century America—a slice to slide under a microscope and reveal things that hide in plain sight—need only consider the first week of February in 2019.
As always these days, there was politics—bleeding over into most everything and pushing us down uncertain roads. But here's what you got, too: race and racism, sex and sexual assault, polarization and dark technology and climate change, capitalism and socialism and—perhaps most American of all—tabloid sensationalism.
The past few crazy quilt-years of American life have already felt weirder and more frantic than usual for many people. Even given that context, though, the last seven days featured a particularly aggressive volley of news buckshot in which strange things bled into stranger things.
The news pinballed from checkout-line magazine racks to yearbook archives to the highest court in the land to a dictator's nuclear arsenal 7,000 miles away.
"What will we do with this moment? How will we be remembered?" President Donald Trump said in his state of the union speech on Tuesday night, addressing history's sweep. But in assessing the week that was, the question remains valid.
It kicked off with a Democratic governor's blackface scandal that soon also tainted his attorney general. In between them, the lieutenant governor who would replace the governor faced a sexual misconduct allegation that apparently had been percolating for years.
Then, on Tuesday: A State of the Union gathering given in a divided chamber of Congress featured everything from Holocaust survivors to word of fresh talks with the North Korean leader, from an ascendant generation of congressional Democratic women wearing suffragette white to Trump making this pronouncement: "Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country."
And on Thursday, a Supreme Court divided (as usual) on abortion handed down a decision that made some wonder: Is this in fact the Trump court that would pivot to the right, or a more centrist body with Chief Justice John Roberts smack in the middle?
Then, just as the dinner hour arrived that day, the richest man in the world, Amazon chief and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, pre-empted what he said was an attempt at extortion by the National Enquirer to expose intimate photos and texts from his extramarital relationship.
Amid this all (and quickly forgotten by most everyone but New Englanders) came the Super Bowl, the nation's biggest scheduled cultural moment. Like so much else lately in American life, it and its halftime show were roundly received as anticlimactic and just plain unsatisfying.
Based on the week that was, then, this is America in its many facets, distilled right here, right now:
- The tortured, virulent history of racism that refuses to fade.
- The potent, usually ugly combination of politics and sex that spills over into the public arena—thanks, now, to the most private of intimacies that we carry on tiny devices in our pockets and that are vulnerable to infiltration by the nosy and the nefarious.
- The push-pull tension of governing America that, at its best, elevates us but, at its worst, sets us at each other's throats.
- The insistence of late that we simply must reboot American society to make it great again.
- The ability of anyone—even a billionaire more than 100 times over—to bypass a national media infrastructure that he helps oversee and proceed directly to a medium called Medium and, like any other American with a personal grievance, just blog it out.
"Something unusual happened to me yesterday," Bezos, evidently a master of understatement, wrote in his post Thursday night. But in American life these days, "something unusual" has become very much the usual—as is the penchant of the republic's people to go public and talk about it.
It is easier than ever for Americans to participate in the maelstrom that surrounds them. Yet it is also easier than ever to feel knocked around in the storm, buffeted by events like a weather reporter hoping for a wind-whipped shot on the beach as the hurricane rolls in.
But what happens when this barrage of upended orthodoxies, of newsy revelations that release the same fleeting dopamine bursts as Instagram likes, never quite abates? How do we begin to navigate where we're going if we can't take a breath to take stock of where we are right now?
One other development of note happened this week: In Michigan, a man named John Dingell died. He'd served in Congress for 50 years, longer than any other American. He came into the world when Calvin Coolidge was president, in the decade when commercial radio was born. During his final hours, with the help of his wife, he was still tweeting.
As the American foot pushed the accelerator, as the more coherent American narrative gave way to a far more splintered one, John Dingell steadily navigated his arc. After the jumbled events of the past week, it's easy to wonder: Can we?
Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, writes frequently about American culture. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted.