Episode Four: Thoughts on Bernie Sanders Sitting in a Chair

Posted by Sarah Edelstein on

I think today was a particularly exhausting day to be an American. Many of us awoke after poor nights of sleep (or perhaps no sleep at all), wondering if our cities would be safe, wondering if there was terror to come in the waking hours of Inauguration Day. On my way to the kitchen for morning coffee I peeked at the package on my living room floor that neatly held the extra batteries and candles I’d ordered, wondering if I’d need them, wondering if the power grid security risks I’d been alerted to would come true. After what felt like ages of wondering what it would bring, today arrived, as days often do. And, so it seemed, it went off without a hitch. Political elites and celebrities alike entered the Capitol, one which only days ago had come under siege by a band of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. This inauguration was, for so many reasons, a historic day. Twitter would proclaim the incredible outfits, the sparkling suits and jewelry, the opulence and the class of those who pull the levers of power in our nation. One man, the chosen god-king leader of the most recent wave of American fascism, was notably absent, but somehow amongst the luxurious wool coats and thick heirloom bibles, nothing felt like it was actually missing. In fact, everything that the American empire stands for was firmly in its place, brighter and shiner than ever before.

 

And then there was Bernie Sanders.

 

Mr. Sanders, who entered our scene wearing a rugged brown snow coat, a blue surgical mask, and a now-famous pair of auburn woolen mittens, carried with him a manila envelope and an expression that said “I have other places to go after this, can we hurry it up?” The now iconic photo of him from today's ceremony shows him cross-armed and cross-legged in a folding chair, a pose that was perhaps just his default setting but has become a blank canvas for the projections of everyone who, in their own way, couldn’t quite settle with the grandeur of today's inaugural proceedings. Even as he did something quite ordinary (like sit in a chair in the manner of an impatient father who’s been left on the bench outside Claire’s for a little too long), Sanders gave way for the recognition of a key truth: that for most, today wasn’t about a pure expression of American euphoria. In fact, for some Americans, today was a slap in the face.

 

Sure, the majority of people in this country would join me in my sentiments of overall relief that the Trump administration has come to a definitive end. But I would imagine that many of those same Americans would also wonder…why did Joe Biden, moments after taking the oath of office, spare not a single moment to condemn the fascism, the hatred, and the violence that Trump and his disciples stand for? Why did Biden call for “unity” with the very people who had besieged the Capitol—whose initial goal was to assassinate progressive legislators—with no mention of accountability? In the days since the siege of the Capitol we have heard rumors that there were people inside congress perhaps working with the Trump mob, that Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s panic button was mysteriously removed from her office, that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was running for her life. We know that active duty military who were assigned to protect the inauguration were in fact relieved from their posts at the last minute, apparently having ties to the insurrection. And yet…the best our incoming administration has to say to us is that we should all get along, that we should come together as American brothers and sisters, that we should put our differences aside and reach out to one another. I know I can’t be the only one asking this but like, what the fuck does that mean? Is the first step towards unity not accountability? Is the first step towards healing not a thorough and accurate diagnosis, complete with a course of treatment?

 

Maybe this is an over-extension of the para-social, but it really does feel like in the midst of all of this, the only relatable piece of today’s events that I (and many other people who are way too online) could cling to was this guy, an elder senator from Vermont, sitting in a chair, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. Who, when asked about his outfit, told the reporter that the American people need their $2,000 stimulus and they need it yesterday. Maybe this is a sign of how deeply our country has sunken into the final stages of its decline, but maybe it’s also just so much easier right now to relate to someone who dressed for the weather, who actually stayed several feet apart from everyone, who was not photographed without a mask on. Perhaps it’s easier to feel seen by someone who showed up because he had to, not because he was interested in political theater on a day when two Americans per minute would die of a virus that has spread beyond our wildest nightmares. Maybe those Bernie memes validated those of us who, frankly, thought today was bullshit. We can’t know what was going through Bernie’s head at that moment…and, like all para-social relationships, we have to realize that our feelings about him are largely reflections of our own selves that we have projected onto him. But that’s the thing about a viral meme, it reflects the para-social manifestations of hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of people who are all feeling similar things, for whom this image struck a chord in similar ways. Maybe we are all, in the midst of this cold and dark winter, struggling to feel hope for the future. And rather than be scolded or guilted into faking that hope, we are instead relieved to be met with someone familiar, someone whose actions reflect a greater fight for the improvements of our material conditions, someone who put on his good coat and warmest mittens this morning and said let’s fucking get this over with. If memes speak to a moment, to a broader feeling, maybe that’s why this was Bernie’s day. Because it’s not that he’s flawless or glamorous, it’s that he reminded us that we may have to keep showing up for this shit…even if we don’t necessarily want to right this second.

 

In no way do I endeavor to steal joy from anyone who found respite and excitement in today. Objectively, today was historic, and countless people worked exceedingly hard to make the end of the Trump presidency a reality. What I do take issue with (and what I will continue to push back against) is the notion that we are somehow done now. What I struggle with is the fact that many people seem to forget the patterns of history. What I worry about is that this actually isn't over, not even close. I'm sure there were better, richer, more poignant ways that incredible spectrum of feeling could have been expressed than a 78 year old Jewish guy sitting in a chair. But, this is America, and this is the internet...and I'll take whatever memes I can get.

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