Because we’re all fond of metaphors, let’s conjure up an image of America as if it were a person.
In this scenario, we see that — like everyone — America has her virtues and her flaws, her good days and her bad days. Lately, America has nursed the nagging suspicion that she’s past her prime, but she’s not giving up just yet.
All she has to do is lose ten pounds, give up smoking, and… what was that last thing? Oh yeah, end widespread and systematic racism that disenfranchises millions of ethnic minorities.
But what happens when America — or any person — tries to change a bad habit?
Well, contrary to popular belief, negative behaviors usually don’t fade away. They put up a fight, and then they either die out forever or (more likely) come roaring back with a vengeance.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to give up devouring that daily tub of ice cream. You might go weeks without so much as a spoonful of Chunky Monkey. But then you allow yourself a taste of Cherry Garcia. Bam — your “diet ends in a catastrophic binge, and you look at the empty containers and ask, ‘What the hell. How did my smooth transition from comfort food to human dumpster happen?’”
That’s an extinction burst, which is “a predictable and common blast of defiance from the recesses of a brain denied familiar rewards.”
Basically, an extinction burst is your brain’s last-ditch effort to return you to your old ways. It happens, weirdly enough, when you are closest to your goal.
Your mind is saying, “Shit, this behavior might actually take root. Time to panic.” And you pig out, or smoke three packs one after another, or binge watch nine hours of porn, or indulge in whatever behavior you are trying to banish.
And you were so close… and doing so well… sigh.
Well, you can see how this relates to our metaphor of America, the personality.
For centuries, she had a really nasty habit of enslaving, oppressing, or outright murdering ethnic minorities.
Hey, we’ve all been there. Don’t judge.
In any case, sometime within the last few decades, America faced her problem head-on and resolved to do better.
So she got rid of the most glaring nastiness — like Jim Crow — and said overt racism in public was no longer cool.
Then she buckled down and took some risks — like affirmative action — that paid off. Why, she even progressed so far that, recently, she elected that nice young man Barack Obama president — and he was black and everything!
People were saying America had kicked the racism habit. She was looking good and feeling cocky. America shouted, “Check it out, bitches! This is what a bigot-free society looks like. Yeah!”
And then Donald Trump happened.
Look, America didn’t really like the guy. He was an obvious blowhard and bumbling narcissist. But the kind of racism he was peddling… well, it was hard to say no to it.
After all, he didn’t use the n-word. And the people he upset… hey, they were just overly sensitive and too PC, right? So maybe, America reasoned, Trump’s xenophobia wasn’t all that toxic. America could try just a little of his hatred, you know, to let off steam? And remember, America had just elected Barack Obama (who was black and everything!). So she just couldn’t be racist anymore. What’s the harm in a little experimentation with prejudice?
We all know what happened next: the extinction burst.
Soon, America had Nazis celebrating in her streets, and hate crimes surging, and unrepentant bigots grabbing positions of high authority. America had citizens proudly exclaiming their prejudice, ethnic minorities living in fear, and a chief executive who accomplished absolutely nothing other than breaking up families.
Soon, America was staggering around, completely off the wagon. She slurred and yelled, “I’m not racist! You’re the racist!”
It’s truly sad. She was so close… and doing so well… sigh.
But maybe, just maybe, America can learn from her mistake. Perhaps she will rebound from her extinction burst, and she will accept that she cannot tolerate bigotry, or laugh off hatred, or let her guard down for a moment when it comes to racist megalomaniacs.
Maybe, in the near future, America will get her shit together and get with the program — wiser and better because of her shameful relapse.
We’re all rooting for you, America.
Featured image: Sam Ketay/Flickr