What a year this month has been. For those keeping score at home, January 2021 saw a number of unprecedented historic events crammed into the span of three head-spinning weeks, giving 2020 a true run for its money as the reigning Most Tumultuous Year Ever. A failed coup at the Capitol on Jan. 6; a House of Representatives vote to impeach then-President Trump for a second time on Jan. 13; and President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20—three seismic events, each occurring one week apart, and not nearly enough time to process it all.
It’s been jarring, to say the least, to bear witness to these headline-making events in real time. To refresh Twitter feeds as white supremacists stormed the Capitol. To watch a live stream of the House impeachment votes online. To see Amanda Gorman deliver her stunning poem, “The Hill We Climb,” on Inauguration Day, with a reference to the major threat to capital-D Democracy that the US suffered just two weeks prior. So much of the country is still reeling from the reverberations of 2020 that it is hard to absorb the emotional highs and lows we’ve been dealt in just this first month alone. The whiplash we’re feeling from the barrage of information that’s flooded the news and our news feeds is very, very real. And scarily enough, this is exactly the sort of chaos and division where disinformation breeds best.
Last summer, I wrote a piece warning that we have to stay vigilant in how we remember this historic moment. At the time, I was referencing the Black Lives Matter protests that were rocking the nation, and the necessary systemic reckonings that were taking place around the country. Already, people in power were looking to warp history-in-the-making. Already, they were spinning the narrative in their favor. Images and video of cities on fire circulated on social media alongside claims that liberal cities were being overtaken by “antifa” and anarchist groups.
Folks who didn’t care to dig deeper for the facts latched onto this rhetoric, despite evidence that most all marches and protests were peaceful. At the same time, our then-president unleashed tear gas and rubber bullets on crowds in DC so that he could pose in front of a church with a Bible; as reckless and malicious as that act was, it was also a bold move for historic relevance. Because if there’s one thing that Trump understands, it’s that visual imagery is what ultimately shapes our narratives in the end.
And now, nearly seven months after the summer of protests, it seems like our collective visual literacy is at an impasse once again. It’s not that folks are unable to understand what it is that they’re seeing onscreen, it’s that they’re finding ways to ignore the visual evidence right before their eyes so they can twist the story to fit their beliefs. They’re being told, ironically, not to believe what they see, and this is the power and the downfall of our media-driven, image-saturated culture: we derive our news from what we see on the page and on-screen at the exact same time that we doubt it. It’s hard to know what to believe when so many of the images and videos we’re presented with come without context, and can be used to tell the story we want to hear.
Take, for instance, the attempted coup on the Capitol on Jan. 6. Images from that disgraceful day show mostly white Trump supporters brandishing flags that read “Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings,” “Fuck Biden,” and even one that unironically read, “Keeping America Great.” (The slogan immediately begs the question: for whom?) It was an insurrection that was openly planned on platforms like Parler and Gab, touted by Trump on Twitter, and had actually been on Capitol security’s radar for some time. Rioters excitedly snapped selfies with guards and recorded videos of themselves wreaking havoc in the chambers. It was, in short, clearly the handiwork of Trump’s rabid fan base, determined to stop the lawful transfer of power to the winner of the 2020 election, Joe Biden.
In the immediate aftermath of the failed coup, however, a very stubborn segment of the population (read: the Right) found an improbable way to reconcile the cognitive dissonance they felt watching rioters deface a federal building, injure police officers, and essentially (and literally) shit on democracy. They simply insisted that what the entire world had just witnessed wasn’t even real. That the people who had stormed the Capitol were actors, antifa cosplaying as Trump supporters to stir the pot. They took the unavoidable barrage of images that came out of the coup—many of which were taken by the rioters themselves—and called them fake news. Already, people in power are looking to warp history-in-the-making. Already, they are spinning the narrative in their favor.
We’re just four weeks into the new year, and already, we’re seeing how power isn’t afraid to rewrite history in real time, how money and stature breed an unnerving confidence to tell lies and sell them as truths. Facts are subjective. Even when there is visual evidence of what’s happening, we will be subject to counter narratives by folks who want to maintain a hold on their perches of power and privilege. The rioters who documented their foray in the Capitol aren’t as dumb as they seem, even if they’re being identified one by one via advanced face recognition technologies. They believe they are both the victims and the saviors of our society. They, like their beloved leader, also understand the power of an image, and they want the world to know that they were a part of that big day in history. How it is understood a year or two or decades from now depends largely upon who gets to tell the story. And they’re counting on their own success.
Ours is a society that has proven time and again just how short and selective our collective memory can be, and how we’ve too often relied on the neat narratives we’re sold in history books. So it falls on us, as citizens of this broken nation, to remember the stories of now as nuanced and layered as they need to be. To revisit these images with context, and to think critically about what we’re seeing. Because if there’s one thing that we’ve learned from 2020, it’s that history, historically, has too often served those in power at the expense of the truths and lived realities of the oppressed. This is history in the making. What will we remember?
Joyce Chen is a writer/editor/creator from LA who spent a decade in NYC before relocating back to the West Coast in fall 2017. She has covered entertainment and human interest stories for Rolling Stone, Refinery29, Paste magazine, the New York Daily News, and People, and her creative writing credits include LitHub, Narratively, and Barrelhouse, among others. She is one of the cofounders of The Seventh Wave, a bicoastal arts and literary nonprofit, and holds an MFA from The New School and a BA in journalism and psychology from USC.
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