The editors of Drown Unbound welcome back all returning members of our community and bid a special welcome to the department’s new graduate students. While we hope that everyone enjoys a productive and positive 2017-18 academic year, we would feel remiss were we not to acknowledge the utterly grave historical moment in which we find ourselves at the start of this term.
In 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists instituted the Doomsday Clock. The clock was created to represent the impending peril for the planet and the human race in the Atomic Age with midnight signaling annihilation. At its inception, the clock’s hands were set at seven minutes to midnight. Since then, not only the likelihood of nuclear devastation but all man-made threats to existence are considered when setting the clock’s time. Following the election of Donald Trump last November, the clock was set at two and a half minutes to midnight.
Less than a year into his term of office, Donald Trump has engaged in rhetoric and posturing that has made the risk of nuclear war more likely than at any time since the height of the Cold War. He has resolved to re-escalate our futile war in Afghanistan. He has refused to acknowledge what the world’s scientific community affirms: climate change is real and humankind is responsible. He has withdrawn the United States from the Paris Accord and launched a concerted effort to deregulate industry and eviscerate environmental protection. He has spread misinformation and lies and attacked the integrity of the free press. And, perhaps most troubling, he has offered his tacit approval of racism, fascism, and hate.
It is easy to despair in the face of such flagrant injustice and abuse of power. What can we as scholars and teachers of literature do to help right an imbalance of such magnitude? As the backdrop to the tragic events at Charlottesville illustrates, narratives and who controls them form a battleground of vital strategic importance. The removal of Confederate monuments across the South is not an attempt to erase history. It is, rather, an attempt to challenge which narrative of the Civil War and the legacy of American slavery is given credence. Most of the monuments now being removed were constructed in the early decades of the twentieth century which, not coincidentally, marked the height of Jim Crow law, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan activity. These monuments were not reminders of past heroes’ glory; they were ever-present affirmations of political and social systems based on white supremacy. To challenge their placement in communities is to challenge the dominant narrative of race relations in the United States. As students and teachers of literature, we hold special knowledge and skills to analyze and question such narratives. In times like these, we are charged with a moral obligation to use our skills to counter the false narratives constructed to disguise and promote injustice and to help others toward greater critical acuity.
Our best literature is the embodiment of truth and beauty. As such, it speaks with a candor that often troubles hegemony. One hundred years ago this autumn, students and faculty from Lehigh were departing to participate in the First World War. What they found upon their arrival in Europe was carnage and slaughter on a scale previously unimaginable. Nowhere is the impact of that horror more honestly and movingly recorded than in the outpouring of literature from those who bore witness to those years. For many, it must have seemed that Armageddon was surely at hand—as, indeed, it may seem to many of us now. But amid the many cries of despair, there were also voices of hope that brighter times lay ahead. Ultimately, it may not be the shining suns of a golden age that do the most to advance humankind but the humble souls who keep the meagre flame of truth alive through the dark times.
Let’s do our best this year to tend the flame.