“A great man once said that the true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle, it is the pendulum. And when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it will go back.”
– Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Throughout history, the United States has often been painted as a savior of human rights, a white knight upon the world stage. Until recently, it was an image coated in Teflon, as it survived the bloodshed of our black, brown, and native ancestors. As someone who was born after the Civil Rights Movement, it has been easy to believe in this myth, but the amnesia laced bedtime story is a poor cover for this deep and systemic stain. When I saw the Statue of Liberty as an impressionable first grader, the figure that was already larger than life, approached God-like proportions. Her stoic and unwavering poise seemed to suggest that the ground itself would not stand for injustice and that discrimination was indeed passé.
The historic election that ceded the White House to Barack Obama in 2008 seemed to be further proof of this progressive trajectory, but I never imagined that by the end of 2016, our commitment to human rights would be exposed as a mere façade. On November 8th 2016, “We the Liberal Snowflakes” nearly melted from the horror of watching the electoral map hemorrhage red. It seemed to be less of a win for staunch conservatives and more of a coming out party for closet misogynists and people with a pale skin fetish. It now appears that fake news also played a significant role in the reverse swing of the metaphorical pendulum, and literal wrecking ball to the environment. #45 has had a difficult start, but he can boast of one achievement thus far, the vanishing of our moral high ground, a demolition as swift as a 3am Twitter rant. Knocked from the pedestal and bemoaning the fact that our country is no longer a beacon of hope, there is a meme, somewhere in the data overload of our constantly expanding internet, that perfectly sums up the current tenor of liberal anxiety. “The news looks like the opening montage from every dystopian film, depicting how civilization collapsed.” When I read it, I laughed a little, but only to ease the bitter sting. Our world may still be intact physically, but the civil unrest has exposed a difficult truth, that our system of governance is an experiment. It is imperfect because we are likewise flawed, and many of us can’t help but wonder, “but who will save us from ourselves?” The correct answer seems to be “no one,” as the political arena has become more of a spectacle than reality tv.
In the weeks and months that have passed since the election, a newfound angst has gripped the nation like an emotional siege. As a New Yorker, I am already well versed in the many types of anxiety, as well as their subtle nuances. There is chronic worry, and fears about money, health and dying alone will typically fall into this category. Then there is the heart thumping alarm of watching the subway doors close in your face, and you realize that you’ll be twenty minutes late for work instead of ten. But in the waning months of 2016, I noticed a familiar yet rarefied brand of emotional distress. It is the one that typically accompanies a hard truth that has been long submerged. The slow motion panic begins to rise as a kernel of latent wisdom is dislodged from its temporary resting place. As it breaches the surface, it unleashes chaos and enlightenment in unequal measure. The last time I felt its full effect was 2012, the year I turned thirty and completed the notorious astrological transit – Saturn’s Return.
If you’re not familiar with the phenomenon, Saturn’s Return occurs when the planet returns to the same place in the sky that it occupied at the moment of a person’s birth. While the planet may not reach the exact spot until the person is 29 or 30 years old, the influence of the Saturn return is considered to start in the person’s late twenties, notably the age of 27.[“
Though the astrological transit recurs at an interval of roughly 29 1/2 years, the first one is the most talked about. During this time, there is supposed to be unprecedented potential for personal growth. Like a hurricane that showers the surface with sediment that has long been buried, the planetary alignment is ripe for latent passions and hidden talents to emerge. If handled correctly, one might evolve one’s thought process from “how does this situation affect me” to “what effect do my actions have on the rest of the world?” But maturity is anything but assured. The more repressed the individual, the more swollen the ego, the greater the potential for unbridled chaos and a permanent escape from reason.
On the morning of the November 9th 2016, while sipping an unfortunate blend of coffee and tears, it suddenly struck me that if Saturn’s Return could be applied to an entire country, and if an overwhelming number of people decided to eschew personal growth in favor of extreme scapegoating, then the current state of politics is how such a disaster might manifest. The 2016 election felt like the life-altering cataclysm we were anticipating back in 2012. About halfway through the Obama administration, I learned of the “Rapture” during my morning commute, as there were always a few evangelicals camped out in the maze of NYC subway lines. Their neon signs warned of an impending Judgment Day, where all of God’s favorite children would be magically transported to a gilded afterlife.
I don’t know if it was mere coincidence, or if the disciples of End-Times lore appropriated the Mayan calendar for their own use, but there was a sense of inescapable doom waiting just beyond the horizon. A storm did come, and while Hurricane Sandy failed to deliver the apocalypse, it exposed one of New York City’s greatest assets to also be its Achilles Heel – its proximity to the ocean. But in all the time that we’ve spent trying to figure out who will be the villain in the final act, not once did we consider the possibility that the greatest threat to our civilization could be us.
Fast forward to the present, and many of us are surprised to find out that we’re still engaged in a war over our cultural identity. I haven’t been able to shake the idea of a collective Saturn’s Return, and so I decided to calculate when the last one would have occurred. Since the phenomenon needs a date of birth, the starting point around which all subsequent returns will revolve, I used July 4th 1776, when the “Declaration of Independence” was signed.
Eight Return’s of Saturn, recurring at an interval of 29 1/2 years is 236. So if we add 236 to 1776, that will give us the year of America’s 8th Saturn’s Return, which, get this, happened in 2012!
Now that my mind was officially blown, I couldn’t help but wonder if we had somehow missed the point of 2012, and are now paying the price as a result. I was suddenly curious to find out if any noteworthy events had happened during or close to a previous return, since the astrological transit takes a few years to play out. The following graphic includes those dates, as well as pivotal events in the evolution of Civil Rights.
There is an uncanny symmetry to the fact that we’re currently engaged in an identity crisis, since the “Declaration of Independence” was the first written expression of the values that define us as a nation. Those idealistic principles were also in direct conflict with the kind of society that existed in 1776, when slavery was legal and the US was an appendage to the British crown.
“In Congress, July 4th 1776…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty an the pursuit of Happiness.”
While these words are at the very core of American values and myth, when Thomas Jefferson put quill to parchment, it was simply a shared vision of man’s destiny as an enlightened species. The Revolutionary War had just begun, and would continue for another seven years, but when the United States began its new life as a sovereign nation in 1783, it failed to deliver the equality it promised.
Twenty nine and a half years after the Declaration of Independence was written, the peak of America’s 1st Saturn’s Return happened in January of 1806. It was also a pivotal year for Abolitionists.
“In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson denounced the international slave trade and called for a law to make it a crime. He told Congress in his 1806 annual message, such a law was needed to ‘withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights … which the morality, the reputation, and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe.’ Congress in 1807 outlawed the international slave trade, effective January 1, 1808.”
Unfortunately, power has a way of intoxicating those who wield it, and despite the enormity of the International Slave Trade coming to an end, the principles of this Founding Father were not universally shared. Wealthy plantation owners in the South would continue the practice of slavery for more than half a century.
The Lewis and Clark exploration of the Louisiana Purchase also happened during the Jefferson administration, which was the first exploration of the west that was sanctioned by the United States government. One of the purposes of the journey, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, was to “declare U.S. sovereignty over the land occupied by the many different tribes of Native Americans along the Missouri River.”
In the time it took for Saturn to make it’s 2nd Return, the relationship between the US government and various Indigenous Nations had deteriorated and between 1830 and 1835, a series of controversial treaties were forced onto the Natives.
“Although the New Echota Treaty was not approved by the Cherokee National Council nor signed by Principal Chief John Ross, it was amended and ratified by the U.S. Senate in March 1836, and became the legal basis for the forcible removal known as the Trail of Tears… After gold was discovered in Georgia in late 1829, the ensuing Georgia Gold Rush increased white residents’ determination to see the Cherokee removed. The Cherokee were forbidden to dig for gold, and Georgia authorized a survey of their lands to prepare for a lottery to distribute the land to whites. The state held the lottery in 1832.”
The Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations were also removed from their homelands during this time.
Tensions between the North and South also continued to grow and in 1861, the Civil War began. The conflict ended in 1865, and the victory of the Union Army meant that slavery was abolished nationwide. It was also the exact year that Saturn returned to its position for the third time in American history.
In spite of this outcome, racism flourished and in 1896, Plessy vs. Ferguson was brought before the Supreme Court. This case was significant in that the court’s decision formalized segregation, and the continued marginalization of African Americans.
“Separate but equal” was the law of the land, and continued until 1954, when the high court presided over another case – Brown vs. Board of Education. The SCOTUS ruling that segregation was unconstitutional was the catalyst that propelled the Civil Rights Movement through the sixties.
It also appears that not all Saturn’s Returns are created equal, and that every 4 Returns, there is a more prolonged period of profound transformation. That is what we are currently experiencing, and the last time this occurred was between 1890 and 1898 (4th Return – 1894). I would also argue that the birth of our modern civilization happened during this time, as the Pullman Railroad Strike in 1894 led to Labor Day, basketball was invented in 1891, and the boroughs in NYC were established in 1898.
Before some of the more celebrated milestones took place, this pivotal decade began in tragedy. In 1890 the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred, which was “generally considered to be the end of the collective multi-century series of conflicts between colonial and U.S. forces and American Indians.” It occurred in South Dakota, and involved the same Lakota tribe that was at the heart of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest.
The Statue of Liberty has become synonymous with the American Dream, as the torch bearing female was the first image that immigrants would see as they approached Ellis Island starting in 1892, but African Americans and suffragettes saw the statue as a farce.
“Liberty enlightening the world,” indeed! The expression makes us sick. This government is a howling farce. It can not or rather does not protect its own citizens within its own borders. Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the “liberty” of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family.”
-The Cleveland Gazette
In 1924, the pendulum swung once again, and Ellis Island was used primarily as a detention and deportation center.
The first gas powered car made its debut in 1893, and was known at the time as a horseless carriage, but I was surprised to find out that the electric car has also been around just as long. Had there been more cooperation between the US government and Indigenous Nations, then we may have benefited from their practice of Seven-Generation Sustainability, but gas-powered cars were cheaper, so we had to find out the hard way that our lifestyle is unsustainable. It wasn’t until the California Air Resources Board made the connection between CO2 emissions and climate change that there was renewed interest in this once archaic technology. The electric car began its renaissance in the aughts, and the Tesla Roadster became available in 2008. In 2012, Space X became the first privately owned company to send an aircraft to International Space Station, so maybe by the next Saturn’s Return in 2041, we’ll be able to escape our dying planet by colonizing Mars.
After freedom, technology and entertainment are our biggest exports, and they have helped cultivate the myth of American ingenuity overseas. This narrative thread began with the invention of the Kinetoscope, which Thomas Edison unveiled in 1893. This motion picture device spawned an entire industry, which has led to our current entertainment addiction as well as its latest iteration, political theater.
On a lighter note, and dovetailing with the entertainment theme, is the explosion of vampires as an entire genre of film and television. Dracula made its first appearance in 1897 when Bram Stoker’s book was first published, and ever since the theatrical release of the first Twilight in 2008, the floodgates have re-opened on tales of the undead. It seems as though these stories are at their most appealing when anxiety has reached its peak.
So what’s the point of this history lesson? While it seems that our country has changed overnight and suddenly become ripe with intolerance and bigotry, that type of short-sighted ignorance has always existed. What is different now is that freedom itself is at stake, and the current state of politics is merely the symptom. The word “freedom” is so overused that it has become a generic term people use to advocate for the cause they hold most dear. This becomes especially problematic when “freedom” is used interchangeably with “security,” which can lead to confusion and contradiction. I am not saying that security isn’t important, but when it is used to disenfranchise minority cultures and religions, then it threatens the very foundation of the Constitution itself. History already shows us how the financial security of a few can strip entire groups of people of their basic human rights, but what happens when we relinquish our own freedom willingly? There is a trend that resurfaced in the months leading up to the election, and that is the ancient practice of scapegoating. We may have evolved past witch hunts and pitch forks, but we haven’t evolved enough to realize that by looking for blame in everyone else, we give up our own power in the process. When we play the victim, we stay passive and reactionary, but when we take responsibility, then we also recognize the power we have to implement change. Whether or not you believe in astrology, history shows us that freedom has never been free. It cannot be wished into being just because it is written on a piece of paper, but it exists because of the cumulative decisions made by every generation that came before. It was in those difficult moments that our ancestors had to decide whether to be more or less tolerant than their parents, and in the last 241 years, they have evolved more than they’ve regressed. We are at that same crossroads, but we are the first generation with the ability to understand that we face a climate emergency. If we fail to learn the lessons of the past and refuse to pass through this threshold into adulthood together, then the next generation may not have any of the options that are open to us in this moment. Division by race, religion, and politics may still exist in this country, but they are a luxury we can no longer afford.