I see the rage all around me, but painful emotions can coexist with activism – and millions of Americans are stepping up.
I keep the newspaper clipping inside a Milan Kundera novel: it shows demonstrators in Prague in 1989, one of them carrying a badly chipped bust of Stalin around whose neck hangs a placard that says nic netrvá věčně: nothing lasts forever. It’s not a war cry, nor a prophesy, but a bald statement of fact at the moment when the Soviet bloc Stalin had been critical in establishing was falling apart and Czechoslovakia was liberating itself.
People wearing masks march across the medieval Charles Bridge to commemorate the 27th anniversary of 1989 Velvet Revolution in Prague, Czech Republic, November 17, 2016. REUTERS/David W Cerny
It must have seemed like forever to those who lived under totalitarianism until all of a sudden “forever” crashed and burned. People worked to make it so at terrible risk; some were imprisoned, or otherwise punished. Some died. They worked without knowledge of how and when their efforts might matter, and the faith that drove those activists is still stunning to contemplate. I think of that history when I think of our present predicament in the United States.
I know a lot of us have rage fatigue and moral exhaustion from a little over a year and a half of the hell of Donald Trump’s ascendancy. I know that seeing the vulnerable crushed, and the sabotage of the things that we fought for from reproductive rights to climate policies, and in particular the recent efforts to destroy small children weighs on most of us. I see and hear the dismay all around me at what is happening to this country, but dismay and devastation are emotions, and painful emotions can coexist with active strategies.
Active strategies may be the best response to those emotions, not to take care of oneself but to forget oneself in responding to the larger crises. Slaves were devastated by slavery; Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were not felled by that devastation but driven to act by it, and they did not confuse their devastation for despair. Americans like quick results and predictable outcomes, and in pursuit of those things squeeze out room for the unknown and the unknowable. Despair is an analysis of sorts, a conclusion that nothing can be done; it is usually premature.
Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks at a news conference overlooked by national heroes, inlcuding Benito Juárez, left Reuters
A year ago it did not seem likely that Mexico would elect a left-wing president and sweep into power hundreds of progressive candidates, many of them women, but that happened on the first day of this month; with that clean sweep the country may have rewritten what for many years seemed to be a grim destiny. Most countries on earth have survived nightmare regimes: South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Argentina come to mind. They ended for many reasons, but they ended in part because people did not regard the regime’s power as infinite, eternal, inevitable; they resisted even when resistance was dangerous and victory seemed impossibly remote.
We are not in such an era, though many fear we are close. Some among us are losing their rights—ICE is going after naturalized citizens and the atmosphere of intolerance is encouraging a terrible rise in hate crimes and harrassment nationwide. At this point each week seems bleaker than the ones before, and a great many people worry that we are gradually adjusting to a loss of rights and rule of law. But there are two forces at work now. There’s that of Trump, who won a minority victory in a corrupted election and works to represent the wishes and feed the rages of a minority of Americans, the authoritarians, racists, and misogynists.
They have, for now, a grip on power in some ways, but the multiethnic majority is the future of this country anyway, and it is coming into being in many ways. There’s a city outside Atlanta where every person at the head of the justice system—the head of police, the chief judge, the city prosecutor and public defender—are black women. In Richmond, California, the sheriff has cancelled the city’s contract with ICE after a huge protest. In Texas, the organization Raices has been given so many donations it suddenly has the wherewithal to offer $20m to bail out all the immigrant mothers in detention, which it did this week. In New York City, a progressive young woman of color just defeated a middle-of-the-road incumbent in one of dozens of races over the past year in which the more liberal-to-left candidates—often trans, women, and nonwhite candidates—won. Another America is emerging, and sometimes the Trump administration seems like nothing more than an effort to dam a river that will be, in the long run, unstoppable.
We have talked about resistance a great deal these past 18 months or so, but I want to talk about opposition for a moment. You oppose a regime by standing up to it, but also by being its opposite. For this regime that means being compassionate and inclusive where they are vicious and exclusionary. It means being committed to precision and accuracy when they are sloppy with the truth and the facts or at war with them. It means preserving memory, both of how things are changing in the present, and the longterm memory of how many people before us have opposed and resisted and won, of this country’s histories of both heroes and of racism from the anti-Chinese riots of the nineteenth century to the mobs of Klansmen in the twentieth. The United States has an abundance of those heroes in the past and some in the present. John Lewis, who is one of those heroes, said recently “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
The Trump era will not last forever. How it will end we do not know, because how and when it ends is in part in our hands. Waiting for it to end is not a strategy. Working for it to end is, and in the meantime preserving what we can of the rule of law, the rights of everyone in this country whatever their immigration status, the environment, the institutions that benefit us from public schools to scientific projects. And more than protecting what we had, building what we lacked: I believe Trump came to power because people were indifferent and inattentive.
Quite a lot of people are now neither. If they were dozing, they are now wide-awake; if they were indifferent, they are now passionately engaged. In organizing, in working on electoral campaigns, in standing up for what they believe in. Millions of people have found that justice and truth and human rights are key to their own lives, even when they themselves are not directly menaced; millions have found that they care passionately about public life and public institutions; millions have stood up to make this an era that is truly unprecedented in the level of activism, in both sheer numbers and in the geographical scope of this engagement, from small towns in all fifty states to major cities. People are ready. They are ready for someone, something, to pull the alarm so that they can step it up. They are where my hope resides now.