Over the holiday I became indebted to Mary Oliver, not for a poem, but for reminding me, in a new book of essays entitled Upstream, of something Emerson wrote in his journal with regard to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. “This filthy enactment” Emerson exclaimed, “was made in the nineteenth century by people who could read and write.” I had thought as the holiday approached that I might find some source of real commonality with my Christian friends who voted for Donald Trump during the season in which Christians of all persuasions strive to honor the birth of the Prince of Peace, but I continued to bump up against something else that gave me pause and a need to clarify my thoughts. This essay is my attempt to do that.
It isn’t my purpose here to add anything new to the litany of complaint that is being voiced about Donald Trump across the political spectrum by moderates and progressives both Democrat and Republican. I am dismayed by the extent to which my fellow progressives are attempting to deal with the new political reality by manipulating the same worn-out categories that failed us during last year’s election. As I write this the planning for our local Saint Louis protest march is being interrupted by arguments about whether older white women understand intersectional feminism. But I am worse than dismayed to discover the extent to which friends of mine despise those they identify as liberals, a group in which I am also included. Today I am treated to a list of the liberal crimes and aggressions alleged against me by one of my friends, who posted the following bill of particulars online at Facebook.
I am guilty as charged in many of these matters. While I don’t think the Trump victory is altogether explained by racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia I do think Trump’s campaign invited violent expression of these highly virulent and, from my perspective, utterly unacceptable social pathologies. If you read around about the website from which the list of my crimes is taken, you will see that it purports to be a news site that tells the truth for conservatives, unlike mainstream media. To me that truth appears very similar to the paranoid politics I witnessed among my friends in the 1950s when we argued about Joseph McCarthy, but the chief difference is that we live now in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. The amazing thing to me about my friends’ professed conservatism is less that it resembles former fascist excesses and more that it expresses itself in opposition to the legacy of Dr. King and others who fought and died, some of them, attempting to extend the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity.
My friends who voted for Trump will not like this. As the list of my crimes points out, I have attacked them as racists. So let me be clear: I regard the election of Donald Trump and the associated Republican takeover of the national government as an event in the history of my country that is more or less parallel to the demolishing of the reconstruction south by the Ku Klux Klan and restoration politicians like my confederate ancestors in Harrrison County, Texas; and my reaction is very like Emerson’s reaction to the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. If a man such as Trump can be elected President of the United States of America in the twenty-first century by people who can read and write, I am marooned in a country I thought was mine as well as theirs—doubly marooned, perhaps, since I seem to be despised by some progressives as well, who don’t know me but are eager to stigmatize people like me because we are white and have insufficiently, in their view, checked our privilege.
But I’m not feeling privileged at present. I am fearful—no, I am afraid. Fearful is too genteel a word for what I am feeling now. I am angry too, and I need my anger as an antidote to paralysis and inaction. Trumpism requires an answer that I need anger in order to return. There is no answering the bill of charges that I have cited here except to point out that it is the usual congeries of lies, exaggerations, and caricatures that are the staple of present-day rightist agitprop. Steve Bannon has described Trump as a great orator—talk about putting lipstick on a pig! Another Trump surrogate has famously claimed that ‘there’s no such thing as facts any more.’ As a nation we are expected to treat the prospect of building a wall along the Mexican border, the compilation of a Muslim registry, the immediate repeal of the Affordable Care Act without a thought about the social and economic chaos that will result, and a return to the nuclear arms race—all this with equanimity, and to regard politicians who propose these terrible things as normal people and the language they use in proposing and defending them as normal political discourse. We are asked to regard the prospect of our country’s becoming a Russian client along with the host of European countries Russia is attempting to destabilize as a fine thing. What’s the big deal, after all? Haven’t we been in the business of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries for better than a century, ourselves?
We are experiencing the ruin of language, a kind of ruin that is older than George Orwell’s prophetic novel, 1984. The only question I have about it is how much permanent harm it may do, for it has already done much. Thucydides thought the ancient Greeks faced such a ruin during the Peloponnesian War.
Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow . . . . (History of the Peloponnesian War: III 82)
As I read Thucydides’ words I am hearing shouts of ‘Benghazi!’ and ‘Lock her up!’ in the back of my mind. I am hearing Trump’s imfamous birther claims about President Obama, and I am hearing still darker claims like this one, which has been spread by Trump and by a member of his transition team who eventually had to be fired as a liability.
When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped, I have zero fear standing up against her. Yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children. I just can’t hold back the truth anymore. (remarks attributed to talk show host, Alex Jones)
The problem with such language is that it doesn’t matter who gets fired or whether a YouTube video is taken down. The damage is done by the initial posting, which ignites a Tweetstorm that then continues of itself and provides the assurance of truth to Trump’s true believing multitudes, who interpret and reinterpret what was initially outrageous so as to assign it to some credible or almost credible context, in this case the abortion argument or that over policy in Syria.
But the ruin of language is not the sole responsibility of the political right. We on the left have contributed as well. Witness Cornell West’s extreme and inflammatory critique of President Obama that has helped to letgitimate the rightist critique and abetted its escape from the racism of its beginnings. Witness the extreme left wing critique of Hillary Clinton, which hardly avoided hatred, indeed sometimes seemed to court it, contributed to the heightening of Clinton’s negatives as a candidate, and may have helped to elect Trump. None of the language in which these critiques were couched was nuanced or fair. Indeed, the best that can be said for it is that most of the time, except for some of West’s more colorful claims, it avoided the extremes of rightist rhetoric. Some will blame social media for the debacle. I disagree. Social media, like other rhetorical forms, are themselves neutral and serve the intelligences that guide them. Orwell wrote in “Politics And The English Language” that our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” He, Orwell, thought the process could be reversed. I’m not so sure.
So what to do? I’m thrown back to where I was weeks ago when I asked this same question, except that I now have no hope for conversation with my right wing friends. Whether we will remain friends, I don’t know. I should like to believe them when they claim that they did not vote for Trump out of racist hatred, misogyny, xenophobia, or homophobia; but when I encounter their detestation of people they call liberals I cannot sustain that belief, and I understand that I can have nothing further to do with their politics or their piety. Moreover, I am frankly sick of hearing and reading about the righteous and longsuffering white working class. My friends are affluent. Their class loyalties and their religiosity are pure identity politics. I now have ample proof that they despise me in the abstract, however much they may profess to love me personally, and I am no longer able to see much difference between being despised in the abstract and being personally detested.
The rest of this essay is addressed to the unfortunate reality that reactionary Republican control of my country is the new norm. This will do great harm and cause great pain before it runs its course. I will likely not live to see the end of it. Those of us who care about preserving and enlarging the multicultural democracy we have built as Americans over the past fifty or sixty years must be content with soft power and expect that all the force of the right-wing state may be arrayed against us. This is not new, but it does mean that we must return to a posture of organizing and protest with which we have lost familiarity in recent years. I have already joined up, but I have to say that we need to stick together. We cannot afford to pursue our present task in the disjointed and fragmented way we approached the last election. We need to realize that our historical position makes us conservatives in the present-day world. Before we can make further progressive gains we have to commit to an existential struggle to retain the gains of the recent past.
I am not new to struggle. A couple of posts ago I talked about my experience at Fort Bragg. Perhaps here I can be forgiven a brief reference to my participation in an event in the spring of 1968 at Duke University that we called the Vigil. I was a graduate tutor at Duke that term, and I held class on the quad. I corraled my students as I could and coaxed and cajoled them to finish their semester’s classwork whilst we all demonstrated in solidarity with a local union, mostly African American, that was seeking recognition by university administration. It was not Duke’s finest hour. Some Trustees’ opposition to union recognition was openly and viciously racist, and when the university capitulated we all believed an important victory had been achieved. But I was just as proud of the list of grades in my gradebook that term, not a single incomplete. We had changed the politics of a southern city, and we went on to accomplish further changes. We had participated in a national movement, blessed by such lights as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Adam Clayton Powell. But I had persuaded my students to protest in the midst of their productive lives rather than abandon them as I was forced to do at North Carolina State two years later when a similar protest at the state capital in the aftermath of the Kent State murders occasioned administrative orders to faculty that we were to give incompletes to all students who disappeared from our classes.
I am not new to protest. I am not new to efforts to bring democracy to my country. I have been checking my privilege longer than my young progressive friends have been alive. But it’s all good. I do not resent their suspicion of me, and I occasionally argue with one or two of them I love. I am almost eighty years old now. I have seen this past Christmas season come and go with no glimmer of hope or comfort I can take as assured on the horizon of my immediate experience of the world. So be it. I will fight this new reality with every resource available to me. As I say, I have already joined up. I was not arrested at last November’s union rally, though I may have to plan to be arrested in the uncertain future. I hope all of my friends and colleagues on the left will forgive the observation that we no longer have time for arguments about intersectionality. We need solidarity. If we continue to bicker and fragment our forces into factions each claiming a special ideological purity, we will lose the necessary struggle before it has a chance to begin. We need to face the fact that we have lost control of our country’s republican governance even though we remain a democratic majority nationwide. Our task now has to be to find ways to convert the soft power we have as a democratic majority into structural power again. For that we are going to need new leadership, new thinking, new categories. It’s hard for me at my age to contemplate the necessity for a new mindset and for continued activism when I’d really like to escape into my books and my memories, but the times are as they are.