A while ago, I worked with the journalist Cynthia Gorney on her fine book “Articles of Faith” , all about the fight between pro-life and pro-choice activists around a now relatively unknown Supreme Court case, William L. Webster versus Reproductive Health Services. Gorney, being the dedicated journalist she is, spent a lot of time with women on both sides of debate. She talked to them about their backgrounds and how they relate to their beliefs, and the symbols they used to sway popular opinion. (Remember the tiny feet lapel pins? They’re still available.)
And she listened. That’s what reporters are supposed to do: Listen. And later, when talked about the women and their passionate opinions, she mentioned how deeply she was impressed by the women’s sincerity and sense of purpose. She understood that they were talking about something real, some uninfected with partisan concerns.
I began to think about it this way: Suppose you really, really believed in the sanctity of human life? We all do, of course — I assume you oppose murder — but some take it more literally and completely. Then you’d be against capital punishment, and war, and the cruel detention of immigrants — and, of course, the abortion of unborn babies. Those babies are alive; it is a sin to kill them.
No matter what the Supreme Court says, our definition of “life” is of necessity fluid and filled with unknowns. Does life begin at consciousness? By that measure, then someone in a vegetative state is not alive and can be killed at will. Does it begin when the baby leaves the mother’s womb? That’s as arbitrary distinction as any other.
I believe deeply in a woman’s right to choose. But I respect some of the people on the other side of debate, the people who unlink the issue from social concerns, and who maintain their respect for life no matter what, adopting positions I approve of (against capital punishment) and ones I don’t (against assisted suicide). There’s a lot of pandering around this issue, and a lot of patriarchal bullshit, but there’s also lot of concern for helpless children, both unborn and born.
I think the anti-gay people are hopeless bigots motivated by some weird form of sexual panic. I think the Trumpish anti-refugee folks are motivated by fear and bad information. But pro-life people are engaging on another level of conversation altogether, and we should be aware of that.
The new struggle calls for new alliances, new ways of thinking. A leader of a pro-life group banned from sponsoring the woman’s march said that she had concerns about violence against women, and about workplace equality. Those are things worth talking about. And if the conversation ambles over to, say, climate change, or education policy, or U.S. ties with Russian intelligence — well, so much the better.
Time for the Left to stop acting like, you know, the Left. (The Hillary-Bernie battles are still being fought on social media, boring many). Forget ideological purity now; think strategically. This is Resistance; we can figure out who gets to be Lenin later on.
My friend Caille Millner reminded me of Ghanian proverb: “Two people in a burning house must not stop to argue.”
Art is a mark of civilization, and civilization is what we are trying to save. I know that sounds a little…excessive, but think about it. A little chaos is good, but civilization does not do very well in total chaos. Stuff gets lost. Some of the stuff getting lost is eminently disposable, but some of it isn’t. Like art. My younger daughter lives in the Canadian province of Quebec. There, the government supports art. With money. Think of that. That’s why she lives in a place that’s very cold for much of the year. Because art.
It is important to try to save the NEA and the NEH, but that course does not seem promising. The humans in charge of the government do not seem to be exactly in tune with the solace of art. But really, we own the art — and we get the art we deserve.
Art is our port in the storm. Certainly, political art illuminates our times and protests our current condition. (Also, it doesn’t; that’s the thing about art: Many different drummers; many different drums). And, sure, mediated art is great (personally, I await with anticipation the new season of “Stranger Things”), but the live stuff is the best. It’s a damn juggling act every night, with the possibility of the void looming at any moment. And it’s also where transcendence happens; some unpredictable combination of audience and performers and musicians and lighting technicians and everybody coming together to provide balm for your heart.
Feeling a little down about human beings? Get out and see someone doing something. Sure, it could be terrible, although probably not as terrible as an executive order. That’s the gamble we take as sentient humans; we trust others to see truth we cannot see. And to share it with us, and to expand the community of empathy.
So, swear to God, if you want to make a political statement, go support a theater company or a zither player or an action painter or a chorus of Ukrainian hip-hop opera stars. Applaud, share, repeat, rejoice. Remind yourself that this too exists. Give money to artists so they can keep being artists.
My apologies for the 2.5 weeks between blog posts. My head was too full of Trump. I started a dozen fragments responding to some outrage, while the other outrages jostled in my head, wanting equal time. And I could never complete a thought, because Another! Fresh! Outrage! would happen and demand a response from Me! Because I have Perspective!
And then I realized: Everybody who could write good was writing good about Donald Trump. Points were made; disgust was demonstrated. It was overwhelming; it was heartening. And it made me feel, well, the outrage is doing pretty good; it’s got legs. So maybe there’s other stuff to say. And that’s what I’m concentrating on.
We should love each other, because we need each other more than ever before. And that’s what I have to say about that.
I have spent the last 10 days writing a column about the recent electoral unpleasantness. I made really good points. I excoriated the Democratic Party, which certainly deserved excoriating. I discussed the failures of the Clinton campaign, its weird impersonality, its pointless evasiveness. And I discussed the press, its reliance on people with whom it shared a set of common assumptions. (Assumptions are more important than opinions). Oh, I was really sailing in that section.
The post was over 3000 words, and I felt I could easily have written twice that. I had Salient Points! At least, they were Points! Perhaps one Point. Something told me that I was not being useful, that I was writing out of a conviction that I needed to say something. Because, that’s the job. I Say Things. I have experienced trepidation before. I have trained myself to walk toward the fear. Sometimes the truth lies in the middle of the fear.
But sometimes fear is just nature’s way of saying “get the hell out.” The nagging feeling I was having eventually took shape: The column was irrelevant. It might be right (or “right”), but it didn’t really apply. It was a disservice to the readers to plunge them back into the election, and the massive failures of analysis and tactics on the part of almost everybody. So not the point.
Besides. I said what I had to say back in March: “Why we are dopes”. I was prescient. I love when that happens.
(In my former life, I didn’t have that much time to think about relevance and utility. Getting the idea five times a week was hard enough. It wasn’t that I had bad facts — one can always find facts — but there were implications, subtleties, a third way of looking at something, or a fourth. I was supposed to be a thought leader, but too often I was a thought follower. Everyone is — there aren’t that many new thoughts in the universe — but not everyone has the blessed opportunity to think twice, to rip it all up and start again.)
So I thought: It’s my blog, no one’s paying me, the least I can do is erase my own bullshit before it harms others. I know it’s been a long time since my last post (I had a pretty good excuse: I was in Patagonia!), and I’m sorry, and I pledge to do better. But really, I have no interest in getting you riled up about stuff that happened yesterday. It’s the stuff that’s going to happen tomorrow that’s relevant.
So that’s my first bit of advice, boiled down from its initial 1450 words: Get over it.
We proceed to the dilemma. During the recent unpleasantness, people in the media biz did what they were trained to do. They dug. They looked into stuff. They found all sorts of awful things about Donald Trump. Lies, fraud, an insane amount of self-dealing. He was in fact the corrupt oligarch he was campaigning against.
They laid out the facts. They revealed the primary sources. They published reproductions of damning documents. They interviewed the aggrieved; they interviewed the people who said aggrieved had nothing to be grieved about. They took to social media. They retweeted each other. They had that sucker nailed.
But the paradigm had shifted. We were supposed to be hip to the shift. Our ears were to the ground, or at least to a spokesperson for the ground. The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were all there, but they went together in a counter-intuitive way, suggesting that our intuition might need a tune-up, or transmission work, or an entirely new way of thinking about everything. And the question arose: What now?
Yeah, what now? Cue spooky music.
We are in a new reality. A new game is being played. We don’t know the rules. We don’t know how to reintroduce the idea of rational discourse. We don’t know how to operate in a world of rumor and belief. But there has to be a way. Things look grim, but there will be openings. It is in the nature of honeymoons to be over. Candidates are trapped by their own promises, and the anger that got them in could easily get them out.
But this is a new deal. This is fascism as a commercial enterprise. The left has been hurling out comparisons to Hitler every day, but Hitler was not interested in making money. His “Art of the Deal” was “Let’s pretend we don’t mean to kill anybody, and then kill them.” Hitler did not have business interests in 54 countries. He did not devote a considerable portion of his time to evading taxes. He did not grab anyone by the pussy. Probably.
Trump has no ideology. Those surrounding him, those poised to do the real damage, are unashamed racists in the grip of economic theories that have been proven not to work. Who cares? The temptation is going to be to ignore the dope and retreat to Fortress California. We love our Muslims, and we love our Planned Parenthood centers. And a whole lot of us are immigrants!
There are people in Texas who need us. There are people in Wisconsin who need us. People are going to die, unless we help. Not from terrorist attacks; from indifference, or hatred, or just finding bad luck in a corrupt kleptocracy.
So it’s time to, you should excuse the expression, man up. It’s time to do what we used to do before we got comfortable: We need to make it up as we go along. And we need to cherish facts. We need to blow on the glowing embers of facts. If we guard the facts, we guard the nation.
It seems hopeless, but it always seems hopeless. “Hopeless” is not an excuse. Hope is an obligation, as a friend says. It’s the deal we make with ourselves to keep on fighting. It’s going to require humility. Humility ain’t easy. Here, swallow this. It only tastes bad for, well, I wouldn’t want to put a timetable on it.
But, you know, play the game or go away. If you’re not part of puzzling over conflicting data sets, you’re part of the problem. And also, need I say, love your neighbors, cherish kindness, and practice resurrection.
So that’s my second and final bit of advice: Get on with it.