He will do much more damage before he departs the scene, to become a subject of horrified wonder in our grandchildren’s history books. To repair the damage he will have done Americans must give particular care to how they educate their children, not only in love of country but in fair-mindedness; not only in democratic processes but democratic values. Americans, in their own communities, can find common ground with those whom they have been accustomed to think of as political opponents. They can attempt to renew a political culture damaged by their decayed systems of civic education, and by the cynicism of their popular culture.
– Eliot Cohen in The Atlantic, January 29, 2017
Several weeks back, I put out a call to resist. It’s becoming clearer that our current charge qualifies less less as resistance and more as straightforward civic engagement. The parade of atrocities now pounding from the national stage and into our neighborhoods took shape during our many years of ignoring the duties of democratic participation.
Yes, we call our senators and representatives now every day. Indeed, for every call we make, another citizen rings up Congress and tells the senator to stop obstructing Trump’s march towards a great America. We must call and call again. But calling fails to rise to the standard of resistance. Calling to ask a representative to speak up for human rights qualifies as an act of basic civic responsibility.
Masses of us show up at airports, the White House, state capitols, the streets. We carry signs and gather signatures. We assemble to denounce discrimination and preserve religious freedom. We reaffirm our first-amendment rights while acting to preserve first-amendment protection for our neighbors. These qualify as acts of basic civic responsibility.
We practice our drills. We read the news headlines and dive into heated conversations with fellow supporters of progressive values. We feel energized yet tangled up in our own unfocused momentum. The cascade of carnage from the new administration keeps us confused and contributes to a kind of charged paralysis. Staying upright as the newsreel twists and jerks our gaze from one injustice to the next is a necessary act of strength, yet it fails to qualify as resistance. It may even fall short of an act of basic civic responsibility.
We have to re-learn the art of cultivating community at the grassroots. Do we interact with the people who share our parks and schools and supermarkets? Do we enter the public square and speak about our common concerns from our various points of entry? Do we connect and do we listen? Or have we so surrounded ourselves with folks like ourselves that we only see our image of the world reflected back to us? Learning the concerns and values — hell, even the names — of our neighbors qualifies as basic civic responsibility.
When I say “we,” I refer to the white, educated liberals in America who have been gliding along our groomed track of privilege for too long. So long, in fact, that when our nation slammed head-first into the crisis called Trump’s America, we had to re-learn the See Spot Run mechanics of democratic participation. It turns out that it’s not quite like riding a bike. We are as affronted and outraged as my 10-year-old son when practicing a skill that’s really hard. It’s so unfair. He throws his violin bow across the room and rages against every kind of authority he can imagine, not recognizing that the only obstacle to mastery is his own unwillingness to push through discomfort.
He is me, he is all of us.
Stretched and perplexed, we have to adapt to a new set of demands that we don’t believe we chose. In our lives, we do quality work, we vote and volunteer, we are kind in our interactions with strangers, and we separate the recycling. Yet without realizing it, we offered up our most critical power — crumb by crumb and year by year — to the false idols of a certain, good-enough democracy and an effortless, adequate peace.
Freedom, as it happens, is neither certain nor effortless. Many people in our country knew first-hand long before November 8th that it is also neither adequate nor anywhere close to good enough.
Now is our chance to step up and preserve what remains of our republic.
Our nation needs resistance, without a doubt. We need more people who will refuse to move when police try to break up demonstrations. Who will punch nazis. Who will act as human shields for others under attack. Who will defy gag orders and climb cranes and leak private conversations and infiltrate private meetings between donors and elected officials. We need resistance, and some of us may edge past our discomfort into action.
Before resistance and beneath it, we also need to build the sub-structure of community and civic involvement. It’s time to notice when we are confused and reluctant to do even this basic work. What questions do we need to ask of ourselves and of the world around us? Where do we find ourselves feeling put-upon and indignant about what is being asked of us? Do we hear ourselves talking about work and household commitments and “balance” as reasons to stay behind the scenes? Have we done an honest assessment of the real risks to our family members, finances, career, and character? Have we measured those risks against the long-term dangers (to our nation’s families, finances, careers, and character) of inaction?
It may be that we simply need to better understand the structures of local decision-making. Or that we must accept the uneasy fact that so many targeted groups need our support, there’s no way to make a fully informed decision as we take action. Or that we need a consistent venue to vent, organize our thoughts, and learn the rudiments of public participation.
Each of us has to determine where our weaknesses reside and how to strengthen our civic muscle. Indeed, in order to name those weaknesses and build effectively, each of us must hold ourselves accountable to a larger and more diverse circle of fellow humans.
Where discomfort lives, our greatest power gestates. Find the spot. Begin right there.
Image: “The Road from Brown v. Board,” Great Mural Wall of Topeka, Dave Lowenstein (Lead Artist)