Stars & stripes


Hibiscus

I’m almost done reading Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir, What Happened. I rushed to read the book in large part because of the backlash against it: many angry reviews have been written by people who haven’t read (and indeed refuse to read) the book, so I was eager to make up my own mind. Regardless of how you feel about Hillary Clinton, she’s in a unique spot to comment on an unprecedented election.

Cherub

Now that I’m almost done with What Happened, I have a few observations about it. First of all, I’ve been struck by how much of a bookworm Clinton is. I knew that Clinton was smart, but I wasn’t expecting a memoir that mentions so many books: books Clinton read before she entered politics, books that guided her as a candidate, and books she’s returned to in the aftermath of a crushing defeat. In the first chapter alone, Clinton mentions more books than Donald Trump has probably read in his entire life. I don’t think Clinton is trying to look bookish; she’s just a person who reads (and thus talks about) a lot of books.

Tamarack

Second, I’ve been struck by Clinton’s obvious religious faith. Whereas many politicians make a big show of piety to appeal to heartland voters, Clinton has always been private about her own Methodist faith. Now that Clinton is out of the political realm and thus more comfortable talking about her personal life, it’s clear that her faith inspires pretty much everything she did as a politician and (especially) everything she’s done since. Although many of Clinton’s critics will presumably accuse her of false piety, she literally has nothing to lose now that she’s no longer running for office. When Clinton explains how prayer and the advice of trusted spiritual advisors helped her weather everything from the trials of her marriage to the stresses of a contentious campaign, I choose to believe her.

Water lilies

Third, I think What Happened is far more than an autopsy of a failed campaign; it’s also a warning about what lies ahead. Press reports (and negative reviews) peg the book as a political postmortem, with Clinton offering excuses for why she lost the 2016 election. But as attention-grabbing as those parts of the book are, the most interesting, troubling, and useful parts are the ones that warn of what comes next: a book that could have alternatively called What’s Happening. Clinton’s days as a candidate are over, but the challenges she faced as a candidate are not going away. Instead, those challenges will be alive and active in future elections, threatening to undermine our democracy as long as we continue to ignore them.

Maidenhair fern

Clinton describes a perfect storm of factors that led to her defeat and Trump’s victory: a toxic stew of sexism, misogyny, racism, sensational press coverage, an ill-timed letter from then-FBI director James Comey, Russian interference, a widespread inability of voters to detect and ignore fake news, and a willful campaign of voter suppression. Despite all of these impediments, Clinton still won the popular vote by nearly three million votes, but that still wasn’t enough to win her the presidency.

Mown path

Still a policy wonk, Clinton offers ample evidence to support her claim that a combination of forces tipped the election in Trump’s favor, devoting an entire chapter to a statistical analysis of how Comey’s letter about an FBI investigation into Clinton’s email usage proved to be the nail in her campaign coffin. But here’s the thing: even if you don’t believe Clinton’s admittedly subjective account of what went wrong in the 2016 election, you’d better listen to what she says about future elections.

You can argue that sexism and misogyny weren’t a factor in Clinton’s loss, or you can argue that James Comey had no impact on the race. You can argue that nobody is to blame but Clinton herself, and she would actually agree with you. But–and this is the essential point–with the exception of James Comey, none of the factors Clinton discusses is going away, so we ignore her insights at our (and our country’s) peril.

Stonewall

Maybe Clinton was a terrible candidate, as her critics argue. But sexism and misogyny aren’t going away, so the next woman to run for president will still have to face them. Maybe racism didn’t motivate Trump voters–but racism isn’t going away, so future populists and demagogues will still have reason to appeal to it.

Maybe the Russians didn’t work single-handedly to get Trump elected–but we know for a fact they interfered in the election, and they continue to spread fake news and propaganda designed to sow domestic discord. Russian propagandists and click-bait factories aren’t going away, so future candidates will have to face the lies they spread, just as Clinton did.

September faun

Most alarmingly, voter suppression might not have lost the election for Clinton, but it played a role, and it’s not going away. If we believe in fair and accurate elections, we should be alarmed by the number of voters who were prevented from voting in states where the election was decided by a slim margin. Voter suppression alone might not have thrown the election to Trump, but it’s an issue we should care about if we care about future elections.

Clinton’s tale of “what happened” is about much more than her individual experience of the 2016 election. Instead, it’s a tale of what will continue to happen if we don’t learn from recent history.

Fallen in fall

Last night, a man with at least eight rifles opened fire on an outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas, NV. At last count, 58 people were killed and over 500 injured: the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

Fallen

In his inaugural address, President Trump promised an end to “American carnage.” He was referring, presumably, to threats from outside: travelers who can be banned, immigrants who can be blocked with a wall, and dreamers who can be deported. But who or what can protect us from home-grown terrorists who can easily inflict mass carnage because owning a gun is the one right Republicans believe to be inviolable?

Slouched

Since the President’s inauguration, many of our constitutional rights have been under siege. Voting rights are under attack because of baseless claims that millions voted illegally, and the right to peaceful protest is under attack because a football player quietly kneeling is more offensive to some than a white supremacist ramming his car into a crowd. Healthcare, we are reminded by an administration who has tried time and again to take it away, is not a right; this very weekend, in fact, the Trump administration let the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) die a quiet death, endangering the coverage of nine million children.

Dead or only sleeping?

While the first and fifteenth amendments come repeatedly under fire, the second amendment alone is sacred and unquestioned. Because literalists argue the constitutional right to bear arms means individuals have the inalienable right to amass as many high-capacity killing machines as they’d like without the common-sense controls we enforce on everything from cars to cold medicine, the rest of us no longer have the right to feel safe at an outdoor concert, nightclub, movie theater, elementary school, restaurant, college classroom, softball game, or Bible study. We no longer need extremists from abroad to cross our borders to unleash mayhem: we here at home are doing it ourselves, with weapons both Trump and the Republicans refuse to control.

Cooperative subject

Americans are very good at mobilizing against external threats. We rain down bombs and missiles, we strengthen and threaten to lock down our borders, and we ruefully relinquish personal freedoms in the name of public safety. (Remember the days when you could board a plane without taking off your shoes, limiting your liquids, or tolerating invasive scans and pat-downs of your person?) But when the inflicter of carnage is an American with a gun, we fold our hands and shrug our shoulders, earnestly but not convincingly at a loss for what to do. When the killer of many is an American with a gun, our nation of great ideas and even greater thinkers is suddenly stumped.

Prone

Last night before gunfire erupted in Las Vegas, I read the chapter in Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir where she talks about meeting with mothers of children killed by gun violence or police brutality–the Mothers of the Movement–and how their heartrending stories led her to campaign for sane gun control. An overwhelming majority of Americans (including responsible gun owners) want reasonable gun regulations, but the National Rifle Association shuts down such legislation at every turn, pouring money into attack ads against Clinton in 2016 and preventing any progress toward gun control legislation in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. There is no way the NRA and its members would let Democrats like Clinton, Obama, or even Gabby Gifford make any headway toward sane gun control laws, and this means President Trump now faces a unique opportunity for bold leadership.

Slain

When Democrats even whisper the words “gun control,” gun owners fly into a panic, but these same gun owners trust Trump to protect their second amendment rights. If Trump were to advocate for common-sense legislation that would protect responsible gun owners while taking guns out of the hands of madmen, would Trump’s base trust him to thread that political needle?

If Trump is as wealthy as he claims, he has no need for the NRA’s deep pockets, and if it’s true that diehard loyalists would stand by him even if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot someone (as Trump himself once claimed), now is a perfect opportunity for the President to prove his leadership mettle. If Trump were at least as brave as Hillary in standing up to the NRA, he could prove himself even better than Obama in brokering a gun control deal the Democrats could only dream of. It’s a longshot, but if the President wants to end American carnage, he has to protect Americans from every source of danger, not only ones located abroad.

I shot (and previously blogged) the photos illustrating today’s post in November, 2013, when Laura Ford’s “Armour Boys” were on display at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA.

National anthem

A quick search of my Flickr photostream shows I have dozens of photos of the national anthem being played or sung at various sporting events J and I have attended over the years. Snapping a photo during the anthem is easy, photographically speaking. Everyone is standing still, with players, coaches, referees, and fans alike lined up in orderly rows. It’s a moment of collective calm before the scrum of play erupts: a moment for both sides to share a moment of civility.

Anthem

Today my Facebook feed has been filled with people angrily facing off like players on opposing teams. To some, the act of taking a knee during the anthem is a sacrilegious act; to others, it’s a constitutionally protected form of protest. What I find intriguing is the very nature of kneeling itself. When Tim Tebow knelt in prayer on the field, he was hailed as a hero. Isn’t kneeling in protest its own kind of prayer: a plea to God or the Powers That Be for justice and sweet relief?

Anthem

Today as I saw team after team making a collective statement in response to the President’s suggestion that kneeling players should be fired–some players kneeling, others standing with locked arms, and others staying in the locker room, refusing to become political pawns–I didn’t see any disrespect toward the flag or what it represents. Kneeling isn’t an act of disrespect: it’s an act of reverence. Would anyone be offended if dozens of football players dropped to their knees to pray for our divided country? Given the state of that country, shouldn’t we all be on our knees, praying without ceasing?

Anthem

What I found most striking about today’s collective protests wasn’t the protest but the collectiveness. When the President said individual players should be fired for protesting, teammates across the league responded the way good teammates should: “If you fire any one of us, you’d better fire all of us.” This kind of team spirit is precisely what the flag represents: out of many, one. Standing during the anthem (or posting angry memes on Facebook) is easy. Working together as a team despite our differences is much more difficult.

Nevertheless, Ida B. Wells persisted

This morning, National Public Radio announcers read the Declaration of Independence aloud in its entirety, as they do every year. Like the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence is a document I read in high school and occasionally quote in passing, but it’s not something I have frequent occasion to re-read.

For this reason, today I made a conscious point to listen to the entire Declaration as I was doing my morning kitchen tasks, marveling at the foresight and bravery of the Founding Fathers in penning (and signing their names to) a document that is both radical and treasonous. The United States started as a bold experiment. Could colonists with a range of backgrounds and opinions be trusted to create a civil government by, of, and for the people? Could democracy be the noblest form of crowd-sourcing, or would mob rule rule?

Where the women are strong

Yesterday I took a day-trip to Northampton, MA, a town which boasts of its strong coffee and strong women. In a downtown card shop, I saw a retail shrine to female bad-assery. Alongside “Nevertheless, she persisted” plaques were portraits of early feminist icons emblazoned with the caption “Bitches get stuff done.” One of the bad-assed bitches included in this display was Ida B. Wells, who faced persecution and death-threats to publish a 1900 pamphlet entitled Mob Rule in New Orleans that describes a nadir in American democracy, when lynch mobs replaced civil government.

Any serious, clear-eyed student of American history can recite a litany of wrongs supported by (or at least tolerated by) the majority, such as slavery and white supremacy, the murder and relocation of Native Americans, and the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans. You’d have to be ignorant, deluded, or both to insist that the majority always gets things right.

Bitches get stuff done

And yet…they say arc of history is long and bends toward justice. We no longer keep slaves, women now have the right to vote, and children no longer work in factories. Democracy is a work in progress–too often, populism becomes a popularity contest, and a jury of one’s peers can fall prey to peer pressure. But compared to monarchy, democracy is infinitely preferable as long as the voice of the many takes care to hear and heed the still, small voice of reason.

Only in Northampton:  pussyhats for sale.

Given a choice between one ruler and a collective of the ruled, I’ll opt for the latter. The whole notion of checks and balances rests on the belief that when one group is blind, deluded, or self-serving, those deficiencies will be called out and corrected by others. We all have our blind spots, bigotries, and biases, so I can shed light on yours and you can shed light on mine.

What this means, then, is we need more voices, not fewer. Instead of giving way to complacency or defeatism, citizens in a democracy need to use their voices. Dissent is indeed patriotic, but it needn’t be noisy, violent, or crude. Individual conscience is a small but insistent inkling that worms it way from mind to heart to gut, and our collective conscience should be no less persistent.

Old glory

Today is the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth, a centennial commemorated locally with a public radio series about Kennedy’s impact here in Massachusetts. It’s fitting, I think, that JFK’s centennial falls on Memorial Day. Kennedy served but didn’t die in war, but he did die in service to his country. Of war veterans it is often said that all gave some and some gave all, and the latter is true of Kennedy’s legacy of public service.

Pavilion with flag

“Ask not what your country can do for you,” Kennedy famously urged, “but what you can do for your country.” Veterans know full well what they can do for their country, and they do (and did) it. Kennedy, too, knew what he could do for his country, exhorting and encouraging his fellow Americans through oratory and example, urging Americans to reach for the moon and beyond.

I sometimes worry that this ideal of public service–of putting one’s country before oneself–is fading away, at least among politicians. Our current president’s most memorable contributions to American oratory are the phrases “Build the wall” and “Lock her up,” and I doubt he has ever asked anything more than what profit he could make from his country.

Looking up

Last night, J and I watched a television documentary about Kennedy’s assassination, and I was struck by the spontaneous reaction of the assembled crowds in Dallas when Kennedy’s death was announced. Ordinary citizens stood in the streets, weeping, and loose throngs of strangers gathered around parked cars, listening in shock to radio reports. There were no partisan divides, no divisions on account of race, class, or gender. For one day in Dallas, everyone was united in grief, Kennedy becoming in an instance everyone’s president.

Kennedy wasn’t a perfect president, nor was he a perfect man: no man or president is. But JFK is still revered as an American icon a century after his birth for one simple reason. In an era when it seems that everyone is out for himself, Kennedy embodied the noble ideal of giving oneself entirely in service to one’s country.

Thoreau with replica house

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about Henry David Thoreau. This isn’t unusual: Thoreau is one of my favorite authors, and I spent a good deal of my doctoral dissertation analyzing his writing. I have a whimsical portrait of Thoreau over my desk because he represents many of the things I personally hold dear: he was a writer and a naturalist, a walker and a rebel. In a world insistent upon choosing sides, Thoreau was both an artist and a scientist, both poetic and political, both active and contemplative. When I try to imagine a well-rounded, grounded, and self-reliant person, Thoreau is who immediately comes to mind.

Spartan

I’ve been thinking more than usual these days about Henry David Thoreau because of “Civil Disobedience,” an essay published in 1849 that inspired both Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a lesser-known essay that Thoreau first delivered as a lecture in Framingham on July 4, 1854, after escaped slave Anthony Burns was captured in Boston and sent back south. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau describes the night he spent in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the Mexican War and its expansion of slavery, and in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he condemns Northern cooperation with the Fugitive Slave Act. In both essays, Thoreau turns his eye with all its acuity on the social ills of his day, as if politics were no less interesting than natural history. This politically engaged way of looking at the world seems particularly helpful in 2017, exactly two centuries after Thoreau was born.

Stove and two chairs

Although the popular image of Thoreau is that of a quiet misanthrope twiddling his thumbs alongside a peaceful pond, Thoreau was outspoken during the most politically tumultuous time in American history. When Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” the political debate over slavery was ratcheting the nation toward civil war, and Thoreau was deeply engaged in that debate. Thoreau didn’t just sit back and ignore the political issues of his day; although he cherished his solitude, Thoreau wasn’t an escapist. Instead, Thoreau figured out how to balance engagement and renewal, speaking out on political issues as he was able, but also finding time to unplug.

Desk with guestbook

Ever since the election, I’ve been spending a lot of time following news coverage and political commentary on Trump, Trumpism, and the burgeoning resistance to both. There has been a surge on the left of people trying to learn and understand everything from the demographics of the white working class to constitutional law and immigration policy. While folks on the right raced to buy guns when Obama was elected, folks on the left are now racing to read books. Unlike Trump supporters who shield themselves from “fake news” by plugging their ears to any coverage that doesn’t come straight from the President himself, people on the other side of the political divide have been reading widely and deeply, seeking multiple perspectives in an attempt to stay informed.

Thoreau's snowshoes

This attempt to stay informed, however, can get tiring: sometimes I envy the quiet complacency of the right, who can sit back and trust that America will magically become Great now that Trump is in charge. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, I would have presumably done the same, patting myself on the back for doing my civic duty at the ballot box and considering my job as a citizen to be over. Since the election, however, I find myself moonlighting as an activist, keeping a constant eye on breaking news, receiving daily text messages and emails urging me to contact elected officials on the issue du jour, and otherwise staying vigilant, ready to cancel plans and rush off to protest the latest executive order, unsettling tweet, or constitutional crisis.

Thoreau's bed and desk

In the aftermath of 9/11, people quickly learned that you can’t remain on high alert forever, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself be lulled to sleep. Beth recently wrote about self-care during the resistance: if you plan to be an effective activist in the long run, you have to prioritize and pick your battles. This is, again, where I find Thoreau to be particularly inspiring. Thoreau spoke out against slavery, the Mexican War, and other political outrages of his day, but he also managed to take daily walks, write in his journal, keep a careful chronicle of wild flora and fauna, and tend his garden. Thoreau, in other worlds, figured out a way to simultaneously exist and resist.

Weathered

What Thoreau didn’t do, of course, was stay inside glued to either CNN or his Facebook feed: instead, he was outside and active. A lot of modern-day critics of Thoreau argue (rightfully) that his activism was largely symbolic: the single night in jail Thoreau describes in “Civil Disobedience” didn’t single-handedly bring down slavery. But just because an act of protest is symbolic doesn’t mean it is isn’t powerful, as many of the accoutrements of power are themselves symbolic.

Peace

Donald Trump didn’t magically become a different man when he raised his hand and took the oath of office, but that symbolic action marked a monumental transition of power. Some of the most alarming news items these days stem not from official policy Trump and his administration has enacted, but the tone-setting influence of angry rants and recklessly worded tweets. Words are nothing more than symbols, but that doesn’t mean words don’t matter.

Adirondack Writers' Guild

By writing about his night in jail, Thoreau preserved it for the ages, reminding generation after generation that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” The concept of civil disobedience–Thoreau’s insistence that the government is a machine, and private citizens can strip government of its power by intentionally becoming a “counter-friction to stop the machine”–is not new or earth-shattering: had Thoreau not written “Civil Disobedience,” both King and Gandhi would have found inspiration elsewhere.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

But the fact remains that Thoreau did write this essay: he planted a seed. The tree of peaceful protest would have found some other method of germination had Thoreau never tended it, but he was a faithful servant in freedom’s garden. A solitary and sometimes cantankerous man, Thoreau probably never envisioned the communal movements that both King and Gandhi led: what started as one man spending one night in jail has inspired massive collective movements that have changed the world. Even the largest earthquake starts with a tiny tremor.

February

History is neither a marathon or sprint; instead, history is a relay race. Thoreau did nothing more than pick up the baton of justice and pass it on, and we should expect nothing less of ourselves. It’s important to show up–to engage in faithful, regular deeds, even if those deeds are small–as a way of claiming our priorities. It is not necessary to do everything, but do not fail to do something. As you are able, act. If you cannot act, speak up; if you cannot speak up, listen. If you can neither act, speak up, nor listen, by all means pray. Remain faithful in small things, and trust your acts will be echoed by others, achieving a cumulative effect. We’re in this for the long haul, and there is a need for all sorts of acts and activism.

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