Rebecca Solnit on the Impotence of Anger

screamingwoman - Version 2The internet is a hotbed of outrage.  If someone expresses an unpopular opinion or tweets something provocative or controversial, the net erupts in vehement vitriol.  In our era of social media, angry mobs don’t attack with torches and pitchforks; they disgrace your name on the blogosphere or accuse you being a “racist” or a “bigot” on Twitter and Facebook.  Rather than physically punish offenders, we shame and humiliate.  Much like Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter, we march transgressors of political correctness through the streets, hurling tomatoes of ad hominem attacks along the way.  In our age of rage, red-faced screaming has replaced dialogue. 

On one hand, the fact that we get angry at those who use hurtful speech represents a giant leap for basic kindness and human decency.  In many ways, today we have a deeper respect for words, both for what they mean and how they can potentially wound people.  We’re more sensitive and thoughtful.

But have we swung too far to the opposite extreme?  Are we too sensitive?  too willing to label something “offensive”— not because it’s actually derogatory or hurtful— but because it challenges our opinions?  threatens our long-standing beliefs?  Are we too angry?  Why as a culture have we exchanged the sober-mindedness of civil discourse for the intoxicating righteousness of outrage?  Is anger only a destructive force, an inextinguishable inferno that annihilates everything in its wake?  Or can anger be harnessed for light and heat? 

These questions are what Rebecca Solnit ponders in her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names.  A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history, the importance of using language clearly and accurately, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  In one of the collection’s most timely essays “Facing the Furies,” Solnit explains anger is a spectrum ranging from minor irritation on the one end to indignation on the other.  Though we often pathologize anger, anger is a useful alarm system that alerts us to a breach of our moral code.  When we want to shriek and slam doors, Solnit explains, we feel we’ve been done wrong:

“At its mildest, the emotion is no more than annoyance, an aversion to mild unpleasantness.  Annoyance with an ethical character becomes indignation: not only do I dislike that, but it also should not have happened.  Indeed, anger generally arises from a sense of being wronged.  In this respect, my conviction that you should not have eaten the last slice resembles my conviction that we should not have bombed Iraq: in each case, I see an injustice and wish it to be righted.  Anger that is motivated by more than a mammalian instinct for self-protection operates by an ethic, a sense of how things ought or ought not to be.” 

We’ve all heard the old adage “love is blind.”  When we’re head-over-heels in love, in the throes of infatuation, it’s impossible to objectively assess our partners: one sip of passion’s intoxicating liqueur and we become dizzy with delusion.  In the glorious beginnings of a budding romance, we can rationalize our lover’s every flaw: he can’t split the check because he’s in-between jobs, we explain when our friends ask why he never pays; he never comes around because he’s not a big drinker and doesn’t like the bright lights and loud music at nightclubs.

If love is blind, so is anger.  While it can signal our boundaries have been crossed, it can also interfere with our ability to think rationally.  As Solnit writes:

“Anger is hostile to understanding.  At its most implacable or extreme, it prevents comprehension of a situation, of the people you oppose, of your own role and responsibilities.  It’s not for nothing that we call rages ‘blind.'”

In the public sphere, anger can either incite riots or spark revolution, fan the flames of chaos or fuel positive social change.  Cesar Chavez.  Mahatma Gandhi.  Martin Luther King.  By framing their fights in terms of right and wrong, these activists were able to use feelings of outrage and injustice to rally support for their cause.  In each case, anger galvanized a movement and built a better world.

But though anger can be channeled to reform unjust systems and rectify wrongs, it can also be exploited by those in power to advance their own agendas.  No other public figure has stoked the flames of our anger more furiously than Donald Trump.  In our era of unprecedented division, animosity seems to be the state of political discourse: we’re angry at those across the party divide, we’re angry at those who disagree with us.  Those who have historically been at the top of the social ladder— white menare angry to find themselves thrust to the bottom rungs.  The result?  Resentments that have been simmering beneath the surface are finally boiling over.  White supremacists have moved from the margins to the mainstream; anti-immigrant rhetoric and cries of “America first” dominate news cycles.  By inflaming our anger and redirecting it toward a common enemy, whether that be immigrants or Muslims, Trump protects his own power.  After all, if citizens are pitted against each another, if they’re divided rather than united, they’ll never band together and revolt against their actual enemy, those in power:

“Is anyone more possessed by this kind of obliterating anger than Donald Trump?  Our nation is currently led by a petty, vindictive, histrionic man whose exceptional privilege has robbed him of even the most rudimentary training in dealing with setbacks and slights.  He was elected by people who were drawn to him because he homed in on their anger, made them even angrier, and promised vengeance on the usual targets, domestic and foreign, successfully clouding their judgement as to what electing him would mean for their health care, safety, environment, education, economy. 

Yet Trump’s furious ascent is only the culmination of fury’s long journey toward enshrinement in this country.  Our legal system, for example, has been lurching backward for some time from the ideal of impartial justice toward a model based on retaliation.  The prison system still employs a plethora of terms that suggest otherwise—  “rehabilitation,” “reform,” “correction,” and the penitence implicit in penitentiaries— but its current rhetoric and practices are often purely punitive. 

[…]

Governments regularly manufacture or exaggerate threats to suggest that violence is necessary and restraint would constitute weakness: during World War II, the United States condemned citizens of Japanese heritage; during the post-war period, it targeted leftists.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it scrambled to find new adversaries, and has since settled on Muslims, immigrants, and transgender people.  The provocation of anger is essential to government by manipulation, and the angriest people are often the most credulous, willing to snatch up without scrutiny whatever feeds their fire.”

Just like any powerful emotion, anger must either be channeled or controlled and contained.  If we allow a flame of anger to transform into a full-blown wildfire of rage, we can become violent or do something stupid we later regret.  Another possibility is we simply waste time being mad.  The last time she faced her own furies, Solnit recalls she squandered thirty-six irretrievable hours indulging in fantasizes of revenge:

“We speak of blind rages; I know the last thing that made me angry—  an anti-Semitic comment— got me stuck replaying the details of the interaction, buttressing my arguments as though I would fight the charges in court, and generally simmering for thirty-six hours or so that might have been spent more profitably and pleasantly on almost anything else.  The slur took place in the course of a conversation about the uses of left-wing violence.  The comment, you could say, called a whole ethic group on a whole continent the cowards of the country: ‘And didn’t 6 million die because they didn’t resist the Nazi regime?’  After I questioned the remark, the speaker eventually apologized and admitted the factual inanity of the statement, but I was nevertheless stuck. 

The anger crowded out other thoughts, got me mired in a resentment that didn’t threaten me directly (though anti-Semitic slurs, and the beliefs behind them, underlie anti-Semitic acts, which are having a resurgence right now).  It was as though something weighty and hard-edged had slammed shut in my chest, and a fire simmered inside.  It was as though my mind was on a treadmill revisiting the Polish partisans, the French resistance, the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Primo Levi in the Italian Resistance, and so forth.  But this rumination was not, overall, pleasant or productive, and when I finally exited the treadmill I vowed to self-regulate better.”

So how do we regulate this volatile emotion?  Do we suppress it?  Or do we express our ire freely and lash out at whatever and whomever provokes our rage?  Solnit suggests we adopt the Buddhist’s approach to anger management.  Rather than repress our anger— which is extremely unhealthy, not to mention ineffective— or weaponize it to wound others, we can feel it and simply let it go: 

“Fury is a renewable source; though the initial anger may be fleeting, it can be revived and strengthened by telling and retelling yourself the story of the insult or injustice, even over a lifetime.  Many accounts of American anger focus on what people are angry about, as though reactive anger were inevitable and the outside stimulus provoking it the only variable.  They rarely discuss the status of anger or the habits of mind that support it.  Those are discussed elsewhere, in spiritual and psychological literature and in anthropological texts. 

In Christianity, wrath is one of the seven deadly sins; patience, a cardinal virtue, is its opposite.  Buddhist theology regards anger as one of the three poisons, an affliction to be overcome through self-discipline and self-awareness.  ‘The tradition ethical precept about anger is sometimes translated as not to get angry,’ Taigen Dan Leighton, a Zen priest and translator of Buddhist texts, explained to me.  ‘But in modern Soto Zen Buddhism, we say not to harbor ill will.’  The Buddhist writer Thanissara put it thus: ‘Anger is traditionally thought to be close to wisdom.  When not projected outward toward others or inward toward the self, it gives us the necessary energy and clarity to understand what needs to be done.’

We will all feel anger at one time or another, but it doesn’t need to become animosity or be renewed or retained.  Buddhism offers an elegant model of anger management.  Harness the emotion.  Feel it without inflicting it.”

Solnit concludes by correcting a popular misconception.  Though we imagine anger is a sort of gasoline that drives the engine of social change, anger— at least blood-boiling red-faced rage—  isn’t sustainable over the long-term.  The most effective activists may first get involved because they’re dissatisfied with some aspect of society, but to make real, lasting change, they must remain committed to their cause, to action, not their own rage:

“In my experience, those dedicated to practical change over the long term are often the least involved in the dramas of rage, which wear on both the self and others.  After reading or listening to, say, hundreds of detailed accounts of rape, you may remain deeply motivated to engage in political action but find it difficult to get indignant about the newest offense.  The most committed organizers I know are often not incensed.  Their first obligation is to changing how things are— to action, not self-expression.”

Rebecca Solnit on the Responsibility of Journalists to Challenge the Status Quo & Rewrite the World’s Broken Stories

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Humans are hardwired to tell stories.  Because of our superlative intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities, we seek to make meaning from chaos.  Whether we’re telling a story about a disastrous blind date or the Geneva peace talks, we organize events using a logical narrative arc.  Rather than describe every detail of a scene, we choose what to omit and what to keep.  Storytelling is the art of selection.  If we were recounting a blind date, for example, we wouldn’t bore our listener with the clink of champagne glasses or the color of the waiter’s bow tie or an exhaustive inventory of the Merlot’s every flavor and note; we’d focus on what was relevant to the central plot.  If the story of our blind date was the story of yet another failed attempt to find love, we’d emphasize our date’s flaws: his too-confident demeanor, his obnoxious habit of always redirecting the conversation to himself— not the seductive scent of his cologne. 

In real life, it’s often hard to discern meaning: there’s no central conflict, no systematic sequence of events, no easy-to-follow arc.  Sometimes the boyfriend we thought would be our chief love interest turns out to be a passing fling; sometimes an interminable three hours on the phone with Comcast has no bearing on our life’s larger plot.  But in a story, every element performs an essential part.  A description of character, a specific sequencing of scenes, a use of one word instead of endless others: all are deliberate choices on the part of the writer.  Everything, therefore, is meaningful.

But a story is just that, a story— not an objective representation of truth.  As British philosopher Alain De Botton so astutely observed, stories “omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.”  Storytelling is ultimately a kind of manipulation.  Just as a photographer artfully arranges his frame, foregrounding his subject and relegating other aesthetically-pleasing but not-so-important objects to the background, the storyteller emphasizes certain things while downplaying or entirely neglecting others.  He zooms in and out.  But just as a photograph can only capture a small snapshot of a scene within its frame, a story is just one person’s perspective— it’s a version of reality, not reality itself. 

Stories may only represent a portion of reality, but they determine our collective experience.  Public storytellers like journalists tell the stories that dictate how we see the world.  In her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit argues journalists have a responsibility to rewrite our culture’s broken stories.  Why?  Because if they change their stories, they can change the world. 

In “Break the Story,” one of the collection’s most insightful essays, Solnit uses a sharp-witted play on words to suggest journalists have a duty not only to break stories in the traditional sense, but to shake up the status quo:

“‘Break the story’ is a line journalists use to mean getting the scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance.  When you report on any event, no matter how large or small— a presidential election, a school board meeting— you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened.  But, of course, stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out.  The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.  Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermining or reinforcing the existing stories.  Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday.  It’s also to see and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.”

My favorite English professor used to say there’s two levels to every novel: a narrative and a story.  The narrative lies on the surface of plot, character, setting.  To get to the story, you have to plunge beneath what is said and dive into the depths of what is implied.  This is just as true in real life.  Just as we must read between the lines to get the real story, we must shovel away the dirt of our socially-sanctioned stories to unearth truth.  Rather than simply perpetuate our culture’s most enduring myths, journalists have an obligation to question the very frameworks on which they depend.  Too often the stories we tell go unexamined.  And, too often, we only hear stories that reinforce rather than challenge.  While certain stories dominate headlines, other more pressing issues get little coverage, suppressed in shame and secrets, either spoken in whispers or completely ignored. 

What stories are heard and what stories are silenced largely depends on who’s in power.  Take terrorism and domestic violence.  Though the fear-mongering media might have us believe terrorism is the most urgent issue of our times, terrorism claims very few American lives.  In contrast, domestic violence kills nearly a thousand women every year.  To put the scope of the issue in perspective, between 2001 and 2012, 6,488 American troops were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq; in that same time period, 11, 766 American women were murdered by current or ex-partners.  That’s nearly double the number of troops who died during the war.  As Solnit writes:

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories.  The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture.  We call those “dominant narratives” or “paradigms” or “memes” or “metaphors we live by” or “frameworks.”  However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces.  And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and that, too often, are also the bars of someone else’s cage.  They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date.  They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions.  Why does the media obediently hype terrorism, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about a thousand a year?  How do you break the story about what really threatens and kills us?

[…]

Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the story you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them.  Break the story.  Breaking is a creative act as much as making, in this kind of writing.”

So why is it that we speak so often of the improbable event of dying in a terrorist attack and so seldom of the very real threat of being killed at the hands of an intimate loved one?  In the end, society will only endorse the stories that maintain the status quo.  The baseless story that terrorism is the greatest threat to national security identifies a common enemy, breeds fear and paranoia and makes the populace easier to control.  Such a story upholds the power of the powerful.  If we’re too busy talking about terrorism, we’re not talking about rising income inequality or the disappearing middle class or mounting college tuition costs.  The story of epidemic domestic violence, however, exposes the serious problems underlying our power structure.  If we were to examine why nearly 40% of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, we’d have to rethink the damaging myths we propagate about romantic love: maybe a suitor who immediately showers you with adoration, for example, is not a fairytale prince but inappropriately obsessed; maybe a man who texts constantly wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing is not head-over-heels in love, but controlling and potentially dangerous.  We’d have to rethink how we teach boys to be men: the ways we make excuses for their bad behavior, the ways we encourage their aggressiveness and entitlement.  Indeed, we’d have to rethink society itself. 

The widespread occurrence of rape is yet another story our culture silences.  When we do discuss sexual assault, our tendency is to distrust the woman.  The prevailing belief is women lie about rape and make accusations either to exact revenge or get attention.  The narrative is women are spiteful and vindictive; the story is an alarming number of men rape and never face prosecution:

“Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives.  For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general.  This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women.  In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy.  But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot).”

George Orwell once said “good prose is a window pane”: when a reader looks out the window of a finely-crafted sentence, he should more clearly see the world.  Plainness and preciseness formed the pillars of Elements of Style, his definitive guide to writing well.  To his timeless advice, Solnit adds writers should construct their own windows rather than look through other people’s.  A good writer is a freethinker.  Never will he mindlessly conform to popular opinion or march with the masses in neat little rows.  Instead, he will dispel the myths that sedate us in a stupor of inaction and challenge his moment’s status quo:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view.  News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo…This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian.  You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.”

For more from our era’s most passionate defender of democracy, read Solnit on the impotence of anger, the importance of calling things by their true names, and the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history.  If you want to delight in even more of Solnit’s lyrical language, meander through her lovely meditations on walking as a political act and walking as a means of replenishing the soul and reinvigorating the mind.

Rebecca Solnit on Our Responsibility to Call Things By Their True Names

 

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Language is a distinctly human ability; our language is made up of words— not growls and grunts.  But though our capacity to communicate is what separates us from beasts, we rarely stop to marvel.  We can write!  We can talk!  We utter hundreds, if not thousands, of words a day, most often to relay the humdrum information of the mundane: the frivolous pleasantries of superficial small talk, the obligatory “hello, how are you?” in the grocery store check out.  We’re careless with our words, only approximating— rather than exactly— expressing our thoughts.  We allow words to slip from our mouths, forgetting they have a current of implied meanings and historical connotations that surge beneath the surface of their definitions in Merriam Webster.  We use offensive, derogatory language to revolt against political correctness, thinking we’re provocative defenders of free speech when we’re really just insensitive morons. 

Throughout history, those in power have intentionally manipulated language to conceal, rather than reveal, truth.  The ruling class weaponizes words to pit the marginalized against each other.  Political parties mobilize hate speech to advance their agendas and dehumanize entire groups.  Tragically, in our 1984 dystopia of “alternative facts,” language continues to be abused.

Though we take words for granted, nothing is more powerful.  “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word,” Emily Dickinson once wrote.  Indeed, the Bible attests, “In the beginning was the Word.”  Words catch the elusive and inexpressible.  When we take care to choose words that precisely convey our meaning, we can articulate what was once inarticulable.  Before anything can exist in the physical, material plane, it must first exist as an idea.  The theory of relativity, the notion of civil disobedience, the foundational democratic belief that “all men are created equal”: all began as ideas.  They only revolutionized our lives once they were expressed in words.  Language is the vehicle through which we can transport our innermost thoughts; it’s how we spread ideas.  Words launch movements and ignite revolutions, overthrow oppressive governments and spark meaningful discourse.  In other words, they remake the world.

Because we’ve been bestowed with the miraculous gift of language, we must be responsible with our words.  This pressing responsibility is what Rebecca Solnit explores in her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names.  A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the impotence of anger, the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  As the title suggests, Ms. Solnit’s latest collection is a passionate plea to name things precisely.  Our ancestors knew there was tremendous power in naming things as they are.  As Solnit says, it’s only after we diagnose a disease that we can find a cure:

“One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how ‘a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.’  In the deep past, people knew names had power.  Some still do.  Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness.  It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.

When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis.  Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it.  Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step.  Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one.  And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.”

It’s crucial that we call things by their true names because language determines our reality.  When we say “a woman was raped” instead of “a man raped a woman,” the passive construction essentially erases him from the equation and absolves the perpetrator of responsibility.  The result?  Because passive voice transforms the grammatical object (the woman) into the subject, we begin to view rape as a “women’s issue.”  In our discussions of sexual assault, we focus on the victim (“She shouldn’t have drank so much…”/”She shouldn’t have been walking down a dark alleyway alone…”) instead of the perpetrator.  Rather than teach men to treat women with dignity and respect, we teach women it’s their responsibility to protect themselves against men’s violence.  Ultimately, how we discuss rape dictates how we understand it.  Or, as British philosopher Alain de Botton so astutely observed, “how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.” 

At the heart of Call Them By Their True Names is the assertion that words can either clarify or mystify, inform or mislead.  They can liberate or oppress, promote tolerance and understanding or spread hate.  In the end, we can only fix what we acknowledge is broken.  When we call things by their true names, we can see the world as it is— and begin to change.  

Rebecca Solnit on Hope, Hindsight & How Our Choices Can Redirect the Course of History

rebecca solnit #2What is hope?  In 1861, Emily Dickinson composed the most enduring definition: hope is the “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”  Over a century and a half later, Anne Lamott wrote hope was the belief that even in the desert you could still find “life, wildflowers, fossils, sources of water.”  For poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, hope exists at the crossroads of “might” and “might not.”  We might repair our broken republic; we might eliminate small-mindedness and bigotry; we might recover our lost democratic ideals.  However, hope is pragmatic enough to know possibilities are not certainties.  Though we might break the oppressive silence surrounding sexual assault, though we might pass stricter gun control laws and finally put a stop to senseless mass shootings, we might not.  Whether or not we do depends on us. 

Our ability to redirect the course of history is what Solnit explores in her consciousness-raising 2018 essay collection Call Them By Their True NamesRequired reading for anyone concerned about the state of American democracy, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the impotence of anger, the importance of using language to preserve truth rather than disseminate fabrications and falsehoods, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  Though today -isms threaten to topple our very democracy, Solnit never resigns to despair.  Despite Donald Trump and the alt right, despite fake news and distorted facts, despite melting ice caps and the impending threat of global warming, Solnit remains hopeful; indeed, hope is the bedrock of all her writing.

In one of the collection’s most beautifully buoyant essays, “In Praise of Indirect Consequences,” Solnit asserts hope implies responsibility.  Unlike optimism, which believes humanity will undoubtedly have a happy ending, or cynicism, which maintains we’re doomed, hope says the future will be determined by what we do (or don’t do):

“Optimism assumes that all will go well without our effort; pessimism assumes it’s all irredeemable; both let us stay home and do nothing.  Hope for me has meant a sense that the future is unpredictable, and that we don’t actually know what will happen, but know we may be able to write it ourselves.

Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written.  It’s an informed, astute open-mindedness about what can happen and what role we might play in it.  Hope looks forward but draws its energies from the past, from knowing histories, including our victories, and their complexities and imperfections.  It means not fetishizing the perfect that is the enemy of the good, not snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, not assuming you know what will happen when the future is unwritten, and part of what happens is up to us.”

In our near-sighted age, it’s difficult to magnify the telescope of our perspective and clearly see into the distance.  Big businesses pollute our skies and poison our oceans because they consider short-term profit rather than long-term environmental consequences.  Wall Street bankers exploit others to afford the excesses of a lavish lifestyle: extravagant parties, flashy Ferraris, luxurious multi-million dollar penthouses— they think nothing of how their reckless decisions will affect the economy down the road.  But our choices in the present— from the most significant to the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential— will be felt for years to come.  A flap of a butterfly’s wings can set off a tsunami halfway across the world. 

History belongs not just to monumental events and larger-than-life public personas but to commonplace moments and ordinary people.  As Leo Tolstoy once said, history is shaped by “an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions.”  The lyrical Ms. Solnit agrees: the little things we do today can reverberate for centuries.  Even when a political campaign or social movement appears to be a “failure” from the limited perspective of our particular moment in human history, it may be a triumph in the grander scheme of things.  For example, though British suffragettes didn’t win the right to vote until 1928, their early activism would go on to inspire Gandhi who, of course, would go on to inspire Martin Luther King.  His philosophy of non-violence would later influence activists in South Africa and protestors in the Arab Spring: 

 Ideas are contagious, emotions are contagious, hope is contagious, courage is contagious.  When we embody those qualities, or their opposites, we convey them to others.  That is to say, British suffragists, who won limited access to the vote for women in 1918 and full access in 1928, played a part in inspiring an Indian man who, twenty years later, led the liberation of the Asian subcontinent from British rule.  He, in turn, inspired a Black man in the American South to study his ideas and their application.  After a 1959 pilgrimage to India to meet with Gandhi’s heirs, Martin Luther King wrote, ‘While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.  We spoke of him often.’  Those techniques, further developed by the civil rights movement, were taken up around the world, including in the struggle against apartheid, at one end of the African continent, and in the Arab Spring, at the other.”

Solnit concludes by citing great French philosopher and social theorist Michael Foucault: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does,” he wrote.  Using the lovely metaphor of a tree, Solnit suggests the seeds of our actions can take root and blossom in miraculous, unexpected ways:

“You do what you can.  What you’ve done may do more than you can imagine for generations to come.  You plant a seed and a tree grows from it; will there be fruit, shade, habitat for birds, more seeds, a forest, wood to build a cradle or a house?  You don’t know.  A tree can live much longer than you.  So will an idea, and sometimes the changes that result from accepting that new idea about what is true, or right, just might remake the world.  You do what you can do; you do your best; what what you do does is not up to you.”

How many of us have turned on the news and felt like we lived in a doomsday dystopia of racism and misogyny?  of discord and division?  of mistrust and acrimony?  We live in an age of white supremacy and anti-immigrant hysteria, police brutality and mass shootings.  Yet Solnit insists we can still shift the tides of history.

Rebecca Solnit on Walking as a Political Act & the Streets as the Realm of Radical Change, Revolution & Democracy

love not warFor most of us, the “streets” connote inner-city squalor and moral decay.  The toughest streets of San Francisco represent humanity at its bleakest: homeless people mumbling to themselves in the piss-scented Tenderloin district; dilapidated slums littered with broken glass, used needles, and garbage; gun shots and switchblades.  But for poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, the streets are less a cesspit of danger and destitution than an amphitheater where the drama of democracy is staged.  Parades, protests, rebellions, revolutions, riots: the seed of every history-making social movement begins, Margaret Mead reassured us, with “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.”  For Ms. Solnit, the streets are the birthing place for these movements.  In her lexicon, the “street” carries a more hopeful connotation: democratic in the purest sense, streets are where organizations of common citizens can directly participate in their own governance and make their voices heard simply through their physical presence.  Walking, then, can be a political act, a profound way of making a real, lasting difference:

“This is the highest ideal of democracy— that everyone can participate in making their own life and the life of the community— and the street is democracy’s greatest arena, the place where ordinary people can speak, unsegregated by walls, unmediated by those with more power.  It’s not a coincidence that media and mediate have the same root; direct political action in real public space may be the only way to engage in unmediated communication with strangers, as well as a way to reach media audiences by literally making news…Parades, demonstrations, protests, uprisings, and urban revolutions are all about the members of the public moving through public space for expressive and political rather than purely practical reasons.  In this, they are a part of the cultural history of walking.”  

Though we usually understand walking in the most literal terms and commonplace definitions, walking in many ways is a figure of speech.  When we walk as a form of protest, we’re giving expression to our beliefs.  The civil rights activists who marched on Washington on August 28, 1963, the hundreds of thousands who banded together against the Trump administration on January 21, 2017: they weren’t just mechanically putting one foot in front of the other— they were using one of the most powerful words in the political dictionary, their bodies, to write history.  In both cases, they composed the poetry of history with the stanzas of their feet:

“On ordinary days we each walk alone or with a companion or two on the sidewalks, and the streets are used for transit and for commerce.  On extraordinary days—on the holidays that are anniversaries of historic and religious events and on the days we make history ourselves— we walk together, and the whole street is stamping out the meaning of the day.  Walking, which can be prayer, sex, communion with the land, or musing, becomes speech in the these demonstrations and uprisings, and a lot of history has been written with the feet of citizens walking through their cities.  Such walking is a bodily demonstration of political or cultural conditions and one of the most universally available forms of public expression.  It could be called marching, in that it is common movement toward a common goal, but the participants have not surrendered their individuality as have those soldiers whose lockstep signifies that they have become interchangeable units under an absolute authority.  Instead they signify the possibility of common ground between people who have not ceased to be different from each other, people who have at last become the public.  When bodily movement becomes a form of speech then the distinctions between words and deeds, between representations and actions, begin to blur, and so marches can themselves be liminal, another form of walking into the realm of the representational and symbolic— and sometimes, into history.”  

march on washington

But in order for the public to peacefully assemble and effectively protest, it must have public space.  As chain restaurants and strip malls steamroll our cities into suburban wastelands of cookie-cutter conformity, our cities lose more than just their distinctive character— they lose crucial civic space.  Without streets to march on, without squares where we can gather, we can’t directly participate in our democracy.  For the ever-eloqent Solnit, a city’s design can either promote civic engagement or make it impossible for citizens to meaningfully demonstrate:

“Only citizens familiar with their city as both symbolic and practical territory, able to come together on foot and accustomed to walking about their city, can revolt.  Few remember that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” is listed in the First Amendement of the U.S. Constitution, along with the freedom of the press, of speech and of religion, as critical to democracy.  While the other rights are easily recognized, the elimination of the possibility of such assemblies through urban design, automotive dependence, and other factors is hard to trace and seldom framed as a civil rights issue.  But when public spaces are eliminated, so ultimately is the public; the individual has ceased to be a citizen capable of experiencing and acting in common with fellow citizens.  Citizenship is predicated on the sense of having something in common with strangers, just as democracy is built upon trust in strangers.  And public space is the space we share with strangers, the unsegregated zone.  In these communal events, that abstraction the public becomes real and tangible.  Los Angeles has had tremendous riots— Watts in 1965 and the Rodney King uprising in 1992— but little effective history of protest.  It is so diffuse, so centerless, that it possesses neither symbolic space in which to act, nor a pedestrian scale in which to participate as the public…San Francisco, on the other hand, has functioned like the “Paris of the West” it was once called, breeding a regular menu of parades, processions, protests, demonstrations, marches and other public activities in its central spaces.”

Solnit’s Wanderlust will transform the way you look at walking.  For more poetic and soul-expanding meditations on sauntering, read Solnit on the power of walking to replenish the soul and reinvigorate the mind.

“Let America Be America Again”: Hughes & Trump’s Two Visions for America

langston hughes

Let America Be America Again

By Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

Back in November, I was terrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency.  Today, I’m even more stumped at how such a man could conceivably win.  Bigoted, racist, misogynistic, bombastic, narcissistic.  Trump is a fear-mongering demagogue who deals in divisiveness and threatens to destroy the very foundations on which our democracy is built.  If you could somehow get past his unconscionable proposals to ban Muslim immigrants and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, if you could somehow ignore his despicable behavior towards women, if you could somehow disregard the countless allegations women have made accusing him of sexual harassment and assault, how could you possibly ignore the fact that he doesn’t have the slightest clue as to how our government works?  Trump is a business man, not a politician.  While many right-wing nut jobs (looking at you, Sarah Palin) claim that’s his appeal, it’s only logical that a man with no experience in government would have a hard time in the White House.  Unlike Clinton who proposed detailed, meticulous plans to reach her objectives, Trump only made vague promises during his campaign…and offered no concrete means of fulfilling them.  Terrorism?  ‘Ban Muslims!’  Immigration?  ‘Build a wall!’  As J.K. Rowling so insightfully noted, Trumpism is synonymous with proposing “crude, unworkable solutions” to complex problems.

So how has this man rallied such passionate, borderline frenzied support?  Trump’s ascendancy can no doubt be attributed to a widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, a general feeling that the system is rigged against the little guy.  Trump sticks an unrepentant middle finger at social niceties: when he’s not calling his opponent a “nasty woman,” he’s telling Access Hollywood how he “grabs women by the pussies.”  Though such comments should be appalling, many Americans appreciate Trump’s particular brand of brash frankness.  To those disillusioned blue-collar workers in Trump Land, the Republican candidate’s refusal to succumb to modern standards of political correctness is part of his charm.  His reviling comments are even a badge of his honesty.  “Look what he openly says about minorities and women!” Trump nuts must think, “he won’t pussyfoot around the issues!”

The kinds of people Trump attracts are just one of the many ironies of last year’s election season.  Trump is a titan of the 1%, a New York City billionaire, not a self-made man but the product of generational nepotism, yet his campaign won the allegiance of millions of Trump soldiers from the lower middle classes.  Why?  Trump-of all people-won’t represent their interests; if anything, he’ll proceed to represent his own.  In office, you can bet he’ll slash taxes for the rich and continue an onslaught of dangerous economic reforms that will line the pockets of the elite and make the poor poorer.  Clinton has been a champion for the lower classes her whole career yet the white lower classes refused to vote for her.  She’s “untrustworthy,” “dishonest,” “power-hungry,” they said.  How, I wondered last November, how could people be so stupid?  How could people so blindly, willingly, enthusiastically vote against their own interests?!?!  

Because Trump stands as the master of the most effective political tactic of all: divide and conquer.  According to Karl Marx, father of the communist movement, the ruling class protects its power by pitting the lower ranks against each other.  Trump has been taking a play from the Hitler playbook all along.  Like the infamous furor, Trump capitalizes on the fear and discontent of average men to garner support for his cause.  And much like Hitler, Trump has found a convenient scapegoat to blame for all of America’s problems.  Whether it’s illegal immigrants or possible terrorist Muslims, Trump exploits the blue collar, white American fear of the foreign other…and the particularly white fear of losing their long-standing power.

Trump campaigned on the promise to “make America great again,” a promise many have interpreted to mean once again make America white, racist and exclusionary.  Like many of his conservative predecessors, Trump took advantage of a kind of widespread nostalgia, a yearning to resurrect our former national glory.  And like many, he exploited the inherent ambiguousness of the term “America.”  What does it really mean to be American?  What is America?  For the conservative, America is capitalist industry, rugged individualism, free markets; for the liberal, America is equality of opportunity, multiculturalism, diversity.  What, exactly, America is remains open to debate: it’s a relative term whose meaning shifts depending on the dictionary.

Unlike Trump who yearns for an America long past, poet Langston Hughes believes America is a dream that has yet to be fulfilled.  Though there’s a nostalgic quality to his longing (in the first line, he wistfully pleads, “Let America be America again” in a way that eerily echoes Trump’s campaign slogan), there’s equally a sense that America is an ideal we have yet to achieve.  In what will become a pattern in the first third of the poem, Hughes punctuates the end of the first stanza with a parenthetical aside:

“America,” he confesses, “was never America to me” (Hughes 5).  

Here “never” poses a logical contradiction: how can America be itself “again” if it “never” existed in the first place?  

Hughes may employ the romanticized images of our national history-the dauntless “pioneer,” for example, settling the rugged, untrammeled frontier-but he does so to reveal them as mythos.  Just as our history books conveniently rewrite the genocide of millions of Native Americans as the glorious fulfillment of manifest destiny, we cherish the American dream as truth when, for many, it’s nothing more than a fairy tale.  Hughes’s parenthetical speaker reminds us of this unsettling fact.  Though we pay lip service to democratic notions of tolerance and equality of opportunity, the fact that the speaker is syntactically ostracized by parentheses proves that “liberty and justice for all” ironically only applies to a privileged class.  

One of Hughes’s many narrative talents is his ability to shift perspectives.  Later in the poem, he adopts the voice of mainstream America, an America who’s shocked-even a little offended-that someone could make such a claim:

Say who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?” (Hughes 17-18).  

Here, the presence of italics indicates the intrusion of another voice, one we haven’t heard before.  Because these lines are phrased as questions, we can assume they’re directed at someone.  But who?  Hughes’s choice of words might provide some insight.  The people to whom the speaker refers are not expressing themselves loudly or confidently but “mumble” which suggests they’re silenced and marginalized.  “Darkness” furthers this idea as those he addresses are literally rendered invisible by ignorance and denial.  If we consider the context of the poem, it makes sense that the voice is responding to our earlier parenthetical speaker:

“There’s never been equality for me

No freedom in this ‘homeland of the free'” (Hughes 15-16).

For most Americans, the realization of their country’s hypocrisy is too devastating to bear.  Who, they wonder, would draw such a “veil across the stars?” (Hughes 18).  If stars are proud symbols of American patriotism, the fact that such accusations draw a “veil” across them implies America’s legacy of exclusion diminishes the speaker’s national pride.  The word itself carries solemn connotations, evoking doleful images of attending a funeral.  However, the only thing that’s died is our speaker’s aggrandized portrait of America.  Turns out the “dream” he’s treasured so dearly is just that, a dream-it only exists in the abstract.

So “who,” to return to our earlier question, is our speaker addressing? who is “mumbling in the dark”?  The answer comes in the following lines:

“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars

I am the red man driven from the land

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek” (Hughes 19-22).  

For Hughes, it is the presence of the working-class man, the Indian and African American, that indisputably proves the American dream an enticing but ultimately untrue fiction.  His use of Whitman-esque anaphora proves the defining feature of the stanza.  Each beginning with the emphatic repetition of “I am” before listing yet another class barred access to the American dream, these lines reflect Hughes’s vision for his homeland.  In much the same way that each line originates in the same place but ends in difference, in Hughes’s America, each person is bound by a common identity but permitted the freedom of their own distinct individuality.  The poor white man, the Negro, the red man driven from his rightful home: though at the time this poem was published such minority groups were still struggling for self-determination, Hughes believed they had an equal right to sit at the American table.  Today in the era of Trump, this same struggle continues.  While Hughes’s America is expansive enough to accommodate a multitude of voices, Trump’s America seems terrifyingly restrictive.  

But when the future of our nation seems bleak, as it does today, we must not despair.  Rather we should remember Hughes’s rousing words: though he says it “plain” that “America never was America to me,” at the end of the poem, he swears a triumphant oath that “America will be!”