The Coins In Our Pockets

I don’t know of a soul — I choose that word deliberately — over the last two years that hasn’t confessed to a level of exhaustion from which they fear they’ll never recover. And, god, who can blame them? For the last two years, we’ve been watching the systematic, gleeful destruction of our country’s political and moral systems, standards, and progress enter warp speed and hurtle us toward a future that could quite possibly not have us in it. So those of us who would rather not see that happen — which is, fortunately, the vast majority of us — have been working our asses off to try to head off the worst of things.

We work, and we rest, and we work, and we rest, and we work. The machine against which we work is huge, flush with money we could never hope to have, old, well-oiled, and ever-grinding.

So shall we must be.

And that realization, when it really hits, can be a heavy thing.

When I was a young, angry teenager during George W. Bush’s tenure as president, I protested the Afghanistan war. I watched my father research for his papers on authoritarianism. I went to college and radicalized further. I graduated six months after the Great Recession hit. I raged.

Then Obama got elected, and I relaxed. “Ah,” I thought. “Things are all right now.” Obama’s second term put the rest of my worries to bed. Things would take a while to really get better, but if a black man can be president twice in a row, I thought, we’ve made too much progress to really lose.

I didn’t really get nervous until the week before the 2016 election.

And then the bill for every day of my willful ignorance, inaction, and complacency came due.

Because this is the truth: it’s not a sprint. It’s not even a marathon. This is the rest of our lives.

I don’t mean we’re going to be trapped in this Trumpian autocratic hellscape forever; no, of course not. Every kingdom falls eventually. What I mean is that it’s going to take some time — maybe just a few years, maybe a few decades, maybe even a couple of generations — to shake this particular collection of monkeys off our backs. And then, my friends, our work turns to breaking down what we must and building what we need to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Simply put, there is no end to the work that must be done, because, as we’ve seen, there are always more monkeys ready to leap onto our backs.

That’s what I mean when I say this is the rest of our lives, and why this understanding only adds to the weight you shoulder at first. When I realized it, I lamented. I mourned. I felt trapped; bound to a mean, exhausting, thankless, hopeless life of flinging my tiny fists at an enemy who could annihilate me without blinking.

But I started talking to career activists. I read “Hope In The Dark” by Rebecca Solnit. I read Captain America comics. I talked to my father, a (progressive liberal) Vietnam war veteran, and I talked to another veteran and local (centrist Republican) politician. And I realized something else.

What I had discovered was not a life sentence; it was simply the other face of the coin each of us is handed when we become — by birth or naturalization — citizens of this country.

We’re all reasonably familiar with the privileges and rights of being a citizen. We learn about the handy little list of some of them in school.

But with every right or privilege we enjoy is an accompanying duty and a debt to be paid, because, as Captain America shows us over and over again, freedom isn’t free. If you want something in this world, you have to either work for it or pay for it.

This isn’t some capitalist propaganda talking; this is the way of the world. Antelopes don’t just jump into lions’ waiting mouths if they ask. I don’t just get to do whatever I want and expect all my friends to adjust their behavior to fit my whims. My mental illness doesn’t get any better if I just sit there wishing it away.

So doesn’t it stand to reason, then, that you don’t just get to take of the privileges of being a citizen and not have to pay any of the debts you owe?

I’m not talking about paying taxes, although that’s probably the duty we’re all most familiar with — and an important one, even if the current government has made a point of showing us we ought not to even pay that one. I’m not even really talking about the rest of the list we’re (informally) taught: obey the law, serve in the jury, etc.

I’m talking about the things that are piquantly American and then again very much not:

  1. Stay informed about the issues that affect your community. Using the excuse that media is corrupt or biased isn’t going to work; sorry. Read a wide variety of sources, think critically, think for yourself, question everything. It is your duty to doubt.
  2. Related to #1, if you’re going to voice an opinion, make sure it’s an informed one. Believe it or not, it is your duty as a person not to spout dumb, reactionary bullshit.
  3. Participate in the democratic process. Voting is the easiest way by far. But if you truly believe all of the candidates are that awful, the answer is not to not vote. There is another option: if you don’t like anything on the menu, the restaurant that is America actually lets you walk straight back into the kitchen and make what you want! Run for office yourself, or offer an alternative by helping with another person’s campaign.
  4. Defend your country. If you choose to do that by going into the armed services, that’s a perfectly fine choice. Trump and his ilk have fortunately presented us with lots of alternatives for those of us who find military service distasteful or impossible: defend the institutions that ensure our well-being. Work to repair the broken ones; there are plenty. Support the people (politicians and other citizens) who are doing this work. Engage with your representatives and demand they take your community’s best interests to the legislative table; that’s actually what they’re there for even though most of them are invested in trying to convince you otherwise.

The current economic and political arrangement does all it can to reward the relentless pursuit of the privileges of citizenship and the relentless avoidance of their accompanying duties, because if it actually galvanized its citizens into activity, they may exercise their constitutionally-guaranteed right (and duty!) to walk into whichever branch of government they chose en masse and start flipping tables. And since the system was built by the people who control it, they’d rather not see their own empire brought down.

So it turns out that the most radical, the most punk thing you can do is pull that coin out of your pocket and flip it over and see its other face.

When I did this, I realized I wasn’t trapped or shouldering an impossible burden or doomed to rage against a machine that would eat me alive. Or rather, I didn’t have to think about it that way. Instead, I was just doing what I should have been doing all along.

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

The quote is paraphrased, but it rings a bell deep in my soul and it’s something upon which I ask you to meditate. Because really, that’s the crux of it. What does that mean to you? What will that look like in your life? What kinds of things will you decide to make better, and how? What kinds of changes will you need to make?

Full disclosure: it’s not fun and it’s not easy and it’s not meant to be. It won’t look the same for everybody. But it doesn’t have to consume your life; it shouldn’t. You don’t have to wreck yourself doing it — I learned that one the hard way — but you do have to do it. There is no opting out anymore.

I know you’re tired. I am too. But freedom isn’t free, and we still have a lot of work to do. Gird yourselves, brace yourselves, take care of yourselves, and carry on. For yourself, for everyone you love, and everyone you’ll never meet who’ll never know what you did, but will be able to live freely because of you.