In Praise of Hopeful Rage
Good and righteous anger is a marvelous thing.
It is not a particularly easy time to be a person of conscience in the United States of America. This is indeed the majority of Americans, though that majority seems at times to be separated from the rest by a frighteningly slim margin. For we the people who reject fascism in all forms; for people who embrace the ideal and the lived reality of a diverse and inclusive society; for people who are generous with time and money to those who look like them and to those who don’t; for people who think critically, engage in self-reflection and make the effort to sit with nuance and the often-uncomfortable grey area; and for people who read real history, the kind that doesn’t just tell the winners’ side — well, let’s just say it’s not the happiest season.
It has been a long year. For Americans who care not just about their own families but about the families of those they will never meet, at home and abroad, there is rage and there is broken-winged but vital hope. These are not mutually exclusive. To be alive and aware is to be angry sometimes. To stay alive, on purpose, as well as you can, for as long as you can, is an act of hope.
Righteous anger in the service of equality for all is a marvelous thing. It foments good revolutions and topples evil dictatorships. At times we associate anger with violence alone, and this is untrue. A productive anger is often the first step to a productive peace.
Jesus got angry. People who aren’t angry do not, as a matter of course, flip tables in temples. Righteous rage can be a spiritual practice, too.
A vote for Donald Trump was a failure of imagination. Compassion requires imagination. At times it takes some real effort to summon compassion for someone who does not look like you, make the same income as you, share your religious views or country of origin or style of dress or spiritual practices or sexuality or gender. In order to vote for a leader who promotes social and economic programs that benefit a diverse array of humans, one must first imagine the effects such programs might have on mothers, fathers, and children one may never, ever meet.
To lack this compassion is to choose laziness. The cold self-interest of “Not in my backyard!” or “As long as my family’s fine, I don’t care about other folks!” or “They should just all pull themselves up by their bootstraps!” is in fact an act of violent laziness and extreme entitlement.
I do not call Trump voters stupid. I call them willfully ignorant. Stupid, whatever that pejorative term really means, would be acceptable. It would imply they had no choice. But I know some very smart Trump voters, and you may too, whether in your personal life or in the world of politics or religion (probably not the arts — art by its very nature tends to be anti-fascist, and the slim crop of artists who are not will yield, um, Scott Baio.)
These Trump voters seem to be nimble, frequent users of the Internet. The people who use social media to call me and many others kikes and cunts and whores and every racial epithet under the rainbow, to threaten us with rape and murder, to repeat delusional lies about political candidates and common citizens — these are people who have access to the same wealth of information we do, right here on this very Internet. They have the opportunity to read the same real science and same fact-checked, reality-supported data. They have the same chances to visit the websites of the ACLU or PFLAG or The Trevor Project or RAINN or the Southern Poverty Law Center and read real stories from real, diverse human beings who need help and who give help in turn.
It comforts people (mainly liberal white people who can afford to have this delusion or very wealthy people, some of them quite famous, who cling to it for comfort) to imagine this is a class issue alone, and that Trump voters aren’t really racist. That’s an adorable way of thinking that will lead you right to the welcome gates of whatever horror this administration will invent and that these people will co-sign.
We the people are told so often to feel deeply for the white working class, whether we are a part of it or not. I have always felt that compassion, because my own white family, just a few generations removed from immigration, is comprised of people who make incomes across the spectrum of the poor to the wealthy. Some qualify for government assistance; others contemplate buying a vacation home. It was never a question in my mind that all humans deserve compassion, regardless of their income. I learned this at home and I learned it at church, and I believed it as a child and I believe it now. To think otherwise would be the real definition of stupid.
But we are never told to feel for the brown and black and yellow and red working class. We are never told to care for queer people of all backgrounds struggling in jobs at Walmart and McDonald’s and our nation’s ever-dwindling supply of manufacturing facilities. We are never told that they matter.
They are never told that, either. Not by the mainstream media. Not by the Republican Party. Not now. Not ever.
We are told by some to have compassion for the individuals, most of them white and heterosexual, who actively voted against the rest of us, some of us white, some of us from every color of the human rainbow, all of us representing every type of sexuality and gender expression.
I can summon compassion for their humanity while saying they are wrong and they have done an atrocious thing.
Do not mistake my liberal worldview for weakness. Do not confuse my lack of screaming at one of your Riefenstahl-ready rallies with the absence of a backbone. The fact that I would not hesitate to help you in a crisis does not mean I will hesitate to tell you that you are a sinner. You may not have sinned against the American reality, which has long been fraught with racism and hate, but you have sinned against the American ideal.
And when the candy he promised you turns to poison in your mouth, as the jobs you feel you deserve do not magically appear because manufacturing is more and more the realm of robots and the rich men who own them, as our society continues to produce a more diverse and beautiful population, and as the resistance against your KKK-endorsed hatedaddy grows, the rest of us will do our best to clean up this mess you caused for all us. And we will schlep you up the mountain of progress on our backs.
Because that is what progressives do: move forward, inch by painful inch, paying for the expansion of benefits necessary when the delusional fairy tale of the GOP inevitably lets down not just the poorest and most vulnerable but the middle class and those who aspire to it.
He will not hesitate to send your children and spouses to war. He has no real understanding of what that means. None of his gilded children in their gilded palaces ever joined up. Trump himself played war at an expensive military school. He avoided the draft. He avoided it five times. His reasons were college, which privilege bought him, and bone spurs that apparently disappeared all on their own. Nice bit of magic, that.
My grandfather was a vet. So was yours, probably. The war made a bigger liberal of him than ever before. A few months before he died in the home he built for my grandmother and their four children, he talked to me at length about leaving his working-class Irish-American hometown and seeing segregation for the first time up close and personal in the service.
He had tried to get into the military twice and was rejected twice for poor eyesight. The third try was the one. They needed bodies. He had one, and it went to war. He flew with the 15th Air Force, 461st Bomb Group, 766 Bomb Squadron and completed 50 missions as an engineer/waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber. He was the recipient of several medals including a Presidential Citation for a raid on that heavily guarded fortress, the Ploesti oil fields in Romania.
At 90, before he died, he talked to me about the Tuskegee Airmen.
“We felt very safe and lucky when they flew with us,” he said. “They were the best.”
He told me about one mission where he flew so perilously close to a German plane, part of the Luftwaffe, that when the pilot was hit (“Not by me,” my grandfather said, and I could tell it was important that he say that even if he knew and I knew there were others who were indeed hit by him) and tumbled out of the plane, screaming and on fire, my grandfather could see it.
“You don’t forget something like that very quickly,” he said.
What would he say if he knew that Donald Trump’s national security adviser Mike Flynn met with Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the ultra-right wing, racist, hateful Austrian Freedom Party, a party founded by Nazis?
What would he say if he knew that Flynn met with Strache not in Austria but at White House North, Trump Tower?
What would he say if he knew that, as Tina Nguyen writes for Vanity Fair, “Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, failed to secure a federal judicial appointment in 1986 over allegations of past racist comments”?
My grandfather was not a man who cursed easily or often. The nastiest thing I ever heard him say was when I asked him what he had thought of the Nazis. He was a compassionate man who so often did the effort of putting himself in a stranger’s shoes. I wondered if he saw them as monsters or as human beings or something in between.
He took a long moment and said, “Well, we had no use for them.”
It was the harshest thing I ever heard him say. It meant that the Nazis contributed nothing good and thus had no purpose.
He would have had no use for Donald Trump.
He taught me that it was not a contradiction to be anti-war and pro-veteran. I cannot imagine being any other way. I know what it is like to say goodbye to someone you love as they leave for a war a half world away. I am sorry that more people are going to know what this is like.
I am sorry that if we get hit by an outside force that senses a vulnerability and exploits it viciously — you know, besides Russia, which already scored early and scored big — many people are going to fall in line behind President Trump and do as he bids without question, just as some members of the press have begun to do after offers of visits to that posh Florida estate. I guess potato chips, like pretend-patriotism and pseudo-populism, are a hell of a drug.
And it is not just his “Doctor Strangelove”-esque hunger for war we should fear. It’s also the fact that Trump and his cronies will actively work to undermine physical and mental health in all Americans right here at home. As sociologist and professor Theda Skocpol writes in the New York Times, “Donald J. Trump won the Electoral College, and Republicans maintained congressional majorities, because of overwhelming victories in small cities, outer suburbs and rural counties. Yet the president-elect and the Republicans are poised to deliver blows to the social fabric and economic underpinnings of those very communities.”
Like I said, these times are not easy for many of us. I would venture to say for most of us. Sometimes rage overwhelms hope.
But hope we do, and hope we must. I have no hope that Trump will be a good president. He will, on occasion, do less than reprehensible things, like wake up and drink a cup of tea and wave at a baby. He is not a good man and he will not be a good leader. He will do vastly more harm than good.
I am hopeful that we the people, the Americans of conscience and those that in their disappointment with their next president will finally grow one, will do more good than harm.
Here is what I will do with my rage and my hope, and what you can do as well: one small good thing, every day. Socks and women’s health products to a local homeless shelter (they are always in need of both, and they will need more in the years to come as their funding is cut by the GOP in power). Communicating with our representatives in Washington (more on that from Indivisible: A Practical Guide To Resisting The Trump Agenda, written by former Congressional staffers.) A little money when you can to Planned Parenthood. Make a regular commitment, be it once a week or once a month, to do some kind of service. Service to the neighborhood, to the school district, to the faith community.
Practice self-care, in abundance. The exhausted warrior cannot fight for good or for anything at all, really. To the extent possible, eat right, sleep right, drink right (lots of water and, of course, for me at least, a little good bourbon in moderation). Breathe deeply.
You must not forget to breathe.
We are not going to be okay, and we are going to be okay. Nobody is going to help us, so we are going to help us, and everybody else. We have the work ethic and willingness to perform the imaginative act of compassion. We have no use for anything less.
We are indeed the ones we’ve been waiting for.
And as Molly Ivins once wrote, “The thing is this: You got to have fun while you’re fightin’ for freedom, ’cause you don’t always win.” So laugh, please, when you can — not just at the jerks in power, but at silly things and beautiful things and goofy things and real things and fantastical things. See a comedy show. Watch a funny movie. You deserve that.
And make art, please. Express yourself. You’ve got something to say. Say it. Keep saying it until somebody takes note, and then find some more true and real things to say.
It’s true that you don’t always win. But if you keep on keeping on, angry and hopeful and laughing now and again when you can manage it, you do win. It may not look like the win you imagined, but it’s a win all the same. It moves us all closer, inch by painful inch, up that terrific, beautiful, strange and frightening mountain.
You are never truly alone.