As we head into this holiday week in which we celebrate the founding of the country, it’s a good time to look back at our history and see what lessons there are for our present moment — at the principles and practices that allowed us to make this a better country, the ever-evolving “more perfect union” laid out in the Preamble to the Constitution.
Right now, much of our current conversation is about outrage vs. civility. But that’s way too narrow a conversation. And what better time to broaden it than July 4th?
Yes, Donald Trump’s presidency is disastrous in countless ways. There’s the damage his policies are doing to civil rights and our justice system, to immigrant rights, our environment, our healthcare system, international diplomacy and cooperation, reproductive rights, and, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, to thousands of the most vulnerable children.
But the key question is not whether the responses to these affronts to our principles are civil. The question is: are they effective? Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family might have been denied dinner last week at the Red Hen in Virginia, but to what end? Did asking her to leave the restaurant make any of the outrages in which she’s complicit less likely in the future? And a few days later, did leaving a burned and decapitated animal carcass on the front porch of a Department of Homeland Security staffer reduce any of the suffering inflicted by Trump’s policies? What precisely was achieved by this impulsive reaction to legitimate outrage — beyond, that is, the hijacking of multiple news cycles by denunciations of “uncivil” Trump opponents? In other words, can we please starting channeling outrage into outcomes?
There has no doubt been a fresh batch of legitimate outrages just since you’ve been reading this. Can we just stop and tap into the wisdom and precedent from our past so that we can respond to the mounting outrages not just impulsively but strategically? One source of wisdom is from the last century and the other much more ancient. One is the lessons of the Civil Rights movement and the other is Stoic philosophy.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. made his case to his fellow pastors for non-violent direct action by stressing how targeted and purposeful their movement was and had to remain. “We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year,” he wrote. He praised the “amazing discipline” of the participants “in the midst of great provocation.” His was not a call for civility but for composure, determination and focus. “I have not said to my people: ‘Get rid of your discontent,’” he wrote. “Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.” That’s why the refrain of one of the most famous songs of the Civil Rights movement was: “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
As Malcolm Gladwell wrote, much of the success of the Civil Rights movement was due to meticulous planning and painstaking discipline. “The students who joined the sit-ins across the South during the winter of 1960 described the movement as a ‘fever,’” he wrote. “But the civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion.” There was obviously an enormous amount to be legitimately outraged about every moment of every day, yet so much of the resistance was deliberate, choreographed and planned. As Gladwell put it, “When the sit-in movement spread from Greensboro throughout the South, it did not spread indiscriminately. It spread to those cities which had preëxisting ‘movement centers’—a core of dedicated and trained activists ready to turn the ‘fever’ into action.”
But when we react to Trump from a fevered state rather than turning our fever into action, it is Trump and Trumpism that win. That’s his home turf, and once we are on it, the game is over and we’ve already lost. He is energized, and we are exhausted. “In owning our attention, in driving the agenda, in setting both the terms and tone of the debate, and in doing so by generating constant negative attention, cultural conflict, and emotional alarm,” wrote Ezra Klein, “Trump makes us a little more like him, and politics a little more like the tribal clash he says it is.”
The more ancient source of wisdom — the Stoics — dates back to the 3rd century, BC. But it’s never been more relevant. What the Stoics teach us is that while we can’t control what happens, we can control how we react. And we definitely can’t control Donald Trump – not even the people whose job it is to control Donald Trump can control him. But when we are caught in a perpetual cycle of outrage, we’ve ceded to him control of both our emotional reactions and our actions. He knows this, and he’s very good at keeping us trapped.
Think of Marcus Aurelius, who spent 19 years as the Emperor of Rome, in which time he faced nearly constant war, a horrific plague, an attempt on the throne by one of his closest allies and an incompetent and greedy step-brother. As he said, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” And with that strength, you can change outside events.
This doesn’t mean being resigned, or complacent, or cynical, or refusing to engage with what’s going on – just the opposite. It’s about finding what the Greeks called “ataraxia,” which is the place of imperturbability within all of us. It’s from that place — the eye of the hurricane — that we can most effectively bring about change. And it’s a quality exhibited by those we most admire in the middle of the greatest suffering.
Like Viktor Frankl, the author of “A Man’s Search for Meaning.” He was a Holocaust survivor whose parents, brother and pregnant wife all perished in the camps. What he took away from that unimaginable horror became the basis for his life-long work. “We who lived in the concentration camps,” he wrote, “can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” And when we remember we have that choice, and act on it, we can begin to create change. “Between stimulus and response there is a space,” Frankl wrote. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
In our response lies our ability to create real change and impact. And if we are serious, our response has to be not about venting but about outcomes. And the outcomes are very specific: changing the composition of the House, the Senate and, ultimately, the White House. And that means voting, and making sure others vote. Instead of getting depleted by living in a perpetual cycle of outrage at each new degradation of our country’s promise, let’s channel our energy. When Trump controls our reactions, he’s constantly diminishing our effectiveness. Maybe what we need is a kind of resistance swear jar: Trump does something worthy of outrage, we put something in the jar. That something can be time, money, support for those directly affected.
So, by all means, continue to be outraged – but put that outrage to good use. “The question is not whether we will be extremists,” wrote Martin Luther King from his Birmingham cell, “but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”
The extremists for love will not only win in the end, but they will take our country closer to that more perfect union.