September, the back-to school-month, is behind us now. Living close to my beloved West coast family, my husband and I are settling in, with gratitude and pleasure, for another year. My grandson, on the threshold of his ninth birthday, has lost none of his sweetness as he begins to show signs of the beautiful man he will one day be.
On a trip back East, I just celebrated my brother’s 76th birthday in Annapolis last weekend, with my sister and his family, and, last night, joined my surrogate family in Brookline, as I have done for decades, to break the Yom Kippur fast and turn the page to another year. I’m filling my days, while here in Boston, with dear friends dearly missed. Delicious moments to savor.
Yet, the toxic cloud of Trumpism continues to press as a heavy weight on the normal lift of new beginnings. Another marker, as if we needed more, of our “Not Normal” reality. There is no escaping the constant stream of hectoring tweets, diversions from the great wrecking ball that is reducing our democracy to piles of rubble, an image that invokes the calamity in Puerto Rico as today’s reminder of how intertwined our lives are in their fragility.
Ta Nahishi Coates, writing in The Atlantic, has given us the most trenchant analysis yet of the path we have taken, and the cost it is exacting, an “American tragedy … larger than most imagine [which] will not end with Trump,” whom he captures elsewhere in the piece as “an orcish reality-television star who insists on taking his intelligence briefings in picture-book form.” Coates argues, in part:
“In a recent New Yorker article, a former Russian military officer pointed out that interference in an election could succeed only where “necessary conditions” and an “existing background” were present. In America, that “existing background” was a persistent racism, and the “necessary condition” was a black president. The two related factors hobbled America’s ability to safeguard its electoral system. As late as July 2016, a majority of Republican voters doubted that Barack Obama had been born in the United States, which is to say they did not view him as a legitimate president. Republican politicians acted accordingly, infamously denying his final Supreme Court nominee a hearing and then, fatefully, refusing to work with the administration to defend the country against the Russian attack. Before the election, Obama found no takers among Republicans for a bipartisan response, and Obama himself, underestimating Trump and thus underestimating the power of whiteness, believed the Republican nominee too objectionable to actually win. In this Obama was, tragically, wrong.
And so the most powerful country in the world has handed over all its affairs — the prosperity of its entire economy; the security of its 300 million citizens; the purity of its water, the viability of its air, the safety of its food; the future of its vast system of education; the soundness of its national highways, airways, and railways; the apocalyptic potential of its nuclear arsenal — to a carnival barker who introduced the phrase grab ’em by the pussy into the national lexicon. It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, “If a black man can be president, then any white man — no matter how fallen — can be president.” [emphasis added].
Coates’s nuanced analysis bears — even demands — careful reading by all who would understand the peril in which we have placed ourselves. I want to reflect for now on how “we” resist. Here I turn to one of the great poets of our time, Adrienne Rich, who died in 2012:
“In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I”
How do we recover a “we” capable of mounting an effective resistance against the predations and projects of Trump and his minions? Not, I believe, online and through social media, as often as I do try to respond to the daily texts instructing me to importune my elected representatives to bring their all to blocking yet another cynical attack on a piece of the Obama legacy, be it the environment and the climate, or health care, or immigration, or education, or taxes, on and on … all the pseudo “reform” plans with their groundhog-day tenacity.
In these days, as we feel the hot breath on our necks of history’s birds of prey, what are we to do? How do we create receptive spaces in which to bridge our disagreements and hold our tensions in the service of mutual discernment, enlightenment and growth? Nothing less that this will be required of us if we are to unleash the energy of a common “we” beneath the differences that divide us and to find, in that we, collective insights as yet unimaginable. And we will need that collective energy to solve the problems we face, climate change being one of the most immediate, with others close behind.
Christiana Figueres, who led the U.N. to the Paris agreement, announced last June with colleagues a project called “Mission 2020,” mapping what they call:
“an opportunity given to us over the next three years [that] is unique in history.”
The year 2020 will be a “climate turning point,” after which, at current levels of carbon emissions, it will no longer be possible to meet the goals set in Paris, goals that were just barely adequate to avoid catastrophic planetary warming. At this moment, the scientists argue, “lowering emissions globally is a monumental task, but research tells us that it is necessary, desirable and achievable.” There are many signs of progress all over the world, many ways to help, many reasons to hope.
“If we delay,” though, they warn, “the conditions for human prosperity will be severely curtailed.” They identify six milestones that must be met — idealistic goals, but perhaps not unrealistic in our current age of “exponential transformation,” they say. In support of those specific goals, they identify “three pressing and practical steps:”
“First, use science to guide decisions and set targets. Policies and actions must be based on robust evidence …
“Second, existing solutions must be scaled up rapidly. With no time to wait, all countries should adopt plans for achieving 100% renewable electricity production, while ensuring that markets can be designed to enable renewable-energy expansion. …
“Third, encourage optimism. Recent political events have thrown the future of our world into sharp focus. But as before Paris, we must remember that impossible is not a fact, it’s an attitude. It is crucial that success stories are shared. Demonstrating where countries and businesses have over-achieved on their targets will raise the bar for others. More-ambitious targets become easier to set.”
And then they conclude:
“There will always be those who hide their heads in the sand and ignore the global risks of climate change. But there are many more of us committed to overcoming this inertia. Let us stay optimistic and act boldly together.”
On college and university campuses across the country, as the year begins, presidents, provosts and deans are laying out visions for the academic year in rhetoric that seeks to bridge the tensions between honoring differences and weaving community. “Let us stay optimistic and act boldly together” could be their watchword for the year ahead.
Thirty years ago, at another time of world conflict that roiled college campuses, our generation took to the streets to end the killing in Vietnam. Now we’re finding the monumental series on that war by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick almost too painful to watch. As much as we thought we knew about that history, we are learning a lesson in humility as we see how many of the lies told by successive administrations have stayed behind a veil not pierced fully until now.
That lesson leaves us with the imperative at this challenging time to stay mindful, vigilant, and respectful, conscious of how little we know, how little we can know, open to our uncertainties and yet unrelenting in our pursuit of more knowledge. In those days, William Sloan Coffin, the Yale University chaplain, gave us words by which many of us hoped to live our lives. Perhaps we can hold on to them now to help cut through the rags of fog.
“The world is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.”
Originally published at medium.com