A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
The day after the election most people I knew were exhibiting physical signs of stress. I felt it mostly in my stomach.
The morning after the election, I spent time commiserating with an undocumented student I mentor, and whom I love. I held her and tried to be supportive of her in her fear that she didn’t know how to continue to be a role model for others, in being an out and proud dreamer when the dreamers may all get deported. As I sat on that bench with her, friends and colleagues keep coming by and I, who usually am the one to see where hope can come from in the concrete actions we can take to move forward, found myself just simply grieving and sharing my fear.
At De Anza College we had a beautiful event hosted by our undocumented student resource center. Students told their stories and cried with a group of about 200 allies. It was an action of solidarity both personal and political. Students put up signs on a wall for all of the groups who they felt fear for, and people signed statements of solidarity.
It seems to me that this is exactly what many of us need to make the transition to a post election reality.
We need to know that we have each other’s backs. We know that we are entering a time when terrible things will happen, but where we will continue to do all we can to fight for a better world.
Terrible things were already happening and will continue and will certainly get worse. Any slim hope that the Dakota Access Pipeline would be stopped by the government must be put aside. It, and many other terrible things to come like it, will only be stopped by even more of us throwing our bodies on the line in the way of the machinery of destruction.
We will succeed less than in the recent past trough calm policy initiatives, and will succeed more often by getting in the way of inhumane actions.
Of course we must continue to work to transform the political system that allowed for the bad choices people were presented with in the election. And we must work to transform the terrible cultural system that has so many people favoring a politics of hatred.
Certain things that people have said to me have helped some. My 14-year-old daughter is saying “only 1457 days till the next election”. My partner remembered the day after the election of Ronald Reagan wearing a button that said “Don’t Mourn Organize.” I told my daughter the sun will rise tomorrow.
I think for me that last approach has been the most calming. There is a Buddhist story I love where a monk is being chased over a cliff by a tiger. As he gets to the edge of the cliff he sees a ripe, red strawberry. As he goes over the cliff he eats the strawberry. And it is delicious.
I am finding grounding in gratitude for what I have: for all of the pleasures and connections that sustain me.
As a Jew, I also often weirdly ground myself in the memory of the Holocaust. That super dark meditation is about reminding myself of the horrors people have experienced and of our survival as a species.
And I compare the election of Trump by almost half of those who managed to vote, to the years when Italy lived under Berlusconi, another narcissistic hedonist who fostered hatred and caused tremendous harm.
Under that regime, as under the regime we are about to enter, many terrible things happened every day. Just as many tragedies happen every day and have under president Obama and would have under president Clinton.
I have found somewhat frustrating statements from friends urging that we should realize that things aren’t that bad. It’s true that we have constitutional system that limits president Trump’s actions and the actions he can take even with a Republican house and Senate. It is also true that he got elected by playing to the fears and anxieties and racism and sexism, and that we have no idea what that man really is committed to working for besides himself.
And yet we know the damage to the sense of safety of millions of people has already been shattered. And there is no possibility that this won’t have real negative practical implications. I myself have been mostly feeling the concreteness of the damage with respect to the undocumented and the possibility of saving the climate. It doesn’t make me feel better to turn away from those realities.
I was politicized around the election of Ronald Reagan, and have always felt politics mostly as about fighting entrenched forms of evil and unaccountable power.
It was only after connecting with the Zapatistas that I began to think of social change, and my life’s commitment to it, in positive terms, as an optimistic call to build a better world.
For many years I have found grounding in the statement made famous by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, that we should have pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. In other words, it doesn’t make the world a better place when we sugar coat reality and minimize the problems. That strategy leads to a lack of action that allows problems to fester; it leads to a personal existence of narrowed emotional range as people find ways to protect themselves from taking in the fullness of the reality they are connected to; and it often leads to a weird hostility to those of us who are engaged with trying challenge power, because we are seen as destroying the calm as we bring the realities we see to the attention of others.
But for many people, living in the presence of the horrors of mass incarceration, empire, mass deportations, climate change, etc, and now the reality of a President Trump with a Republican Congress and Supreme Court is too much to bear emotionally.
And especially in times like these of huge setbacks, it is hard live with open consciousness in the face of it all.
Gramsci, who died incarcerated by Mussolini, meant by the notion of optimism of the will that we need to find the possibilities of making a positive difference under whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
It means we look for the cracks in the systems of domination and push against them with all of our might.
I for one will continue to feed my soul by connecting with the people who love me. I will feed my spirit with the strawberries I have the privilege to eat. And will feed my optimism for a better world with the connections I have to the brave people who continue to be in the struggle with me.
Out of my love for the world we inhabit and it’s beautiful atmosphere and coral reefs I will continue to fight. Out my love for the amazing complexity and diversity of our species I will continue to fight. We need to stay grounded in our love for each other as concrete human beings who experience fear and whose psyches and spirits are fragile. We need to support each other with the fullness of our hearts and the seriousness of our actions, as we move bravely together into a very hard time in our country’s history.
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Cynthia Kaufman is the author of Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope and Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change. She is the Director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action at De Anza College.