Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
Night Terrors and Daytime Hopes
The night after the election, this long-time pacifist dreamed she shot a big white man carrying an arsenal of guns. He was wandering around a room full of people, waving a pistol and threatening to fire. Someone pushed a gun into my hand and said, “Shoot now, while his back is turned!” I shot. Blood seeped from a hole in his back. He fell. I woke up stunned.
And the election results had not changed.
More bad nights have followed, filled with dreams in which people who know me well accuse me of terrible things I haven’t done or of failing to protect people in my charge.
And there have been nights when my partner and I hold each other in the dark and whisper our worst fears. Some of these are personal and selfish: Under the new regime, will I still be able to get the meds that keep me going? Will I have to work for money until I die to keep my health care benefits? Because I turn 65 next year, will I miss the 2017 Medicare cutoff and fall under Paul Ryan’s plan to turn that program into a voucher system?
Some fears are national: How can the two of us, and the organizations we’re connected with, continue to shield the vulnerable in an era when a white supremacist serves as the president’s chief strategist?
Some are global: Can we hold back the rising seas that are already closing over island nations on a planet where Donald Trump promises to abandon the fight against climate change and walk away from the historic Paris climate accord?
And then, it’s back to the personal again: Just how vulnerable are we, two middle class white lesbians in our sixties, during a Trump presidency? In the 1980s and 1990s, we used to wonder why the two things our “gay leaders” thought we wanted most in the world were to join the Army and get married. Now, the question isn’t what we’ll be able to do, but what we won’t be able to do.
Admittedly, the two of us will never again need the right to an abortion that a Trump-influenced Supreme Court will probably devolve to the states, essentially abrogating the Roe v. Wade decision. But I did need it in 1975, and I thank God I had it. On the other hand, such a court could easily decide to revisit its 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated sodomy laws. It’s easy enough to forget now that, as recently as 1986, in Bowers v. Hardwick, the court opined that no one has “a fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy.”
But the terror that’s shaken us the most is that, in the coming years, we might witness the final collapse of the rule of law in this country. I’ve spent the last decade and a half writing about torture and other war crimes committed in the global “war on terror.” First, the Bush administration brought us two illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with “enhanced interrogation techniques” and a permanent extralegal prison at Guantánamo Bay. The Obama administration followed with its policy of extrajudicial murder by drone, and undeclared but very real wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Between them, they twisted and warped and finally broke domestic and international laws of all sorts.
But the past two administrations at least gave lip service to the rule of law. In Donald Trump, we have a president-elect who has said he will simply ignore the law if it gets in his way. In a primary debate last March, he insisted that the military would follow any order he gave — whether to torture detainees or to “take out” the families of suspected terrorists. When debate moderator Bret Baier pointed out that soldiers are prohibited from obeying an illegal order, Trump answered, “They won’t refuse. They’re not gonna refuse me. Believe me. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it.” Apparently he got some advice about saying such things in public; the following day found him walking back the comments, acknowledging that “the United States is bound by laws and treaties and I will not order our military or other officials to violate those laws.” But it’s pretty clear what he really thinks about the binding power of law.
There’s so much to worry about with a Trump presidency. Why does contempt for the rule of law stand out for me? Part of the answer is that by making laws we human beings both recognize and secure our need to live together. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas defined a law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by [whoever] has care of the community, and promulgated.” It’s still a pretty decent definition: a reasonable rule made for the good of everyone in the community, rather than for one particular group, by those with responsibility for ensuring that good, and made public so that everyone knows what the law is and how it operates. No secret laws. No secret courts. A premature medieval democrat, Aquinas allowed for the possibility that the one who “has care of the community” might, in fact, be a body of elected representatives, or even the community as a whole.
The law is not sexy. It’s not click-bait. But it can, for instance, be the protective wall between a group of people designated as less than human and those who hate them (though that is, of course, not Trump’s idea of a useful wall). That’s only true, however, if the law is enforced. International law could also be the barrier, the wall, that protects the world from a country that for the past 15 years has behaved like an angry two-year-old giant, stomping around the world, waving missiles and smashing things with its outsized feet. Or it might have been, had Barack Obama not begun his presidency by promising that he (and therefore the rest of us) would “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” when it came to the crimes of the Bush administration.
That failure to respect the law made it clear that, in twenty-first-century America, some people are exempt from it. Obama continued,
“And part of my job is to make sure that, for example, at the CIA, you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend their all their time looking over their shoulders.”
I think people who have extraordinary power should spend a good part of their time looking over their shoulders. And more to the point, we should be able to look over theirs.
It appears that the International Criminal Court has finally been looking over the CIA’s shoulders. In its annual report, issued earlier this month, the chief prosecutor indicated that she will likely open a full investigation into “war crimes of torture and related ill treatment, by U.S. military forces deployed to Afghanistan and in secret detention facilities operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.” The report observes:
“These alleged crimes were not the abuses of a few isolated individuals. Rather, they appear to have been committed as part of approved interrogation techniques in an attempt to extract ‘actionable intelligence’ from detainees.”
This is the first move the ICC has made to investigate U.S. war crimes and so to hold this country to the standards of international law. We’ll see how far the effort goes. The court’s jurisdiction here is murky indeed, because the United States is not party to the treaty that created it.
I teach ethics to college students. The Wednesday morning after the election I threw out the lesson plan for the day (a lecture on institutionalized state torture). Instead, we considered the election. We watched a few videos: the live feed of Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, Trump’s victory speech, and CNN commentator Van Jones’s unfiltered reaction to the election (“this is a whitelash”). Then I invited my students to discuss how they felt about Trump’s stunning victory.
A young white woman started the conversation by saying how angry she was at the “uneducated white men” who voted for Trump. I asked my students what percentage of people in the U.S. they thought had four-year college degrees. (The answer is roughly a third.) “That means,” I said, “that two-thirds of the people in this country don’t have the chance to go to college. If they are uneducated, it is not entirely by choice.” I went on to talk about the real pain of watching your income shrink, and losing the work that defined your place and your value in a society that measures everything in dollars and cents. I suggested that even as we abhor the political choice to support a candidate who openly declares his racism, misogyny, and contempt for Muslims, disabled people, and the rule of law, we can still respect that pain — and the humanity of those who feel it.
An Asian American woman began to cry a little as she described her terror not only for herself, but for African American and Latino friends who are more vulnerable than she is.
I can understand her fear. Between the day after the election and Monday, November 14th, the Southern Poverty Law Center had already logged 437 reports of hate incidents, many of them involving “direct references to the Trump campaign and its slogans.”
I’ve been remembering the times I’ve been yelled at, contemptuously addressed as “sir,” or chased down the street by people who’d discerned that I’m a lesbian. Donald Trump has spent the last year telling people that their hatred is a good thing, and to feel free to express it with physical violence. It’s no wonder some of us are a little scared.
In another class a few days later, an Indian American student told us two stories. The first was about an African American friend of hers at the University of California, Berkeley. She was walking away from a post-election anti-Trump demonstration on campus, when she found herself surrounded by a group of young white men. They began to taunt her. And then they did the thing that Trump boasted his fame allows him to do. They grabbed her pussy. She ran, and fortunately they’d had their “fun” and didn’t follow her.
The second story was about my student herself. “I was on the BART [our local subway] going to visit my grandmother this weekend,” she began.
“I noticed a group of white men around a very young woman, about 18, wearing a hijab. They were making fun of her and calling her names. So I went and sat down next to her and told her to ignore them. When we got to her stop, she was afraid to leave, afraid they’d follow her. I had another five stops to go, but I couldn’t let her leave alone, so I got out, too. And so did the boys. They followed us out of the station and stood near us yelling as the young woman waited for her ride to come. They started to get closer, and her ride still hadn’t made it, so I called a Lyft, and rode with her to her home.”
My student’s courage humbled me.
No New Normal
The full-time faculty at my university has been working for months without a contract. We’ve had a change of administration, and the new regime is fighting hard against a demand for a very modest salary increase. To put the struggle into words, my colleagues have made buttons sporting a red circle and the words “new normal” with a red slash through it. I’ve been wearing one to show solidarity with my full-time colleagues. Since Donald Trump’s election, I’ve taken to wearing it off campus as well. It seems like a particularly appropriate slogan these days for those of us who don’t want the new normal to mean a return to a very old normal. Having it on makes me feel a bit braver and a bit more hopeful.
We need hope now, so we can face a world in which hopelessness, despair, and the tears of my students could also become the new norm. Hope doesn’t mean pretending that the danger isn’t very clear and very present. If your tastes run to good left rhetoric, there’s the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s suggestion in his Letters from Prison that we should combine pessimism of the intellect with an optimism of the will. In an article on “The Indifferent,” he wrote, “To really live means to be a citizen and to take part.”
That’s a sentiment not so different from what my students read in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Human beings, says Aristotle, are political animals; we live best when we live as citizens. He also believed that our best qualities are habits we get by practicing them. “We become just,” he says, “by doing just acts.” So you might think of hope as a habit we build in ourselves by doing hopeful things. Think of each of us as assembling it like a rock wall from bumpy stones that don’t necessarily look like they’ll ever fit together. Hope is the wall we can build, stone by stone, to fence in a future Trumpian autocracy.
A few rocks in my personal wall of hope:
It’s 1984. I’m in Nicaragua traveling with 15 other people jammed into the back of a tiny pickup truck, bouncing through dangerous territory. It’s the height of the war the Reagan administration has illegally funded against the left-wing Sandinista government, which was installed after the ouster of a U.S.-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza. The road we’re traveling down goes through territory controlled by the CIA-backed Contra rebels. We’re heading toward a town called San Juan del Bocay. We round a bend and the land flattens out, revealing a barn standing in a field. Someone who has clearly learned to read and write since the 1979 Sandinista revolution has painted a slogan on the side of the building in careful block letters: “Nosotro vencimo Somo libre Nunca volveremo a cer esclavo.”
The spelling is terrible; there’s no punctuation; and since, like all Nicaraguans, the writer doesn’t pronounce the letter “s” at the end of a word, he or she doesn’t even realize that it’s there, as in “nosotros” — “we.” But it doesn’t matter. The meaning couldn’t be clearer. “We won. We are free. We will never go back to being slaves.”
When people decide that they are human beings and not beasts of burden, that is a genie no one can shove back into the bottle. Over the last 50 years, groups of people in this country have one by one fought for and claimed their full humanity: African Americans, women, LGB and now T people, those with disabilities, immigrants of whatever documentation status. Trumplandia may not yet recognize our humanity, but we do. You can’t shove that back in the bottle either.
It’s the Thursday after the 2016 election. I’m riding my bike towards campus when I see a phalanx of San Francisco police lining Valencia Street. Then I realize that there’s a mid-day, mid-week march coming down the sidewalk. As I get closer, I see that they’re all middle school students, shouting and carrying signs like “Dump Trump” and “Love Trumps Hate!” I stop and call to them, “You’re going to finish what people like me started.” They cheer for themselves and their own astonishing courage. You can’t shove youth back in the bottle. As the folksinger Holly Near sang decades ago, “You can’t murder youth, my friend, youth grows the whole world round.”
It’s 7:45 a.m. on the Friday after the election. I’m entering the building where I teach my 8:00 class. On the door, someone has taped up a simple black and white notice:
To all those hurt by
Lets mourn and then
Details follow about where people can meet “to openly discuss methods and ideas to sidestep this horrific election result.” That meeting, says the notice, is to last from “1:00 p.m. — till whenever we come up with something.” It ends with this observation: “We can be the change we wish to see, we just have to embody it.” There may be a comma splice in that last sentence and an apostrophe missing from “lets,” but again the meaning is clear. These young people are the inheritors of everything my comrades and I have worked for so much of our lives.
The day after the election, I made a rare post on Facebook:
“Bad enough we gave the world 8 years of G.W. Bush. Now this. We hadn’t figured on the depth of hatred and despair in this country. Now to pick ourselves up and get back to work. No emigration for this woman.”
I’m an old dyke, a little ragged around the edges, and prone to the occasional night terror. But I’m too old and too stubborn to cede my country to the forces of hatred and a nihilistic desire to blow the whole thing up just to see where the pieces come down. I’ve fought, and organized, and loved too long to give up now. And Trump and the people who run him can’t shove me — or any of us — back in that bottle.
Rebecca Gordon teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. Her most recent book is American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes.
Copyright 2016 Rebecca Gordon. First published in TomDispatch. Reprinted with permission.