A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
Sane Soldiering in the Information Wars
Incoming! Late in the day on Friday afternoons, when many of us used to look forward to some downtime alone or with friends or family, we now look to the news for the latest “bombshell” news from either from the Trump administration and its supporters, or from those in the government or the fourth estate who are working to uncover how this unlikely and corrupt administration may have attained power through collusion with Russia; an Intelligence Community Assessment made public early this year by then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper established with a high level of confidence that the Russian Federation interfered in our 2016 elections. Leading up to and following the inauguration, our current president and his supporters have denied the accuracy this assessment by simultaneously attacking the press as “fake news” and the intelligence community as “the deep state,” terms strikingly similar to those used by Russian state-backed media. More recently, peaceful protesters against the administration’s steady flow of divisive policies are being uniformly painted as “violent Antifa thugs”—as if being against fascism were morally equivalent to marching with torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
We are being bombarded. By offensive Tweets from the president himself, news of abuse of legislative process to install a Supreme Court justice into a stolen seat or force a repeal of the ACA , announcements of cabinet appointments of unqualified and often agency-hostile people, real bombs launched by the Department of Defense in Syria and Afghanistan, volleys of nuclear tough-talk with North Korea—the list is seemingly endless. Neonazis and other white supremacist groups bear torches and firearms in Charlottesville, Va., a counterprotester is killed by one of their number in a clear act of domestic terrorism, and the president pontificates that “both sides” are to blame. A deadly hurricane descends on Texas, and the president decides to pardon a former Arizona sheriff just days before was convicted of contempt for refusing to stop profiling and abusing Latinxs in his jurisdiction. A week later, he announces that the DACA program, which enables 800,000 young people—children of undocumented immigrants—to live and work in the only country most of them have ever known.
The chaos and outrage are immeasurable. The stress and its concomitant burnout are real. Writer Amy Siskind provides a service to us all by keeping a weekly record of the continuous stream of attacks on democracy and its institutions—and attacks on our most vulnerable populations—by a president who lost the popular election by nearly three million votes but was able to secure an electoral college win. The premise for Siskind’s intrepid and staggering log is this: “Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember.” While it’s true that some of the weekly items are subtle, all too many of them feel so blatantly inimical to democratic civil society and national security that the fight or flight response can be triggered many times a day just by scrolling through one’s newsfeed.
What does it mean to be vigilant? In the best case, being vigilant means that you can see what is happening and what is probably going happen, and thereby prepare to act. Ideally, being vigilant makes it less likely you’ll be caught off-guard by an action or event, since when we are caught off-guard we risk having recourse to only two settings: fight or flight.
Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, I’ve been mentally backed into the fight-or-flight corner several times and have had to talk myself out of that corner. I’m not alone. Countless in-person conversations and communications online suggest that the majority of Americans frequently find themselves near that corner these days. At the same time, we want to believe there is recourse to more reasoned, far-sighted, and nuanced responses than these hard-wired, primitive ones.
To keep a vigil literally means to stay awake during the hours usually given to sleep, in order to pray or remain watchful. In the Christian Bible, Jesus stays awake the night before his execution, though some of his disciples doze off. There’s lots of wakefulness these days. The dramatic night in July when three Republican senators cast votes to save the Affordable Care Act is only one of the nights this year when I finally turned in at 3 a.m. But virtually any night can be a late night if one is trying to keep up with the news of this administration, and that’s by design: The current political landscape has been construed and rendered a battlefield by the GOP, and the Trump White House strategy has been to bombard the public with so much political ordnance that the opposition will be continually thrown off-guard. Fight-or-flight is triggered so often that those who believe in equality and democratic process have good reason to be concerned about adrenal fatigue, anxiety, and for many like myself, the kind of clinical depression that anxiety leaves in its wake.
It’s no less important to recognize that these symptoms are not new to significant numbers Americans. Last year, less than two weeks following the election, I sat in a full auditorium on the University of Pittsburgh campus to listen to poets involved in #BlackPoetsSpeakOut movement. Amanda Johnson, one of the poets who initiated the project following the failure of a grand jury to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., picked up on the feeling of hopelessness in the audience. Addressing white people like me in the audience specifically, she “welcomed” us to a mind state long familiar to black Americans. It was a generous and edifying gesture on her part. It was also a challenge to own our privilege and use it to stand up against the “again” part of #MAGA: the real threat to decades’ worth of civil rights advances in this country.
Key to self-protection and self-care is recognizing the difference between vigilance and hyper-vigilance. Michele Leavitt has written on the PTSD-like symptoms and behaviors many have experienced since the elections. Having been exposed to a child to alcohol abuse and domestic violence, I have tendencies toward both addiction and hypervigilance that I need to keep in check.
Twitter feeds (pun intended) both tendencies. Before Nov. 8, 2016, I had an account I barely used. To be honest, while I was pretty active on Facebook, Twitter’s purpose eluded me. Why would one want to watch the paint dry minute by minute? Wasn’t the 24-hour news cycle enough, with its sourced, vetted, edited, and advertiser- or funder-sponsored offerings? Prior to this anomalous election—How could the polls be so wrong, the pundits asked—Twitter, as its name suggests, seemed like information amphetamines, and I’ve always been wary of amphetamines.
But then again, if what we are now engulfed in, whether we choose to be active in it or not, is an information war, the amphetamine analogy makes perfect sense, given that such drugs are literally used as “go pills” for fighters. This week’s news—about Facebook’s role in microtargeting Kremlin-sourced anti-Hillary ads, along with news that the breach of state voting systems was more extensive than had been reported at the time—should make it clear, if the January DNI report hasn’t make that clear enough already, that a cyberwar has been underway for the past two years and that information warfare is inevitable.
The truth is, I’ve spent hours upon hours spent reading information shared on Twitter, where I follow known journalists, jurists, scholars, military personnel, nuns, priests, the pope, intelligence experts, activists, Russian ex-pats, film and TV actors, fellow writers, current and former legislators, policy makers, moms, athletes, IT analysts, former students, colleagues, parody accounts, friends, and just people who manage to say what needs to be said in 140 characters. I’ve found common cause for deep concern with more Republicans than I ever thought possible (one of the silver linings of this ordeal—and of course I also follow Nate Silver). I follow an account named “Jesus Christ” and an account named “The Dalai Lama,” both of who feather the the flock with the reminder to be kind and humble, which can help with restraint when you want to call the leader of the free world some kind of name after he threatens a corporation, legislator, or private citizen on this platform that feels all too often like a dark paintball warehouse. I follow them all on my laptop, on my phone, on my iPad. I don’t have a lot of followers on Twitter, but I have a good number of Facebook friends—not counting the ones who have unfriended me due to my relentless political posts and Lorax-level alarm—and I have tried to share what I have gathered in the noisy, nervous Twitter world. Over there, we knew Paul Manafort was the motherlode to #TrumpRussia before Thanksgiving, when so many of us were trying to figure out whether we could sit through Thanksgiving with Trump-supporting relatives without tossing giblets. We knew about one of what are now two grand juries in April, before Comey was even fired, though the “sources” were as yet unclear and unnamed.
There is accuracy and madness in the Twittersphere. There are imposters, bots, trolls, and even one hard-right Englishwoman whom I stopped following when she started accusing every other member of the #Resistance of being a Kremlin agent. There are moments when I’m sure I am wasting what Mary Oliver would call my “wild and precious life.” To get work done, I often use the Freedom app to block social media; I purchased it during a discount promotion advertised online shortly after the election (go figure). But every time I go away for a spell, I find there are new developments waiting for me when I return. Maybe that’s a hit of dopamine, but it’s also a glimmer of hope: that justice will prevail. That the grift and lying and arrogance and nepotism and spite and hate will be scrubbed out of the White House by the strong bleach of fairness, the rule of law, and the truth. And, though I left journalism behind in my early 30s, I sometimes find myself aggregating what I learn and posting it on Facebook:
Did Donald Trump and members of his circle—like the self-proclaimed “streetfighter” Steve Bannon, who has said he wants “to bring everything crashing down”—invent this battlefield? Of course not. Politics are by nature adversarial, but in well-functioning democracies, the “war” is one of competing policies hashed out until some sort of compromise is achieved. In a country with such sharp divisions, neither extreme end of the ideological spectrum should be entirely pleased with actions taken by the government, but we at least expect the actions to be taken. We haven’t had a well-functioning democracy for nine years. During the Obama years, we had only to hear Mitch McConnell claim that his party’s main goal was to make 44 a “one-term president” to know that the GOP was now willing do battle against the democratic process itself in its struggle to “win.” When a conservative Supreme Court majority gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when Obama’s moderate SCOTUS nominee was vigorously blocked by the Senate Majority Leader, it was more than clear that the GOP was at war with Obama himself and those who had elected him, aka the majority of American voters.
Think about that. One of our two dominant political parties and much of its base saw itself as at war with the majority of American voters.
That white supremacism gnawed at the very heart of this ramped-up political warfare was also clear to many, and Trump has lifted the veil from that once and for all.
If racism, racial tensions, and the racial resentment triggered by the election of our country’s first black president amount to our weakest link, and I think they do, Trump broke through it. If the Trump campaign colluded with Russia—and each week, more evidence leaks into the mainstream that it did, in a variety of ways that may even include hacking into vote tallies or at the very least into voter rolls—they were able to do so by targeting the weak link of racism and white fear.
In this climate, I don’t feel I have any choice but to remain vigilant and to resist the retrogressive policies of a corrupt and potentially illegitimate government. This sense of vigilance I feel now as a white woman is not new to millions of my fellow Americans. “Stay woke” is the Black English usage that has come into the mainstream now as a reminder that vigilance is not only our civic duty but, for many, a key to survival. But “wokeness” can take its toll when self-care falls to the wayside. Finding community is a form of self care. The day after Heather Heyer was killed by a neo-Nazi American male who thought a statue of Robert E. Lee mattered more than living Americans’ rights, I took myself to downtown Pittsburgh for a small gathering of people at Market Square. Hundreds of vigils like this took place across the country. When I weary of the incoming news, I’m awakened in another way by the needs and the goodness of those around me: sitting with a veteran during office hours at the university as we discuss his memoir and why he wants to honor the “kids” he fought beside in Iraq, chatting with my daughter about her work providing legal defense to the poor in Allegheny County, or listening to a poet bearing witness to the trauma she endured as a child.
Carving out screen-free time and cultivating mindfulness is another means of self-care for the vigilant. Even short meditation sessions can make a difference. One afternoon this summer, I took myself outside to a bench in my yard, closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. The afterimage of the bright sun formed a small circle in the illuminated dark of my closed eyelids, and I imagined that I could look through that hole to a realm where all continued to be right and good regardless of the noise of our day-to-day lives. In other words, there are moments when you have to power down if you want to power up and change things. The Serenity Prayer is not just for addicts and their loved ones. It’s for everyone in this moment who sees the news coming in with a “boom,” which is, not coincidentally, the way people often introduce links to bombshell news on Twitter.
As Claude, one of the folks I follow on Twitter, likes to say, we will get through this. Together.
Copyright 2017 Ellen McGrath Smith
Ellen McGrath Smith’s latest collection of poems is Nobody’s Jackknife published by West End Press.