Seeking New (and Very Old) Habits for a New Year
A little over a year ago I wrote about the bloody nightmares rupturing my sleep and the night terrors gripping my little household in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. That piece was reposted by a wide range of publications. And then, in what at first seemed like a terrible mistake, I read the comments.
Some of them weren’t very nice. Some of the names the guys (and they were all guys) called me were downright mean. Shocking, I know. But a common thread ran through those responses, one I’ve been musing about ever since. It was this, as one fellow put it: “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Stop being such a coward.” They were wrong, of course. There’s plenty to be afraid of in the Trump era from climate disaster to nuclear war to disappearing medical care. But they were half-right, too. Those of us seeking to resist Trump can’t afford cowardice. We need to practice courage.
Remembering that exchange with those trolls has gotten me thinking about some of the personal qualities we’ll need to sustain the movements resisting Trump and the Republican agenda. The ancient Greek philosophers called such qualities “virtues,” by which they meant stable habits of character — a dependable tendency to act a certain way in certain situations. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed we can only develop such habits through practice. We become courageous, he wrote, by acting courageously. In effect, we fake it till we make it.
There are many lists of such virtues. Aristotle himself described a number of them, some of which didn’t even have names — like the ability to be entertainingly witty at a dinner party. But most of the classical and medieval European philosophers settled on four key or “cardinal” virtues: justice, courage, temperance (which, today, we would call moderation), and wisdom. It’s as good a list as any to cultivate for those intent on resisting the transformation of our world into a Trumpian hell on Earth.
Ancient philosophers spent a lot of time defining justice. For the Greek philosopher Plato, a just person was someone in whom each part of the personality played the role it was best suited for. For Aristotle and many who came after him, justice consisted of giving to people what they were due or owed, what they deserved.
We’ve certainly seen the Trump administration fail to give people their due.
For example, in April 2017 Attorney General Jeff Sessions acted to stop the implementation of consent decrees worked out between the Obama-era Justice Department and a number of local police forces around the country. Those agreements to reform law enforcement practices came in the wake of a new media interest in an old problem: the deaths of striking numbers of unarmed people of color annually at the hands of police departments from Staten Island to Baltimore to San Francisco, not to mention Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was infamously shot to death by a city police officer.
After Brown’s death, the Justice Department investigated the practices of the Ferguson police and discovered that, far from giving that city’s citizens their due, the police department and its municipal court were preying on them for financial gain. “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices,” the Department’s Civil Rights Division found, “are shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” In other words, the main activity of the police and court turned out to be wringing as much money as possible out of the African American population.
As a result of Justice Department action, in 2016 Ferguson agreed to a consent decree outlining the concrete steps it would take to correct an unjust system. Similar agreements were put in place in other cities with histories of discriminatory, indeed murderous, treatment of communities of color. Now, Trump’s attorney general has halted enforcement of these consent decrees, effectively ending an attempt to bring justice to communities suffering at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them.
Donald Trump himself has demonstrated little respect for the institutions responsible for justice in this country. In January 2018, for example, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed a Trump move to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (the DACA program, which allows undocumented immigrants who came here as children to remain in the United States). Trump’s reaction? An attack not only on this particular decision, but a tweet pronouncing the entire court system “broken and unfair” (followed by his now infamous assault on the “shithole” countries from which such immigrants come and a call to replace them with “Norwegian” immigrants).
And this was hardly Trump’s first attack on the courts. As early as June 2017, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School had already collected a remarkable range of presidential tweet assaults on the court system, part of a full-scale presidential campaign to delegitimize an entire branch of government (until the president can appoint judges more to his taste). It cited a tweet storm of Trumpian pronouncements like: “Our legal system is broken!” “Just can’t believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system.” “What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban…?”
What, indeed? A country with a system of checks and balances, perhaps, in which multiple branches of government work to keep each other honest, or even… just?
In general, we tend to think of justice (or injustice) as a situation brought about by human activity, rather than as a quality of humanity itself. Consider the expression “to bring someone to justice.” In this sense — and it’s a commonplace one — justice is a metaphorical place, a condition. That’s not wrong, of course, but we can also understand justice as a virtue — a moral characteristic of individuals. Justice in this sense is the personal habit of giving people what they are truly owed, whether demanding respect for women’s bodily and moral integrity or striving for a living wage for every worker.
Justice in the form of habitual respect for those who are — perhaps profoundly — different from ourselves is crucial if we are to build strong and effective coalitions of resistance.
George W. Bush and his administration spent eight years trying to turn the United States into a terrified nation of cowards. The pretext for their invasions and torture was “our” safety (though on any number of other, far more dangerous subjects they couldn’t have cared less). We’ve now come to accept, for example, the “security theater” we encounter at U.S. airports, a drama in which an audience of docile passengers is reminded by the indignity of the procedures that we should be very afraid. Indeed the absurdity of these measures (only 3-ounce bottles in a quart-sized baggie permitted; no bigger! no smaller!) reinforces our sense of their ultimate power. The danger must be very great indeed, if our government is making such ridiculous demands in such profusion (even if the Transportation Security Administration has a dismal record when it comes to finding actual objects of danger on passengers as opposed to nail files or water bottles).
Similarly, we were asked to accept that other people had to be tortured if we were to remain safe. It was as if the government were offering us a solemn deal: just let us do what we need to over there on the dark side and, in return, we promise you will never die. The same illusory guarantee of immortality is implied in the promise to wealthier, whiter communities that they could enjoy lives of perfect safety as long as they permitted militarized policing and massive incarceration in this country.
In spite of an historic decline in violent crime in recent years, Donald Trump continues to stir such fears. In his inaugural address a year ago, he spoke of “American carnage,” in a landscape “of abandoned factories, economic angst, rising crime.” To deal with it, Muslims and immigrants of color were to be tossed out of the country (or kept from entering), prompting no less a fear-monger than George W. Bush to describe the address as “some weird shit.”
Such fear-mongering has a long history in this country. Today it is especially focused on the “dangers” represented by Muslims and immigrants in general. If you’re a Central American immigrant, then you must also be a member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) 13 gang and in need of deportation so that good Americans can remain safe. Never mind that many such immigrants are here precisely because MS 13 and other drug gangs targeted them in their home countries — or that MS 13 originated in the United States when Salvadorans fled war and repression instigated by U.S.-backed dictatorships.
We are encouraged to let fear guide our response to the horrors lived by millions of Middle Eastern refugees, many of them displaced from their homes by our own country’s military adventures. Those adventures, in turn, were fueled by all sorts of ginned-up fears, including that — as Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, put it back in early 2003 — we must not wait until the “smoking gun” (proving that Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein did indeed possess weapons of mass destruction) turned out to be “a mushroom cloud” rising over an American city.
Half of all Syrians have by now become refugees, in part because of the regional destabilization that began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Trump travel ban forbids even one of them to enter this country. Since the attacks of 9/11, fear of terrorism — and terrorism alone — has constricted the American heart, while helping fund the spectacular rise of the national security state.
To be clear: the problem isn’t fear itself, it’s our habitual reaction to fear. Reasonable people are often afraid. We are all mortal and there are real dangers in this world. Fear can be a perfectly useful response, alerting us to danger. So courage doesn’t mean never being frightened. Courage is the habit that allows us, even as we tremble, to do what we know is right and necessary — to refuse to torture anyone, to rescue refugees, to recognize that striking first is not self-defense but aggressive war, to realize that others are profiting by the ways we let fear immobilize us.
If we are to successfully resist the Trump juggernaut, we will need to be brave, to create through practice a habit of refusing to let fear — whether of ridicule or repression — keep us from acting.
Moderation — the ability to resist extreme behavior — isn’t always a popular virtue among leftists like myself. Our intemperance often tends less in the direction of self-indulgence than puritanical self-righteousness. This makes it difficult to compromise; it often makes “the perfect,” as they say, the enemy of “the good.” Such a tendency could prove disastrous if we fail to support imperfect Democratic nominees — is there any other kind? — in the 2018 midterm elections. There are legitimate bottom lines of course. A resistance movement worth its name can’t support candidates who don’t recognize the full humanity of people of color, of women, and members of LGBTcommunities. We mustn’t trade anyone’s humanity for a mess of electoral pottage. Still, there are compromises we can make.
A puritan intemperance can also create in activists a contempt for anyone who takes time out from politics to pay attention to the details of ordinary life. Often such people are women on whom the main social responsibility still falls for raising children and feeding, clothing, and soothing family and friends. We can be tempted to forget that the whole point of political engagement is to create a world in which everyone is free to attend to the ordinary joys and pains of human life.
There’s a saying attributed to Carlos Fonseca, one of the founders of Nicaragua’s Sandinista party. “A man who is tired,” he is supposed to have said, “has the right to rest. But a man who rests does not have the right to be in the vanguard.” It’s a stirring exhortation. But the implication is that only supermen (and they would be men) can lead movements for the benefit of ordinary people. And buried in that implication lies a contempt for the very people any “vanguard” hopes to lead.
Moderation — a recognition and embrace of human limitations — is the virtue that will keep a resistance movement humble and grounded in real life.
Aristotle called it phronesis; Thomas Aquinas, prudentia. It’s probably best translated as practical wisdom. It’s the ability to use your mental powers, honed through your experience of life, to discern in a given situation not just the most effective move, but the right one. It’s the quality that allows us, for example, to recognize the injustice in a tax bill that gives wealthy people something not due to them — even greater wealth — while taking yet more from the poor. Once armed with that recognition, practical wisdom helps us figure out the best way to confront and overturn injustice, while maintaining our own integrity.
It helps us decide, for example, which candidates or ballot measures we should support or oppose in the 2018 elections. Once committed, practical wisdom helps us decide not only which tactics will be effective in an electoral battle, but which contribute to our longer-term goals.
Suppose, for example, there’s a ballot initiative to outlaw all state and local services to undocumented immigrants. No emergency health care, no public schooling. Opponents could decide to leverage the very anti-immigrant sentiment fueling the initiative to defeat it. “You don’t want untreated immigrants spreading tuberculosis,” they might argue (as in fact they did in a 1994 California electoral campaign). Or “You don’t want dangerous immigrant teenagers hanging out on street corners. Wouldn’t it be better to have them in school where we can keep an eye on them?”
Arguments like this might deliver a short-term win (although they failed to do so in that state in 1994) but at the cost of reinforcing racism and xenophobia in the long run. Practical wisdom counsels us to do the right thing (in this case, oppose a vicious law) — and in the right way.
Becoming Stable Geniuses
Resisting Trump will require developing such dependable habits in ourselves and our movements.
How do we do this? Here I defer to Aristotle. We become just by doing just acts and brave by acting bravely. We show up at immigration courts when asylum seekers ask to be released on bond from detention centers; we demonstrate outside legislators’ offices, demanding they keep their promises to protect DACA holders; we keep doing these things even though we’re afraid they won’t help.
We take risks — including the risk of being ridiculed for making moral arguments, for injecting questions of right and wrong into the political conversation — in a country where the “grownups” only talk about costs and benefits measured in dollars and cents.
We fake it till we make it, all the while acknowledging our own human imperfections, even the possibility that we might be wrong. We build dependable habits of justice, courage, and moderation, guided by practical wisdom. We seek, in other words, to become very stable geniuses.
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 2018 Rebecca Gordon. First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.