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“I think your conclusion is very dangerous,” he chided.
I’ve never been accused of dangerous thinking before. Obsessive, maybe, but never dangerous. Especially by someone I respect as much as this professor.
His rejoinder only briefly derailed my logic before I shot back, “It’s all dangerous, isn’t it? To stoop to his level or to let him continue to hit below the belt, unchecked, while the crowd cheers on his barbarism.”
Our exchange was about whether Stephanie Wilkinson, the now-famous Red Hen owner, should be condemned or congratulated for asking Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her restaurant. I voted for congratulating her, which set off a flurry of responses from other progressives who believe we must model respect even if the opponent does not. Otherwise, we’re just as bad, they explained. Passive resistance was recommended, Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were quoted, Ms. Wilkinson’s actions were equated with the Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
When they go low, we go high, they reminded me.
These are the same arguments being played out on social media and cable news, the same arguments thrown at U.S. Representative Maxine Waters by her colleagues. I call Bullshit (a reaction respectfully borrowed from Parkland student Emma Gonzalez). The wedding cake comparison is a false equivalency: The baker committed a discriminatory act against a faceless group of people exercising their civil rights; Ms. Wilkinson’s refusal to serve someone who’s complicit in tyranny is an act of passive resistance to fascism, an act of patriotism. In my book, anyway.
I didn’t arrive at this so-called dangerous conclusion lightly. It isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to increasingly hateful rhetoric from the POTUS. It’s the result of recent experiences that have made me conclude the former First Lady’s advice is not serving us well.
Fighting fire with fire is a painful change in strategy for me. I’ve tried to rise above, sticking to the issues, refraining from personally insulting Trump supporters. I don’t post Trump jokes. (I find nothing funny about him.) I’ve tried to maintain healthy relationships with friends and families on the other side, and have sent healing light and positive energy to supporters I don’t know. (My friend sends Reiki to the White House each morning – I can’t go that far.) I try to understand that they’re filled with rage, have felt dismissed in our changing culture. I know some very caring and generous people who continue to support this dangerous man. But I can no longer afford to empathize, to play nice with those who support bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, and/or misogyny. Our democracy is in danger, as are all citizens who are not white, straight males.
I’m tired of self-righteous bullying, especially when they hide behind what-they-call Christian principles to justify their hateful ways. I’m tired of being insulted directly or indirectly when their positions are challenged, their default strategy to blame the Clintons or Obamas for everything bad Trump does. I’m tired of watching GOP Congressional reps browbeat public servants. Go high is a good strategy in rational, “normal” times. It’s more admirable, for sure. But, lives are literally at stake right now.
I’m not advocating physical or verbal violence by any means, but where has taking the higher ground gotten us so far? (It cost us Senator Al Franken, for example, perhaps a flawed humorist but an important voice/vote at a critical juncture.) Our current version of resistance may not be right for these times, any more than Jews accommodating increasing restrictions helped derail the Holocaust.
I’ve been a student of Nazi Germany my entire life. (Don’t tell me Nazi comparisons are exaggerated and create more of a rift – they are disturbingly instructive.) As a young girl, I rented documentaries from the public library and projected them over the fireplace after school. (I once overheard my father ask my mother, “What is wrong with her?”) I’ve read dozens of books – fiction and nonfiction – about that surreal, heinous time, so fascinated that they got away with their abhorrent behavior for so long when they were badly outnumbered. But, the majority of victims remained civil, cultured, and compliant, believing this nightmare would end once reason was restored.
Six million Jews were slaughtered after enduring unspeakable humiliation and brutality. What if they and other German citizens had gone low at the first hint of persecution? What if they had risen up against the fascists, recognizing the power in numbers?
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a novel about French women who joined the resistance after Germany invaded France. It gave me a new appreciation of the importance of resisting fascism at its inception and of what one person can – and must – do. Resistance isn’t a rally, lawn sign, or bumper sticker. It’s confronting fascism wherever and whenever it presents itself. It’s finding your voice, refusing to let it get a foothold in your community, in your neighborhood, at your dinner table. Remaining polite, but firm, in what is acceptable behavior in a civil, egalitarian society. It means that when my new neighbor tells me he’s naming his golden retriever puppy after Sean Hannity, I risk the relationship by responding, “I’ll love your puppy, but I don’t agree with Hannity on anything.”
Resistance is Ms. Wilkinson’s public refusal to do business with someone who’s a tool of a fascist regime – despite the social and economic consequences she may suffer. We shouldn’t label acting on your principles as going low.
Bernie Sanders reminds us to keep our eyes on the prize: the mid-term elections. Conserve your energy to help progressive candidates get elected by registering voters and working neighborhoods is great advice. But we must try to put out the small flames while we wait for the firefighters to arrive.
I’m active in the League of Women Voters, a non-partisan political organization. We’re best known for registering voters and moderating candidate forums, but we also take positions on issues and work to educate the public about them. My local League sponsored a three-part forum called Making Democracy Work. The first two speakers were from the Rockefeller Institute of Government and the Brennan Center for Justice. They were professional, knowledgeable, and committed to their respective topics of Constitutional Principles and Voting Rights. But our third speaker brought down the house. He was from the NYCLU, dressed in grunge jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. He was a firebrand, extemporaneously inciting the primarily white-haired crowd to action, to civil disobedience in the name of the First Amendment.
The League is a fairly staid organization so, as moderator, I was uncomfortable not only with his colorful language but by proposed direct actions. All seemed lost when, during Q&A, audience members began cursing, too, and shouting graphic disgust with this administration’s actions. In that moment, we became more like Code Pink than the League of Women Voters. Judging by the high praise audience members heaped upon us as they left, that’s exactly how we should be. “Best program ever!” attendees declared shaking my sweaty hand. “I’m energized!”
More shit is happening every day; most dread reading the breaking news headlines. But we may be turning a corner: Many primary winners are passionate, spunky young women and people of color who are ready for a virtual fight. Ready to take it on. With newcomers nipping at their heels, our current Senators might even go low by refusing to confirm a Supreme Court nominee until after the mid-term elections.
I’m also a student of the women’s suffrage movement. Over time, Susan B. Anthony’s intellectual and reasoned approach gave way to Alice Paul’s White House protests and arrests, eventually winning women the vote after a grueling seventy-five years. But in the end, no matter the approach, it boils down to Ms. Anthony’s plea: “O, to compel them to see and feel, and to give them the courage and conscience to speak and act for their own freedom, though they face the scorn and contempt of all the world for doing it!”
Each person’s courage and conscience should determine how they respond in any conflict. But we must remember that silence is the voice of complicity. And most of us are too pissed off to stand by or be silent any longer. (See? Even my language is getting saltier…) The stakes are that high – and getting higher.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s endurance and patience wasn’t endless. He struck back with words and deeds, countering those who would tell him what, how, and when to resist. During that time, at 64 years of age, Malvina Reynold wrote It isn’t Nice. Give a listen by clicking below; then commit to a higher level of resistance. But don’t hurt yourself or anyone else. Because THAT would be dangerous.
It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
It isn’t nice to go to jail.
There are nicer ways to do it,
But the nice ways always fail.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice.
You told us once, you told us twice.
But if that is freedom’s price
We don’t mind.
Email subscribers may click on the title of this post to watch the video.
Copyright 2018 Patricia A. Nugent
Patricia A. Nugent is the author of They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad and the editor of the anthology Before They Were Our Mothers: Voice of Women Before Rosie Started Riveting.