A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Which Would Mean No Future for My Three Kids.
Okay, I’ll admit it. Sometimes I can’t take the bad news. It’s too much. It’s so extra, as the kids like to say.
When I hit that wall of hopelessness and anxiety so many of us have become familiar with, I take what I think of as a “kid break.” I stare into the faces of my three children seeking solace and sanity. I remind myself that they are the why of it all.
Seamus, who is seven, and I do our special four-part kiss. I arrange five-year-old Madeline’s hair into Dutch braids or bear-ear buns. Twelve-year-old Rosena and I talk about her five-minute YouTube-inspired craft projects. I connect with those three nodes of antic energy, creativity, and goodness and I feel a little better.
Unfortunately, kid breaks don’t represent a long-term solution to my problem. They’re too brief to keep my hopes afloat, nor is it fair to continually cling to my kids’ narrow shoulders to keep my head above the surging waters. Still, sometimes it really does help to see the world, however briefly, through their eyes, because despite everything, they’re having a good time.
Check out how cool they are: Madeline and Seamus are lying on opposite ends of the couch, both in their pajamas, both reading, both humming under their breath. It’s early morning. Soon they’ll have to go upstairs and get ready for school. From the other room, I reach for my phone to capture this unconscious and beautiful moment, but before I can, Seamus leaps up, adds a lyric to Madeline’s tune and starts dancing, whipping a piece of fabric around his head. She sits up and watches, rapt, humming ever louder.
Seamus spins further into the room until I can’t see him anymore, but I watch her watching him and think: They’re going to be A-OK.
All three of them. Kind and caring of one another and others. But the world they’re growing into is another matter entirely. It’s not A-OK. What do I do about that? I have to do more than day-dream that Greta Thunberg will become Queen of the World and declare a carbon-free future by fiat.
“Tronald Dump! Tronald Dump! Tronald Dump!”
One morning, not too long ago, Madeline and I were playing “interview.” It’s a game all of us like in which one person asks random questions and the other has to answer instantly, off the top of his or her head. Sometimes, admittedly, it can get tedious (for me, at least) because they always start by asking, “What’s your favorite animal?” and they remember if I mention a different one than last time.
On this day, as it happened, I needed the game to distract Madeline, while I put a pair of hand-me-down school-uniform pants on her, so I played it, machine-gun style:
“Who is your favorite person?”
“My family and everyone in the whole world,” she responded instantly.
“Just name one person.”
“Can I say three? Bronwyn, Autumn, and JoJo!” Those are her friends from the neighborhood. I’m hoping that one of these days they’ll start a band and, as I’ve told them, call it “JoJo and the Sea Walls.” It’s an inside joke that panders to girls 6 to 60 who are obsessed with Jojo Siwa, a 16-year-old cultural phenom with giant hair bows and glitter-encrusted dance numbers. Still, they weren’t amused and probably won’t let me manage the band.
“What’s your favorite song?”
“Why Don’t You Just Meet Me in the Middle.” Okay, maybe they’re not quite as A-OK as I like to imagine, since “The Middle” is a truly repulsive earworm of a song, especially when its lover-duet lyrics are sung by a five year old.
“What’s your least favorite food?”
“Hot sauce and anything spicy.”
“Who’s your least favorite person?”
“Michael Jackson and Donald Trump. I hate them!”
And there it was, direct from the black-and-white world of a five year old: the pop idol who sang lead on “ABC,” the song they love, and who also hurt kids: a fact they know from too much exposure to National Public Radio and a long car ride ill-timed to coincide with breaking news about the release of the documentary film Leaving Neverland. (Its topic was Jackson’s child sexual abuse.) And — why am I not surprised in our household? — the illegitimate president of the United States who yells and throws tantrums like a spoiled five year old, lies like a spoiled seven year old, tweets like a spoiled 12 year old, and more than two-and-a-half years after entering the Oval Office continues to rewrite the rules of the game and the world in ways that are anything but healthy for children, not to speak of other living things.
Madeline is fierce and funny and fragile like any five year old. I fear that the world Donald Trump is taking such a hand in creating won’t have room for her — and, on some deep level, I suspect, she senses that, too, and it makes her mad.
The news on NPR was playing in the kitchen one morning recently when Madeline came in. “Turn it off!” she demanded, her voice stentorious and aggrieved. “I do not want to hear that man’s voice today!” Another morning, seeing the president’s photo in the newspaper on the table, she pounded it with her fists, chanting, “Tronald Dump! Tronald Dump! Tronald Dump!”
Now that Madeline is in school — she started kindergarten after Labor Day — she’s trying to be a nicer person. She talks a lot about how she needs to be “nice.” So, after declaring that Michael Jackson and Donald Trump were the worst people in the world, she added, her voice thick with a saccharine school-edge, “But I would still treat them nicely.”
She says it, in fact, with such fervor that initially I wonder whether she’s inverted the meaning of the word nicely. If she hasn’t, she may have to. The Trump administration is taking out after the future of my kids and Madeline, her brother, and her sister sense it.
The Donald’s Assault on the Future
Before Donald Trump was a household word as a hotelier, a womanizer, and the 45th president of the United States, “trump” was a verb meaning to supercede, dominate, outrank. How perfect, as it happens, for a man who is, in all modesty, trying to trump the future — Madeline’s, Seamus’s, and Rosena’s.
President Trump Is Attacking Their Environment
He’s selling off national parks to loggers and miners, making fervently sure that ever more carbon will be pumped into the skies, and that more noxious chemicals and industrial waste will flow into the waters of this land.
We live in New London, Connecticut, a relatively small town, just 5.5 square miles, so two million acres is incomprehensible to me. But that’s the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments out West. Or at least it was until Trump’s Interior Department began moving to shrink these wild public lands for the benefit of private interests.
National Geographic has been keeping track of his administration’s abuse of natural resources. By now, it has recorded 15 major assaults on the natural world since he entered the White House in January 2017, including the undermining of the Endangered Species Act. Until July 2018, the act that protects the black footed ferret and the grizzly bear, among many other species, put more weight on safeguarding their imperilled habitats than on economic considerations. Once this administration got its hands on it, however, the money side instantly won out and the animals and the rest of us (including my kids) lost.
In August, the New York Times counted 84 environmental laws or regulations that the Trump administration has already rolled back with more to come, even as it promotes pipelines and works to open previously pristine national parks to oil and natural gas drilling. According to a recent report prepared by New York University Law School’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center, such changes “could significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions and lead to thousands of extra deaths from poor air quality every year.”
Not so surprisingly, my kids love ferrets and bears and butterflies and want clean water and clean air.
Trump Is Attacking Their Education
He’s slashing public education budgets, opening space to even more for-profit schools, and modeling a bully swagger that’s a caricature of every bad kid.
My kids go to good public schools in New London. The little ones attend schools that offer theater, music, and visual arts every week. The older one is in a non-profit charter school that focuses on interdisciplinary work and community investment, while cultivating a strong, kind school culture. They are all thriving and happy; the schools themselves, less so. Each of them is struggling, while the message from the top is: make do with less.
A budget analysis from the Center for American Progress finds that the Trump administration’s 2020 education budget proposal would eliminate 29 public school programs, including after-school programming in poor communities and professional development for teachers, while cutting a total of $8.5 billion, a 12% decrease from the fiscal year 2019 budget. Over the last two years, the Department of Education has suggested even more massive cuts, though Congress has rejected them. We can only hope that its members will again “just say no” to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s grim proposals. Still, even the money that does get to cities and municipalities is so much less than what such schools and their teachers and kids really need.
The public college scene is bleak, too. The way things are looking now, my kids may be going to plumbing school! College has never been more expensive and recent moves by the Department of Education have made accrediting for-profit colleges that bilk their students so much easier.
Trump Is Attacking Their Future
The world is on fire. That phrase used to be a rhetorical device for expressing the urgency of problems. Now, from the Amazon to Indonesia’s forests, it’s literally, as well as existentially, true! Donald Trump is making the future so much more perilous for my children by lowering the bar for nuclear war and accelerating the pace of the climate crisis.
James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climatologists, has been ringing the alarm bell about climate change for decades. The Columbia Universityprofessor has shown vividly how, thanks to the burning of fossil fuels, the Earth’s climate has already moved above the temperature range that supported the previous 10,000 years of civilization. In “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” a “hothouse Earth” scenario put together by leading ecologists in 2018, they suggested that, if greenhouse gas emissions weren’t cut — and they’re still rising! — with reasonable rapidity, there could be a point of no return. Critical planetary systems could spiral out of control, causing “serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies,” even if those emissions were then curbed in a serious way. This should terrify us all, at least for our children’s sake, if not our own.
And speaking not just of something, but of someone who should terrify us all, consider President Trump’s recent response to hurricane season. “Nuke ’em,” he suggested during a hurricane briefing at the White House and he wasn’t just kidding around. He meant it! The president actually said, “I got it. I got it. Why don’t we nuke them?” Given how many of our tax dollars go to nuclear weapons, there should be some use for them, right? We should deliver true “fire and fury” somewhere, so why not directly into the eye of a hurricane? Despite having no true military superpower rival, the United States is on track to spend $494 billion on nuclear weapons over the next 10 years, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office analysis, and closer to $2 trillion over the next three decades.
Trump Is Attacking Their Bodies
In Trump’s world, health care is not a right, it’s a gold-plated privilege that makes lots of money for his friends in the insurance industry. In the meantime, he’s fighting Obamacare and Medicare for All, and in that fight, he sets himself against three kids I love.
It Shouldn’t Be Donald Trump’s Future (Which Is No Future at All)
To say the least, all of this leaves me distressed, disturbed, and depressed. Under the circumstances, it’s easy enough to just throw up my hands and bury my head in the sand. That, unfortunately, doesn’t help Seamus, Madeline, and Rosena one little bit, nor does it help the millions of other kids threatened by the Trumpian assault on the future. So I carry on, putting one foot in front of the other and doing my best to keep working, however small the scale, for the better future that President Trump is so eager to deny them.
After all, the future doesn’t belong to him or to me. It belongs to my kids and your kids and all the generations to follow.
The skies, the mesas, the old growth forests, the seas, and everything else, all the richness, beauty, diversity of our ecosystem doesn’t belong in Donald Trump’s wallet. It’s ours, not his. It belongs to all of us — and none of us — at the same time. That means our job, above all, is to protect it and so our children, all of them!
Frida Berrigan is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood. She writes the Little Insurrections column for WagingNonviolence.Org. She has three children and lives in New London, Connecticut, where she is a gardener and community organizer who is now running for mayor as a member of the Green Party.
Copyright 2019 Frida Berrigan. First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.