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Shifting from despair to hope

November 9, 2016

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” –MLK quoting Theodore Parker

In 2004, a college friend wrote about his reaction to Bush defeating Kerry.  It was, he said, less an election about issues and more “a referendum on ideology.”

That’s understating what I feel right now.  The values I hold at the core of my being–those I built my life around and endeavor to teach both my children and my students–seem beyond mocked.  It feels like a direct and violent assault on what I believed is best about America.

“Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media. People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.

To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.” –Senator Bernie Sanders

Any of my students will tell you that I am obsessed with really like quotes.  One of my former students even messaged me today, asking what quotes I’m reading right now to help me process the results of this election.  One, she said, that usually worked for her but was not working today was this:


Photo credit Jessica Wei via Ephemeral Living

I have been trying to imagine others complexly.  My initial reaction was to wonder how the hell this is the America I know and love.  However, if the election had gone the other way, half of this country would be wondering how the hell this was their America.

Who are we?  What do we value as a nation?  What do we stand for?  Although documents exist that seem to make those answers clear, the nature of human interpretation of old texts muddies that clarity.  There are many versions of the One True Explanation for the Constitution.

Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, which my students just finished writing essays about, says in a lecture about his work:  “I’m especially skeptical, having returned from a place like Vietnam, of Truth-with-a-capital-T…Those fanatical, self-righteous, zealous, I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong declarations of what’s true.”  I tend to agree with him:  that life exists in the realm of gray between the Black and White extremes.  We do not typically give credence to the gray; it’s too hard to live in the complexity and mess and far easier to assert hard lines of division.  It’s easier to take sides.

From what I’ve read, it seems like fear has been driving both sides in this election:  fear of the Other.  Meanness, exclusion, anger, resentment all stem from fear of something.  Fear of losing what you have, or fear of change, or fear of more of the same shittiness that you’ve been experiencing.

Fear is not helpful here.  Fear is not hopeful.  Fear gets things done but often at great cost.

I have been afraid.  I have felt for much of the past 24 hours like Jem after Tom Robinson’s guilty verdict:

“How could they do it, how could they?”  Atticus responds, “I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep. Good night.”

And then I went back to an earlier chapter in To Kill a Mockingbird, where Atticus tells Scout:

Photo credit

Photo credit

Maybe there is hope.  Because despite the fact that the Canadian immigration site crashed last night, this is still our home.  For all of us who are proud to call ourselves Americans.  This country is big enough and resourceful enough for all of us.

This is what I will tell my students tomorrow:

Your voice, your identity, your story matters. 

Your family–given and chosen–matters.

Your heritage–your culture, language, traditions–matters.

Your membership in this country–whether from the Mayflower or as a recent immigrant–matters. You are us.  We are the U.S.

You are valued.  You are worthy of respect.  You are loved.  And don’t ever let ANYONE tell you otherwise. 

We all carry in us the capacity to be kind or cruel.  Choose kindness.  Choose openness and curiosity over fear.  Over and over again.  And when you do choose cruelty–because you will, because we all do sometimes–then choose kindness and openness and curiosity again.  Ask for forgiveness.  Forgive yourself.  Learn how and when to compromise and when to hold firm.  Engage.  Question.  Grow.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynne Yaple permalink
    November 13, 2016 5:46 pm

    I could not agree more with the post and the comments

  2. RArnold Sherman permalink
    November 10, 2016 4:28 am

    GREAT post, Michelle! Thank you for feeding your students in such a positive way. Below is an article taken from The NY Times; it makes some interesting points. The Great Commandment that Jesus responded with after being challenged by “the establishment” couldn’t ring truer today, especially the second part. Even if one has no truck with Christianity, the universality of them remains, no matter what G(g)od you may or may not answer to.

    (Note the date of the article.)

    David Leonhardt JULY 8, 2014

    There was a time not so long ago when the young seemed destined to be liberal forever. Americans in their teens and 20s were to the left of their elders on social issues. They worried more about poverty. They voted strongly Democratic.

    In retrospect, we refer to this period as the 1960s, and it didn’t last long, let alone forever. Less than a generation after young people were marching for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, they voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan.

    Today, of course, the young are liberal again, and it seems as if they will be forever. They favor same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, stricter gun laws, citizenship for illegal immigrants and an activist government that fights climate change and inequality. The Republican Party, as you have probably noticed, does not.

    But the temporary nature of the 1960s should serve as a reminder that politics change. What seems permanent can become fleeting. And the Democratic Party, for all its strengths among Americans under 40, has some serious vulnerabilities, too.

    In the simplest terms, the Democrats control the White House (and, for now, the Senate) at a time when the country is struggling. Economic growth has been disappointing for almost 15 years now. Most Americans think this country is on the wrong track. Our foreign policy often seems messy and complex, at best.

    To Americans in their 20s and early 30s — the so-called millennials — many of these problems have their roots in George W. Bush’s presidency. But think about people who were born in 1998, the youngest eligible voters in the next presidential election. They are too young to remember much about the Bush years or the excitement surrounding the first Obama presidential campaign. They instead are coming of age with a Democratic president who often seems unable to fix the world’s problems.

    President Reagan greeting crowds of supporters at a rally during his bid for re-election in 1984. “We’re in a period in which the federal government is simply not performing,” says Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center, the author of a recent book on generational politics, “and that can’t be good for the Democrats.”

    Academic research has found that generations do indeed have ideological identities. People are particularly shaped by events as they first become aware of the world, starting as young as 10 years old, as a new analysis by the political scientists Yair Ghitzaand Andrew Gelman notes. (My colleague Amanda Cox has created an online interactive graphic, based on the analysis, that lets you track the political views of every birth year since 1937. Because race adds a variable, it applies most reliably to whites.)

    The generation that came of age during the five presidential terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman leaned Democratic for its entire life. So have those young liberals of the 1960s, who learned American politics through the glamour of John F. Kennedy. The babies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, who entered political consciousness during the Reagan years, lean Republican. Think Alex P. Keaton, the conservative child of hippies from the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.”

    These identities are a more useful guide to American politics than the largely useless cliché about adults starting off liberal and slowly becoming more conservative. Like a broken clock, that cliché can seem accurate at times, mostly thanks to luck.

    Among today’s teenagers, Democrats do start with some big advantages. For one thing, the next generation of voters is an ethnically diverse group: About 45 percent of American citizens in their teenage years are either Latino or a member of a racial minority, compared with only 29 percent of citizens 20 and older.

    And Republicans continue to struggle mightily among nonwhites, in ways that may transcend generational identities. Almost 35 years have passed since Reagan reportedly said: “Hispanics are already Republican. They just don’t know it.”

    His point was that Hispanic voters would follow the same political path as earlier immigrant groups, like Italians and Irish, and move right as they assimilated.

    But Reagan appears to have been wrong on this score: Even as Hispanics — and Asian-Americans — are assimilating, they are remaining Democratic. Many still seem decidedly turned off by the attitudes of today’s aging, white Republican party. If those groups remain liberal, as African-Americans and Jews have, demographic arithmetic dictates that Democrats will be favored to win presidential elections for the foreseeable future.

    With that advantage, however, comes a funny kind of problem. The Democrats are the majority party when the country is in a bit of a funk.

    President Obama and many other Democrats argue that they could help lift this funk if congressional Republicans weren’t blocking nearly every Democratic proposal. The Democrats essentially won that debate in 2012 and will probably be favored to win it again in 2016. But the case will become harder to make with each passing year if living standards do not start to rise at a healthy clip for most households — which has not happened since the 1990s.

    This dynamic is likely to be Hillary Clinton’s biggest weakness, either as a candidate or as a president. Talking about the Clinton-era 1990s boom — as she’ll surely do, to distance herself from today’s economy — will go only so far with voters too young to have any memories of the 1990s.

    Some political analysts believe that teenagers are already showing less allegiance to the Democratic Party than Americans in their 20s, based on recent polling data. My own sense is that their argument rests on small, noisy sample sizes, and Mr. Taylor, of Pew, is also skeptical. The larger point, however, remains: The Democrats face challenges with today’s teenagers that they did not face with today’s 25- or 30-year-olds.

    By any measure, Mr. Obama’s second term lacks the political drama of his first, when Democrats were passing sweeping legislation and the Tea Party sprang up in reaction. But the generational nature of politics means that the second Obama term still has enormous political import.

    If he can execute his basic goals — if the economy improves and his health care, education and climate policies all seem to be basically working — it will pay political dividends for decades to come. We may not yet know who will be running for president in, say, 2024. We do know that Mr. Obama, like his predecessors, will still cast a shadow over the campaign.

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