Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Understanding the Uncomfortable

I’m a white cisgender able-bodied straight woman in New England. I am unlikely to get shot by cops, harassed for my religion, deported, drafted for a nuclear war, or, really, have much worse happen to me under Trump’s administration than have more job prospects disappear, the planet melt, and my access to birth control further limited. My chances of being sexually assaulted are still about one in five, although that may increase if Trump’s ascendancy makes sexual predators feel more entitled. So, largely, I can write safely and compassionately about understanding the white working class frustration that fueled Trump. As I find myself saying frequently, understanding is not the same as condoning.

It’s not, exactly, that I am surprised that Trump won—just stunned and saddened because the rhetoric of his campaign was so vitriolic, and I hate that so many people found resonance with that anger. I suspect that the anger of many of Trump’s almost entirely White voters has more to do with a fear of losing identity, of wanting to make sure that, in a growing and changing and browning and gender-changing America, there is still a place for them, for the life and the values they know.

That fear of being left behind, of losing your place, losing a place, in the world, I understand. My father once stood up in a crowded bookstore, in an almost entirely female audience, to ask Terry Tempest Williams a question. Williams was on a book tour for When Women Were Birds, about her relationship to her mother and the women in her family, and my father’s question was, “where is your father in all of this, does he have a place in this story?”

Williams answered warmly that her father did, and my dad sat down, and I deeply regret that I can’t remember now if I ever told him how proud I was of that moment, what I learned in it. To me, that exchange, crystallized my understanding that as movements for social change go forward, that as Progressives work for equal rights, representation, and opportunities for women, Black, Brown, LGBTQ, immigrants newer to America than ourselves, and non-Christian people, we cannot overlook that to change the country—as I believe we must—this is going to intrinsically make, particularly, straight White men feel like they don’t have a place anymore. That lack of inclusion is a disservice, and as it turns out, a disservice that is dangerous to everyone.

I don’t believe that White America is under an assault, that we need to let straight WASP dudes be in charge again forever because they get sad (or dangerous to everyone else) when they don’t get all the seats at the table, but I do think that, as Progressives, we have been narrow-minded and unkind when it comes to this issue. We have not embraced diversity that did not agree with our ideals. We have not been open-hearted, we have not understood that shifting the balance of power is as out and out shitty for some as it is bold and beautiful for others.

That said, it is an unacceptable response to our liberal idealistic ignorance to have misogynistic, climate change denying, White Supremacist billionaires running the country.

I don’t know what to do about it, exactly, but I do know that I am open to almost all suggestions. I think that Progressives like myself will have to change our tactics, because all of the pot-luck rallies, listening sessions, membership drives, candlelit vigils, direct actions, writing letters to Congress, laboring for policy changes in a corrupt system, Black Lives Matter marches, bike lanes, and all the rest that we—that I—have put such idealistic faith in, believing that by doing so we were curving the arc of history so sharply to justice, these activities have not been enough, this time.

Which isn’t to say we should cease to do whatever both feels good for our souls and is socially effective. My faith in that arc of history is shaken and I am appalled at my own ignorance at how long the arc is, how hard progress is to come by and sustain, but I’m not giving up on justice.

How we go forward has been the grief soaked question of Progressives this week. Real things—a registry for Muslims in America, a climate denier at the head of the EPA, a tacit affirmation of White Supremacy at the highest level of national government, Trump selecting Supreme Court justices—are happening. The fox is in the henhouse, and no amount of good intentioned hand wringing will take it out again. For a hopeful people—Idealists, Liberals, Progressives—we need to grieve, and accept reality. Not submit to it, but accept it.

As an environmentalist, I have long been reconciling myself to the reality that we cannot go back in time, that the damage of climate change is irreversible, that all the best energies and efforts cannot hold back the tides already risen and still rising. We can mitigate the damage, we can build for a more sustainable and resilient future, but we cannot erase what we have done. And, we have done this, but failing to understand the perspectives of those who see the world differently. Everyone can embrace the alternate realities of Harry Potter and Westeros, but we cannot understand our own families, our own fellow citizens, and how they world and their eroding or aspirational place in it differently than our own values and experience?

We cannot change the past, we do not get a do over. Instead, we go forward with the best that we can, we do all the things—protesting, rallying, running for office, stepping down from privilege to let others step up, listening and understanding. And this includes understanding why Trump won—because many people were scared of losing what they have, losing who they are, and finding their beliefs unrepresented in government.

I believe that same fear of loss of identity and power is at the root a lot of the Progressive angst and sorrow this week—we thought the world was leaning one way, our way, and it tilted over “against us.” This may be the most uniting force in our country at present—if we can remember that most of us aren’t evil, we just want to be seen and heard, to have a place and a purpose, and the pride of our families. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How It Happened, What Happens Now

I do not excuse or explain Donald Trump's vitriol, ignorance, violent misogyny, terrifying stances on racism and immigration, or climate denial. He is a nightmare to every tenet of my belief in what a leader of this nation ought to be and do and say. However, I dislike when people speak against his supporters as if all are the same. Here is what I think happened in a lot of hearts and minds, although I am horrified that personal fear came out stronger than any other priority in the voting booths of America:

According to the news and reports and commentary I’ve seen today, Donald Trump won the election because he tapped into the deep frustration and anger of citizens who have had their expectations of their own lives and identities severely shaken up in the past few decades, and got these people to take a chance on him, because the status quo hasn’t helped a lot of people in a long time. 

My sister gently pointed out that these people, who chose a very different president than who she or I wanted, are really not so separate from us, from me. Not in the “we’re all humans, we’re all Americans” sort of way, but in the feeling of having been baited and switched between preparing for and living adult life. I’m not of the political storybook about this—there are no generations of me, relying on the local industry for a guaranteed job at a living wage to buy a house, raise a family, send my children to something better.

Instead, I was raised in the middle class, somewhere on the fringes. I went off to college with a solid student loan debt. It was na├»ve to borrow so much to go to the school that felt right, rather than the school that was priced right, but this wasn’t a part of the conversation in the late 1990s—you borrowed money to go to college, and your college education would give you the enhanced job opportunities to pay that debt off, within a decade or so of graduation. That, at least, was the deal I understood. There was no talk—with my parents, with the school, with the loan officers—that it might be prudent to pursue studies in fields with more economic potential. I was part of the generation that was told: “do what you love and the money will follow!”

So I did. I studied Environmental Studies. I spent my summers working in summer camps, and then at one of the largest and oldest environmental groups in the country. Although I wasn’t pursuing the straight and narrow path towards immediate student loan repayment, I was still in the field. After graduation, I struggled to find work that both paid my student loan, life expenses, and bore some connection to my education and training. Nothing really bit, and I wasn’t one of the twenty-somethings who know what they want to do and where they want to be, so I wandered a bit—partly because I was sure that somewhere out there, a job that fit my education and paid my loans existed.

I believed that because it was the story I’d grown up with.

Eventually, I decided to attend graduate school because on enough occasions, I’d been passed over for jobs for someone with a graduate degree. Not only was I interested in the material and of continuing to study, it seemed like a better job market would open up.

Again, in hindsight, none of this makes much sense, and I feel like I’ve been duped by a system that favors wealthier people. The thought that only rich people can afford to passionately study something that may never make them any money but is fascinating and beautiful fills me with a white hot fury. That education is, more and more, a means to an income and not a marriage between income, interest, and opportunity is equally maddening.

But, I fell for it. I fell for the idea that education improves prospects, that it is worth the interest rates of student loans, to be able to find a discipline that improves your understanding of how to be in the world and provides employable skills.

And, now that I’ve finished graduate school, I’ve often found myself in the bizarre donut hole of being “too educated” for some jobs, while not having enough “hands on” experience because I went back to school. Meanwhile, the student loans really don’t care if you are working in the field you’re educated in—they just want their money back, which is fair. But there is a distinct sense of failure, personal and systemic, in that I have yet to earn a full-time, year-round, living wage within the field of my degrees.

It’s been twelve years since I graduated from college, six since I got my Masters degree. The economy has gone up and down, and the availability of environmental jobs is closely tied to both the economy and politics. I also have some geographic and family limitations that keep me in the highly populated Northeast. So, yes, of course, I have brought some of this lack of job security on myself through poor choices, bad luck, and the errors of being a human with multiple priorities.

But, some of the reason that I am thirty-four, deep in student debt, unlikely to purchase a home, or save wisely for retirement for a very long time, is because the system I believed in, the system I bought into with my financial and professional future, this system no longer exists. Because of my parents and my degrees, I am not counted as a Detroit autoworker, a Berlin papermill worker, a Rust Belt or Blue Collar anything. All the same, I know very well the exhaustion and fury and frustration that things have shifted, that you are not living the life you were groomed for, that the rules changed while you were mid-play. And I have to think that this is the rage and fear and discontent that Trump tapped into, because it is a potent fuel.

The feeling that what you have been educated to give the world is not wanted, will not feed you, that is one of the worst I know. And I can understand how, for someone with a different worldview, friends, library and social media feed, the answer to this deep sense of identity betrayal would be the loud angry rich white man who looks like Presidents have almost always looked, and says he’ll fix everything.

Other than what connection my personal employment and identity struggles give me to fellow citizens who I might be tempted to further disregard in a liberal fear-fury panic—I find myself today not caring about that as much. Of course, I want to do the work that I want to do in the world, but more than that, I want to keep the country safe for everyone—all colors and faiths and genders. I want healthcare to be affordable. I want there to be jobs that people want to do, that pay enough that the economy doesn’t crumble. I want climate change to be addressed on a personal and policy level, across the world. I want sexual harassment and discrimination to end. I want marriage to be available for anyone who wants it. I want everyone to have the time to enjoy sunrises and sunsets.

And all of that wanting doesn’t go away, regardless of who is in the White House, in Congress, in my local government offices. And if the wanting doesn’t go away, neither does the burning call to action—on all levels—to build the world the way we want it to be.

I believe we can do this, uphill though progress will be. It begins with understanding, and this is my hope of that start. Because I don't know what else to do. Giving up on America isn't an option.