Refuse to Play the Game

“Words are all we got.” Dean Baquet, December 8

Remember when, “Don’t let the terrorists win,” was the refrain of the moment and we were urged to get out and go shopping after 9/11? Most people, of course, knew it was about more than shopping — that we didn’t need to simply resume our daily habits; we needed to overcome our fears because the terrorists’ goal was to make us so afraid we’d turn on each other.

Then it became about shoe bombers, waterboarding, and recession. Underwater mortgages, the Boston Marathon, and Newtown. Somewhere along the way we forgot to not be afraid. We forgot to not turn on each other.

Of course, social media makes it worse by providing anonymity to people who confuse ranting with cogent thought. But social media is also a chance for real discussion and while I find it there every day, it’s also been disappointing to see how many people try to tamp down any talk of anything worthwhile.

People are comfortable in the status quo, especially when it is blissful ignorance. Disrupting the status quo is uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable every time I post on Facebook or publish an essay like this.

But, as the daughter of a woman who once went running into the middle of a fight outside Walgreens, I am also uncomfortable in the role of bystander on the playground watching a bully at work, hoping he’ll calm down and leave the poor kid alone. There are a whole slew of rationalizers who keep pressing the “wait and see” button but for me, for many, that time has passed. The lip is bloodied, enough damage done. I don’t want to wait quietly to see if he goes for the throat.

It is purely, unabashedly, American to speak out against leaders who threaten liberties, who keep a hand over our mouths.

Much has been said about the need to understand Trump voters. I agree. I’ve sought them out, read their words and talked with them face to face. I’ve listened as they speak about industry, health care, and welfare reform and growing up around racism — growing calloused to words that, to them, were just words. I’ve listened as they said this election season the news was too overwhelming so they didn’t pay much attention and then simply voted the way they always do.

Listening to them does not threaten my beliefs but it does help me understand, a little, theirs. I can start to separate Trump the voter from Trump the man.

And I want nothing to do with dividing this country further. I refuse to be a pawn in Trump’s game.

The same should be asked of Trump voters: Listen. Believe us when we say it’s different this time. Believe us when we say it is about dignity, equality, and patriotism. Trump represents everything we feel threatens our democracy — he uses his words in anger to divide us. He has continued this rhetoric after the campaign, as president-elect. And he pushes us steadily backward instead of moving us forward on matters like climate change, human rights, and even the notion of truth.

I suspect there are many Trump voters who are concerned but want to see their vote vindicated. The problem is, the man we have elected is such a master of marketing and sparkle and colorful balloons, that it will be even harder these next four years to get at the nugget of truth in the middle.

But we must, and we can’t do it divided. The truth will lose.

He says he hates newspapers and accuses them of lying but that is because he wants to control the message. That is why he loves Twitter. By controlling the message, he controls us. Don’t let him. Some of what he says in the next four years will be true and good, and we should talk about that. I hope he helps small businesses and the working class. But we shouldn’t let it silence us during the moments he will lie. He has, by many accounts, nominated a knowledgeable general in Mattis. But that shouldn’t silence us on the fact that he has also appointed a racist in Bannon, or insulted China on Twitter.

Scrutiny is good.

Donald Trump is the worst of the dividers, but he’s not the only one. They are on both sides, in both parties. They say “all” and “always,” painting us with the broadest of brushes and taking away our faces, our humanity. They rely on the things we are angry about, the things we are scared of, and that’s their main message. These politicians and pundits are afraid, too — that we’ll vote them out of office or turn off the television — so they coddle anger and the attention it gets them like a newborn baby. Or like a crack addiction.

They think we’ll read a headline and maybe the first paragraph, we’ll listen to the screaming heads on cable news, and we’ll become enraged. It doesn’t matter whether a bill is good policy. It doesn’t matter whether this country was founded on the very idea of compromise.

Or they play games, attaching controversial language about abortion to a bill about roads because they know we aren’t paying attention, and they think we like the game.

I wish their assumptions had no merit, but the problem lies with us. We — you and I — have a responsibility and we are shirking it. A small fraction of voters put Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the general election ballot. We have power but we give it up. We forget that we are the parties, from the school board on up to president.

When did it become too hard to be an informed citizen? It isn’t easy, but when did it become too hard?

What happened to thoughtful conversations about government? When did that become an eye-roller?

We don’t talk politics with friends because we’ve been taught it’s a taboo subject. But that is accepting the notion that everything has to be a fight. We’ve accepted the idea that to disagree with someone is to insult them. To have an opinion is obnoxious.

But to be angry — boy, that is acceptable. That feels good. We’re so damn afraid, we indulge in anger like children. Even those of us who did not vote for Trump read about him and feel almost happy in our anger, righteous even. He invites our anger, deserves it, and we hand it over gladly.

This line from the movie Glory comes to mind lately: “We all covered up in it. Ain’t nobody clean.”

Politics is personal. But we have to be able and willing to express our ideas with respect and base them in fact. Anger can be good, useful even. But we have to know when to kick it out the door.

We are a nation of people who refuse to know each other, to read the news and have thoughtful dialogue with people we disagree with, and that is dangerous.

Because when we lack connection with each other, we elect people who work hard to divide us further. Donald Trump is working very, very hard to divide us.

Great leaders use their platform to rally people around a common cause for good. They help us feel the possibility of what we can be, and they remind us of our humanity, our sameness.

True policymaking and real governing are the hard things in all this. We need to quit voting for the clowns who put on a good show. We need to look for the guy who people make fun of for being a policy wonk. Vote for the woman who doesn’t end her statements with exclamation marks and who doesn’t use bombastic language to freak us out. Vote for the people who compromise.

We can still tune out much of the news. Paying attention and finding truth is easier than it seems.

The current situation is exactly what terrorists wanted back in 2001 and it’s what they want today: that we are so afraid and angry we forget who we are.

We have forgotten there are stories behind each of us. We have forgotten what our purpose is and where the meaning lies.

We need to remember. We have got to work together to hold on to America’s common cause, together. It doesn’t mean we stay silent in our corners and it doesn’t mean we don’t write the truth out of fear of making people uncomfortable. It certainly doesn’t mean we’ll always agree. It means we keep talking, and reading and listening and writing our stories, because that’s all there is to do.

There’s a reason this blog is called True STORIES. There’s a reason I put a quote by Colum McCann on the masthead. “Through our stories, we survive.” I believe that.

child patriot.jpg

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