Sunday, November 20, 2016
Unexpected benefits of the Trump Era #2: A chance to be courageous.
Growing up in the 1970s as I did, there was a sense that the great moments of history were behind us. In the 1960s, just disappearing over the horizon, there were Civil Rights to win, a Vietnam War to oppose, protests in the street, a chance to stand up and be counted. A chance to matter. The whole world was watching.
And before that, World War II, when our parents' generation—"The Greatest Generation"—had Hitler to oppose, a world to free. Not a lot of soul-searching required when Nazis are taking over the world (actually, there was, one of those small details lost in popular history. A reminder that general public cowardice and folly are not ailments specific to our present day. Most of America would have shrugged and let the Axis have the rest of the globe, under the daft notion that we'd somehow be safe between our oceans. The Japanese did us a favor).
With the advent of Donald Trump, and the wasp's nest of un-American, radical haters he is installing in Washington, each of us suddenly has a job to do, a chance to matter, to be a soldier in the army of American decency. Sure, our country suddenly is frightening as hell, but that means each one of us will have plenty of opportunities to oppose the mean, counter-productive measures Trump's henchmen will put in place, whether unleashing religious bigots to oppress gay people, dialing back women's reproductive rights, or forcing Muslims onto some fascist-tinged "registry." Every time you go to the Target could be a test. We will be called upon to push back against the haters who, liberated by Trump's example, will now feel free to oppress others.
Not that it will be easy, or at least not always easy. The third time I was noting on Facebook that of course all decent folks, especially Jews, will sign up for any Muslim registry, a sort of "I'm Spartacus!" standing with our singled out brethren, I paused, and asked myself, "So ... what if this new registry carries a penalty for false reporting? Say up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine for representing yourself as a Muslim if you're not? Do you still sign up? Just how committed are you to this whole freedom thing?"
A tougher question. Online bravado is easy— a good thing, in one sense, since that cuts both ways, and just as on-line support is easy, so is on-line hate, and that means the vast majority of the sewer-dwelling white nationalists on Twitter probably would not actually, oh, set fire to a black church in the real world. The way they used to. At least one hopes they wouldn't, though a string of atrocities is to be expected — acts of terror committed in the name of opposing terrorism. I certainly expect them.
But don't be deceived. When the rubber hits the road this spring, standing up for American values will have consequences, more than just nudging yourself into the comforting crowd at a rally or tweeting a particularly cutting remark. There will come a point when you will have to put your neck on the line. What will you do then?
That may be an opportunity that you have dreamed about. Had I lived back then, what would I have done? When the world is falling apart — and if our world won't fall apart, count on it to split a bit at the seams — what would I have done?
No reason to answer that now. We all imagine we'd be heroes. Sure, we'd see the child slip into the water, kick off our shoes and swan dive into the river to save her without a moment's hesitation. That's what we tell ourselves anyway. Even if, had the moment ever really came, we might have just stood there gawping, pointing one trembling finger, frozen.
The moment is going to come. Count on it. As Donald Trump and all he represents sour the American dream, as the highest offices, then lower offices, are filled with hard-eyed bigots, they will begin to build their vision for this country. Some Americans will eagerly join in. People who will no doubt shock you, by their presence, grinning on the podium next to The Donald. People you know, joining in the general hilarity of running some loathed group down. No one dreams of being a quisling, but they will leap at the chance. If the government started to recruit members for the New Waffen SS tomorrow, the line to join would be a mile long. And some would oppose it so long as doing so was convenient and risk free. But as soon as that opposition has consequences, risks, danger, many, maybe most, will fold, and go grumbling back to the sidelines to watch the tragedy unfold.
“If it weren’t for fear,” Hemingway wrote. “Every bootblack in Spain would be a bullfighter.”
Not everyone will cave, of course. Some will stand their ground. How many do that — dig in, stand up for their beliefs, hold firm, even when it isn't easy, even when they are imperiling themselves — that will decide how this thing ends up, just how much of a tragedy our nation is in for. You always wondered what you'd do in a crisis. Soon you'll get to find out.