“In Times of Dread…”

Donald Trump will be our next president.

It hurts to say that, to acknowledge it as truth. I spent the days following the election going through the stages of grief, as I think much of the country did. Tuesday evening, as the world began to slowly crash down around me, I denied it. I did this when Bernie lost the Democratic primary too, holding out for a miracle that wouldn’t come. As the night wore on, I became angry. My husband, my friends, everyone had insisted, in the face of my fears, that this would not happen, that it was not possible, and yet here was my worst nightmare come true.

I went to sleep before the election results were in, and woke restless and anxious at 4:30am. Squinting at my phone in the darkness, Facebook told me what I already knew. I was angry and withdrawn most of Wednesday, my thoughts pulled in a hundred directions. I had awakened to a teasing message from my conservative brother-in-law at 7:00 a.m., but over the course of the day I found ways to remind myself of the beauty in the world and in my community. Facebook friends were reaching out to one another, offering support and guidance on the path forward.

In the days and weeks that followed, I was moved by calls for the Electoral College to choose Clinton instead, to be abolished entirely, to protest the election. I argued with some family members on Facebook and brooded over other conversations that I had avoided in self-preservation. Although I knew it was impossible, I wanted there to be a way out of this, some bargain I could strike.

Then, I began reading.

What called to me when I was still angry were the articles railing against the sexism inherent in an election where the single most qualified person to ever run for the office had been beaten by a real-life internet troll with tiny baby hands. This is still true, and still greatly concerning. Yet even then I knew that there was more to it than that, because I was reluctant in my support of Hillary Clinton for many of the same reasons Trump supporters said they couldn’t support her. Sure, Trump supporters tended to sprinkle their legitimate criticisms with nonsensical conspiracy theories, genuine bigotry, and clear misrepresentations of feminism, but the point is that my ambivalent feelings toward Hillary had nothing to do with her being a woman. It was not such a stretch to believe that some of my apprehensions were shared by third-party voters and Trump supporters, even if the latter had paired those reasons with their own acceptance of sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, Islamaphobia, xenophobia, sexual assault, and myriad unsubstantiated accusations that became increasingly ridiculous as time went on.

I started working in rural health in July. I daily read a lot of news on the developments in health and healthcare access and quality on a national and state level, especially as it relates to rural areas. This reading can be as specific as new Medicare payment plans and as broad as things like schools, plumbing, and broadband access and how their presence—or lack thereof—impacts health. What I have learned in this time is that there are entire groups of people around the country that live in an America that looks like it has forgotten them.

I’m the last person who is interested in accommodating the fragile egos of straight, white, cis-gendered men (and women!) convinced they’re losing their birthright. But there are places in Appalachia and Alaska that look like a developing country with their lack of running water, sewage systems, and other basic amenities I have taken for granted every day of my life. The opioid epidemic is bad in cities as well, but without the infrastructure of nearby hospitals, treatment facilities, mental health professionals, police and EMTs with knowledge and access to Naloxone, rural communities are being ravaged. Meanwhile, lost manufacturing jobs, disabled coal workers with black lungs, and the disappearing family farmer—many of these people left with no health insurance and nowhere to use it anyway—all point to a shift in the way America functions. Except no one thought to include these people in those changes. Reading articles about these people, about their anger and loss, about the way they’ve been left behind, was compelling.

Before this job, I spent two years working at a residential psychiatric treatment facility for adolescents. I learned firsthand that troubled, desperate people frequently behave in ways that don’t appear to make sense, that they lash out at perceived threats in ways that are unfair and without real foundation. They choose people to hate, both groups and individuals, based sometimes on how they feel they’ve been treated, but also based on deeply ingrained prejudices they themselves don’t entirely understand. The thing is, though, most of them can start to move past that when they are in a more stable, rational place, and when they are exposed to people from those groups or who disagree with their world view.

One of my favorite residents was a teenage boy from a rural area who, despite his genuine love for the women in his life, was openly sexist. He did not respect female staff, often spoke down to us, frequently implied that we could not be helpful to him with his problems or with any other thing he was interested in—like talking about cars, tools, and the farm. It became clear fairly quickly that he didn’t have nearly as much knowledge on these subjects as he claimed to, but this did not stop him from being dismissive of any input from female staff, many of whom had also grown up on farms or working with cars, etc.

But over the course of his time living at the facility, he became close to a couple of us, and did modify his language. He was more likely to change the problematic way he spoke if we pointed out how it sounded, but he was also increasingly likely to correct himself or to simply word things appropriately the first time. Once, he and I got into an argument over the volume of the radio and he made a sexist comment. He later looked floored and ashamed when, after we both apologized, I explained to him how comments like that made me feel—perhaps because his previous sexist comments had all been met with logical explanations as to why they weren’t acceptable, rather than a personal, emotional explanation.

I am aware that this is anecdotal evidence. It illustrates, however, that people are changed through interpersonal relationships with those who disagree with them, are different from them, are accepting of differences in others.  For one of the papers in my Master’s portfolio, I did a lot of reading on the social contact hypothesis, the para-social contact hypothesis, and on in-group and out-group behavior. The impact of who and what—books, movies, news—people surround themselves with cannot be overstated.  So it’s no surprise that people who come from areas teeming with ideas straight out of the 1950s feel angry and alienated from the rest of the country.

A great adage says that to those who are accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like oppression. When others you had seen yourself as superior to are now your equals, it feels like you’ve lost ground. If this existed in a vacuum, it would be easy to disregard this response without much sympathy—protecting your own sense of superiority at the expense of others’ equality is shameful at best, and ignorance is not an excuse here. But this social shift has occurred simultaneously with other shifts—the exportation of well-paying manufacturing jobs overseas, the closure of many coal mines, resulting in mass unemployment, the widening gap between rich and poor, the growth of urban centers as the economy shifted away from those typically-rural centers of industry.

Rural, blue collar Americans have been living without the resources enjoyed in many urban areas, popular culture doesn’t represent their lives, and government doesn’t seem to prioritize them. Republicans claim to support their values while working for the corporations paying them starvation wages, demanding unreasonable work hours, and shipping their jobs overseas to use people in developing nations as slave labor. Democrats used to advocate for the working class, but despite courting Union endorsements, they are also working for the corporations, soliciting celebrity endorsements, and advocating for the perceived enemy while seemingly ignoring rural communities that are genuinely struggling.

These forgotten people are more likely to live in poverty, more likely to have obesity-related illnesses, more likely to die if they are injured due to longer emergency response times.  They are more likely to have mental and behavioral health problems, but less likely to have access to helpful resources, less likely to afford the available resources, and more likely to face social stigmas attached to seeking mental health help. Food deserts in America are located in two places: poor urban neighborhoods and poor rural communities.

I don’t always succeed, but I try to live my life in empathy. I have to believe that this is the way forward. For all the talk of changing the outcome, of planning for the midterms, of dedicating time and energy into supporting those who will be hurt by this tyrant’s reign, it seems to me that we can only be effective in these efforts if we also go forward with open hearts. Returning to the status quo that keeps moderate politicians, bought and paid for by corporate America, in power and neglecting those who are struggling and powerless does not seem like a real solution to me.

I’m a liberal precisely because I believe in the possibility of a society where no one is voiceless. But we know that there are so many ways to be voiceless. We could spend our time ranking them—put rural white people at the bottom because of their problematic views and move forward untroubled—or we can agree that everyone should have a voice. There’s a great TedxTalk by Ash Beckham about the closets that people put themselves into. At one point, she says that it doesn’t matter what your closet is made of when you’re alone in the dark, because hard is not relative, hard is just hard.

Life in rural America has been hard lately.

I don’t say this to minimize the very real harm Trump and his supporters have and likely will cause, nor do I support bigotry of any kind. I don’t buy into trite calls for the country to unify under a narcissistic egomaniac for the sake of unity. I don’t think we should listen to and empathize with white, rural people at the expense of listening to and empathizing with people of color, women, minority religions, SOGI/LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, etc. We’ve spent too much time silencing those voices, and that is not acceptable. But we don’t conquer hate by walling ourselves off and shaming those who profess it. We conquer it by approaching them with love, with empathy, with a different perspective, with patience.

I’ve read many people express frustration at this idea. Why would we baby-step the bigots into the 21st century? It’s not the responsibility of marginalized groups to convince ignorant people that they are worthy of their own humanity. I find these critiques compelling in principal, but remain convinced that this is the way cultures change in practice. People change each other. Maybe this is the work of allies, speaking to the “deplorables” and seeking understanding and changed hearts so that members of marginalized groups don’t have to face this dehumanizing experience. But it is still necessary work.

In the wake of the election, I read an article by Toni Morrison in The Nation. (As a general life-rule, if you’re ever given a choice between reading Toni Morrison or doing just about anything else, read Toni Morrison.) I’d read it before; it was written more than a year ago, addressing events in 2004. In it, she spoke about feeling disheartened and struggling to write in the wake of the re-election of George W. Bush, and it resonated very deeply with me this time around, for obvious reasons. She spoke about a friend who reminded her that it is precisely in these moments—moments of dread—that artists must speak out.

You’ll notice this is quoted in my header, and in the title to this post. This is why.

Facing the looming specter of a Trump presidency, I too was feeling disheartened. Not only at the ills I’m certain he will try to inflict on some of the most marginalized members of our society, but at the past and present ills inflicted on rural Americans that have led us to this fateful, fearful precipice. I’ve toyed with the idea of a blog for some time, thinking that this may be a more productive use of my political discontent than fighting with my in-laws on Facebook, I just never seemed to know how to start. But this is not the moment for stillness, for prolonged mourning and grief. This is a moment for action.

I’m sure this will be an evolving process, but this is where I will begin:

  • Monthly donations to organizations, local and national, that will be the resources and supports for those who will be hurt by a Trump presidency.
  • Monthly donations to Our Revolution, the movement supporting progressive candidates, nationwide, to various congressional seats.
  • Open, candid conversations with people I disagree with, as often as possible.
  • Working on my writing, this blog being a part of that.

I want this blog to provide political and cultural commentary in a world that needs as many dissenting voices as possible, but I also want to add some depth and variation by stepping back (or is it forward?) to look at the bigger picture as represented in literature. Books are powerful. They are where I turn in times of uncertainty, and so I think they will add a much-needed element of introspection and creative critical thinking to this blog.

Therefore, each Thursday I will post a new blog entry on something politically or culturally relevant. Mondays will be book entries, and although I will endeavor to post every Monday, it of course depends on how quickly I am able to get through that week’s book. I have a stack of to-read books that were just waiting for me to finish school to have the time to read them. They are an assortment of classic novels, recent novels from relevant authors, New York Times bestsellers, and interesting non-fiction that has caught my eye. All of which reflect the culture we live in, the bigger questions about life, people, and society, and the smaller, individual, personal impact of the political issues we grapple over.

Action and art. We accept the reality for what it is, and we move forward.

In the days and weeks following the election, I was blessed to have many friends and family members who sent out a similar call: Resistance, especially in the form of art. Solidarity with each other and with the most vulnerable among us. Seeing in my own sphere the fight that was ready to be waged against the forces of bigotry and hate and fear and division filled me up with the kind of hope that is backed by steel. We are facing a long, dark, four years, so we must keep the light burning. Sometimes it will be in candlelight—breaking bread with those we disagree with—and other times it will be with torches and flaming arrows. But we will keep the flame alight.

Because this is most certainly a moment of dread, and so, we must not be silent.

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