Democracy in the dark
“Where do you think they’ll send us when The Deportations start,” I ask Mr. B, taking a bite of baklava. It’s a weeknight in early December and the cold comes quickly and permeates the dark corners of the house. We are sitting in the kitchen, drinking tea. The toddler is upstairs fast asleep, firmly clutching her lovey in one hand.
It’s a blasé, sarcastic question, but like all of my jokes these days, it holds a grain of uncomfortable truth, because I’m not really sure what the future has in store for me, my family, my kid who doesn’t speak English yet, and this entire country.
In the best interview I’ve read since the election, Anthony Bourdain says, “We are a violent nation, from the beginning,” and I’m beginning to understand that quote.
“Well, where could they send us. We’re citizens,” Mr. B says. Mr. B is an American through and through. He came here from Russia when he was older than me, but he is inherently much more American. He taught me about Bad Company, the Second Amendment, and Yuengling. He feels entitled to his Americanness in a way that I could never claim. He is always talking Federalist Papers this and NBA basketball that. I, on the other hand, always feel like I am straddling two worlds, and in today’s America, I’m not sure where that leaves me.
“They could send us to Russia, or to Israel,” I say, straining my teabag. Mr. B makes a face. “No one’s going to deport us.” The emphasis on the last word implying that it could be others that they start with. “Well, then I guess we’ll have to pre-empt it,” I say, picking up the well-worn thread we’ve been treading over most nights since the election season started. “We’re going to have to leave the country.”
“We don’t have to go anywhere. And where would we even go? Back to Russia? China? Australia? This is our country. We stay here.” He takes another sip of tea and with a simple sentence turns all of my racing anxieties and options into the ludicrous impossibilities of a woman who’s spent too much time in her own mind.
Of course we stay here. It’s our country to fix.
But, I’m an extreme over-thinker, planner,and panicker by nature. For example, as you may recall, Mr. B and I had an argument about whether we would be ready for the Siege of Leningrad.
What a simple, happy time 2012 was. With the advent of what seems like a strange, new era, I’d like to believe I still have the luxury of black humor. But the events over the past several years, starting with Snowden’s revelations, and culminating with the most recent news that our country is about to be taken over by an administration that will, most likely unintentionally, radically alter the fabric of American democracy, not to mention the very definition of a martini, have drastically changed me.
Gallows humor these days seems like the only kind of humor.
And, when I wasn’t thinking about current events, I was thinking about history. For the past four years, I’ve been, unsuccessfully, trying to write a novel about Russia in 1936, right before the most severe of the Stalinist purges.
The reason I was unsuccessful at writing the novel is because I simply couldn’t convincingly write a main Russian character who believed that communism was the right way to do things, because I’ve been looking at communism in hindsight. I couldn’t realistically understand a person who believed that the Russian revolution was a great boon, knowing everything that came after it.
Luckily for my novel, and unluckily for the United States, I don’t have to imagine anymore. I believe we are now at such a turning point in American history that the pendulum could easily swing in that direction given enough momentum.
And the scary part is that it’s hard to assess whether we’re overreacting to a presidency that will turn out to be as normal and dysfunctional as the rest of them, or whether we are really dangling our feet over the precipice of stability.
The media, which failed us during the election, has continued to vacillate between extreme panic, placation of the new administration with embarrassing displays of groveling instead of solid, adversarial journalism, and pretending nothing’s out of the regular is happening.
I wrote back in 2013,
The worst part of this is not that I specifically am right, but that history is right, and it always repeats itself in various shades and flavors of Stalinism and is repeating itself today, just not in Europe. People just have a hard time listening to history. But if you do it closely enough, it will tell you everything that’s going to happen in the future.
And the cacophony of media voices flooding the information vacuum has made it impossible to discern whether we are actually repeating something, and if so, what.
There is nothing that tells me for sure that we’re governing ourselves into a totalitarian-fascist state, but there’s nothing that concretely tells me that we’re not, so I hang in some kind of no man’s land with baited breath, waiting for It, whatever It is, to start. I am on high alert, strung tight with worry for America’s political system and civic society, for immigrants, for women, for my family, and for Kanye West’s sanity.
Like most people who were concerned by the results of the election, I took direct action immediately. I logged into Twitter and read hundreds of tweetstorms where people said that This Was Not Normal.
Once we decided that This Was Not Normal by retweeting each other in an echo chamber, we also decided that we should all be taking action against, by also tweeting that This Was Not Normal.
One of the recommendations from many people on social media, who do nothing but sit on social media all day, have been to get off social media and do something in the real world, because social media filters is how we got into this problem in the first place.
So, on a Thursday night a couple weeks ago, Mr. B and I stuffed the toddler into the car (we are assuming we’re still allowed to follow our Russian-Jewish cultural traditions, which include bundling toddlers in one layer for each ten degrees below 50 F) and attended a local town hall at our Congressional representative’s district office.
If you have ever tried to get a toddler hungry close to bedtime to do anything, particularly when you yourself have just dragged your ass home from work and barely have the will to live for anything other than Frasier reruns on Netflix, you will understand me when I say it was a significant sacrifice of our time and energy to go to this open house and Do Democracy.
At first, I was very excited. The parking lot was full,the tiny three-room office was jam-packed with constituents for the Congressman’s open house, the cookies and soda were flowing, and the brochures were out. Before we went, Mr. B fully researched all of the Congressman’s positions and was poised to ask him some poignant questions about our brave new world, and how we could deal with it. I was on toddler wrangling duty and came armed with YouTube clips, snacks, and every ounce of my energy to keep her busy and out of the way of other people.
The open house started at 5:00. We arrived at 5:30. By 6:00, the Congressman still hadn’t made an appearance. People were talking to each other. I smiled with solidarity at a mother who was so concerned about the election that she had come in the freezing winter night with a five-month-old in a sling and was shushing him. She looked around the room, tired, wary. Everyone was talking quietly. Others talked quietly about immigration law, about taxes, about the local weather.
By 6:10, he still hadn’t come, and an aide took to the front of the room. Everyone stopped talking and leaned forward respectfully. I plied the toddler with an exotic, usually-forbidden cookie to keep her quiet.
“Uh folks,” he said with all the charisma and energy of a wet mop. “The Congressman regrets he won’t be able to make it tonight. He’s coming up from Washington, D.C. He’s stuck in traffic. You know how the drive up the I-95 corridor is.” A wan chuckle went up around the room. “He’s with you in spirit,” the wet mop said. “We’d love to answer your questions about how we can help you navigate Federal services, anything. We’re always here. Please take a brochure.”
The room deflated. Wasn’t this open house a direct reaction to the election? A way to explain to citizens how they could come together to vocally fight for rights or make their voices heard in the federal government? I looked at Mr. B. He shook his head in disappointment. Go up to him and ask your questions, I mouthed. He came up. There was already a small crowd around the man.
The toddler ran away, and I ran to placate her, keeping an eye out for Mr. B as he talked. The man answered several of his questions, but I could tell by his posture that they were typical canned answers. The toddler, exhausted from all of the people, the energy, and the cookies, started crying on the floor near a stack of healthcare brochures and bumper stickers.
I took her outside and waited for Mr. B. The night was inky dark and the wind was biting. The toddler ran through the parking lot, laughing and shrieking, her tiny pink hat bobbing through the sea of cars as I chased her. “What did he say? How are we going to fight this thing,” I asked, taking the toddler’s and guiding her screaming, exhausted two-year-old frame to the car.
“He didn’t say anything of substance,” Mr. B said. “Basically boilerplate messages. Nothing specific.”
“And the Congressman couldn’t even be bothered to show up,” I said. We wrangled the toddler back into her car seat, where she unhappily informed us that she hated the world, the universe, and most of all, us for squeezing her into her car seat, by screaming again.
I felt a hundred years older.
“Think about how much energy and fear there is in this country,” I said. “And no one even wants to channel it properly or organize it.” I was - and am - worried. I’m worried that instead of a country that does things together, we’ve moved into separate corners, like middle schools after a dance. On one side are the people who are terrified. And on the other are the people who are angry. And neither side understands each other, and both sides have energy to burn after the election.
I’m worried that This won’t end well. The center cannot hold. This energy needs to be channeled positively, or else. We are a country completely split apart into extremes that possibly nothing can organically resolve.
Where are the leaders?
But my question went unanswered, because, for the past several weeks, the leaders have been nowhere. They were not in the government, they were not in the tech industry going to meet with the president-elect and offering him any and all services that he might need to build surveillance tools and national registries, and they were not in civic organizations, and they were not where I needed them most, which was reassuring me that this was still my America and our America all together, that it maybe was not as bad as I was imagining, and that we would work on fixing this thing.
And it was a lot to ask of a local politician, to put all my hopes and fears on them. But at that moment, when the aide said the Congressman was in traffic, I realized, even as cynical as I am, as much as I think the world is out to hurt, not help, as much as I am always paranoid and guarded, a tiny bit of me thought that coming to this event would help quell the uneasy feeling that was always at the back of my mind, and that someone would tell me, “It’s going to be ok, because here’s what we’re going to do.”
Because that’s how America has always responded in the past. America has always sent help, America has always given back. America has always come together. America has given much to my family, to the families of Sergey Brin,Satya Nadella, Regina Spektor, Einstein, Tesla, and numerous others who have made the country, and and the world what it is today.
But, America can’t be good all the time, and it definitely hasn’t been. History is littered with incidents too numerous to count where America was an embarrassment to itself, and when the leaders didn’t step in, but the little people did, and righted the ship.
And that’s when, in a scary moment, I realized that America, infallible America, the America I’ve known all my life, could really, truly, honestly break. It was a moment not unlike the moment when you are old enough to realize that your parents will someday die.
And I also realized that, if democracy and leadership is away from the keyboard, out for a lunch break, be back in fifteen minutes or maybe never, then I have to step up. I have to answer with my money and time, because I am fortunate enough to be able to give a little bit of both to call democracy in from its smoking break.
And that’s where I think we are today. I don’t have a feel-good way to wrap up this post, because like most people, I am uncertain about what comes next.
I think hoping that leaders will do anything is a waste of time, and sitting on Facebook debating things is a waste of time, and making snarky comments on Twitter is a waste of time. I think we are at a point that doesn’t have easy solutions, because it’s not as easy as giving $50 to the charity of our choice or making a single phone call to a congressman and calling it a day.
This thing that we’re in right now, whatever it is, will take sustained energy over the next four years and beyond, the kind of energy that is not evident from clickbait headlines, the kind that our ADD society is not good at. It will take a really painful, long slog. To be honest, it makes me tired just thinking about it.
But, if we, as an American people, still have any chance to influence absolutely anything, it involves getting lots and lots of people together and spending lots and lots of money. And lots and lots of painstaking time.
The reason no one did this before is because it is HARD. It is hard to go after work to a congressional open house where no one knows what’s going on. It’s HARD to figure out what organizations to donate money to and which will make the most impact. It is HARD to talk to people who disagree with you to try and reach a consensus. And, it is even harder to do all of this in an environment of fear and uncertainty not only for yourself, but for your family, your children, your country.
Making snaps is easy. Being on Twitter is easy. Facebook groups are easy. In short, everything we’ve been doing before the election is easy. But democracy is hard. And I wish I had some good answers. But I’m just the random blogger with the cynical, dark jokes.
And unfortunately, I think we may be about to see just how hard and dark it can get before the dawn comes again.