“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” –Franklin Roosevelt, Speech before the Democratic Convention, 1936
In 1968, the world watched as the inspirational dreams of a generation seemed to be driven repeatedly to their knees. First Martin Luther King Jr. and then Robert Kennedy had their flames snuffed out in shockingly brief moments of violence. At the end of the year, out of the ashes of a dream, the American people decided they wanted Richard Nixon to lead them–law and order, so the thinking went, was what we needed in those dark days. A victory, in other words, of fear.
In 1968, the world mostly ignored a shipyard in Maine where a shipbuilder named Harvey Gamage was laying a new keel. He was working for a group of friends of the musician and activist Pete Seeger, who had come up with a plan to clean pollution out of the Hudson River by building a ship to campaign for its rights. That ship, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater where I worked so recently, was successful in drastically improving the condition of the Hudson estuary. A victory, in other words, of love.
I mention these events in conjunction not just because they took place in the same year, or even because the events of that year seem to be repeating themselves. I mention them to illustrate the mechanics of the only war that has ever been waged in human history: the war between fear and love. I do not think it is reductionist to view the human progress this way. Each of us bears both, and can feed both, but must choose which one we grant supremacy.
If you’re like me, you spent last night, and this morning, and probably some hours in between wondering if the American experiment has failed at last. The short answer is no. This nation survived multiple ground invasions, many economic depressions, a civil war, enough awful presidents to field a basketball team and enough mediocre ones to keep them going into baseball season. The real question is twofold: how will we survive? And who will suffer while we wait?
The answer to the first is simple. Cast off the idea of America for now and understand that this has always been a battle between love and fear. Understand that our generation has been called to carry the standard of love, and that the way in which we do it will determine the answer to the question of who suffers.
A nationwide demand for law and order. A man with a guitar sitting on a boat. How can they relate?
In the end, I truly believe that love always wins. But it doesn’t win battles. Love’s victories are not flashy: it is not a superhero punching a monster off a building, a wrestler landing a finishing move. The act of love is guerrilla warfare. When fear wins a spectacular triumph, as it did last night, love must begin working in quiet, relentless ways. It is easier to destroy things than to build them. That’s basic thermodynamics. This generation has witnessed destruction, and we’ve been called upon to build.
Our ability to love will determine, over the next four years, whether the groups most in danger from Trumpism are able to find a home in this country. The first thing I’ll do is what I always advise: do what you’re good at and do it well. Of course I’m not going to stop writing and trying to increase the net empathy of the world. But that’s no longer quite enough.
Around 3 AM this morning I thought about that young woman I described in a previous post, who I kept writing for in the hopes that she might find some strength from my stories. Well, that story is complicated now. Add another layer of adversity. Say that she is undocumented, wears a hijab, isn’t sure she likes boys. Books might save her when her classmates shout “faggot!” or “ISIS!” but they won’t do a thing if someone decides it’s OK to hurt her as she walks home at night, or deport her, because–you know, she’s not like us. She’s one of those people. We have to keep them in their place or they’ll be calling the shots next, and then where will we be?
No, books alone won’t save her. Fear is ever-vigilant, and love is prone to sloth. She needs a nation, a world, of clear-eyed people. Last night wrote into the stars our rendezvous with destiny. It is up to us to decide whether the Trump administration is the new normal or the last gasp of a pathetic, lost army of the footsoldiers of fear. I believe love has the numbers–Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, after all–but that only counts if our side shares a goal and a message and doesn’t give in to the lure of despair.
Now is not the time to look backward, to wonder what went wrong or whether Bernie Sanders could have won. The will of the people is too powerful a weapon to burn it off that way. Our job now is to be constantly on the lookout for concretely fascist policy decisions and ways we can counteract them, and constantly open to the people who need help. I don’t have much, but what I do have, I have to share with all potential victims of the policies of the next four years. I promise right now to volunteer in some way that counteracts each new awful decree. And to tell the people I love that I love them, early, and often, and not just in the way I would if we were on a crashing plane.
Because fear is what Donald Trump wants. As long as we stay afraid, he rules, even if our fears are legitimate. Our work is to love–to dance above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.
It’s not fair that we were tasked this way. Who in their right mind would choose to be one of the generations of whom much is asked? But perhaps being given so much is the true danger. Perhaps complacency is the greatest ally of fear, since it produces that nagging suspicion that all your gifts could be revoked at any time.
Now a great deal has been revoked from us. The fascists say that hard times create strong men, but they have no idea what strength really means, since they only know strength when it serves the side of fear. We will show them the strength of our love. It may not look like anything when we do; love will not win in a burst of light or to the sound of an angelic choir. But if we refuse to surrender, it may be enough.
“History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.”
–Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy