As I look at the electronic feeds and printed stories, it is almost overwhelming. There is so much news coming out of every country that is violent, filled with hate, intolerance and xenophobia.
And yet, down through history, there have been people who have gone against the tide and reached out with compassion and kindness. People who have changed the lives of others, through their goodness and light. They didn’t do this for personal gain. They just reached out to the unwanted, the marginalized, the “others” that their neighbors feared. Their courage and caring led the way for them, as it should for us.
The sun sets behind the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.
America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.
Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on Nov. 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently. We are likely to be a pariah country. And we are lost for it. As I surveyed the ruin of that country this gray Wednesday morning, I found weary consolation in W.H. Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939, which concludes:
“Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”
I hunt for that affirming flame.
This generally has been called the “hate election” because everyone professed to hate both candidates. It turned out to be the hate election because, and let’s not mince words, of the hatefulness of the electorate. In the years to come, we will brace for the violence, the anger, the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, the nativism, the white sense of grievance that will undoubtedly be unleashed now that we have destroyed the values that have bound us.
We all knew these hatreds lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility. That civility finally is gone. In its absence, we may realize just how imperative that politesse was. It is the way we managed to coexist.
If there is a single sentence that characterizes the election, it is this: “He says the things I’m thinking.” That may be what is so terrifying. Who knew that so many tens of millions of white Americans were thinking unconscionable things about their fellow Americans? Who knew that tens of millions of white men felt so emasculated by women and challenged by minorities? Who knew that after years of seeming progress on race and gender, tens of millions of white Americans lived in seething resentment, waiting for a demagogue to arrive who would legitimize their worst selves and channel them into political power? Perhaps we had been living in a fool’s paradise. Now we aren’t.
This country has survived a civil war, two world wars and a Great Depression. There are many who say we will survive this, too. Maybe we will, but we won’t survive unscathed. We know too much about each other to heal. No more can we pretend that we are exceptional or good or progressive or united. We are none of those things. Nor can we pretend that democracy works and that elections have more-or-less happy endings. Democracy only functions when its participants abide by certain conventions, certain codes of conduct and a respect for the process.
The virus that kills democracy is extremism because extremism disables those codes. Republicans have disrespected the process for decades. They have regarded any Democratic president as illegitimate. They have proudly boasted of preventing popularly elected Democrats from effecting policy and have asserted that only Republicans have the right to determine the nation’s course. They have worked tirelessly to make sure that the government cannot govern and to redefine the purpose of government as prevention rather than effectuation. In short, they haven’t believed in democracy for a long time, and the media never called them out on it.
Democracy can’t cope with extremism. Only violence and time can defeat it. The first is unacceptable, the second takes too long. Though Trump is an extremist, I have a feeling that he will be a very popular president and one likely to be re-elected by a substantial margin, no matter what he does or fails to do. That’s because ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, rhetoric has obviated action, speechifying has superseded governing.
Trump was absolutely correct when he bragged that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his supporters wouldn’t care. It was a dictator’s ugly vaunt, but one that recognized this election never was about policy or economics or the “right path/wrong path,” or even values. It was about venting. So long as Trump vented their grievances, his all-white supporters didn’t care about anything else. He is smart enough to know that won’t change in the presidency. In fact, it is only likely to intensify. White America, Trump’s America, just wants to hear its anger bellowed. This is one time when the Bully Pulpit will be literal.
The media can’t be let off the hook for enabling an authoritarian to get to the White House. Long before he considered a presidential run, he was a media creation — a regular in the gossip pages, a photo on magazine covers, the bankrupt (morally and otherwise) mogul who hired and fired on The Apprentice. When he ran, the media treated him not as a candidate, but as a celebrity, and so treated him differently from ordinary pols. The media gave him free publicity, trumpeted his shenanigans, blasted out his tweets, allowed him to phone in his interviews, fell into his traps and generally kowtowed until they suddenly discovered that this joke could actually become president.
Just as Trump has shredded our values, our nation and our democracy, he has shredded the media. In this, as in his politics, he is only the latest avatar of a process that began long before his candidacy. Just as the sainted Ronald Reagan created an unbridgeable chasm between rich and poor that the Republicans would later exploit against Democrats, conservatives delegitimized mainstream journalism so they could fill the vacuum.
Retiring conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes complained that after years of bashing from the right wing, the mainstream media no longer could perform their function as reporters, observers, fact dispensers, and even truth tellers, and he said we needed them. Like Goebbels before them, conservatives understood they had to create their own facts, their own truths, their own reality. They have done so, and in so doing effectively destroyed the very idea of objectivity. Trump can lie constantly only because white America has accepted an Orwellian sense of truth — the truth pulled inside out.
With Trump’s election, I think that the ideal of an objective, truthful journalism is dead, never to be revived. Like Nixon and Sarah Palin before him, Trump ran against the media, boomeranging off the public’s contempt for the press. He ran against what he regarded as media elitism and bias, and he ran on the idea that the press disdained working-class white America. Among the many now-widening divides in the country, this is a big one, the divide between the media and working-class whites, because it creates a Wild West of information — a media ecology in which nothing can be believed except what you already believe.
With the mainstream media so delegitimized — a delegitimization for which they bear a good deal of blame, not having had the courage to take on lies and expose false equivalencies — they have very little role to play going forward in our politics. I suspect most of them will surrender to Trumpism — if they were able to normalize Trump as a candidate, they will no doubt normalize him as president. Cable news may even welcome him as a continuous entertainment and ratings booster. And in any case, like Reagan, he is bulletproof. The media cannot touch him, even if they wanted to. Presumably, there will be some courageous guerillas in the mainstream press, a kind of Resistance, who will try to fact-check him. But there will be few of them, and they will be whistling in the wind. Trump, like all dictators, is his own truth.
What’s more, Trump already has promised to take his war on the press into courtrooms and the halls of Congress. He wants to loosen libel protections, and he has threatened Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos of Amazon with an antitrust suit. Individual journalists have reason to fear him as well. He has already singled out NBC’s Katy Tur, perhaps the best of the television reporters, so that she needed the Secret Service to escort her from one of his rallies. Jewish journalists who have criticized Trump have been subjected to vicious anti-Semitism and intimidation from the white nationalist “alt-right.” For the press, this is likely to be the new normal in an America in which white supremacists, neo-Nazi militias, racists, sexists, homophobes and anti-Semites have been legitimized by a new president who “says what I’m thinking.” It will be open season.
This converts the media from reporters to targets, and they have little recourse. Still, if anyone points the way forward, it may be New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks is no paragon. He always had seemed to willfully neglect modern Republicanism’s incipient fascism (now no longer incipient), and he was an apologist for conservative self-enrichment and bigotry. But this campaign season, Brooks pretty much dispensed with politics. He seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that no good could possibly come of any of this and retreated into spirituality. What Brooks promoted were values of mutual respect, a bolder sense of civic engagement, an emphasis on community and neighborhood, and overall a belief in trickle-up decency rather than trickle-down economics. He is not hopeful, but he hasn’t lost all hope.
For those of us now languishing in despair, this may be a prescription for rejuvenation. We have lost the country, but by refocusing, we may have gained our own little patch of the world and, more granularly, our own family. For journalists, Brooks may show how political reporting, which, as I said, is likely to be irrelevant in the Trump age, might yield to a broader moral context in which one considers the effect that policy, strategy and governance have not only on our physical and economic well-being but also on our spiritual well-being. In a society that is likely to be fractious and odious, we need a national conversation on values. The media could help start it.
But the disempowered media may have one more role to fill: They must bear witness. Many years from now, future generations will need to know what happened to us and how it happened. They will need to know how disgruntled white Americans, full of self-righteous indignation, found a way to take back a country they felt they were entitled to and which they believed had been lost. They will need to know about the ugliness and evil that destroyed us as a nation after great men like Lincoln and Roosevelt guided us through previous crises and kept our values intact. They will need to know, and they will need a vigorous, engaged, moral media to tell them. They will also need us.
We are not living for ourselves anymore in this country. Now we are living for history.
Me, in Washington D. C. for art exhibit circa 1980’s.
I often went to Washington for art and protests.
I believe that Progressives and Liberals all had independent wakes for our country beginning the morning after the election. I remember my mind all a-swirl with thoughts about what had just happened to the country I loved so much. I flashed back to 1976 and my dad grilling in the backyard with his red, white and blue apron on, that said 1776-1976. Hot dogs and hamburgers were coming off of the grill. America was not a perfect country then but we let our voices, me and the rest of the young people, be heard and the government was beginning to listen about Vietnam and Civil Rights for black people. We were doing new things like reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It changed my life as it did the lives of millions of other women, young and old.
I helped to start a Domestic Violence shelter in Pennsylvania. It was a journey in faith, but it is still there and helping women and children. There are still women who are in violent relationships today; but more about that another day.
I became a feminist and devoted myself to helping women and children to lead better lives. It was important to me that they would be able to access the justice they needed and would not suffer because someone looked at them and decided they should have acted different or been different.
Over the years, I watched as racism raised its ugly head when a Mom had kids who were several different shades. That didn’t bother me. Once I fought Children’s Services when they tried to take the aforementioned children away from the Mother. I won and this good mother whose only “crime” was to have been beaten by a man kept her kids. They were beautiful and smart and sweet.
When I counseled for Rape Crisis, I often had to protect the victims from the misogyny of the police and even their fathers and brothers. It was no easy task but we educated people and they learned that the important thing was that the woman who was their baby girl or sister or wife had been hurt in a brutal way and we could stop it happening to other women.
We were able to stop back alley abortions and I lobbied in Harrisburg to convince legislators of the importance of keeping teen girls and young women out of the hands of questionable doctors who would perform these abortions for a lot of money with no guarantees that the woman would survive. Women were still having to cross state lines at that point.
I remember a 10 year old girl who came to an abortion clinic with her Mom. Counseling was required before all abortions and this case was no exception. The girl was seen by a counselor first and then her Mother joined them. Her Father had molested her and gotten her pregnant with his child. He was in jail, which was where he belonged. This 10 year old had been through enough. It was cruel to ask her to now ask her to remain pregnant for the entire nine months and go through labor and delivery. She carried her Mickey Mouse doll into surgery and held a nurse’s hand. She came through very well and was up and around quickly. There are so many stories where abortion is a blessing and not a convenience.
I have friends everywhere. They don’t look like me. We don’t all have the same religious beliefs. We are from both genders. Some are musicians, some are retired business people, some are artists and activists like I am. We all look different although now that some of us are aging, we do have that similarity in our looks.
What I am trying to say is that the America I am grieving is lost. It is lost as if a conquering army came and destroyed it and all we can do is look around and shake our heads. Well, I have been shaking my head for over a month now and I have begun to strengthen my resolve. The election was a disaster. The History books will discuss how this all happened. Your great-grandchildren and mine will study it in school and will feel wise because they understand.
What Progressives and Liberals must do now, whether we understand or not, is to give ourselves a good shake. We need to tell ourselves that American life isn’t over. It is different now. It includes mega racism, misogyny, anti-Muslim feelings, anti-Semitism, a distaste for both the poor and for higher education, and blatant bigotry. We have to promise ourselves, our friends, the people we go to school with, the people in our churches and synagogues and mosques that we will stand with them. We will find a lot of hassle and bigotry at work, so prepare yourselves. The people who feel they were voiceless will now want to spew their hatred over everyone frequently and in the direction of the rest of us. Don’t take the bait. Try the rubber band on your wrist if necessary; snap it when you are angry or need to stop yourself from speaking. Live your lives in the caring, helpful ways you have always done. Read what will fill you up and prepare you for the future. Keep your spiritual life healthy and filled with positive energy. Remember we are all children of the Universe. We have a responsibility to be there for each other until the nightmare is over.
Our minds have a true nature and it is enlightenment and peacefulness. So what happens to us as life continues in its flow? The oceans are calm and clear until they are stirred up by a storm or several storms. So what stirs us up?
When we mentally grasp onto things, problems or trials and cling to our wants, desires and worries, we lose our enlightened freedom and healing power. When we do this, we gain stress and exhaustion, suffering and overexcitement. It is as if a storm were sweeping the surface of the ocean.
Buddhists call this grasping at self. And we do and the harder we grasp, the more stressed and traumatized we become. Our minds do have the power to be joyful and to blossom into peace and contentment. We, our minds, are what makes the difference. Our minds can heal us or can make us very ill emotionally and physically.
Rich and poor alike can suffer from stress caused by external worries. Even millionaires suffer from anger, despair, and depression. They really do not get to enjoy true rest and peace, but they worry about how to keep what they have. They can’t enjoy who and what they are but are living for what they desire. Making money does not enslave us, but giving our lives over to what we are attracted to does.
Poor people become trapped by the struggle of life. They struggle to pay bills, keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. These are all important things. Often they can’t even enjoy the little they have for fear of incurring more pain.
Mother Teresa told a story about a small boy who was brought to the missionary sisters in Calcutta. They gave him a piece of bread and he hungrily ate half. He refused to eat any more. The sisters asked him why he wouldn’t eat more and he said because he might not get any more. The sisters assured him he could have more and he quickly ate the other half. This orphan was clinging to that half piece of bread because he understood what starvation felt like and that half slice was all he thought he had between him and starving.
We accumulate items for our homes but take little care of our minds and bodies. A Tibetan monk told a story of a friend of his who was chopping wood and he lost control of one chop and it cut through his new leather shoe. His foot was uninjured and that was good. The monk looked at his friend and expressed his gratitude about his foot and then said that if his friend hadn’t had the shoes on, he would have cut his foot. The monk’s friend looked at the monk and declared that if he hadn’t had on his new shoes, he would have injured his foot but it would have healed. The shoe would not heal. In a poor country like Tibet, shoe leather is valued. It is a funny way of looking at things, but we often put material objects before our minds and bodies.
Relaxing our hold on self brings us peace of mind, and with peace of mind nothing can harm us. Even if we suffer, the right attitude will help us carry our emotions more lightly. Simply by opening our minds, we can be surprised by our own inner strength.
Neurologists are working hard to understand how the mind works and they are making real progress. Letting go of things and the people who are toxic in our lives does make a difference. The difference is being free to discover and enjoy the wonders in the world and in our lives.
Meditation does help us with the letting go and it helps us to hold on to love, peace, enlightenment and compassion. There is no one right way of meditation, but it is the act of opening oneself up to experience Divinity that enables us to let go of what is causing us suffering.
Along our journey in this life, we can serve others, create organizations which will help others, provide protection, give gifts, say prayers, and pay respect to others and to Mother Earth.
“When you speak, speak with ease, relevance, clarity, and pleasantness,
Without desire and hatred,
In gentle tones and at moderate length.
When you look, look with honest and loving eyes, thinking:
‘By depending on this kind person
I will become fully enlightened.’ ”
“God said to Moses, ‘You saw the moon rise from your chest.
I filled you with Divine light. I am God, Yet, when I got sick,
you never visited me!’
Moses said, ‘Transcendent one, I don’t know what you’re
talking about. Please set me straight.’
God repeated, ‘When I was sick, you never came.’
Moses said, ‘Perfect One, You have no imperfections! I don’t
understand. What are you talking about?’
God said, ‘One of my lovers was ill, and you ignored it.
I am him. His sickness is my sickness. Think it over.’ ”
—Rumi, from Rumi Wisdom
The suffering of humankind. The storm sweeping the ocean. Photograph and copyright by Barbara Mattio 2015
The peacefulness and beauty of the beach. Photograph and copyright by Barbara Mattio 2015