On a "Stronger Together" T-Shirt, and Paying Attention: A Sort of New Year Post

I put on my “Stronger Together” t-shirt again today.

After the election, I had to put my HRC regalia way for a time. I couldn’t think about the what-might-have-beens combined with the awful reality of what is. Over the last few weeks, I have been cleaning house, figuratively and literally, as many of us do when an old year comes to an end. Turns out, I had a lot of tee-shirts to toss or donate. Which made me re-examine the ones I wanted to keep pretty closely, which ones I would give value, which messages I would project.

All of this took place against the backdrop of those end-of-year newspaper retrospectives. You know the ones I’m talking about. I couldn’t help but notice how many major newspaper outlets still treated the vents of the election in much the same way as celebrity retrospectives. Uncritical, unreflective, and repeating the same untruths (for the umpteenth time, no, the hacked DNC emails did not show that the DNC improperly favored Clinton while the primaries were competitive).

It felt like I was giving my ratty tee shirts a closer examination than these media narratives were getting. (Which is not to say there weren’t some great and thoughtful retrospectives. David Fahrenholdt, the Washington Post reporter who did invaluable work on Trump’s charitable frauds and helped break his "Access Hollywood" tape, offered a look back at his year of reporting that is thorough, reflective, informative, and sad.)

I also found some stories that helped me sort what lessons that we should be learning, even if they don’t appear in those big media retrospectives. They reminded me that there are indeed people who are paying attention. Echidne of the Snakes offered a powerful, poignant post, The Forgotten Topic of the 2016 elections, or, how Echidne Almost Got Gaslighted. Specifically, she addresses the gaslighting that pretends we don’t need serious analyses of gender dynamics and the election:

We hardly discuss one of the most interesting aspects of the 2016 US presidential elections: That the long picture gallery of all American presidents remained hundred-percent male. Neither do we discuss why so many of us, both women and men, failed to see anything wrong with that, even while some others celebrated the Trump victory by open pussy-grabbing or its verbal equivalents.

[H]aving a woman run the country doesn't, by itself, turn it into a paradise of equal rights. But reverse that sentence: Would a paradise of equal rights have all political power in men's hands? I doubt that, even if most men intended to be fair in their decisions.

And what would we deduce about some other country which had never had a woman president? We would certainly not see it as a wonderfully gender-egalitarian place, but would like to know why there's such a dearth of women in politics.

There’s more, much more, at the link. I encourage you to read it, for it has good observations for us to consider if we are to build on the progress we have made towards more gender- equitable representation of women in elected office.

And it’s a much-needed contrast to those on the American left who continue to argue that the “lesson” of this election is Something Something That Affects White Men ( And Also Clinton Is Terrible). Perhaps that sounds flip. But I was reminded of that analysis when it was quoted at me again today, approvingly, in the form of Glenn Greenwald’s November 9 piece, blaming election results on Democratic party “elites” for being out of touch, generously granting that racism and misogyny exist (but denying their roles in the election), and ending with breathtakingly deracinated concerns about authoritarian structures of power in the American police state. In short, still ignoring the lived realities of those who experience oppressions which Greenwald himself does not share.

And we’re supposed to be the out of touch ones? Please.

This really reinforces for me a vital lesson for American progressive leaders, especially those in safely blue areas: if you want to understand red state Trump voters, then listen to those of us who interact with them every day.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I talk with Trump voters far more often than Greenwald does. To state the obvious: he lives in Brazil. I live in a red state, am married to a native of a red state, and interact regularly with people who are Trump voters every single day.

We talk about gardens and guns, about schools and jobs, about hopes and fears, about religion, and yes, politics. Instead of reading pieces from coastal writers scolding coastal liberals for not going on anthropological expeditions to Trump Country, how about listening to those of us who live here every day? Because we are the ones putting our progressive t-shirts on and heading out to have those conversations.

The first of my Clinton shirts I donned again was also the first one I bought from the campaign store, way back during the primaries. It says “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” It spawned a conversation recently with a woman while I was Christmas shopping. We talked about human rights, what they are, how we define them, and what that means at home as well as abroad. We agreed it was a lot easier to see human rights abuses abroad than at home. Turns out she had never voted before this election, but has been thinking a lot about conflicting versions of human rights. She’s anti-abortion, but pro-gay rights. She thinks Trump won’t follow up on promises to take away rights from gay people. We ended with an agreement to defend same-sex marriage if that didn’t turn out as she hoped.

I wonder where her story is in Glenn Greenwald’s narrative? Young white evangelicals who have been sold on the singular importance of abortion as a political issue, but waver when it comes to their church’s teachings on same-sex marriage? Could they also be convinced on other issues? Can they be persuaded to actively support trans rights? Can they even be challenged on abortion by making moral arguments?

On the same day I was obliged to re-read Greenwald, I also saw an interview with the Reverend William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, leader of the Moral Mondays movement, and one of the key voices in the fight against the anti-trans “bathroom bill.” He gave a powerful case for the continued necessity of moral suasion as a force in American politics:

Well, actually when I look at this year, I've been deeply troubled by the moral inconsistency and the moral trouble that we have in this country. When you can literally run for office and announce that if you elect me, I will take health care for millions of people. When you can say if you elect me, I'm going to turn immigrants away from a country of immigrants. I want to be more focused on nuclear weapons and war than peace and negotiations. To me, that is consequential because it says that we need a moral revolution of values…

And what we have to do is understand that in every age we have to stand up. This is not the first time America has elected a president that has espoused racism. We talk about Steve Bannon being - and alt-right - being in the Oval - alt-wrong - being in the Oval Office today, where 100 years ago, "Birth Of A Nation" was played in the Oval Office by Woodrow Wilson. What did W.E.B. Du Bois do? What did black and white people do? Then they stood up and they pushed back. When Lyndon Baines Johnson was elected as a Democrat, he was a segregationist. He had no intention on doing the voting rights. What did the movement do? They stood up and they fought back, and they pushed and they changed a moral climate.

So somebody there, they said, well, we did a tweet or we did a rally, it didn't work. I'm in your studios and here we are, the first of the year, the Montgomery boycott would have been in its 31st day (laughter) - in its 31st day and would go on to last over 350 day - almost, 300, I think, and 85 days. What we have to do is recognize we're in a moment that requires sustained moral action, sustained moral challenge. If you register 30 percent of the unregistered African-Americans in the former confederate states from North Carolina to Texas and find a way to bring them together with progressive whites, Latinos, you change the map. If you change the map in the South, you change the country.

Now, I won’t pretend that Barber’s style and message will reverberate with all progressives, or everywhere in the United States, let alone the world. But that’s rather the point, isn’t it? Barber is out there, every day, on the ground in Trump Territory. He is living the experience of being a black man in the South. He is also talking with people who don't share his politics, probably every day. He doesn’t need an anthropological expedition. And neither do the rest of us out here on the ground.

I put on my “Veterans and Military Families for Hillary” shirt again a couple of weeks ago. I got some eye rolling and sneers. I also got some ribbing that turned into a real conversation with a youngish veteran, disillusioned with all politics. We talked about the history of the VA and its current abysmal state of services. We both agreed things could be better. I wish I could say I pushed him to action or changed his faith in the system, but I did assure him I was informed and paying attention to something he cared about, and that seemed to matter.

Today I read about President Obama’s final presidential New Year message. He closed with a promise:

I will be there with you every step of the way to ensure that this country forever strives to live up to the incredible promise of our founding—that all of us are created equal, and all of us deserve every chance to live out our dreams.

Easy to dismiss, I guess. What will it mean to have Barack Obama, private citizen, “with us” in the struggle against Trump’s determination to turn back the clock? Or Hillary Clinton, for that matter? Who urged Americans to have “hope and determination” in the coming year?

Well, it means that somebody is paying attention. To you, to me, to all the “us-es” (in the words of Harvey Milk) who are going to be out there marching, protesting, making phone calls, writing letters, and yes, keeping on talking to our neighbors and community members, persuading them to give a damn about living wages, safe workplaces, the rights of gay folk, trans folk, Americans who are black, are Asian, are Indigenous, are Hispanic, and so many more intersecting things.

Today, I put my “Stronger Together” t-shirt on again. Because we are, still, stronger when we work together. Because I see you. Because I am listening. Because I am paying attention to things that matter, not only to me, but to others in my community and my world.

Here’s to hope, to strength, and to paying attention in 2017.

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