I gave this short talk to a meeting of the activist group Communities Rising in Seattle on May 1, 2017.
At the end of my book Home Free: An American Road Trip, after narrating three and a half months spent driving 18,000 miles and meeting Americans of various shapes and sizes around the country during the fall election season of 2012, I reflect that “while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center would hold was an open question.” Well, four years later the center failed to hold, and now the question is: “Now what?”
The first thing I want to say is that the center failing to hold is not entirely a bad thing. Not that there isn’t damage or loss; there’s too much of both, including damage to our national self-regard and loss of cherished illusions. But we can’t undo the damage or recoup the losses. And if living life attentively, as I’ve tried to do, teaches anything, it teaches that there is life after loss. The Roman Empire devolved into an archipelago of disparate polities that have remained in flux ever since. The Moghul Empire in India continued to exist – officially – for 150 years after the death of the Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, but increasingly its parts were ruled de facto by regional governors with only ritual reference to the imperial court in Delhi, until India’s new rulers, the British, belatedly declared the Moghuls truly defunct in 1858. In both cases, ordinary people had to do whatever they could in the ambiguous aftermath. It’s not our task now to strive heroically to hold the center together, like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. Our task is to pick up some of the pieces and recombine them in creative, humane, and useful ways. As a Haitian proverb has it, the big guy does what he wants; the little guy does what he can.
One of the reasons it’s hard for us to know how to respond to our own flux and upheaval in these times is our vestigial fealty to a hoary – and fundamentally false – notion of a unitary United States of America. That unity is false because it’s a geographic and ideological unity imposed by relentless propaganda and from above by an imperial center. Well, the center has failed to hold. Now what? In his great, long essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel refers to Russians’ proclivity toward “a superpower patriotism which traditionally places the interests of empire higher than the interests of humanity.” We Americans have more in common with Russians than we like to believe. Part of our work at hand now is to acknowledge – first and foremost to ourselves – that the United States is in fact an empire, both globally and internally. Next we need to train ourselves away from imperial habits of mind, to remind ourselves and each other constantly that humanity is more deserving of our loyalty than empire.
Then we need to look around ourselves – and I mean that literally: we need to close our laptops, turn off our televisions, and look around our own region, city, and neighborhoods and ask how we can make ourselves useful, here and now. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care or want to know about things happening elsewhere. We should, we need to. I’ve made a career out of learning about things happening elsewhere. But we can’t afford to allow ourselves to become demoralized and paralyzed by the enormity of it all, in both senses of that word. And it might well be too late, or at least pointless, for us to hope somehow to replace the Trump regime with a different federal administration that we might consider more democratic or progressive or internationally presentable. Such a hope is little more than magical thinking, unless we’re also – and first – doing the many small, specific things that are within our power, regardless of who does what in Washington, D.C. We need to trust that change on the larger national and global scale might follow. Or it might not. If it doesn’t, we need to continue doing the small, specific things locally anyway, among the refugees, immigrants, and other vulnerable people who are our neighbors, and in dialogue and even collaboration with our fellow Washingtonians on the other side of Lake Washington and the other side of the Cascades, notwithstanding how any of us voted last November.
We also must work within ourselves, to understand and reform our own motivations and urges. Our very idealism – so inherent to what it means to most of us to be American – is part of the problem. I’m sorry to say it, but America is not, nor has it ever been, a shining city upon a hill. It’s a historically and geographically contingent political entity like any other, sullied by human nature and subject to all the same vagaries of power hunger and greed and ambition and cowardice, and to the same tendencies toward things like authoritarian rule and police impunity, as Pakistan or Thailand or Haiti or South Africa. I name those particular countries because they’re countries I know at firsthand. I know people in all those countries who are doing important work that’s valuable both locally and universally. Following their example, we need to make peace with the inevitability that any success our activism might find will be ambiguous and partial at best. We will never be able to fix America all at once or completely. America doesn’t actually exist, anyway – it’s an idealized abstraction that exists only because we agree to believe in it. But there’s no shortage of real and urgent work for each of us to do in the real world, here and now, in our own communities.
Before I finish I want to offer a few thoughts about our location in both time and space, and about the media.
Havel wrote his long essay “The Power of the Powerless” quickly, and he wrote it specifically to address a moment and an occasion in his own country and in Poland as of 1978. Four decades later, it rings powerfully true to us in Seattle today. Several thousand years ago, the author of Ecclesiastes observed that there’s nothing new under the sun. That’s still true. But that truth doesn’t have to be depressing. There’s a reason Havel’s translator, Paul Wilson, arranged the essays and speeches in his book Open Letters chronologically, from 1965 to 1990: read in order, they constitute a narrative, and one we can read for sustenance and encouragement. Not only must we do what Havel and other brave people in Eastern Europe did throughout the crushing of the Prague Spring by Warsaw Pact tanks and the dreary decade of the 1970s that followed, we also can do what they did. My friend the Seattle-based author Paul Loeb borrowed a line from Billie Holliday for the title of his durably and deeply encouraging anthology of activist writings, The Impossible Will Take a Little While. We need to be, like Havel, both persistent and patient. Very much like the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, the American system as we have known it is terminally rotten. Our task now is to remain alert and ready to serve humanity, in our own local and regional fields of effectiveness, at every moment before, during, and after the collapse of the American empire, whenever that might come. For all we know, it might already be underway.
We’ve all been serially appalled by every outrage that the new national regime has foisted on us since November. We’re right to be appalled and disgusted. But the very blatantness of the regime’s bullying and overreach – its hubris – is an advantage to us. An authoritarian regime can do a lot of damage by sheer brute force, but one thing it can’t do, unless we let it, is bully us into considering it legitimate. Another advantage we on the West Coast enjoy is that our state and local governments constitute a real political counterweight, amounting to what Sasha Abramsky described in The Nation as “the largest coordinated regional resistance movement to federal policy since the Civil War.” Our critical mass doesn’t mean we can simply go our own way – we won’t be founding the independent Republic of Cascadia any time soon – but it does mean that they can’t push us around as they obviously want to do.
The advantage we on the West Coast are very fortunate to have, unlike most other Americans, is that elected officials like Governor Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson here in Washington State, and above all the great Governor Jerry Brown of California, are providing principled, courageous, and genuinely responsive political leadership, and we need to appreciate and support them. The same goes for those who are doing the largely thankless and ineffectual but necessary work of representing us in D.C., including our own new Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, the fierce and fearless California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and the wonderful, tough new senator from California, Kamala Harris. And there are more where those came from: Keep an eye on the impressively assertive and progressive campaign for lieutenant governor of California already launched by a Pakistani-American physician, Asif Mahmood.
Finally, a word on the media. What we call “the media” is a big part of the problem. But “the media” is not separate from ourselves as media consumers. If you dislike the media, turn it off and do something useful instead. As several of my friends have pointed out to me, if what Trump himself craves above all else is attention, perhaps our most effective way to resist him is simply to ignore him. Beyond that, the very pervasiveness of “the media” in our lives is toxic, and getting more so all the time. In America, censorship is imposed not by state diktat or raiding of newspaper offices, but by sensory overload and perpetual distraction.
So I believe that much of our work at hand is not directly political, but cultural. We need to seize the initiative in reclaiming human culture from toxic commercialism and toxic ideology. My friend the very distinguished Seattle guitarist Dennis Rea and I have had many conversations, especially recently, about whether there’s any point to writing or to playing music, if only a small number of people ever read our books or come to our concerts or talks. It’s a long story, but the short answer is yes, there is a point. Writing a few weeks ago in the New York Times, Gal Beckerman recalled a fascinating project called A Chronicle of Current Events, that was maintained for years by Soviet dissidents passing it from hand to hand. He quotes one of its organizers, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who wrote:
For each of us who worked for the Chronicle, it meant to pledge oneself to be faithful to the truth, it meant to cleanse oneself of the filth of double-think, which has pervaded every phase of Soviet life. The effect of the Chronicle is irreversible. Each one of us went through this alone, but each of us knows others who went through this moral rebirth.
Crucial to such a moral rebirth is respectful and alert use of language, the original and fundamental technology of humanity. Beckerman observes that Soviet dissidents “created an expectation that a different kind of language was possible,” and that they “craved honesty and transparency in a country where even the suicide rate was considered a state secret.” These are irreducibly moral and cultural urges, not overtly political ones. But by cultivating their expression in ourselves and each other we do thereby practice a very important kind of politics, and even perhaps a more effective politics than writing to our congressional representatives or marching in the streets. Not that those things are not important, but this is too. Sometimes I think we spend too much time and energy on writing letters and marching in order to avoid other, harder work that we also should be doing.
So we come back to Havel, to the samizdat literature and journalism that he and many others circulated clandestinely around Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union throughout the grimmest years under the Stalinist regimes. I recall that a rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe, was a crucial catalyst of the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia. And in my bookcase at home is a personal souvenir, a book titled Jakarta Crackdown, a collection of reports, documents, and interviews hastily assembled in 1996 by young Indonesian journalists supported and encouraged by a brave editor named Goenawan Mohamed. Why was Jakarta Crackdown assembled hastily, and why was it published as a book? Because the Suharto dictatorship imposed pre-censorship on periodicals, but not on books. By the time the authorities got around to banning Jakarta Crackdown, thousands of copies were already in circulation around Indonesia and beyond.
In America today, we need to be similarly both nimble and assertive. The Internet is both a good thing and a bad thing. It allows us to communicate news and ideas instantly without geographical limitation, as I’m trying to do in my weekly email newsletter, “Reading in Action.” But printed writing is less vulnerable to surveillance, nor is it dependent on electronic devices and electricity, which is why I also publish physical books. It’s why I’m inviting each of you to take home a copy of my American road trip book, Home Free, as my gift and my contribution to our cause. That’s also why a few of us will be meeting this Thursday, at a home in Shoreline, to discuss the excellent book A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia by Seattle-based author Blaine Harden. I hope that will be the first of many such relevant and helpful book discussions.
Whatever the medium, once a story or idea or truth is in circulation among free people, no regime can forcibly rescind it. The emperor has no clothes. Thus it’s both our duty and our opportunity to act, speak, and otherwise practice culture as well as politics, boldly and without fear. Because there really is no good reason to be afraid.