Our Kavanaugh Trauma, Voting, and The Taming of the Radical Imagination

After three weeks in the woods as a “Writer in Residence” at Byrdcliffe Arts Colony (working on my novel “The Wife in Winter: Oaths of Fealty”, spending time with exceptionally talented artists and writers, and living on what may be the closest I’ll ever get to a Feminist Collective) I’ve returned to the suburbs and tracking the zeitgeist via Facebook. The first question I was asked by another woman writer: Had I had been following the Kavanaugh hearings and heard the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford? While my husband had listened to six hours of the hearings, I decided to stay focused on my writing. As a young woman, I had watched Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate and did not want to repeat the pain of that horrific experience. I also chose not to re-live, in any way, certain memories of what it meant to grow up female. Instead, I found myself preparing for what the logical outcome of this spectacle would be – that millions of women would be traumatized and, perhaps, moved through their fear and grief, to unprecedented levels of Feminist solidarity and sustained constructive political action.

Since arriving home, I have heard about:  1) candle-lighting vigils; 2) blackening out of profile pictures to show solidarity with victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence; 3) a questioning of the aforementioned cyber-erasing of female identity as an act of feminist advocacy; 4) a renewed effort to vote in elections as never before; 5) suggested curfews for males understood a potential rapists and considered representatives of a “dangerous class” thus displaying a profound absence of awareness regarding both African-American and Jewish history; 6) an elevator conversation between Arizona Senator Jeffrey Flake and female constituents and; 7) the arrest of nine protestors in West Virginia who sat in at Senator Joe Manchin’s office after a meeting with him. It’s the last two advocacy efforts that are of particular interest to me. They embody the acts of ordinary citizens (like Dr. Ford) to set aside their private lives, step into the public sphere, and hold elected officials directly accountable. We need more of this courageous “radical kindness.” We need more of this personalized form of “artful dissent” – historically grounded political actions that compel those who govern to acknowledge the fellow citizens they serve as full human beings. This country has a long history of not regarding many of us as full human beings…

Many Americans still have a sense that, somehow, “the system” will work, that a Mueller investigation will save us, that investigative journalism by The New York Times and The Washington Post will save us, that taking back the House and Senate will save us, that Rachel Maddow and MSNBC surely will provide a proper smoke signal when it’s really time to go into the streets, so that we can be rescued from the ascent of domestic fascism. As long as there is FOX News, as long as there are wealthy elites who concretely benefit from economic inequality, racism, and sexism, our deeply flawed and fledgling experiment with democracy (the genocide of indigenous people, slavery, restricting the franchise to men and treating women as chattel) will remain in grave danger. The current American president is not an aberration but the logical product of all that has come before. His neoliberal elite opponents know that he’s shaken up the status quo, spoiling the arrangements that have been working quite well for them. A divided deeply country means that more people will question why things are the way they are and consider real alternatives. In my view, the neoliberal segment of the ruling class has an incentive to contain this conflict, channeling it into electoral involvement while minimizing other forms of dissent. Folks can’t advocate for what they can’t imagine…

While I agree with the skeptical sentiment that underlies Jack Paar and George Carlin’s views about voting, I still participate in elections (especially as I reside in a “purple” Congressional district and the local State Senate seat, now back in Republican hands, was previously held by a notorious anti-choice Republican for almost forty years) and advocate that others to do so. The ruling elites need to be aware of domestic dissent and casting ballots prevents them from having complete carte blanche. But my focus and priority are the transformative changes in culture that eventually shape and decide elections and/or topple governments. E.E. Schattschneider wrote about how bringing new people into the political process can shift the distribution of partisan identification. A sustained increase in radical participation changes the national conversation and creates unanticipated possibilities. This participation needs to take MANY forms of non-violent resistance, grass roots efforts at moral persuasion persuasive in the spirit of Gandhi’s “great refusal” and “satyagraha.” There’s a question to consider: Given all the injustice and structural oppression, when does it make sense to shut down compliance with the status quo? Honestly, when isn’t it the time for more radical action? I remember a quote from Abbie Hoffman: “Politics isn’t whom you vote for, it’s how you live your life.” These days, it seems the radical imagination has been tamed. We have MSNBC, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers, SNL (how they must regret having Trump on as a guest host!) to provide forms of infotainment refuge, offering F.B.I. personnel and C.I.A. spooks as guests, letting us know that the ruling Establishment is not indifferent to our situation, enabling folks to return to work in a docile fashion each day while primed to tune in again after the local news…And so many of us cannot stop ourselves from tuning in again and again…This illusory citizenship/community bathed in the absence of secondary communication about what we are collectively experiencing means a cycle of shared cheap laughter, impotence, despair, fury…Round and round we go, talking to ourselves and those of us who share our ideological silo on Facebook. Under these circumscribed circumstances, we can forget to ask what strengthens us – individually and collectively. We need to recall and conjure the power of our radical imagination.

While upstate, I witnessed three examples of how the radical imagination has been tamed. The first involved Yom Kippur commentary by a local rabbi operating in a bipartisan spirit. His sermon praised Republican John McCain for belatedly confronting the danger of the American right-wing and strongly encouraged folks to vote. For some mysterious reason, it was more important to focus on voting and Senator McCain instead of explicitly incorporating the martyrdom of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville into the Yom Kippur liturgy. The second example involved a local performance at The Colony by singer-songwriter Jill Sobule (she just released a new album “Nostalgia Kills”), who offered to create an impromptu song. What should this song be about? The folks in the small but mighty audience wanted her to sing about…Voting. Not love, history, shared pain or loss, radical change, not revolutionary change, not forcing a resignation or even impeachment…Just to express distaste for the current White House occupant and advocate voting. The third event also unfolded at The Colony, during which the local audience was exhorted to vote by the phenomenally talented guitarist Robert Burke Warren. When I discussed some of these examples with the Hudson Valley poet Lisa St. John (who took me briefly out of the woods for a lovely brunch), she noted that David Crosby had asked why there had not been any great protest songs written recently. We agreed that since 9/11 and the decision to invade Iraq, there was a demoralization that continues to permeate the American center-left. Some of this has generated a misplaced reliance on establishment political candidates who cultivate the appearance of being progressive. Indeed, when it comes to resistance, the only real resistance that has materialized is to thinking about anything other than voting. I’m constantly asked about who I voted for in 2016 and who I’ll support in 2020 – as if picking an individual candidate to support is the most important and viable way of participating in politics. Some of this emphasis on electoral politics may be a form of learned helplessness as it is a constant battle to sustain radical consciousness across the decades.

Hillary Clinton’s second defeat means the liberal women who supported her candidacy may wish think more deeply about what they want from feminist leadership and public policy, as well as new forms their organic, innovative political engagement might take. While Bernie Sanders lost the 2016 primary, the Democratic Socialist policies he stands for (universal health care, $15 minimum wage, tuition-free public college) have entered mainstream political consciousness and can no longer be dismissed as “pie in the sky.” Radical cultural change generated by the civil rights, women’s, and gay liberation movements made both of these candidacies, and that of Barack Obama, possible. It will be the transformative changes in consciousness and culture launched by independent progressive movements that will generate the defeat of Trump and his ruling class Republican Party enablers. These re-energized and radicalized movements may also defeat segments of the Democratic Party which, as servants of the neoliberal portion of the ruling elite, have betrayed many of our values and ideals.

We need to harness the power of radical imagination to collectively recover from “Kavanaugh Trauma” (as best we can) while pushing back firmly against the powerful interests supporting the current president. It’s time to challenge and inspire friends, colleagues, and family members to sustain artful dissent. We need more stories, songs, essays, and poems. We need paintings, drawings, sculpture, and films which speak truth to power without becoming didactic. Every day provides an opportunity for changing public consciousness. When it comes to resistance – don’t just think about casting ballots. Remember Victor Laszlo telling the band at Rick’s Café in Casablanca to strike up the Marseillaise…

  • Jennifer Eremeeva

    An excellent and thoughtful piece, Mindy! I love the idea of Lazlo and the Marseilles. I sometimes play that clip late at night to remind me to stay vigilant! Aux Armes!

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