Make America Think Again

I haven’t posted on this blog in months. Now that Mom’s gone and Dad’s remarried, I get an occasional urge to write, but lack the urgency.

…until this week, when the triumph of Trump convulsed me from low-grade anxiety to a fever pitch of terror and sadness. On Tuesday, November 8, 2016, I went to bed at 9:50 pm, unable to watch what already appeared inevitable. I tossed and turned in bed, my feet cramping. I tried to reassure myself that more than 50% of Americans can’t be bad or wholly wrong. I tried to breathe and adopt a mindfulness mentality and open my heart to greater trust and understanding.

Spoiler alert: none of these strategies are particularly effective at 3 a.m.

As morning dawned, I shuddered from my routine listening to NPR and reading the paper. Instead I trolled Facebook, relying on friends to direct me to articles, editorials, and blogposts that could help me make sense of this senseless turn of events.

Soon I turned to poetry. The first lines that came to mind were from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939“:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Auden wrote the poem at the outbreak of World War II, while sitting in a New York city gay bar, feeling maudlin and melancholic. Soon after publishing the poem, he disavowed it, probably because he felt embarrassed by its unabashed sentimentality and certainty. “We must love one another or die” is such a satisfying line—which is probably why Auden rejected it. It’s too gratifying. The stanza winds its way along a twisted path of physical images (“the sensual man in the street,” “buildings grope the sky”) and ambiguous abstractions (“romantic lie in the brain,” “no such thing as the State”). What does that mean? How can there be “no such thing as the State” when Fascism is marching across Europe? Never mind, the stanza rollicks to a close with its unequivocal affirmation of love, dispelling ambiguity with an easy, satisfying solution.

Although the line offers a reassuring (if guilty) pleasure in a time of dramatic uncertainty, it’s not the one I was drawn to. The words that echoed in my head were: “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie.” I felt lost, afraid, and powerless, and these lines suggested a way forward, encouraging me to speak out and undo the folded lies of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry.

Auden probably would cringe at such an earnest embrace of his words. He was a poet of ambivalence, as driven by political conviction as he was by skepticism about the poet’s ability to effect change. “For poetry makes nothing happen,” he famously declared in his poem, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.”  People love to quote that line as an unequivocal disavowal of poetry, but they neglect what comes after:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Sure, “poetry makes nothing happen,” especially in the modern age. It doesn’t launch a thousand ships or incite countries to war. Yet “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” Poetry is an ongoing response to loneliness (“ranches of isolation”) and loss (“busy griefs”). It doesn’t make things happen, but helps us live through their happening. It’s “a mouth” that enables us, literally, to come to terms with the chaos of our lives and extract meaning from the wreckage.

By Saturday morning, my terror had abated to a stunned recognition that the world hadn’t, in fact, ended. Undocumented people hadn’t been rounded up, marriage equality and reproductive rights hadn’t been revoked, and international environmental protections hadn’t been retracted. But all this could happen, and probably will, when Trump takes office. And who knows what will happen in terms of international diplomacy? How long will it take Putin, Kim Jong-Un, or IS to provoke Trump into flexing his military muscles? Two of our sons are already registered for the draft and the other is only 3 years from having to do so.

I drove the boys to a soccer tournament. After the game, we went to iHop, along with seemingly half the population of Rock Hill. It was a diverse crowd of diners, all eating piles of pancakes in harmony, seemingly indifferent to the imminent apocalypse. I thought of another Auden poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening“:

‘O look, look in the mirror,
   O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
   Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
   With your crooked heart.'

In Auden’s homoerotic codes of desire, “crooked” signals homosexuality. What makes this poem resonate for me today is that it still has that valence, and also connotes “crooked Hillary.” The lines also remind me to try to love even those neighbors whose attitudes and beliefs I find truly crooked—the Trump supporters. And that’s a taller order.

Lest you think you’ve come to some reassuring and satisfying conclusion about loving thy neighbor, bear in mind that Auden gives those lines to the clocks that “whirr and chime.” Can we really trust mechanical instruments to teach us how to live humane lives? Auden maintains an ironic distance from any certainty that love trumps hate.

We should be wary, too. We should be skeptical of the calls to move beyond the divisiveness of the campaign, to join hands in unity and remember that “good people voted for Trump.” Undoubtedly, good people did vote for Trump, people who were not consciously motivated by racism or sexism, and who believed they had good reasons for voting for Trump. They must have believed that their reasons were more important than resisting racism, sexism, bigotry, bullying, greed, and ignorance. They didn’t support racism. But they also didn’t have to think about it. Maybe they were sick of thinking about it.

Here’s where I’m haunted by another poem, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Rankine began the poem as a critique of the Bush administration (2000 – 2008). In lyrical prose, she reflects on how it feels to live in a country whose optimism for the future is greater than its concern about racism in the present day:

Cornel West makes the point that hope is different from American optimism. After the initial presidential election results come in, I stop watching the news. I want to continue watching, charting, and discussing the counts, the recounts, the hand counts, but I can­not. I lose hope. However Bush came to have won, he would still be winning ten days later and we would still be in the throes of our American optimism. All the non-reporting is a distraction from Bush himself, the same Bush who can’t remember if two or three people were convicted for dragging a black man to his death in his home state of Texas.
You don’t remember because you don’t care. Some­times my mother’s voice swells and fills my forehead. Mostly I resist the flooding, but in Bush’s case I find myself talking to the television screen: You don’t know because you don’t care.
Then, like all things impassioned, this voice takes on a life of its own: You don’t know because you don’t bloody care. Do you? 
I forget things too. It makes me sad. Or it makes me the saddest. The sadness is not really about George W. or our American optimism; the sadness lives in the recog­nition that a life can not matter. Or, as there are billions of lives, my sadness is alive alongside the recognition that billions of lives never mattered…

When I think about all those good people who voted for Trump, a voice swells and fills my forehead: “You don’t know because you don’t care. Do you?” You don’t have to care about racial injustice because you are white. You don’t have to care about undocumented people because you are lucky enough to be a citizen. You don’t have to care about the prison industrial complex because you’re not likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested, or jailed. You don’t have to care about marriage equality because you don’t stand to lose the 15 federal benefits of legal marriage, including parental custody and next-of-kin status. You don’t have to care about environmental protections because you can afford to water your lawn and turn up your AC.

As a white, documented, cis-gendered, legally married American citizen, homeowner, and professor with tenure and health insurance, I don’t have to care either. As my Republican brother reminds me, I also don’t have to worry about unemployment, stagnant minimum wage earnings, or diminishing career prospects, which are the genuine concerns of the white working class voters who helped elect Trump. These people aren’t stupid, and they have real fears about the future and legitimate gripes about the way they’ve been ignored. But are their diminished economic prospects a result of undocumented workers streaming in from Mexico, or of a widening gap between the very wealthy and the rest of Americans? Will lower taxes, the repeal of Obamacare, and a Great Trump Wall really help them?

I don’t know the answers. “I forget things too.” But I cannot forget and will not forget my sadness that billions of lives don’t seem to matter. I will not join hands and cooperate or compromise with policies that do further damage to the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society.

All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie that the rhetoric and policies touted by Trump will “Make America Great Again.” Last night, a candidate for a new, joint tenure track position in Africana Studies and English offered an alternative slogan, which he learned from a student: “Make America Think Again.” Poetry may make nothing happen, but it does make us think. So maybe it can help us make America think again.

If you disagree with me, please comment. Think out loud.

P. S. If you want to read some more poems that speak to our current predicament, check out the ones Austin Kleon gathers in this week’s newsletter, especially Emily Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark,” Langston Hughes’ “Evil,” and Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones.” 



3 Responses to “Make America Think Again”

  1. wow this is is awesome and deep .

  2. Theresa Woody says:

    Thank you, Suzanne. May I quote you? I can’t stay away from the rest of my (Republican, Trump-supporting) family forever. I’ve been too depressed to face them, and afraid of what I might say.

  3. Peggy Campbell says:

    This made me cry. Of course, that’s more or less a permanent state for me now — even before Auuughth of November. Beautiful, heartfelt, well-crafted. And poetry is my savior too, has always been the life-raft that I cast myself upon when life becomes unbearable. Is it because it expresses that pain? Allows that expression? Perhaps, the unbearable beauty of the stripped bare contains a consolation we cannot find anywhere else.

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