Sometimes the only thing more discouraging than our newsfeeds is the countless opinion essays enumerating the ways in which we are doomed.
“First, they came for the Latinos, Muslims, women, gays, poor people, intellectuals, and scientists. And then it was Wednesday.” —Sign at a rally in Washington Square Park in New York City, January 25, 2017
The sign, one among dozens of cleverly worded anti-Trump poster boards, was not funny, as many others were, like the one with a naked Trump gazing down at his genitals, the words “NATIONAL INSECURITY” emblazoned above his head. It was, instead, chilling because it alluded to just some of what had happened in the five days since Trump was inaugurated as president: the removal of civil rights, LGBTQ, and climate change pages from the White House website mere hours after Trump’s swearing in. An executive order authorizing the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern [U.S.-Mexico] border.” A threat—to be actualized two days later—of a Muslim travel ban. The reinstatement of the so-called “global gag rule,” affecting the health of millions of women. The rumored preparation of an anti-LGBTQ policy, which would be leaked to media on February 1. And then, of course, the flurry of White House orders instructing key federal agencies, including the EPA, USDA, and National Park Service, to comply with a “media blackout.”
But if the pace and impact of the swiftly ntroduced changes were dizzying—and they were—so too was the stream of “think pieces” that followed. With each new issuance from the White House, media and political pundits, activists, and writers attempted to unpack what each new policy meant, both on its face and below the surface. Those who didn’t necessarily have a toehold in mainstream media or who wanted to disseminate their ideas quickly, took to platforms like Medium to post their analyses, as well as their critiques and recommendations about how concerned citizens should respond.
These think pieces, circulating via Twitter and, especially, Facebook, began to feel “right.” Readers looked to them as beacons in a gathering darkness many of us hadn’t really prepared ourselves to navigate. Posted by half a dozen smart friends, often with their own commentary layered on top as a prefatory endorsement of sorts, the essays and articles took on particular weight and meaning because of their length and the obvious thought and research that had been invested in their writing. Many were accompanied by references and sources, which gave them the additional burnish of containing Something Important.
And they did.
Yonatan Zunger’s “Trial Balloon for a Coup?,” which as of this writing has been recommended or shared more than 12,200 times, is the kind of swift and astute explainer needed in a news cycle that’s shrunk from 24 hours to about 24 minutes in fewer than 24 days. And Jake Fuentes’s heavily circulated “The Immigration Ban Is a Headfake, and We’re Falling for It” has merits too, among them its persuasive, compelling, and easy-to-read seven-point “power consolidation narrative.”
At the same time, the think pieces published apace with Trump’s policies tend to build up to and play upon the increasingly common—and exhausting—“distraction” narrative. Put simply, the distraction narrative says this: While you’re focused on A, Z is happening, and Z is much worse than A. And while you’re taking Action 1, you should really be taking Action 10 because Action 1 isn’t really useful at all; it’s just the proverbial Band-Aid being applied to a gunshot wound. Here’s what the distraction narrative sounds like in a think piece:
“The ‘resistance’ is playing right into Trump’s playbook … Stop believing that protests alone do much good … Not only are they relatively ineffective at changing policy, they’re also falsely cathartic.”
This argument, advanced by Fuentes in his “headfake” piece, ultimately leads to a conclusion with which I agree—“Do protest, but be very wary of going home feeling like you’ve done your job. You haven’t”— but along the way it serves to undermine an individual’s confidence that their actions really mean anything at all. This is especially true for people who are new to activism. I know, because a number of friends have contacted me privately to ask, citing this and similar pieces: “So should I not be protesting then? Should I not be writing or calling my representatives and senators? What should I be doing? I’m so confused.”
The answer is one that contests the distraction narrative because it’s more complex and it’s not binary: It allows multiple things to be true at the same time. And it’s an answer, too, that demands our attention not be trained like a spotlight on a single issue. Because if there’s one thing the Trump administration has proven in its nearly three-week infancy, it’s this: Effective action can be taken on multiple fronts simultaneously.
I was meditating on these think pieces and why I was so bothered by them when I took a break last week to go see “Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change,” an exhibit that opened at International Center of Photography Museum seven days after the inauguration. The show, immediate and urgent, explores “critical issues” organized into six thematic sections: climate change, refugee crises, gender identity, Black Lives Matter (or, put more precisely, violence against Black people, often state-sponsored), terrorist propaganda, and the “right-wing fringe and the 2016 election.” “Perpetual Revolution” underscores how crucial it is for us to pay attention to—and act in response to—multiple issues simultaneously, and in no piece was this illustrated and explained more forcefully and simply for me than in Rachel Schragis’s 12-foot long collage, “Confronting the Climate: A Flowchart of the People’s Climate March.”
At the top of the multimedia collage are eight sets of Post-it Notes, each a different color, and each responding to an essential question. One is: “How Do We Organize So We Actually Win?” The Post-its both do and do not answer the question, posing ideas that seem opposing:
“Action is the only recognizable feature of hope.
Action is essentially symbolic catharsis.
Technological innovations are harnessing collective power like never before.
Technology makes us complacent zombies.
Seasoned organizers have much to teach young ones.
New leaders have much to teach their elders.
We need swift decisions.
We need broad participation.
We’ve got to keep trying everything.
Some tactics negate others.
Many past wins inform us what will work.
None of us have [sic] truly won yet.”
Schragis isn’t trying to be cryptic or coy with these responses, a fact underscored by the simplest of images paired with each set of “answers”: a Venn diagram, indicating the overlap between opposing ideas, indicating the shared space where the barrier between disparate-sounding advice and action gives way completely.
Last week, a meme began circulating … on Facebook, of course. The hand-lettered post was titled “Things You Can Do at the Same Time!”. Item 1? “Be Excited about Beyoncé AND Be Horrified by Current Events.” The idea that one could think, do, and feel two different things simultaneously seemed to tap into a subconscious need of many internet users to articulate this feeling, with many posting their own “You can do this AND do that” statements, a kind of sense-making MadLib whose authors refused to be shamed for having multiple concerns and responses to them. I didn’t share the meme, but I felt its message, having just received a Facebook finger-wag from a friend of a friend who scolded me for apparently being more concerned about whether Trump had really issued an edict that women in the administration must “dress like women” than, say, about the confirmations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. I let her know, and swiftly, that I was concerned about—and had acted on—them all.
Protests are working, as are phone calls, letters, and emails to representatives. Our senators and representatives have told us as much. Every action of visible resistance, especially when constituted by a critical mass, is a message to the administration that we will fight against policies and programs that undermine human rights and constitutional guarantees. We already know that we won’t be successful in all of our efforts—the confirmation of Betsy DeVos on Tuesday was evidence of that—but it’s crucial that we re-center ourselves and our communities of resistance after disappointments and defeats. Otherwise, we’re sending the signal to a handful of privileged gaslighting bullies that we the people—millions of us—are willing to let them steamroll us and our rights. And sure, Trump’s Action A may well be obscuring an Action Z, but when Z comes to light, we’ll be ready. We know we can handle more than one idea, more than one action at a time. We’re complex. We’re capable. And we’ve got this.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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