With the greatest leader above them
people barely know one exists.
The second-best are praised and revered.
The next, merely respected.
Then the despised.
When trust is unattainable,
there is no sufficiency.
Trust the cautious sage
whose words are most carefully chosen.
With all we accomplish, we can say
only that we did what comes naturally.
“On the day after the election, I walked the same path that I walk every day to go to the library. But, something was different. I looked at the people on the street and thought that they hate me because I am from a Latin American country. I came to United States because I got a scholarship to study at Brown University, but I will go back to Brazil in a couple of months. Even knowing that I won’t be affected directly by Trump’s politics, I am worried about the rise of hate and anger. I took a bus to go to the market and an old lady was screaming at another guy: “This is America. Speak English. Don’t speak Spanish!” The man wasn’t afraid and replied that he, at least, could speak another language. It was an awkward situation because people here are very serious and focused on their own lives. I have never seen an attitude like this before, and I couldn’t imagine this would happen in a country proud to be a place of freedom. The problem is that it is happening everywhere, including my own country. I really do not know what we can do.”
Aline M, Brazil
Originally from Rio, Aline is here for a year as a PhD student in comparative literature with an interest in its visceral power. I hope she goes on to trigger a whole new academic movement that honors great work for what it feels like over what it says. I hope (and believe she will) inspire her students to read the likes of Neruda and Allende and weep for this bittersweet condition we all find ourselves in. I hope she lives to be a hundred, and will one day lean down over her knees toward a circle of rapt great-grandchildren gathered around her chair, and tell them: “Once upon a time I lived far away in a land of great enchantment. A land of miracles and heartbreak, full of heroes and monsters. I tell you I have never seen such a thing in all my days when this land of conquerors became so lost in a wave of its own fear the people couldn’t see who were the heroes and who were the monsters.”
Aline’s remarks about her feelings the morning after election day resonated deeply with me because I felt the same way. Like an unwanted traveler in a hostile country. It was far from the first time I’ve felt unwelcome in my native country, but it’s probably the most unwelcome I’ve ever felt. Watching the returns on the news that Tuesday night was like watching The World Trade Center come down all over again, except this time the wound was self-inflicted.
For the next two or three weeks, I spent night after night talking about the aftermath with the working taxpayers who attend my ESL and citizenship classes. Everyone expressed feelings like Aline’s. Like mine. People who often feel marginalized even under better circumstances. I listened to stories about children getting heckled in their schools by adrenaline-pumped wannbe bullies. One father told me his young sons woke up Wednesday morning believing they, too, were going to be deported to Central America despite being born on US soil.
The first few days, I managed to respond with patriotic platitudes. We still have a constitution. We still have The Bill of Rights. We still have a congress and checks and balances to protect us from narcissistic lunatics. I even tried explaining that The Electoral College was created to protect our elections from foreign interference. In the end, I was no more convinced than anyone else.
I kept hearing a refrain in the back of my mind – a line out of W. M. Thackeray: “My poor child, the best thing I can send you is a little misfortune.”
We endured months of cavalier lying, possibly the most obvious and profound collapse in journalistic credibility in my lifetime, an orgiastic celebration of violence, racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and pure mean-spiritedness not openly displayed in an American election since the fifties. Even the biggest, fattest, loudest wolf-crier himself, Donald Trump, spent most of his campaign believing it would all be over on election day. But in the end, a modest but clear minority of American voters said all of this was acceptable. They said it was acceptable to tolerate a presidential wannabe with no more tangible a platform than hate-laced, riot-inciting, bumper-sticker rhetoric, who conducted an entire campaign predicated on lies and fear-mongering.
Michael Moore suggested that those of us in the majority of the voting public have underestimated the frustration and anger of a huge portion of America’s population. But we really haven’t. For the past eight years, we’ve watched our own congress behave in an unconscionable manner toward President Obama, with careless disregard for the law or how their actions affect the people who employ them.
So no, we haven’t underestimated America’s capacity for arrogance, hatred or violence. We’ve been staring it in the face like an incurable skin disease since before Baby Trump soiled his first diaper. What we underestimated was America’s reckless irresponsibility. It’s like this: if you wanted to send a lying, billionaire nazi to The White House, you might have bothered choosing one with a big enough attention span to read Mein Kampf.
Trump’s election is nothing but a freak accident of circumstances. The perfect shitstorm. So if I were going to tell my students the truth about my response, I’d have to confess shock, fear, heartbreak and a profound hunger for human decency.
“It is here that we remember that even when hatred burns hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is at its most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward. We must resist the urge to demonize those who are different.” This was President Obama speaking at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese Prime Minister’s recent visit to commemorate the anniversary of yet another war no one needs to keep fighting.
Aline’s going to break my heart and go back to Brazil. She’s going to bring all that education and healing spirit back to her native country. They need everything she has to offer just as much as America does. But I’m going to hope what she really remembers years from now are the friends she made, the professors who stimulated her mind … the people who wanted her here … the people who were enriched by her being here.
So for the foreseeable future, you can find me here on the losing side, spending as much of my time with Aline and others like her as possible. People who remind me there’s still something beautiful about being here. Who help me remember the many things America is really made of – Edward Hopper, Elizabeth Bishop, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Astor Piazzolla (born in NYC), Anita O’Day, Miles Davis, Etheridge Knight, deep fried turkey, The First Amendment, Etta James, Cole Porter, John Berryman, Rosa Parks, Marvin Gaye, Kurt Vonnegut, George Carlin, The Paul Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings, Cesar Chavez …. These are my stars and stripes.
I’ll spend my nights among people who I can laugh with as we struggle to pronounce each others’ names – who remind me America is more than the sum total of its own atrocities, that it’s still about the kind of courage and creativity it takes to invent exciting new ways to make a life. But it’s no big thing. No statement of anything except this is my daily life. This is my community. These are my neighbors and friends. And I am with them, one way or another, making our way through a little misfortune.