I cannot give myself over to a cycle of inadequacy and shame. So, what can I do?
If you receive news from as many sources as I do — New York Times, Washington Post, Facebook, Twitter, that gun control group I joined four years ago, the Islamic Cultural Center I once donated to, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU — then each day brings a fresh hell for immigrants, parents, people with disabilities, educators, conservationists, and anyone who hoped that Obama would someday be considered centrist in light of more progressive presidents. The avowal not to “normalize Trump” becomes harder to abide as the days of his administration pile up like a 12-car crash.
I’d encourage everyone to read Katy Waldman’s argument on how opposing normalization “plays into [Trump’s] grubby hands.” But beyond the possibility that the language of resistance against Trump may actually contribute to his “rebel brand,” as Waldman calls it, living in a permanent state of hyper-vigilance strips away one’s capacity to do truly normal things. I still have a toddler in need of food, water, and pretend baths for her stuffed dragons; lesson plans to write; papers to grade; bills to pay. Lately, I’m not doing any of those things to the best of my ability, or even two-thirds of the way there.
Because with each story about bans, pipelines, abortion rights, and healthcare comes another mandate to resist. Sharing headlines on social media is now considered lazy, uninspired activism (how quickly we’ve forgotten Kony…). What we need are phone calls to representatives, attendance at town halls, donations to ninety-two organizations working to combat Trumpism, weekends spent marching and rallying, and did I mention phone calls? According to a widely-shared Facebook post originally written by a “high-level staffer” for a U.S. Senator, we’re supposed to be making six of them a day, and leaving voicemails doesn’t count. The guilt trip is enough to make me get a stress-induced cold sore.
I’m leery of codifying a “right way” to resist when that codification too often ignores the very populations most at risk by Trump’s policies. At the same time, cynicism is a dangerous response to the urgent need for human rights advocacy. I want to live a life that opposes American fascism. I also want to be emotionally available to my child and my students. I want to laugh with my husband. I don’t have the means to uproot my family or wholly retreat from participating in my country’s institutions, as Anis Shivani says I should do in this fraught but compelling essay. To stay engaged where I am bound, I cannot give myself over to a cycle of inadequacy and shame. So, what can I do? Here’s what I’ve learned in the last four months:
Art is resistance.
Two days after the election, I was scheduled to give a reading at my university with two other writers. No one knew when we set the date what would happen, and I remember sitting in my office, going over the pages of my memoir I had selected to read and feeling, frankly, embarrassed. Never had my work seemed so non-essential. I felt very much like my dear friend and writer, Heather Kirn Lanier, who recently blogged about the difficulty of writing personal essays in this political moment: “I realize something: I don’t know how to write blog posts in post-election America. I’m perpetually in an open-mouthed state, with no words coming, with only that initial sound that means, Something should be said here. But I don’t know what that something is.”
Thankfully, the reading’s organizer, poet Greg Lawless, spoke first, and had the presence of mind to address the unspoken feeling in the room. “Fascists hate this,” he began. Everyone sat up a little straighter. Lawless positioned a night of language and narrative as oppositional to conformity and certainty, an intrinsic turning away from demagoguery by its insistence on multiplicity.
Poet Jaime Warburton agrees with Lawless. In January, she organized a Writers Resist event at my alma mater, Ithaca College, and penned this op-ed for the student newspaper. “Whether journalism, oral history, legal briefs, personal essays, scripts, novels, poems, or a letter to your grandfather, in writing we create the outlines of a new body, one that can hold a limitless number of consciousnesses,” Warburton writes. “We risk. We discover and build. We welcome others into this infinitely expandable incarnation.”
As the Trump administration lays bare its plans to privatize public broadcasting; eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities; strip federal funding for public schools to install vouchers that will leave rural students, students with disabilities, and poor students without viable education options; and threaten the liberal arts and humanities at universities, it has weaponized art in its efforts to undermine art-making. This leaves writers and artists poised to steal Trump’s rebel brand by doing the very things that sustain ourselves and each other.
Learning is resistance.
If you, like me, feel overwhelmed by the spinning compass of fear — in every direction, another unfolding disaster — then disorganized activism is probably the fastest route to burnout.
In the days after November 8th, I threw my time and money at everything “resistance” that crossed my path with no concentrated effort on any single issue or imperative. It took about two months of frenetic activity before I ended up sick with bronchitis, almost overdrawing my checking account in donations, and incapable of sleeping through the night. My mind and body began to resemble this blog post by Sonya Huber:
I am barely going to be able to meditate, my head is nothing but my Facebook timeline…I have nuggets of pure caffeine in the blood vessels leading to my brain, my to-do list has turned into an online argument with Bernie supporters, I have turned into an online petition to the electoral college, I am in the space of not-believing and magical thinking and what would it take to make you give up your attachment to your whiteness, or my attachment to mine?
I find this a freeing time to admit my own ignorance. There is so much I don’t know about the Dakota Access Pipeline, so much I don’t know about what makes a president’s business interests illegal, so much I don’t know about how Medicaid really works, so much I don’t know about my own contributions to systemic injustice. I can chant with the best of them, but going into quiet spaces of reading and listening feels vital in a climate characterized by shouting each other down.
Online activism is resistance.
You know how fundraisers say that no contribution is too small? I feel the same way about participation in government. Shaming one another over how we engage is only going to turn away would-be changemakers from progressive causes. Besides, there are some meaningful ways to use the Internet to augment news sharing on social media. For the past three months, my husband and I have been leading a Humanwire campaign to raise money for a Syrian family who escaped the civil war to Lebanon. This has allowed us to provide measurable help without having to spend money we don’t have ourselves. Organizations like Humanwire also facilitate Skype calls between families, which has given us an opportunity to involve our three-year-old daughter in the campaign — our first Skype call to Lebanon took place on her birthday this year.
Online activism can go far beyond signing petitions (but again, there’s nothing wrong with petitions). Sonya Huber contributed to the Women’s March on Washington last January by co-creating the Disability March, an online march of narratives by activists with disabilities who wished to show solidarity with the Women’s March, carve out a space for disability advocacy within the March’s priorities, and inspire similar online gatherings for people who need an alternative means of participation. The Disability March was covered by such news outlets as Bustle, Refinery 29, The Huffington Post, and The Washington Post.
These are only three ways I’ve found to sustain my involvement in what will no doubt be a years-long struggle against authoritarianism, isolationism, and attacks on independent thinking, free speech, and freedom of the press. I would love to hear other ways you’ve found to locate yourself in these efforts without sacrificing your health and well-being—please comment!
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.