In December 2017, I, like many others, hoped that 2018 would provide some relief from the mad news cycle that accompanied Trump’s presidency. By then the resolve not to lapse into apathy, to stay “woke” had replaced the initial shock of the elections. For some this meant becoming involved in political activism; for others, like myself, a commitment to remain informed and to respond to the events in the most effective way possible, given the responsibilities of life and work.
In December 2017, I still felt equal to that commitment. Today, as another year of violence and political cynicism comes to a close, I can only hope that 2019 holds fewer traumatic and deeply disconcerting events of the kind that we’ve seen in 2018: mass shootings, the imprisonment of immigrant children, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Though I watched the news coverage of these events and read the commentaries, I admit that I often struggled to find a way to respond. This inability to respond left me feeling emotionally drained, demoralized, and at times cynical. I still feel the traumatic weight of these upheavals, and look to the upcoming year with trepidation.
As early as February we knew that 2018 would not turn out to be the more peaceful year that we hoped for. The shooting at Marjorie Stoneman High School in Florida, which killed 17 students, was the first in a series of such shootings, making this year the deadliest for gun violence at schools. The activism of the student survivors and the movement that it initiated were inspiring, but the predictable response from the Republicans only brought to light the inhumanity of the governing party. Emma Gonzalez and others, who saw their classmates murdered, made a heart-rending case for gun regulation reform, and yet the politicians would only make minor concessions.
During the summer a new image of violence toward children appeared on our screens: children of immigrants held in cages after being separated from their parents. The comparison to the concentration camps seemed appropriate, despite the obvious historical differences. I tried to write an opinion piece about it, but the conclusion seemed too terrible. If our government is really committing these crimes, then we are also complicit in it. After all, writing doesn’t do much. We are not rising up; we go about our privileged lives rather contentedly as these children are held in dangerous and inhumane conditions. Though the policy has been modified, another version of it has now claimed two casualties: the seven-year-old Jakelin Caal and a nine-year-old boy, both from Guatemala.
With the hearing for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a supreme court judge, we saw yet another facet of the Republican legislators’ willful determination to disregard obvious truths. Christine Blasie Ford’s detailed testimony along with others’ accounts left little doubt about Kavanaugh’s conduct and character. Following the dramatic hearings, the few hold-out senators twisted the English language into something from the pages of “1984” to justify their support for the nomination. In a rally, Trump parodied and denigrated Blasie Ford, showing that he and his cronies are still the high school bullies they were in the 1980s. In a freshman English class, I offered the Kavanaugh hearings as a topic for open discussion. The students debated gender and sexual politics for more than an hour, which seemed valuable, but I could offer few insights without making my politics explicit and alienating some of the students.
2018 did have some positive developments that inspire hope. In my home borough of Queens Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the congressional primaries against an entrenched incumbent. In the midterm elections the democrats won control of the house, allowing Democrats to keep some of the Republicans’ policies at bay. The lawmakers elected to the house and to other national and local offices include many progressives and representatives of minority groups. These victories show that despite the bleakness of the present moment, activism does lead to change. Even if Ocasio-Cortez and others are unable to bring about major change in the next four years, they will become role models for future generations of lawmakers and activists.
Trump’s egregious policies and derogatory remarks also brought awareness to a host of longstanding injustices. The deportation of immigrants, which proceeded apace in the Obama years, was usually covered as a relatively minor social issue. Today immigration policy is almost as central to the Left as it was for the Right. Trump has also brought sexual violence and gender inequality to the fore. Many pervasive forms of gender inequality that I’d only read about in academic journals became part of a public conversation. The #MeToo movement might not have happened without the outrage that Trump’s sexism had sparked.
Perhaps keeping these positive forward steps in mind during the next disheartening new cycle is the best we can do. Not all of us can be on the front lines; most of us are part of the rear guard: teaching, writing, and doing other necessary work. We don’t experience the camaraderie and thrill of battle, but we must remember that the work that we do matters. On most days our battle will not be against Right-wing policy, but against apathy and the temptation to declare defeat. At these moments, we need to remind ourselves that despite the totalitarian predilections of our current president, the United States is still a democracy and change is always possible.