by Jeff Oaks
How to resolve this past year? It has become a bitter, too-large pill stuck in the throats of many many people. There was the Trump upset, in which all the power of government has fallen into the hands of Republicans. There was the Brexit upset. There was the standoff between the Water Protectors and the Pipeline corporations with their rented “security” and police forces from all over the Midwest. There was the continuing deaths of black men by policemen. Power everywhere grew very touchy about any call to examine itself, its actions, the facts. It quickly felt victimized. Any call to self-examination became an existential threat. The television news media continued its new job to make us feel good, to help us understand events by simplifying them. Most of them are mere corporate pawns anyway.
There were the many, many deaths of important role models and personalities–Bowie, Prince, Cohen, John Glenn, Muhammad Ali, to name just a few. Touchstones, they were called. Out of their lives and bodies they made art, broke barriers and changed the world. They did things beyond the possible. They appeared among the stars. They sang out of darkness, with difficulty sometimes, to the difficult, against the difficult. Some had long lives of fame and glory. Some had shorter ones. They bore the limelight for better or worse, and gave us all something to see or hear and talk about. Sometimes they kept us going in difficult times.
So there’s grief at those changes, those losses. And lots of fear and uncertainty about the direction of world and national politics. I feel personally as if I’ve been standing in a line of mourners for the entire year, unable to sit down or laugh without wincing. The Obama years have made standing up for things like art and social justice and environmental protection easier; there was always, at least, the president to veto ridiculous ideas, which seemed to be all the Republican parts of Congress had. They weren’t even pretending anymore that those ideas were about cutting the budget.
I still can’t believe that when Mitch McConell said the Republicans in the Senate would shun President Obama’s moderate choice to replace Scalia for the Supreme Court, the American People did not all travel to D.C. in protest. But we didn’t. We let gerrymandering happen in a number of Republican states. We stood there in shock, emailed our petitions, and lost an election.
With the Trump administration, we got a cabinet of million-and billionaires who all seem to want to subvert or convert their respective departments away from protecting people and toward relieving corporations of responsibility.
Marches are planned. Protests are being mounted. Donations have been flowing to those institutions whose work is with groups likely to be vulnerable now–women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrants’ rights, protectors of water and air and common lands. There are signs of resistance everywhere, and every sign that no one in power needs to listen to that resistance.
The imagination is of course made up of crisis and drama and conflict. Many would like it to be made up of love, peace and joy, wth no rupturing of the status quo, of the way it used to be. Many would like it to disappear altogether, that its absence–its chatter of possibilities and revisions, its perverse reversals of roles, its negative capabilities–would be a relief. A world of black and whites promises to make acting simpler–you just say no, you just do it, you make America Great again. You only need to have one book around and someone else to interpret for you.
The imagination wants more books, more art, more music. It can get caught up in the imagining of nightmarish scenarios, which bring with them a spike in flight or fight chemicals our bodies can get addicted to. But to work in opposite ways–to introduce calm and withdraw ourselves from the future, to return to the present breath, the present half-cup of tea sitting on the table here in the cafe–feels like a form of collaboration with the enemy. How many people, finding themselves suddenly citizens in a frightening country, thought to themselves: if only I slow down and rationally wait for things to cool down, things will grow bearable again? We don’t know.
We don’t know so much. My personal hope is that certain senators who are Republican will resist the temper tantrums of the new president. My deep hope is that the president and the senate and the house will engage in such in-fighting that they’ll forget or be unable to hurt the most vulnerable citizens. So many of the worst characteristics of the Republican Party are now on view–Ryan’s uber-passionate no-nothings; McConnell’s boring agents of no-change; and Trump’s Robber-Baron Bacchae ready to behead anyone who interrupts their frenzies. It seems impossible to me they won’t come to blows quickly. (This is, I see now, the default hope of a child who grew up with battling parents.)
It would be good for me to actually read The Bacchae before I write things like that, for instance. Discovering that Euripides’ version of The Bacchae is a political play is exciting to me. I hope to find or be reunited with a whole new set of poems and plays and art in the new year, work that helps me to see how the current-fractured consciousness I’m lugging around might be made productive. Maybe it will be a year for theater.