In last Sunday’s NY Times Sabrina Tavernise wrote a piece on a subject that has bothered me since the election … no, actually it’s bothered me since 1970 when I saw Peter Boyle in the movie Joe. I saw that movie in Westport, Connecticut when I was home on Christmas break from graduate school. Home was Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1970 a struggling industrial city in Fairfield County, one of the richest suburbs in the country, with Westport and Greenwich as epicenters of privilege. In fact I had spent the year before graduate school teaching in Summerfield School, a public grammar school in Bridgeport in a building that was old when my mother attended, and in 1970 at the intersection of the poorest Black, poorest Puerto Rican, and poorest White neighborhoods in Bridgeport, with all the attendant social tensions of the late 60s.
And here I was, sitting in the center of Westport watching a movie supposedly about the battles I was living. In graduate school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I had become very involved in the anti-war movement and leftist politics. Home for the holidays I had resumed arguments with my father about the war. That’s what I thought the movie Joe was about. Fathers who didn’t realize “the times they are a changing.” Instead I became more and more uncomfortable as an audience, mostly my own age, began laughing and then became quite derisive about a caricature of a working class boob who leads an executive-class dupe, like their fathers, into a violent confrontation in which the two of them kill a group of hippies, including the executive’s daughter. The whole point of the movie seemed to be that the working-class, or what we now mistakenly call the “middle class,” were the enemies of peace and social progress. By the time I left the theater I was outraged at the pretentious self-righteousness of the Westport audience and at the divisive message of the movie. (By the way, Joe was Susan Sarandon’s screen debut. It’s a shame that her holier-than-thou politics haven’t changed in the past 47 years.)
In the emotional aftermath of the election of Putin’s Pawn, social media have been filled with posts mocking the stupidity of people who voted for Trump. The few times that I’ve tried to engage in discussion and urge these outraged liberals to stop the insults and ridicule and to consider that progress requires changing the minds of people with whom we disagree, I’ve been dismissed as trying to get them to waste their time on people who aren’t worth persuading.
I’ve had similar arguments with so-called progressives who post maps of the United States showing the middle and south of the country with labels like “Dumbfuckistan.” In the first place, their Yankee Chauvinism disparages the people who are fighting long and hard for racial and economic justice in these areas of the country. In sociology they are committing the ecological fallacy; in politics they are throwing their allies to the wolves. In the second place, the people who on are the ground in these areas understand that elitist condescension won’t get them anywhere. They have to engage their neighbors to get them to wake up to their common concerns. But if you’re in a blue enclave, you can sit back and wish that the rest of the country would just go away while your opponents gain control over all three branches of the federal government.
Elitist progressives are some of the worst enemies of progress in this country. Sabrina Tavernise tiptoes around this point in her piece titled “Are liberals helping Trump?”
But if political action is meant to persuade people that Mr. Trump is bad for the country, then people on the fence would seem a logical place to start. Yet many seemingly persuadable conservatives say that liberals are burning bridges rather than building them.
In a Facebook rant right after the 2016 election Jonathan Pie argues that it’s the Left’s own fault that Trump won..
Not everyone who voted for Trump is a sexist or racist. How many times does the vote not have to go our way before we realize that our argument isn’t won by hurling labels and insults. … When will be learn that the key is discussion?
The Left is responsible for this result because the Left has decided that any other way of looking at the world is unacceptable. We don’t debate anymore because the Left won the cultural war … [we just call names … racist, sexist, deplorable, stupid] … How do you think people are gonna vote if you talk to them like that? When has anyone ever been persuaded by being insulted or labeled?
And don’t say the Right does it too. Do you think that insulting them will make them stop insulting you? And don’t try to change the subject from elitism and insults. I’m not talking about watering down principles. Moving to the “center” is the essence of the politics of the Clintons and Obama, and we see now how many non-presidential elections that has won.
Some of the emotional reaction of progressives to the 2016 election reminds me of a line I remember the actor Peter Ustinov using in the move Romanoff and Juliet. Google tells me that my memory is faulty because it doesn’t place this quote in the movie. In any case it’s a great line from Peter Ustinov’s memoirs:
After all, in order not to be a fool, an optimist must know what a sad place the world can be. It is only the pessimist who finds this out anew every day.
In the African-American community this optimist-pessimist distinction seemed to fall along generational lines in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Neil Drumming, a producer for the This American Life podcast, discovered this in a Facebook post by a friend of his named Janelle. She had written on FB the day after the election:
All the older black people I’ve spoken to this morning, including my mom, are not surprised. Straight of back, and calm as [BLEEP], so I will strive for the same.
So Neil called Janelle to find out more. She began by describing her mother.
Well, my mom is, like, one of those people that stresses out over the littlest [BLEEP]. Like, she watches– she checks the weather where I live and tells me when storms are coming. [CHUCKLING] So I called her thinking she would be freaking out. I mean, I was freaking out.
Neil interrupted to ask how “what kind of state” Janelle was in herself. She said, “Oh, I was– I didn’t sleep all night. Like, I was really feeling real stressed. Like, physical pain stress.” And her mother?
She was like, good morning! [CHUCKLING] I called her thinking she would be even worse than me, and she was so chill that it was surprising. I called her, and I was like, can you believe this? And she was like, you know where we live. That’s what she said, you know?
If you click on this link to This American Life, you can hear the rest of Neil’s conversation with Janelle. Suffice it to say that her mother’s “chill” did not alleviate Janelle’s stress. Rather she feels
… kind of resigned. I feel like that’s how black people are. We’re just like, this is how it’s gonna be. And you get little moments of reprieve. Like, I guess Obama here and there. But it always comes back. Like, we’re just always waiting for the shoe to drop. And it’s an ever-present thing that we have to deal with, this feeling of being just always, this [BLEEP] is dangerous is how I feel, you know. [BLEEP] surrounded. So, half the country now, literally half the country, I don’t know who the fuck is sitting next to me, closed mouth smiling about this [BLEEP]. You know what I mean? … Yeah. I feel like I’m not under siege, but yeah, I just don’t feel safe. Whereas maybe before, I had forgotten. That’s what happens. You forget. And then this [BLEEP] happens. And you’re like, oh yeah. We know where we live, like my mother says. Like, that’s basically what she was saying, like, oh, you forgot.
I was not surprised by the anger expressed by Hillary voters after the election. nor by the I-told-you-so’s of the Bernie supporters. While therapeutic, neither will be productive in the long run as long as they remain directed at potential allies in the struggle. I was surprised, however, by the anger expressed by African-American women directed at the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington. That’s because I’d forgotten who I am and where we live.