What We Do Now: Standing Up for your Values in Trump’s America

via Melville House

via Melville House

Overview

What We Do Now is a book of separate pieces conceived of and written before the inauguration of President Trump. Much of the advice in it still rings true, but much of the hope now feels desperately far away. Still, it was heartening to get a shot of it, even as this white nationalist administration threatens war with North Korea. Some of it seems eery, prescient. These authors accurately predicted, months before, some of what is occurring now. Take, for instance, this section of “We Will Defend The Constitution Against President Trump” by Anthony D. Romero: “To carry out such an order, immigration agents would have to engage in suspicionless interrogations and arrests, unjustified traffic stops, warrantless searches of workplaces and homes, and door-to- door raids in immigrant neighborhoods” (76). That’s happening. That’s all happening.

This book excels in the quiet moments after you read a headline and click through, nauseous. You need a moment; you need to remember that you are not alone in your shock, in your plans to act. You pick this up and take a quick hit—the pieces are relatively short. It’s easy to fit it into your day, and though I don’t agree wholeheartedly with everything in the book (some essays don’t seem to acknowledge the misogyny at play in this past election, for instance), even the essays that raised my eyebrow in a not-entirely-agreeful way gave me things to think about.

I think, as you schedule your book clubs and discussion groups, that this book pairs especially well with comfort food and warm drinks, even as Spring is springing. Because it’s divided into sections, I also recommend giving pieces of it to various members of your club to diversify the discussion leaders—it can be a lot for one person to do with such heavy subjects, and you don’t want the most outgoing person or the host or the person with the most privilege (or loudest megaphone) to be the default voice of the group. The sectioning makes this easy—someone can take “Setting a New Liberal Agenda” and someone else can take “Racial Justice” and so on. If you’re meeting in person, consider putting out postcards so that, both before and after the discussion, participants can write to their Representatives and tell them what issues matter. These postcards may be especially potent using the ideas you’re all striking together in the wake of reading the great thoughts of smart people. These Audre Lorde postcards are free—you only have to pay to ship them.

I also have some discussion questions that you can use in your groups. And if you’re reading on your own, we can talk about them here, online, too. I’m giving my answers. Maybe my answers will spark your answers.

Questions

Is there a particular essay that struck you more than the others? A particular sentence or passage? Why do you think it resonated with you?

There’s a passage in “The Ultimate Wake-Up Call” by Linda Sarsour that, weeks after I finished the book, I kept thinking about. It’s on page 102:

One of the most important things we can all do as Americans is to begin investing in relationship building. Do you know your neighbors? Do you know who leads the local community-based organizations in your neighborhood?  Do you know the heads of the local churches, local mosques, and temples? Do you know who your local elected representatives are? If no, start now. If yes, how can you deepen those relationships so that they are transformative and not simply transactional?

I’ve always been a person for whom community is extremely important. I choose my writing jobs, sometimes foolishly, based on the opportunity to write “for my people,” whatever that means to me at the time. And I make friends wherever I live. My life is so rooted in my neighborhood right now—I know people in my building, the other dog owners at the park (where my dog has her best friends, too), I write in a café where I know everyone who works there and they know me (and my order and what book I’m working on). The dudes at the art supply store know what brands I like and show me the new things they think I need to know about immediately as I walk in. The folks who work at my local independent bookstore feed my dog treats and knowwhen my thesis advisor’s book is on the front table. That kind of thing has always been really important to me.

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder how many of these relationships are transactional instead of transformational. We provide each other a service—do I do anything else for them? And certainly I am woefully ignorant of the local political scene, a complicated web here in New York City. Thank goodness for my friend Liz, who took me by the hand to a coffee chat with my city councilman. On that day, we spotted a potential solution to a problem being talked about, and Liz spoke up about it, and a connection was made. And maybe it was beneficial, I don’t know. I need to go to another coffee chat. Or email the councilman. The point is I feel more equipped to go next time even if my friend cannot, more equipped to speak up without support. That relationship has certainly been transformational for me. I have to work on retaining it.

The only thing about this passage that scares me rather than resonates with me is the emphasis on religious organizations—it’s a scary thing to form bonds with religion and religious organizations as a queer person. You just never know when you’re walking into a congregation that hates fags, ya know? I have a lot of respect for my queermo friends who can do it. I grew up Christian and I watched my church slowly turn into a place that promoted a video series that “taught” our boy children not to be queers. It was heartbreaking. But perhaps, as someone really solid in my identity and community, I could stand to take that risk? It feels terrifying, but so does everything else right now. I suppose my major question—does my community have to include religion? When religious groups are being persecuted by this white nationalist administration, perhaps that answer is yes. And I need to suck it up.

In Linda Sarsour’s essay, she says that “this is the time for all of us to stay in our lanes,” explaining that you wouldn’t take “advice from a dentist on your foot problem.” Pick an issue discussed in this book that doesn’t directly affect you. How do you plan to synthesize the essays on this topic into meaningful allyship? What actions can you take inspired by the thoughts and speech of those for whom this issue is personal?

Brittany Packnett addresses this directly in her essay “White People: What Is Your Plan for the Trump Presidency?” “We got us,” she says. “Do you have y’all?” It’s something that I have thought about a lot as a person who is whiter than an Easter lily. What I wish is that I had a bunch of money that I could just hand over to people who have long been doing the work of fighting for racial justice. Resources are so important right now, especially as federal grants are being disemboweled and data on minority groups are being pulled from websites. And Packnett makes sure to say that these resources cannot come with strings. I’m donating what I can, when I can. It’s not as much as I would like. But I also feel like I need to perfect the art of persuading white women to not? I have not yet perfected this art; my attempts have been angry and potentially alienating, but hopefully have still made people think. I need to take the steps outlined here to heart as I perfect my style of communication. Even as I leave people angry with me, I have seen them move up steps on the chart. I need to keep at it and not prioritize my discomfort with confrontation.

How does each author, public figure or politician understand intersectionality in their work? Who excels at this? Who doesn’t?

One of the things that struck me regarding intersectionality was the huge difference between “Donald Trump is Betting Against All Odds on Climate Change” by Bill McKibben and “Protecting Our Planet” by Michael Brune. McKibben writes at the close of his essay: “If you don’t think poor people should get subsidized medical care, that’s ugly, but it’s an opinion you’re entitled to hold” (90). I have written in the margins that no, it’s not. It’s not an opinion you’re entitled to hold and I find it really irresponsible of the writer to use such a thing to bolster the cold hard facts of science. The idea that science is divorced from the wider problems of the world is ludicrous.

I know that’s not how I might normally use the word intersectionality—when I wrote the question, I really did mean it in terms of intersectional identity and I thought I was going to talk about Gloria Steinem. But I could NOT stop thinking about the intersection of climate science and, well, literally everything else. It’s an issue that crosses all the other issues in the book, and all the other issues in the book cross it (let’s bereal—it’s all intertwined, everything crosses everything, everything matters, ugh, how tiring is that?). This is something that, to contrast McKibben, Brune seems to understand:

People sometimes ask me why the Sierra Club can’t just “stick to protecting the environment.” Trump’s election shows exactly why. If we turn a blind eye to inequality, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, then we will be forced to deal with the consequences, and those consequence affect everything, including environmental progress. (93)

Which of these issues can be tackled at a city or township level? Take an issue discussed in the book that you previously believed to be a national one and break it down into a local building block; what is the first step in researching how you can make affect change on this issue where you live?

Perhaps it’s because I put this question right after the last question, and the last question took an unexpected turn for me, but once again, my thoughts turn to climate change. Last year I interviewed Jonathon Keats (futurist, philosopher, artist) for The Rumpus, and he talked about thinking of climate change at a city level. I hadn’t before considered such a thing. To me, the only way to make a dent in such a huge issue was nation by nation. He argued pretty persuasively that a city-by-city model might be the way to go. City and township governments are more nimble than federal ones. But as I didn’t even know where to start in terms of advocating for New York City (where I live) to think about adopting climate-science-approved policy, I gave it a quick Google.

Turns out, our former Mayor is already thinking about it this way and our current Mayor had plans for climate adaptions in his One NYC policy initiative—plans that continue to be active. So I think my next step is hooking up with my councilman to see which of these initiatives we can push for in our district. What’s your next step?

I am not the authority on questions. Encourage your participants to come up with their own. Come up with your own. And please use the comment section and social media to add to the discussion online. Use page numbers and essay titles if you want to ask about specific stuff—it makes it easier

April’s Pick

The Handmaid’s Tale is coming out on April 26th. And since I first read it, I’ve been convinced that we are always two steps from living it as our reality. We feel closer now. A breath away. So April’s pick is two-fold: We’re going to read The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. And we’re going to watch it. And we’re going to hold each others’ hands and try not to vomit.