Saturday, January 21, 2017

What Hath Democracy Wrought?

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One very small slice of the Portland Women's March.

I still haven't warmed up.

It took me an hour and a half of mostly standing in one place, then finally working around the multiple bottlenecks on Naito Parkway, to meet up with Amy at today's demonstration. I've heard statistics being thrown around about the event drawing as many as 100,000 people, and based on my previous experience with such events, I can believe it. It's the first march I've been in that was so slow to start, and also the first that happened during an atypically drenching rain (most Oregon rain, contrary to what non-Oregonians think, is showery and/or misty) that didn't let up until we were making our exit from the march by crossing the Hawthorne Bridge. That also gave us our first glimpse of the sweep of this event, and it was stunning. So, too, was the atmosphere within the crowd: despite the chill, the rain, the press of bodies, and the long wait to start moving--and, much more than any of those, our fury at the very thought of Donald Trump being President, a fluke of history that inspired marches like this across the country and even around the world--the general spirit was cheerful. People around me joked, laughed, politely made way for persons trying to move through the crowd, delighted in the cheeky messages hoisted on soggy signs, chanted enthusiastically, joined into rolling cheers that reminded me of the Oregon Brewers Festival. Once the demonstration finally became a march, spirits went up even higher. There was no sense of the grief I know I am not alone in bearing, the fear that democracy may die over the course of this administration.

Don't get me wrong: physically, I was cold, wet, and miserable. My teeth were chattering by the time we decided we'd had enough, and I'd only been there for two and a half hours. Amy's presence at the march started with an early arrival at the pre-march rally, so she had another hour and a half on top of that. Once we were out of the march zone, heading back to my distant parking place on the east side of the river, we both became much more aware of just how cold and wet we were. It's a good thing my new car has seat warmers.

The grief, though: all this week, I've felt a deepening sense of despair, as if I was counting down the days, then hours, to an execution. Like many, I hoped for a deus ex machina to avert this catastrophic transition: perhaps there'd be one ethics violation too many, and the Republicans would turn on him. Maybe he'd get cold feet and walk away from the job. Maybe he'd be indicted for a sex crime. Or maybe the letter from his doctor would turn out to be the biggest lie of all, and he'd suddenly drop dead of a massive heart attack. But no, none of that happened.

And while millions across America marched in outrage at what the 45th Presidency means not just for our nation, but for the world, Trump went on making a spectacle of himself, insisting in front of a room full of CIA employees that the news media had faked the pictures of a sparsely attended inauguration, claiming that he'd had a record turnout. Meanwhile, the Women's March was setting real records, with packed demonstrations dwarfing any previous coordinated protest.

It's a hard time to be a progressive, a Democrat, or simply an American who believes in democracy. There is just no getting around the reality we're facing: American democracy has dealt us a losing hand.

It's not the first time this has happened. By its very nature of reflecting the will of those who choose to vote, whether or not they're well-informed and using their brains (as opposed to their viscera) to mark their ballots, democracy can be a disturbingly chaotic method for choosing leaders. The founders understood this, and crafted a system that might soften the whimsical nature of the electorate by filtering it through senior statesmen. It took just a generation or two for the voters to rebel against this approach, though, and since the 1820s, and apart from the electoral college that has now graced us with President Trump, the overall trend in American democracy has been to extend the vote to more citizens, rather than limiting it to those who can be trusted to make a rational choice. At times, this has resulted in the election of transformational leaders who could never have achieved victory if they'd had to rise through the ranks of the establishment; at others (now, for instance), it's resulted in a chaos candidate rising to the top. Voters are fickle, easily swayed by cynical appeals to their baser instincts, quick to fall for a winning smile or an appeal to choose self-interest over the greater good, anarchy over responsibility. Sometimes democracy lands a huge turd in the Oval Office. And here we are.

Apart from the march today, I've been engaging in a quiet pedagogical protest. My third graders were originally scheduled to have their concert next Thursday--though thanks to the two weeks of snow and ice days, I was able to push that date back a month--and as the concert drew near, I needed to pick some songs for them to sing. As soon as the election results were in, I knew exactly what I wanted them to learn: protest songs from the Civil Rights Era.

All this week, I've been introducing them to "If I Had a Hammer." As I'm teaching them the song, I share with them the role it played in the struggle for equal rights. Thursday as I was talking to one class about how both this song and the other they'll be learning soon, "Weave Me the Sunshine," are about people coming together to support each other, fight for each other's rights, and help each other heal, one child blurted out, "It's going to take four years for us to heal from Donald Trump." Friday I was talking to a different class about Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez fighting for the rights of African-Americans and immigrant farmworkers, and a child raised his hand and began talking about how white people had long had more rights than black people, and it was time for that to change.

I teach in a middle class suburb. Most of my students are white, with a small sprinkling of students whose ethnicity is Mexican, Asian, or African. It's a huge contrast from my previous gig in a low-income, much more diverse school; and it's easy at times to think these children are out of touch with the concerns of the less privileged. Being with them this week, hearing them speak so sincerely about what these new songs meant to them, seeing how they care for each other--it was exactly where I needed to be, especially on Friday. It kept me from falling apart, and it laid the groundwork for the new sense of hope I feel today in the aftermath of a march which is, I believe, just the beginning of a movement that will transform this nation into the post-racist, post-misogynist, cosmopolitan democracy it was always meant to be.

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