On Christmas morning I counted my blessings over breakfast in a hotel restaurant. It was a balmy day, so afterward I sat at one of the chess tables on Dupont Circle. Much of the park was fenced off, the fountain surrounded by scaffolding. The quiet recalled the spring of 2020, when downtown Washington was abandoned like a dystopian cityscape in a science fiction movie.
That image was deceptive; most of us were working remotely and meeting via Zoom. Less benign were social media, which served as an accelerant for the mischief of demagogues. The question for 2022 is whether people not swayed by them can counter the worst impulses of our fellow citizens in time to prevent a fascist autocracy.
Before the pixels are dry on this commentary, several congressional conspirators in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol should be indicted. Alas, Attorney General Merrick Garland, who is smart but hyper-cautious, brings to mind a letter President Lincoln sent to Union General George McClellan: “If you don’t want to use the Army I should like to borrow it for a while.”
Elsewhere there are more encouraging signs. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, an LGBTQ-affirming civil rights attorney who was the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, oversaw successful prosecutions against Kim Potter and Derek Chauvin for deadly police misconduct. The House Select Committee on January 6 closed in on representatives suspected of conspiring with insurrectionists. California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed gun control legislation modeled after the Texas anti-abortion law. Using our opponents’ tactics against them is far preferable to wringing our hands.
One way to approach the looming dangers is with defiance: if we are hell-bound, we might as well enjoy the ride. And we cannot know the future: if 2022 offers frightening prospects, it also presents an opportunity to fight for what we love. We should be ready for surprises, as when Trump touted vaccines at an event with Bill O’Reilly despite boos from audience members.
Do not worry that the boos show Trump has unleashed forces he cannot control. He has, but there’s no point in raising our blood pressure. I recently began a regimen of transcendental meditation to remain calm. It has worked wonders. Apartment 3-G here has become a tranquil retreat. Gone are the days when my neighbors banged on the wall telling me to shut the hell up.
Okay, that’s a fib. Apartment 3-G was a comic strip that ended in 2015, and my name is not Lu Ann. But I bet a fictional, retro working girl beats an old crank who yells at the television.
We must raise consciousness, not just our voices. We cannot take for granted that the threat from our opponents will be recognized and resisted by our fellow citizens. If we let know-nothings infuriate us, we are venting rather than fighting. Dr. King said, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline,” which is awfully hard.
One way of responding to a demagogue is through ridicule. Senator Ted Cruz claims it is his turn to be the Republican nominee in 2024, since he was the runner-up in 2016. Aside from there being no such entitlement, his naked ambition and oiliness have made him hated even in his own party. If the mockery fits….
Smart politics requires bridging competing realities. Sometimes that means leaning into the crazy. Jimmy Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd in the movie Harvey says, “I’ve wrestled with reality for thirty-five years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.” Josephine Hull, as his sister, says in another scene, “Myrtle Mae, you have a lot to learn, and I hope you never learn it.”
I thought of that when somebody faulted Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story as unrealistic. Pardon me, but haven’t we had enough realism? I was a child when the 1961 version was released. Since then, thanks to Jerome Robbins, I always expect gang members to make their entrance by a jeté through the window. Why drag everything down to the miserable level where people are actually living? They are familiar enough with that already.
As Irving Berlin wrote for Fred Astaire in 1936 in the movie Follow the Fleet, “There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance.”
We need to connect with people. Let’s have some fun while we’re at it.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist at [email protected]