The past and the future can inspire resistance now

These are alarming days for our country. One thing I do to get through them, other than cutting back on cable TV news, is unsubscribing from fundraising email lists. Even with agreeable causes and candidates, I do not need multiple appeals per day. The same goes for social media, where I minimize the ambient noise and toxicity by blocking trolls and bots.

Another way of coping is through entertainment. I follow various Star Trek series streaming on Paramount+. The franchise, born in 1966, is still going strong, with budgets permitting greatly improved production design. Some longtime Trekkies are quick with complaints, but I am happy to let the producers and writers take me where they will.

On the latest Star Trek series, Strange New Worlds, (spoiler alert) in an episode titled “Children of the Comet,” Cadet Uhura joins a landing party on a comet heading for a deadly collision with a planet. They find an ancient alien chamber with an orb covered in markings that comes to life and answers sympathetically when Uhura hums a Kenyan folk song. Imagining alien encounters more nuanced than monster invasions encourages thinking above the level of brute survival.

In the second season of Picard, another Trek series, love develops between two women played by Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine and Michelle Hurd as Raffi Musiker. This is a welcome development after the first gay couple in Trek history appeared in the series Discovery in 2017, played by Anthony Rapp as Paul Stamets and Wilson Cruz as Hugh Culber. Young people today, in addition to having better prospects than older generations did, can see queer-inclusive futures thanks to artists like these.

Part of science fiction’s value is imagining worlds that offer a vantage point to see our own challenges in a new way. A classic example is Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness about the planet Gethen, whose population is ambisexual. Gethen was sufficiently different from Earth that it facilitated consideration of unfamiliar ways of love and sex unhampered by our cultural baggage.

Another mind-stretching pastime is reading history. A new book by historian Hugh Ryan discusses the Women’s House of Detention in New York’s Greenwich Village, which was 500 feet from the Stonewall Inn before being demolished in the 1970s. As Jillian Eugenios of NBC News writes, “The House of D … became the place women were taken when they were arrested in the nearby mafia-run gay bars, or when they were caught in defiance of the ‘three-article rule,’ which required women to wear three pieces of female attire to avoid being arrested for cross-dressing. A place of overcrowding, atrocious punishments and vast abuses of power, the prison was also a place where queer identity was discovered and defined.”

Our love has endured in the past without others’ permission, and will endure if scoundrels revoke it.

While it is important not to underestimate our opponents, it is also important to recognize our own strengths. There are many countries where criticizing the government gets you jailed or shot. A friend in Nigeria used to worry that my harsh writing about Trump would get me arrested. I assured him that America was far from reaching that point.

Our freedoms live not only in the law and the Constitution but in civil society — in shared expectations. Once rights are established, resistance to their revocation will be high. Consider America’s military, where openly gay servicemembers have become part of the landscape over the past decade. You cannot instantly erase that altered culture with an order.

Some things cannot be unlearned. Even if the GOP restores Confederate monuments in town squares, they can never erase the image of General Lee’s statue in Charlottesville being ignominiously carted off on a flatbed truck.

America’s values have been tested in a terrible civil war, a century of Jim Crow, and currently. The mass shooting by a young white supremacist in Buffalo on May 14, as Michael Harriot writes at TheGrio, is nothing new. Every advance of rights has been met with a vicious, even murderous, backlash. Yet the struggle for justice is also part of our history. The Founders set a standard beyond their own reach, and it has prodded us for nearly 250 years.

The reactionaries are building up powerful bad karma. The more they indulge their lowest impulses — and let us be clear, their vengeful tribal deity bears no resemblance to Jesus — the more they ensure a terrible reckoning ahead.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist at [email protected].