On the morning of Inauguration Day, I met up with a friend in midtown Manhattan, where we rented a car and set out for Washington, D.C. Our plan was to make the drive before nightfall, have a quick dinner, finish making our signs, and get a good night’s rest before the Women’s March. Not only was it less expensive to rent a car than to fly or take a train, but our road-trip had the added benefit of keeping us away from TV all day—a serendipitous media blackout for which we were both grateful. We didn’t turn on the radio, either—we brought a playlist. There was in this avoidance an expression of grief, a turning away or a lowering of the eyes.
I have found, at times, only temporary reprieves from the anxiety, persistent since the election, that whatever we do, whatever donations and calls we make, whatever petitions we sign or letters we send—it is not nearly enough. Though I harbor no confusion over the moral obligation to try and keep trying, I know I’m not alone in feeling besieged time and again by the crushing worry that nothing I can do will amount to an adequate response to the moment.
The demands of the moment are urgent, complex, and enormous. What art will suffice for this darkening time, what activism? One way in which the new president and Steve Bannon, his primary advisor, exercise power (however instinctively, however strategically) is through language (the deluge of lies and misdirection), another is through demoralization. (What practical purpose could threatening to defund the already modest National Endowment for the Arts possibly serve, if not to send a chilling message to artists and writers and the organizations that support them?) What power can the resistance harness in language and images to fight back; and what can we do to uplift and inspire each other?
That others have been here before, have felt the pressure of these same questions is saddening, yet also a source of solace and, potentially, guidance and inspiration. Wallace Stevens’ “Of Modern Poetry” echoes frequently in my mind:
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice.
Always get the last word.
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In just the first month of the Trump presidency we’ve already lived through several extraordinary tests. The deluge of public lies, the ethics violations, the travel ban, the ascendance of Bannon, the ICE raids: as each new event jolts our consciousness, many of us cycle through feelings of helplessness, anger, sorrow, and determination, and sometimes we land on a perch of hope. We find some way to respond. We show up, we make calls, we share information, we make ourselves seen and heard by our representatives. We savor a momentary satisfaction while surveying the landscape—looking for what more to do, and for what may be next around the bend.
By mid-morning my friend and I were looking for a restroom and a snack. We stopped at the Clara Barton Travel Plaza along the New Jersey turnpike, and as we pulled into the crowded parking lot I saw women in groups of four and five emerging from dozens of cars and vans, many of them in pink hats. The line for the women’s room was lengthy, and a sense of energy and anticipation radiated from the clusters of women gathering in the small food court. We exchanged nods and smiles with strangers when our eyes met.
We bought a pint of what looked like sugar-coated doughnut holes and a container of caramel dipping sauce and, noting the light rain that had started to fall, decided to eat our snack there and take a short break from driving. We found a spot by the window, but as I sat down I realized I was directly in view of a television mounted from the ceiling, broadcasting the inauguration. Mike Pence was being sworn in. And then Trump. A small crowd gathered to watch, and I watched their faces in profile. No one spoke for some time—as if the room was holding its breath for a moment, waiting to see if something might somehow intervene and disrupt the proceedings. As the new president turned to receive congratulations from his family, the rain picked up, pounding the pavement. Restless and dumbstruck once again, we got back on the road.
Back in San Francisco the following Tuesday, I was heartened to hear from my office the muffled call-and-response of protestors on Market Street. Show me what democracy looks like; this is what democracy looks like. I was even more heartened to learn later on the evening news of multiple protests around the country that same day: in Austin, New York City, Denver, Orlando, Philadelphia; in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; Overland Park, Kansas; Vienna, Virginia; Rochester, Michigan, and many other places. It all felt like a muted answer to the question that had haunted me since the march: now what?
At the rally preceding the Women’s March, our feet and legs ached, there was little room to stretch much less walk. Those who had brought food or water were glad of it. The rest of us tried to quell our impatience and keep focused as each new speaker took the stage. Though many of the speakers were inspiring and eloquent (Gloria Steinem, Kristen Gillibrand, Van Jones, and Maxine Waters), there were, as the morning passed into afternoon, entirely too many. As the rally dragged on, with co-chair after co-chair taking their turn at the microphone, I began to wonder if organizers had lost sight of what made the event significant: not the personal experience and passion of each and every one of them, as singular and dedicated as they may be, but that so many of us, spread out on the Mall and beyond, so many that the marching route had to be changed to accommodate the enormous number of people, had shown up to be heard and seen not as individuals (though we all have our own stories), but as a crowd, as a group. I worried that the patience of the crowd would be exhausted, that the wonderful energy would sour. Yet as soon as the rally concluded and we began to march and chant, the mood of the crowd was immediately buoyed. The compassion, conviction, and determination were palpable and irresistible. Experiencing that spirit was the most indelible impression of the day.
For years I’ve been hungering for a new wave of feminism that is positive and bold, rather than modest, aging, and defensive. I’ve been yearning to hear young women embrace the label “feminist” with quiet dignity or righteous indignation—to see them wear it in whatever way suits them, but in any case to simply claim it with confidence. To see the ideals of feminism advanced, rather than incrementally diminished. Perhaps there is good reason to believe that this vile experience will awaken a new era for feminism. Still to be seen is how that feminism will define itself. What will the challenges of the Trump administration incite? Will we retreat to defend territory once thought safe? Or can we fold that necessary work into a more progressive, aspirational vision, one that also allows us to stride forward to the next phase? If we cannot push into the light, then Trump’s hyperbolic, nightmarish vision of American decline will be that much closer to reality.
All of this is just as true of the progressive movement in general, and indeed the resistance itself. While defending the gains we’ve made, we mustn’t neglect to contextualize that work in a positive, progressive, democratic vision. We cannot stand for resistance alone. That is part of what seemed so successful about the marches of January 21: what was on display, in the signs carried in D.C. and across the country (even worldwide), and in the speeches of the rallies, was an understanding shared (at least in the moment) by millions: that injustice and intolerance toward one group demeans us all, and that issues of equality, climate change, immigration rights, education and the economy are all intertwined. But will we exhaust ourselves, and each other? Will we allow our differences to overwhelm the profound causes we share?
These questions matter deeply, because at the moment it seems the resistance is nearly without leadership in Congress. To date there’s little evidence that most Republicans want anything but to normalize and cooperate with Trump, and serve party over country. Democrats ought to be the party of opposition to the Trump agenda, but most serving in the Capitol have shown little appetite for taking on that mantle. Put another way, the Democrats are showing themselves to be malleable. They will fight, but they require enormous, raucous, and relentless pressure and encouragement from their constituents to do so. It will require a level of sustained public civic engagement never before seen in my lifetime to hold elected officials accountable for their actions under this administration. The good news, if there is any, is that what the Women’s March kicked off one month ago has so far been vigorously sustained.
John Berger famously described the enormous cultural pressure that women function as “an object of vision—a sight,” but the visual effect of the march was in part to turn this dynamic on its head: the un-sexy pink hats, the explicit and sometimes aggressive signs and chants (“This Pussy Grabs Back,” and “We don’t want your tiny hands/Anywhere near our underpants”), the sheer numbers and tenacity (hundreds of thousands, prepared for any weather, on their feet for more than ten hours)—all at the President’s doorstep, all on the day after his swearing-in, a date he’d later declare a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion.” (That terminology, which reeks of something sinister and profoundly un-American when describing the inauguration, better describes the day of the marches.) Images of all the marches and rallies turned the visual of women into a broad repudiation, rather than anything available for consumption. We may not be able to escape the male gaze, or free ourselves entirely from our own internalized self-consciousness around that gaze, but we certainly can subvert and distress it.
More importantly, the undeniable visuals sent a message both domestically and around the world, that millions of Americans will not sit back quietly and normalize this new president. So while the rallies and demonstrations themselves did nothing in a direct sense to, for example, prevent the deluge of abysmal executive orders that flowed from the White House in the weeks that followed, it is also true the sheer scale of the gathering made an un-ignorable political statement. In a culture that is increasingly interested in only visual information, and with a president who is so acutely image and popularity obsessed, pointedly visual statements of public dissent are valuable in and of themselves.
Standing outside the Newseum in a light mist, reading newspaper coverage the morning after, I had to pause and ponder the New York Times headline describing the historic demonstrations: “Defiant yet Jubilant Voices Flood U.S. Cities.” The collective voice I heard was defiant, determined, and there was a sense the crowd was enjoying a singular moment even as it unfolded. But it was not jubilant. “All the Women. In Me. Are Tired” read several signs, quoting a poem by Nayyirah Waheed. The viral video of a group of women singing “I Can’t Keep Quiet” with singer-songwriter MILCK better captures the mood of the demonstrators, at least in D.C.: aware of their beauty and transformative powers, yet also saddened, conscious of a distinct undercurrent of trauma.
Part of what was unearthed at the march was the widely shared pain of assault, of abuse, of disrespect and repression. I had to wonder, how many women in this crowd have not been groped? How many have not been demeaned in the work place? How many carry not just one or two, but a score of such experiences? It’s staggering to acknowledge the plain fact that, as a population group, women are not a minority, yet our shared (or all too often silently, privately endured) experience of prejudice is, on the whole, as deeply ingrained in the power structure of our society as any other kind of discrimination against a marginalized group.
For some of us, it would be disingenuous to join one of the rally speakers in proclaiming, boastfully, “I’m not afraid of you, Donald Trump.” Perhaps she truly isn’t, and perhaps she’s not, by extension, even afraid of what his administration might wreak. We’ll each need to create whatever mantra spurs us to action; carry whatever talisman helps us fight another day. If that’s her mantra, I respect it. I even admire it. But mine will have to be something a bit more tarnished and bent, a damaged and weary kind of resistance. Defiance, without the jubilation, and in spite of fear.
If that characterizes the kind of resistance I have to offer, I suppose it also provides a sketch of the kind of art I’m seeking in these dark days. Both in contemporary art and in works of the past, I’m searching for a kind of engagement that needn’t be overtly political (though it may be that), but may more often have to do with grappling with the mess of what we humans do in societies, to and with each other. I’m looking to Cannetti and De Beauvoir and Camus and Solnit. I’m gathering up a stockpile of literature to inspire and fortify—literature that looks so deeply into the essence of its chosen time and place (whether it be Musil’s Austria in 1913 or Atwood’s near future dystopia) that it comes through the other side to face the timeless questions embedded there. Who are we, and what can we do about it? How can art not simply reflect the humanity of a moment, but change it? And if the contract of democratic society can, at its best, temper humanity’s worst inclinations, how can we reconcile that ideal with the state’s undeniable moral vulnerabilities: corruption, systematic and entrenched injustice sheltered by bureaucracy, and the creeping consolidation of power and wealth into the hands of a few?
At the end of the march, we made the trek back to the hotel. We threw our shoes on the floor and sat on the bed eating snacks, savoring water, a little dazed. We hadn’t eaten or had a drink since early that morning. We agreed we were glad we’d been there, agreed it had been important to come to the Capitol. It had been wearying, but also glorious—immediately rewarding in a way we already knew much of the work and days to come wouldn’t or couldn’t possibly be. Lit from within by the glow of so much fellow feeling, we knew we’d have to carry this warmth with us for a long time to come, to let it sustain us on lonelier days, in lonelier fights. We stretched our legs and rubbed our feet for a while, barely talking, already wondering what to do next.