We’re not at a crossroads. Instead, we’re crossing without a light, against the flow of traffic, at moment of danger and national drift.
So, then, this is my inventory of the moment – my plan for the days, months, and years to follow, written at a bigger scale than my usual everyday lists.
I have written it in the wake of the elections, because even if the results of November 8 were historically predictable, they’re also still entirely unwelcome. One party’s raison d’être is the unsubtle erasure of the very basic and still fairly minimal civil and human rights gains of the last fifty years. For those who’ve sat on the sidelines, or who’ve said that “there is nothing I can do,” this is another time for choosing – not the choosing of candidates, but the choice of what work to take up and what future to help to build in the face, now, of an emboldened, reactionary conservatism. For those who’ve been involved all along, this crossing is a dangerous provocation, a declaration that what seems normal – the flow of traffic, the routinization of autocracy – needs to be troubled.
This list, then, is the mental equivalent of taking a deep breath, finding the time to gather up my ideas. I see this sort of taking stock as utterly crucial right now, because I don’t think it is a good idea to improvise personal, professional, or political goals in the midst of social triage, or on a teetering, uneven landscape. I think we need to think harder and reflect longer.
So here is my first effort:
1. Don’t stop writing. You must not lose track of research goals. You won’t set things aside. You will, instead, return to vital work that has been sidelined. The work you do isn’t merely about making meaning out of history, which is obviously still necessary. It also allows you to put your finger on the scale for others. It brings you pleasure. It gives you voice. It helps you to understand, too. All of this is foundational. So don’t change things up and grow silent professionally.
2. Be present at home. This past year has been very hard on your family. As we move deeper into the age of autocracy, and as the age of Obama recedes into history, kids will have even more questions about race, rights, and equality. They will continue to have classmates, parents, and teachers say things that require pushback and correction. There will be a thousand difficult questions. They will need to be comforted. You need to be there.
3. Take care of your circle. Recognize that you have people – friends, colleagues, students – who need you; and that you need them, too. Work with and for these people to create new possibilities and to ensure a permanent transformation of the structure of your university.
4. Read globally and broadly about intellectual life under autocracy. You’ve read Solzenhitsyn and Arenas and you’ve written a little about the Perons, but you need to get more systematically involved in reading about this material. You’ll want to subscribe to additional newspapers and support quality, long-form investigative journalism. Do not let this moment be understood only through a simple presidential genealogy.
5. Get more involved locally. There is good reason to think that state and local governments can mount some effective opposition to Trumpian policies. Volunteer. Offer to help. Do something local in Providence and in Rhode Island beyond what you already do.
6. Give talks and write op-eds outside of the comfort zone. It isn’t enough to talk to your inner circle of friends, or to gather at the bar for cocktails and commiseration. Nor does it make sense to cling to the coasts or to the deep blue preserves. Pitching to The New York Times simply isn’t enough. Nor is it enough to talk about your work only at academic conferences, where a certain (necessary) groupthink dominates. For every talk you give in New York, try to give one in a deep red community. Every time you speak at a university, talk to a public-facing community organization. Do the same with your writing. Somehow. Pitch op-eds to the local newspaper and not just to the usual suspects.
6a. Continue to listen and to amplify. When you’re out there, make time to listen, to carefully spotlight, and to appropriately cite the work of the historically marginalized, the forgotten, or the illegible. It is pretty easy to invoke the “undercommons” in a room of academics; do it, as well, at a public library and trace it back to a particular intellectual history.
7. You are you who are. You are not a bombthrower. You value friendship over allyship, collaboration over partisanship, civility over cruelty, cocktails over asceticism, and you’ve used this space to argue repeatedly for those things. Not everyone will agree that you’ve made the right decisions, or that these approaches are the rights ones in our dystopian Trumpland, so you’ll need to acknowledge that the problems of the present are big enough to require all sorts of solutions. Not everyone who cares about these issues will agree with your approach, and – you know what? – that is just fine. You’ll also need to make sure that the affective approaches you care about aren’t understood as a more “reasonable alternative.”
8. Give up on no one. It is radical enough to suggest, these days, that every vote counts, but every person counts, too. Don’t give up on a bigger public that craves understanding. Don’t simplify. Don’t assume rural, poor, or working class people can’t understand complexity. Don’t assume that Wall Street bankers can’t learn. Don’t let a bad joke go without a response, but also don’t let a question go unanswered.
9. Get healthy. To do all of this, you will need to make more time, sleep less, work faster, and be more precise. An hour at the gym is not possible. So eat right. Sleep as much as you can. And walk or ride your bike everywhere.
10. Be resolute. We are entering a period of extraordinary, disturbing change. People you care about will be directly, materially impacted. And you, as well. There will be drama, turmoil, and tears. Be steadfast. If this is a teachable moment, it is also not a moment for equivocation. If this is a moment for listening and learning, that does not mean that every truth is up for grabs. Believe in your people, trust that the work you do together has the right moral compass, and believe in your readings of the world around us. Sometimes, when you’re operating offstage or in the dark or in the interstices, you will need to go it alone. You’ll need to be OK with that, too.
This is obviously not a “to do list’ for anyone else. Nor is it a general “how to” list. I am an academic, teaching and writing in an Ivy League institution, and that shapes a lot of what I propose here. I’m taking stock of myself, questioning some of my existing priorities and re-affirming others. The result is a disorderly, out-of-order listicle that probably wouldn’t work for anyone else. But, for all its idiosyncracies, it is most certainly a list that I – after two sobering weeks of reflection – believe in, even if I see very little reason to think that it can fix everything.
Because maybe we can fix some little things. And maybe those little things will matter more, in the end, because of our mindfulness right now. I just think we should all be re-evaluating, re-prioritizing, and gearing up for what was always going to be hard but is now going to be even more difficult. Big things, I hope, have small beginnings.
I’m also making it (mostly) public chiefly to keep myself honest. I want to come back to it, as Sarah Kendzior urges, to see whether I’ve stayed true. This, after all, is what I do curbside, at a moment of crossing: I look at the traffic, gauge the danger, and write lists, highlighting the plot points that must be covered, that are an important part of my life, that might – hopefully – make the provocations of the crossing more meaningful.