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Evil in the Soul

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Socrates is believed to have said, “The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.”

Well, I don’t believe in “evil” per se, or in the “soul,” for that matter. But I do believe in Socrates, and I believe even more in language, and in how language reveals itself—and us—by the manner in which we use or misuse it.

So I want to start by showing respect for the spoken and unspoken language in which we’re all trying to deal with our current common emotional state—a state shared even between complete strangers. Experiencing this communication feels like the stories I’ve heard about Londoners during the WWII blitz.

The other day, the woman at the grocery-store checkout counter–who had weeks earlier admired my Hillary button, so I’d given it to her—now looked at me, eyes tearing, and murmured, “I can’t sleep.” Before I could reply, a young man in line behind me said, “Oh yeah me too, I was up at 4 AM, thinking how this changes–everything. I mean, this is bad, man.” On the subway, I overhear an older couple—woman and man—trading symptoms: migraines; no appetite. They glance at me and we exchange sad, knowing smiles. I say “Nausea.” They nod sympathetically. My pharmacist mutters to me, “I’m so damned angry, I’m so angry all the time.” His assistant, who wears a headscarf, says quietly “I’m so scared all the time.”

Sometimes it’s only half sentences, unfinished phrases: I stopped reading the morning paper because . . . and I nod. Or: I can’t watch TV anymore because the news zipper at the bottom . . . Or: I went to see a really great silly escapist movie but I still . . . If completed, the sentences would all finish with the same admission—because I still feel so wretched. This commiseration, this commonality of sorrow as we stagger through each day, if not exactly a comfort, is to me infinitely touching.

I’m grateful for it, because Trump voters tempt me toward becoming one of those revolutionaries who loves humanity but hates people. Yet these sorrowful, vulnerable exchanges with other ordinary Americans like myself bring back tiny spasms of hope, flickering shafts of light stabbed through by darkness, like sun and shade dappled down wind-swept branches—there, then not there—and this can even seem to bring back foreshadowings, so fragile, of love.

So let’s examine what brought us to this. For one thing, let’s look at the voting process, now that we have yet again faced voter suppression attempts (with some successes), and yet again must face an electoral college win that directly contravenes the popular vote tally—which currently is over 2 and a half million for Hillary Rodham.

But wait, first we need to dispel a myth or two about this election. You may have been party to conversations about how 298 American counties carried twice by Obama could possibly have flipped to Trump. Well, thanks to Sean Mcelwee, writing in Salon, now we have some research that tells us what we should have guessed all along.

First, this was hardly a critical mass of voters. According to YouGov polling data, only 7 percent of white Obama voters flipped, and the real number might be less. Moreover, those voters who “converted” to Trump expressed high levels of racial resentment, high enough to be statistically significant in a model that controlled for party, ideology, education, age, gender, income, and views on economic performance and trade. Racial resentment—measured by such statements as “Irish, Italian, and other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up—black people should do the same without any special favors” was a constant among these flipped voters.

How could we have missed that—rushing along past the fact that the Irish and Italians arrived as immigrants, not as abducted and enslaved people—really, how could we have missed what the polling data points to: Did we seriously think racism was so simple?

Surely we know that a white citizen voting for a black president does not translate into the end of racism, either in that individual or the society. To many white voters, Obama was “an exception to his race”—first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review, published author, state senator and US senator, and oh yes, ahem, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (an exception to most everyone, in fact). Do you remember the 2007 CNN interview when now-Vice President Biden patronizingly referred to then Senator Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”? Articulate and clean, oh my god.

In the minds of white Obama-turned-Trump voters, an earlier vote for the “exception,” while permitting them self-congratulation on their virtue, does not translate into thinking for one moment that a young black man being beaten to a pulp by cops just might conceivably not have deserved that.

Most people are able to deny their own racism and sexism in relaxed certainty that they’re innocent of either one—because they don’t really grasp what these words mean. There’s refuge in dramatic extremes: If they define “racism” as a lynching and “sexism” as a rape-murder, then clearly they’re guilty of neither. Layers, levels, wheels within wheels, the smile masking the teeth, all the unconscious and subconscious and semi-conscious bigotries conveniently never get computed. Nuance is not welcome.

In an era of declared “post truth”—following on proclamations that we are a “post-racist” and “post-sexist” society (pause here for wild-eyed stares or guffaws), how easy and natural it must seem not to have to worry about those bothersome men of color and those irritating women (all of them) by just declaring that oppression is over! Party time! Whee!

Once words are bleached of meaning, we can better understand the recent neo-Nazi National Policy Institute conclave in Washington DC, during which attendees confirmed their belief that America was meant for white people only. They offered the Nazi salute in praise of Trump, shouted Hail Trump, and denounced the “lying press” with the original German pejorative, “lugenpresse.” In the wake of that, and in an unprecedented public gesture, The US Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a statement reminding Americans that “The Holocaust did not begin with killing. It began with words.”

I’m sure you heard that in one of his insomniac seizures, Trump tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag. If they do, there must be consequences, perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail.” I’m sure you also heard that even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scurried to the nearest microphone to reaffirm that flag-burning is Constitutionally protected speech via the First Amendment, and has been reaffirmed as such not once but twice by the US Supreme Court. Also, of course, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that a citizen cannot be stripped of her or his citizenship. But you might not have heard that Rudy Giuliani, Trump crony and wannabe Secretary of State, answered a question about Trump’s flag tweet this way: “Freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.”

There it is. War is Peace. Freedom is slavery. George Orwell’s 1984 in Trump’s 2016.

I’ll return to this subject again, probably many times, because the devaluing of language—whether or not it induces evil in the soul—does inevitably precede the devaluing of people. For now, though, let’s return to our voting process. We strut before the world, preening about how democratic we are, sending observers to monitor and ensure free and fair elections overseas. But many other countries do elections better then we do here, in the land of the free.

Personally, I believe that voting in national elections should be federalized, and thus consistent, not making the voter hack her way through jungles of overgrown, inconsistent rules flourishing under the varying whims of different states. I also think that (with the exception of absentee and other mail-in ballots) it should take place over a single three-day weekend, so no one risks a job or loses pay. Furthermore, anyone still in line at any hour the polls would normally close must have a chance to vote (this last supposedly is already the case, which provokes another pause for more wild-eyed stares and guffaws).

I believe registration should be automatic on reaching age 18. Actually, I think that the age should be lowered to 15—possibly younger, but that’s for another discussion.

I also believe that voting should be mandatory, the way you must have a driver’s license and insurance to drive, the way schooling children at least up to the sixth grade is mandatory. You could vote for any candidate or write in someone else’s name if none of those listed appeal to you, but you would have to vote. Not voting would be penalized by a small fine, perhaps the size of the traffic ticket, or else a day or so of community service. Twenty-two and counting nations already have some form of mandatory voting–and guess what? They enjoy an enviably high population turn-out in elections, some as high as 90 percent. In the US, on the other hand, 46.9 percent–almost half!–of eligible voters in this election never bothered to vote at all. That’s consistent with other years—and it’s revealing and appalling, but also changeable. Imagine what things might be possible if almost 90 percent of US citizens turned out to vote!

Of course, given the incoming administration and power of the Republican Party—long committed to shrinking the electorate, not expanding it—the above thoughts are only dreams at present. But other countries wove such dreams into reality, and so can we. We boast about being the indispensable nation, but we often bring up the rear. Other countries saw women win suffrage before the US did, had female heads of state and heads of government and supreme court justices well before us, and established social security entitlements before us. Even now, we stand alone among industrialized, developed nations in lacking nationally provided childcare and a full national health service: what the Affordable Care Act– “Obamacare”–had finally, barely, crucially begun to address, is now scheduled for the trash heap.

All this will require enormous pressure, work, and organizing during the upcoming period, when admittedly, merely trying to stay afloat will siphon off a great deal of our energy.

Then again, as my friend, former Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder has said for years, “You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time.”

So, see you later. I need to go roll up my sleeves.

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