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Politics, grown fat on popular outrage and indignation, has taken a seat at the common table. Breakfast at our house often begins with a rant by me, over some current astonishment that has dropped down on us out of the overnight news; my wife enduring and sympathizing. Hardly a dinner in company, or a convivial Sunday brunch, fails to bring out a session of deploring what the crowd in and around the White House have lately perpetrated: the rigged war in Iraq first and foremost, that improbable man in the White House second, and his Devilish Works third.
We wonder: could his smirk and his duplicity and his strange manner of simultaneously bullying and wheedling actually fit, with lock and key exactness, some streak of character running through our country? What have we become, that we could adopt such a visibly warped man as maximum leader? To what dread place are he and his faction taking us?
The urgent hot breath of Southern and other rising fundamentalisms has reached our faces even in chill, steady New England. The thinly progressive attitudes and legislation of the three-quarters century past that we have come to take for granted as a minimum basis of ordinary civic decency and security, have been dissolving under us like a sandbank scoured by a current grown suddenly swift, dark, and powerful.
Hard-bitten, turned inward, and scared … will that be the new face of America, a consequence of our cohabitation with this erroneous President? Some of us with a lot of years on our bones remember the phrase of the 1930’s, "It can’t happen here," that expressed faith in America’s absolute exemption from any imitation on our part of the triple specter of Italian, Spanish, and German fascisms. IT hasn’t happened here yet, but it may be drawing upon us, piecemeal and in chunks.
At dinner with friends, we find community and mutual solace in reviewing details of the plight of American politics, for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour. Schadenfreude and gallows humor play a part in the grim entertainment. And then, easy still, after all, in our condition in the year 2004, we resume talk about the meal, absent friends, our gardens, our health, and the other easy-going trivia of quotidian life. The food on the table is hot, the company is comfortable, the flame of the woodstove is cheery, and the door is shut against the weather outside.
Most of the friends with whom I sit down at the table are in small and different ways intellectuals: Luftmenschen of the kind who love the Word and believe, even, that we lucky ones of the Abundant Word have been set free by it. We almost all, probably, listen to Public Radio, and to alternative radio as well, if there’s any of that around. Through the day we pick up hot chestnuts of analysis and other journalistic tidbits from the Internet, thanks to friends who devote themselves to selecting the best from the welter on the Web, and passing it on to their personal Lists. We may read bastion publications like The Times, The New York Review, The New Yorker, among others. We regard ourselves as well informed people; many of us could sketch out a passable discourse on any of the key vagaries that, the times being as troubled as they are, keep turning up in the current news.
Vagaries and concealed hooks are after all what we deal in: departures from the confirmatory line taken by the major media and the afflicted regime in Washington.
We love the Word for itself and for its liberating effects. And yet, these days, some of us are between being drenched and drowning in the unremitting cascades of political words that come down upon us. Lavished with scatter-shot hourly news broadcasts and with the analytic summations that pop onto the Internet screen as often as one could wish or could endure to download them, and the pamphlet-length articles that also appear on the Internet, and the plethora of books exposing and damning the regime that are pouring off the presses, we are inundated by the politics of the day in all its clamor and incessancy. Checking my email inbox just now, I find there are 1381 unread messages there, gathering electronic dust.
Rising and retiring: for some of us one of the first act of the day is to turn on the early morning news; and last, at night, comes a reading of the late Reuters dispatches on the Internet. Like the beleaguered folk of Europe in World War II who bent close to the radio to hear the scratchy dispatches from the BBC (reports from from Smolensk, from Normandy, from Monte Cassino), we are all waiting for news of deliverance from the government over which Bush presides as fool, liar, bigot, and destroyer of essential social institutions.
Weltering in politics as we are, one has to be deliberate to keep a sufficient place open in the day for the finenesses of a Chaucer or George Eliot, the complexities of a Foucault or a Raymond Williams.
Everyone, Left or Right, with active concern in their heart about the politics of the day, knows how to deplore and falls easily into that rhetorical attitude.
Deploring privately will assuage the emotion of the moment, perhaps, but it does little towards satisfying the needs of the body politic to which we’re willy-nilly always, and now scarily as well, attached.
Political efficacy necessarily wears a public face. In a mass society like ours that is marked by deep privacies and estrangement as never before in history, and that provides no popular Agoras or Forums (our chief civic ritual, voting, is conducted privily, in a curtained booth), for the ordinary citizen to "go political" is an uncomfortable thing to do. Susan Sontag speaks of "onerous citizenship." My own phrase for that is paying a voluntary civic tax, which is to say stepping out of the habit of privacy to fill and place one more sandbag on the threatened dike of our composite American life.
Taking a public political stand conjures up ideas of opening oneself to wounding ripostes; of door-to-door canvassing (as some of my Vermont friends have been doing in the neighboring swing-state of New Hampshire), with the risk then of being confronted by who-knows-what-hostile-reaction when the door is opened by the suspicious stranger; or of street vigils where the protester may be called a slut as a rejoinder to the sign she is displaying. (As happened to my friend Ann a couple of weeks ago; she as inoffensive as a deer in the meadow.) In some parts of the country, public exposure of one’s politics ranks as an impropriety, like talk of sex or one’s personal assets. It is disquieting to reflect how much the sanctified voting booth and the toilet stall resemble each other both as architectural forms and as ultimate resorts of privacy.
In my own case: while deploring the politics of the day plentifully in private surroundings where it’s safe to do that, I’ve also taken my political protest to the public street in the tiny city of Montpelier, Vermont, which is a kind of home town to me. (I live – have lived for 35 years – up a dirt road just 12 miles away from the city.) Since September, 2002, when it still seemed possible to forestall the Bush administration’s campaign to take us into war with Iraq, I have attended a weekly noon-time vigil that, in the beginning, protested against the idea of invading Iraq, and then, after the invasion, shifted to exposing and protesting its gruesome actualities.
That’s no big deal: 1 hour a week.
But it feels like a great deal, for the visible effect we have on passersby on what is the most crowded hour of the week in our otherwise quiet little city. We are seen, acknowledged, respected, scowled at, thanked, infrequently (these days) yelled at, and sometimes embraced. In the Fall foliage season, the present time from which I write, we see frequent knots and busloads of tourists as well, from England and Germany and Missouri and elsewhere. We have found on the street a way of broadcasting our thoughts, our chagrin, and the political haikus we hand-letter onto our signs, beyond our private dinner tables.
I think that besides the anti-war message our signs and our leaflet carry, our appearance on the street renders also the idea that public protest is legitimate, practical, easy-going, and even, sometimes, jolly, in the experience of ourselves, the protesters. We’ve given up our early ideas of keeping silent during the hour of the vigil, and have in fact become a convivial and gabby lot. Without intending to do that, we foment a carnival atmosphere on some Fridays, on our stretch of the block: dogs, baby carriages, bright signs, and greetings. With 30 or 35 people lined up side to side in front of Montpelier’s dreary-Modern little Federal building, most of us regulars and familiars, there are bound to be a dozen conversations going on at a time; some of them with passersby who stop to chat with a friend they have discovered on the vigil line, some with strangers. The prevailing buzz reflects our solidarity. The three dozen of us who show up on any given Friday in the comfortable seasons of the year, out of 50 or so regulars, are ourselves a community of familiar and sympathetic faces. Sifted out by time and commitment, we are like a sodality that without a summons assembles regularly for a Minyan or a 6 AM Mass.Our present steady number of 30 to 35 protesters, incidentally, relative to Montpelier’s population of 8,000, would be tantamount to a demonstration in New York City numbering 30 to 35 thousand.
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Protest is not all dreariness and duty. I believe, and I have learned as well from conversations with regulars at our Montpelier vigil, that participation brings relief from the twin futilities that have become so widespread in our times, of deploring and biting the lip in private. The heartburn, canker, and clenching olf the spirit that those futilities can engender yield, a little, when you move from private fretting to social action.
The street and its brusque publicity isn’t for everyone. I know a woman who has written a masterful book on the subject of war poetry, a work that engaged her best talents for years; another woman who goes in for the rumpus of party politics, and shakes her head when she walks past our vigil, at the waste of good intentions she sees there. I know a woman who rescues injured race horses from the knackers, and another woman who (tirelessly at first and now wearily) compiles and circulates a comprehensive calendar of political activities in our area ("What’s a Citizen To Do?").
Which, where, how? Take your pick.
JULES RABIN lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: JHRabin@sover.net