Voices From the Wreckage

It's possible to rise from the ashes

It was like the aftermath of an earthquake. We woke the morning of November 3 with the rubble of a carefully constructed world piled around us. At first there was some prospect that not all that we loved had been destroyed. Perhaps just around the corner, we allowed ourselves to hope, the streets of civilization were still filled with orderly traffic, with people moving forward. Perhaps the edifices of reason were still standing.

But as we moved tentatively out into this post-November 2 world, it quickly became apparent that almost all of what we had labored to build had been leveled.

There was a strange silence. And then we began to hear them: the voices of our friends, trapped in the heaps of concrete and dust. On that dark morning, I got a one-word e-mail from a friend in California. "Despair" was all she wrote.

Illustration by Jorge Colombo

I also heard: I don't know how to go on. I heard: I lay in bed crying for two hours. I heard: I couldn't watch. I didn't watch. I can't watch.

Well, I watched. I watched John Kerry's concession speech in a Radio Shack on Court Street. Passersby stopped occasionally to take in the image, the ticker crawling along the bottom of the screen confirming the news. They shook their heads and moved on.

One man threw open the door and stomped in, outrage coming off him like electricity. "He's just giving up?" he said. "Just like that? He's giving up?" He waved his hand in dismissal at Kerry's disciplined, polite image, multiplied a dozen times on televisions made in sweatshops far, far away. "Aww, man," he said. And he walked out in disgust.

I kept watching.

Because here's the thing: We can't walk away—not if we believe what we say we do. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but just a week ago, we were on a mission. A mission to stand for tolerance, compassion, and reason against an opponent who twists the truth, who sows death and destruction wherever he turns. We were on a mission to protect those who can't protect themselves, to shield minorities of every stripe—including ourselves—from the blind, crushing will of the majority.

Now we're taking off for France, for Costa Rica? The Canadian government's immigration information website saw a sixfold jump in hits from the U.S. the day after the election. That was 115,016 of our friends calling out from under the rubble for the first taxi going by.

Running away would be cowardly and selfish, not to mention that it can be a one-way ticket to irrelevance. Exile sometimes makes opposition wither. That's why tyrants and totalitarians throughout history have used it as a punishment, especially if it not only figuratively beheads the resistance but also makes those who are exiled into a species of ghost. Why would we want to hand George W. Bush the gift of our departure? Why, if we wouldn't let Osama bin Laden drive us from New York, would we let Dubya drive us from America?

But we're in the minority, the would-be exiles fret. We'll never win again. They hate us. I don't want to live in a place where people would vote for somebody like Bush. I'm scared.

You're scared? Well, join the people you have always said were your heroes: Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela. Harriet Tubman. Andrey Sakharov. Sojourner Truth. Galileo. And all the others whose names we'll never know.

You think they weren't scared? You think the people in Selma weren't scared when the dogs set on them? That it wasn't terrifying to load a gun and prepare to do battle in the Warsaw ghetto? That the slaves who rose up to overthrow their owners in Haiti didn't know fear, or that Sitting Bull and his warriors were unperturbed when Custer set out to massacre them?

Can we even dare to compare our fear with theirs?

Yet many of us seem to have lost the stomach for the fight, just when the stakes have been raised. And not just those who are planning to decamp for Montreal. Because many progressives are proposing a kind of internal exile: I just won't pay any attention to the news, they say. I'm just going to retreat into my private life. Withdraw for four years, until it's all over.

It surely will be all over, if we take that attitude. Don't believe the mainstream hype. This fight is just beginning, and there will be plenty of opportunities to put our convictions into action.

Nearly 20 years ago, during another catastrophic time for the freethinking world—remember Reagan and Thatcher?—Doris Lessing, herself an exile, published a slim book of essays called Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. In it, she proposed that we prepare our children for the pressures of society by telling them this:

"You are going to live in a world full of mass movements, both religious and political, mass ideas, mass cultures. Every hour of every day you will be deluged with ideas and opinions that are mass-produced, and regurgitated, whose only real vitality comes from the power of the mob. . . . It will seem to you many times in your life that there is no point in holding out against these pressures, that you are not strong enough. But you are going to be taught how to examine these mass ideas, these apparently irresistible pressures, taught how to think for yourself, and to choose for yourself."

Lessing holds out history, science, art, philosophy, and literature as the keys to the prison of conformity. And we would do well to heed her advice. Because it is there—in the collective experience of those who have gone before us and have walked beside us—that we will find the tools we need to go on.

We will need strength to dig ourselves and our friends out from the wreckage of this election. We will need perspective and knowledge to help us craft our strategies. We will need courage to stand against the groupthink that bombards us from every newsstand and television and laptop.

Perhaps most of all, we will need hope.

Listen to the words of the Czech human rights hero Václav Havel, a man who endured nearly 40 years of persecution for his belief in basic liberties and freedom of expression: "Hope is a state of mind, not of the world," Havel wrote. "Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good."

Havel, of course, went on to become the elected president of Czechoslovakia. But here's the point: Even if he had died before his nation had won its freedom, he would have died knowing he was free inside.

If we don't stand together now in the ruins of the American dream and fight, will we be able to say the same?

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