Many years ago, I was teaching high school in Gastonia, North Carolina. The senseless, world-destroying catastrophe of the Iraq War was just breaking over the horizon at the time, and students asked me what I thought about it. As a novice teacher, I didn’t know what my proper response should be. Personally, I was despondent. Whether or not Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”–we’d given them to him, after all–it seemed transparently obvious that Iraq posed no immediate threat to the United States, and the ideologues and used car salesmen in Washington were driving us into a pointless war of choice.
It was a dark time, and arguably much of the horror of the twenty-first century derives from it: the hundreds of thousands or million dead in Iraq, the barbaric cruelty of ISIS, perhaps even the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis that has torn Europe apart and even, indirectly, contributed to the rise of Donald Trump. It was our Archduke Ferdinand moment, and it didn’t need to happen.
Which brings us to today. I remember going to a Flaming Lips concert in Asheville just as the Iraq invasion was unrolling, and the band flashed two messages on the big screen at the start of the show:
Tonight, your life will change for the better, forever
Tonight, the world will change for the better, forever
It was cheesy, yes, but there was something about it that struck me. In the Spring of 2003, it didn’t seem like anything was ever going to get better. And in many ways, in fact, things did indeed get worse: Katrina, the financial crisis, the almost uncountable killings of black men and women by police in the years since. But we’ve also seen marriage equality become a constitutional fact nationwide; millions have gotten health insurance, in some form or fashion; and hundreds of thousands of young people have been protected from deportation by the DACA program. All of this is good, albeit in danger. But it was nonetheless heartening and surprising in 2003 to hear someone say that things could actually get better.
Many of us find ourselves in a similarly hopeless place on this most unfortunate of days. But I would argue that hopelessness is the wrong reading of the situation. Throughout American history, movements for justice and equality have run up against steely and often brutal opposition. The historic achievements of the labor movement and the Left during the 1930s hit a brick wall of opposition in the form of the Red Scare and the Taft-Hartley Act in the late 1940s. The gains made by feminism and the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s met a counter-force in the form of Nixon and Reagan.
Today is not much different. As I have tried, like many others, to parse the tea leaves of this bizarre election, I kept coming back to one conclusion: the social progress of the last four or eight years incurred a reaction. The advances of LGBT rights, such as marriage equality and protections for trans people; the robust movement to demand that Black Lives Matter, which has made a not-insignificant portion of the country very uncomfortable, even angry; the struggle of workers at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart to improve their conditions and “Fight for Fifteen”; the passion of people fighting for Dreamers and other undocumented people–all of it stirred a response, and that response took the form of a tacky reality TV show host, alas. As the somewhat baffling koan from high school science class says, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”
The lesson to take from all this is not that the Left is vanquished, but that gains have been made that were threatening enough to invite this kind of backlash. Think of North Carolina’s ludicrous “bathroom bill” or Kim Davis refusing to sign marriage certificates; think of Trump and his vile fantasies about Muslims cheering 9/11 or Sarah Palin and her moronic “death panels.” All of this has been bubbling up for years, in response to the threat posed by those of us who are pursuing real and meaningful social change.
There are and have been movements afoot in this country that endanger the status quo, and they did not disappear on November 9th, 2016. The Cheeto Satan may be a manifestation of a periodic swing in American history against social justice and greater equality, but his election would not have happened if there were not something to swing against. Every time of progress in America has brought this kind of response, from Reconstruction to the 1960s to the present.
Our job is to make sure that these movements continue to make the comfortable uncomfortable. Now is the time to call your Senators and Representatives, get involved, run for office, protest, even get arrested. At Tropics of Meta, we will keep on documenting both the historical and contemporary struggles of people for justice, just as we have done for the last seven years. We have written about Mexican farmworkers in El Monte, Riot Grrls and punks, Greek anarchists and Chicana feminists and music pirates, and much more. The loyal opposition begins today, but did it ever really stop?