Friday, November 18, 2016

The Times Literary Supplement published my essay yesterday, and immediately I was inundated with Facebook responses. Many were positive; many were not. I fielded dismay from straight-line progressives who were completely unable to fathom why anyone would vote against their own self-interests. I received responses from people who believed that any defense of my neighbors' humanity was perforce a defense of bigotry and racism. I heard from people who saw examination of my community's flaws as arrogant. I dealt with people who told me these problems were all my fault because I'd voted for Trump . . . as if I would have ever done such a thing! I actually heard from one person who said that he didn't believe this voting demographic even existed.

There was more nuanced commentary, of course. And there were plenty of respondents who were either dealing with similar complications in their own lives or were open to recognizing that they exist.

I tried to write back to everyone who had questions or shared disbelief or skepticism. I put out a lot of fires, but a couple of them continue to smolder. I found it particularly difficult to engage productively in conversations about bigotry and racism, in large part because their victims have every reason in the world to see those problems as clear divisions between right and wrong. A discussion about ambiguity doesn't protect their loved ones from getting killed.

I think it's important to note that I did not choose the title of the essay. In fact, I did not know that the TLS had called it "The Humanity of Trump Voters" until I saw it in print. Immediately I knew how angry that would make some people, and I wonder if the editors deliberately chose to invoke that discomfort. On the other hand, they may not have realized exactly how many American progressives do not want to consider the humanity of Trump voters.

When I sent the TLS link to my 19-year-old son, his response was "Strikes at the heart of liberal elitism." His wording made me laugh. Like so many young people, he loves an Excalibur solution. Also, he is a liberal elite. What makes him different is that he was born and raised in Harmony, Maine. According to 2000 and 2010 census data, 939 people live here. The median age is 49. The average household income is $29,500, and 20 percent of families live below the poverty line. The racial makeup is 98 percent white. Among residents older than age 25, 3 percent have a four-year college degree. In the 2016 election, 65 percent voted for Trump, 33 percent for Clinton. Despite disbelief, this demographic does exist.

I stand by what I said in my essay: a significant portion of "our fractured American electorate resides in the places that educated Americans are least likely to visit."
The fact is that generations of people live in those shabby towns you drive through on your way to somewhere better. And Donald Trump’s victory means that you might need to learn who these human beings are.


Ruth said...

And if what I consatntly say IS true ;"There is room on the bus for everyone and if there isn't, it isn't my bus and I am not getting on.", we had all better believe this too.

As always Dawn, thankd for being that beacon of honesty and good writing.

Maureen said...

I saw your FB post yesterday where you mentioned the title had been changed. I was a little hesitant to (but did) share the TSL post because of that title. I see how it can mean the one side or the other, as you note in today's post.

I remember being so hesitate to tell people who ask where I went to college (Vassar), because I immediately would get a reaction that simply did not correlate to my circumstances and felt I had to defend being a smart young woman. My parents were far from wealthy; my father had only an 8th-grade education and my mother a high school diploma. Both had a lot of smarts. I am only a second-generation American, and the first in my family (there were 7 living children) to go to college. I got to go because of the scholarships I earned (and at the time, tuition and board were nowhere near the cost now) and the generosity of Vassar's supporters.

I dislike the term "liberal elite", though, yes, I am very liberal and yes, I went to a school considered "elite". I've finally decided I no longer have to apologize for being intelligent, a woman, or someone who finds unacceptable racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, etc., or just plain meanness toward others. Everything in me resists those.

The divisiveness among Americans truly saddens me. What saddens me even more is how so many hold "the other" as contemptible. It's remarkable what we can learn from each other when we make the effort to close the gap that separates us.

Your excellent and thoughtful posts since the election always are worth reading and pondering, Dawn. Have a beautiful weekend.

Dawn Potter said...

Maureen, the original version of the TLS essay included a discussion of the term "liberal elite," which, like you, I find misleading and problematic. I'm not sure why the editors chose to excise that section; perhaps they saw it as off-topic, and perhaps it was, given how sick I was when I wrote the first draft. So when I use the term I do so with a sense of irony, yet I also recognize that its very existence exemplifies the divisive nature of our various worldviews. You and I may not see ourselves as liberal elites, but that is indeed how some other people perceive us, rightly or wrongly. I feel that I've got a certain duty to examine what such a label implies to people who don't know or trust me . . . for instance, how my intellectual confidence, my ability to navigate among various worlds, even my resort to words as a solution and a solace, can, by their very existence, close doors of communication. There are lots of Trump supporters who make a lot more money than I do. But wealth doesn't quench anxiety or fear of the Other, especially an Other who might appear to be a condescending snob.

David X. Novak said...

Here in the city we are not "98 percent white." When I reflect upon how this is affecting people dear to me, involuntarily I find myself echoing Claude McKay's call to his "avenging angel" in the sonnet "Enslaved":

Oh when I think of my long-suffering race,
For weary centuries despised, oppressed,
Enslaved and lynched, denied a human place
In the great life line of the Christian West;
And in the Black Land disinherited,
Robbed in the ancient country of its birth,
My heart grows sick with hate, becomes as lead,
For this my race that has no home on earth.
Then from the dark depths of my soul I cry
To the avenging angel to consume
The white man's world of wonders utterly:
Let it be swallowed up in earth's vast womb,
Or upward roll as sacrificial smoke
To liberate my people from its yoke!

All signs suggest it happening, without a lot of mourning from the once putative "lesser breeds".

Dawn Potter said...

My son and his beloved live in Chicago, and his beloved is a black woman. Believe me, I recognize that where and with whom we live profoundly affect how we must function as human beings and change-makers. I also know that just as my son honors his partner's history, she honors his. I fear for them both, and for the many, many other diverse citizens of this nation. The complications are immense. Anger and confrontation are necessary but they are not the only activism. I'm a teacher. My modus operandi is to seek change by modeling civil discourse. That doesn't mean I'm blind to the flaws of those around me. I live in a world in which beating up women is a common response to frustration, where some of my fellow townspeople still don't have indoor plumbing, where opioid overdoses happen every day. In this present-tense reality, people behave badly and selfishly. They also behave with honor and bravery. I think they made a terrible mistake in believing that Trump would solve their problems. But I'm not throwing them under the bus.

David X. Novak said...

Yeah, I have a very small circle here, but I don't see anyone advocating throwing anyone under the bus (I'm sure they exist). As you say, "the complications are immense," and any number of us might wind up under the bus through inadvertence.

Dawn Potter said...

I've had people tell me that I should cut ties with any friend who voted for Trump, and that kind of pronouncement just horrifies me. I don't want to be complicit in building Trump's wall.

David X. Novak said...

The greatest hope lies with the young, like your son and his beloved; the greatest hindrance, alas, with the old.