The world is not ending. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been dark days, or that the very nature of our republic isn’t under siege. We have to understand that we have every reason to be concerned and disgusted by the mounting assaults on the soul of our country, while resisting the urge to run around with our hair on fire.
I’ve been getting approached more and more on the street and online about feelings of helplessness and anger, and I understand. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of different narratives being cranked out to tell you how to feel. We can’t give in to the sheer volume of problems. The people who want to stifle our voices want us to be overwhelmed and checked out so that we don’t engage in our communities and vote in these crucial elections.
One thing I have noticed over the course of the last few years is that the extreme right will engage in unnecessary abject cruelty and as soon as they are criticized for it, call for civility in discourse. When the government engages in a new and intensified family separation policy designed as a “deterrent” to immigration, the supporters of such a policy cannot expect calm and understanding responses. Ripping children away from their families and putting them in cages is worthy of outrage. You don’t get to play the victim when someone pushes back against your cruelty.
We know what the far right wants and we know what they believe. There is a rising tide of anti-immigrant, anti-EU, autocratic white supremacy on a global scale. From Hungary to France, Italy, Germany, the UK, and right here in the United States. We already know what to expect from that fight and what we need to do to combat the rise of authoritarianism around the world. One of the biggest threats to us right now is the call for centrism or compromise with the most extreme of ideologies.
I love a good debate, and I believe in compromise and striking deals with people we disagree with to get things done. That’s how any group moves forward and accomplishes large goals. However there is a difference between a conflicting opinions finding common ground, and ceding ground to immorality, human rights violations, and bigotry. What we absolutely cannot do is allow the extremism and intolerance of the moment redefine our discourse and become the New Normal. Human right cannot be a “liberal platform”. It has to remain a humanplatform. Some universal truths must hold in the center. We don’t mistreat children. Everyone deserves equal protection under the law and the equality of opportunity, not equality of result.
American’s believe in fair play, which is why demagogues play on the insecurity of “someone’s getting more than you”. Whether it’s Black athletes appearing to be “ungrateful” after being blessed with money and talent, undocumented immigrants “stealing jobs” and raking in welfare or women claiming their own voice after being “protected” by a patriarchal society. All of these things are either misconceptions, or just flat out lies, but they pick at our underlying desire for fair play. What we must strive for in this contentious hour is not to hold each other back, but to lift each other up. The goal is not to make sure everyone struggles equally, but that the rising tide lifts all boats.
Don’t allow the narrative to change; there is a left-right paradigm throughout all western liberal democracies. What we cannot do is allow right-wing extremism to push one side of the paradigm into the extreme where authoritarianism, legalized bigotry and a flagrant disregard for equality become a legitimate alternative. It never has been and it never will be legitimate, no matter how many white supremacists march in American streets or how many bigoted dog-whistles are inserted into our national policy.
At the same time we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We can’t pick apart emerging leaders or awakening citizens because they don’t check every box for us. We’re going to disagree, we’re not going to see everything the same, and some people are on different parts of the journey, some farther along than others. As long as we’re headed to the same place, committed to combating extremism and hatred, be patient with each other. If someone doesn’t phrase their perspective exactly to your liking, take a minute to consider the source and the intent before rushing to twitter for more hot takes. Shouting into the ether online is not going to fix this problem. We have to get involved in our communities, talk to each other, and turn out to vote against this dying thrust of America’s Lost Causes.
Finally it’s important to remember who we are and who we strive to be. We can’t gloss over past sins, and we can’t become overly cynical about our own history. I’ve seen far too many people observing the human rights crisis on the border and proclaiming “this is not who we are” only to be met with people citing the Trail of Tears, Slavery, and Japanese Internment saying “this is exactly who we are”. While the legacy of these sins will never leave us we have to remember that it was Americans who fought for the abolition of slavery, Americans who went to foreign shores to destroy fascism in the world’s darkest hour, American’s who laid their lives on the line for civil rights and voting rights. American’s were willing to be pepper sprayed and beaten at Standing Rock for what they believed in. The history of this nation is an undying struggle between the darkness and the light. The duality of our very nature as human beings. We can either give into the Fear allowing barbarism to become the norm, or we can embrace Love and our inner courage to make sure everyone gets a fair shake.
Stand up and speak out when you hear people trying to normalize hatred, discrimination, or cruelty. Lashing out in fear does nothing for us in the long run. Alex Haley once said, “Find the good and praise it,” and while that is sage advice, we should go a step farther. Find the good and join it. Get involved. It’s going to take all of us to define what this generation stood for during this chapter of history, and there is much more work to be done.
Willis Gordon is a musician, stand up comedian, actor, author, essayist, activist, and veteran of the War on Terror. Gordon is committed to quality entertainment and the improvement of our communities through art, action, and inclusion. He organized the “Rock the Block” voter registration concert in 2016, and continues to register voters and fight for civil rights across Stark County. He is the author of The Long Road Home and The Empty Boulevards. His live album, Willis Gordon: Live! is available anywhere you stream music. He wrote the monthly column "The Road Forward: Practical Discussions on Seeking a Better World" for Unlikely Stories Mark V.