An Open Letter to our Ailing Democracy

Here I sit, holding the hand of our ailing democracy to my chest. She has been on life support for a while now. She slipped into a coma some time in 2020, probably right around the time of the first impeachment trial. There was some heated discussion about whether or not to pull the plug.

One side of the family claimed she was already dead. The other side showed up with stun guns and baseball bats either to goad her out of complacency or to administer the coup de grace, I’m not sure which. Someone asked if there was a DNR order in place. But there is still a heartbeat. There is still some brain activity. Our fragile democracy has been deeply traumatized by recent events. But was it only these overt and violent attacks? Or is there something deeper that has weakened her resiliency or even compromised her will to go on?

What is the root cause of all this relentless dis-ease eating away at the fabric of our society? Each side stands slack-jawed at how far the other side has fallen into their delusional reality. Which cancer is eating away at our ability to self-govern? Is it the cancer of white supremacy? Is it the hundreds of years of genocide perpetrated against generations of non-white “others?” The symptoms of this disease show up in our public discourse, in the way the lie machine keeps churning out the fake news. The feverish pearl-clutchers expressing shock and awe every time someone pushes the line closer and closer to authoritarianism, to fascism, to mob rule … these fevered expressions of dismay are not effective in the efforts to identify and expel perpetrators of these shocking behaviors. They have done nothing to protect our democracy from further internal attacks. The fever gets more and more frenzied and the attacks just keep coming.

We’ve fallen into a plague of Orwellian doublespeak where the liar-in-chief so proudly hails his followers shouting accusations of the very crimes he has been committing all along. This plague, this virus, this cancer, … it is insidious. It feels a little bit like my recent diagnosis. My immune system is so overactive that it has begun to attack healthy tissue, thinking it is the enemy.

We used to have some preventive medicine in place. We used to have regulation of our mediated information channels so that our blood stream of information could be filtered through healthy debate and a public discourse that aims to balance the common good with the rights of individuals to express their beliefs without fear of persecution. But somewhere along the way preventive medicine gave way to 24-hour crisis triage programming. Somewhere along the way someone gave capitalism an honorary doctorate degree and over time profit became the only measure of economic health and wellness while masses of working folks fell deeper into chronic poverty. And poverty somehow became equated with moral failings, so we lost all our empathy. Suddenly we found ourselves in a gladiator-style struggle to keep “everyone else” down so that … “we” … (who exactly is that “we” anyway?) … could be lifted above those considered to be “less than.”

When the campaign slogan was “the fight for the soul of America” it became glaringly obvious that our cancer that is killing us from the inside is a spiritual one. When rabid religious zealots are duped into voting for whichever candidate holds the so-called “pro-life” banner, only to see them enact legislation and policy that supports death, incarceration, and all manner of unfreedom, … well perhaps it’s not time to call the surgeon, perhaps it’s time to call the priest, or the witch doctor. (But please, do not call the QAnon Shaman). Perhaps the soul of this nation is so far gone that only death or exorcism can save us now?

But I sit here, clinging to the hand of our weakened and fragile democracy, holding the hand to my heart as I close my eyes and listen. I listen for the heartbeat. I listen for the signs that we can begin the long, slow road of physical therapy, to help our democracy regain her strength so she can walk and talk again. This morning I read a report in Time Magazine that discussed a cobbled together coalition of diverse groups all seeking a move towards justice. It felt like the reports from a team of doctors who have been working our democracy’s immune system to help ensure that this slow moving coup d’etat does not result in the coup de grace currently threatening our democratic processes.

Today was the truth-telling. Last year’s impeachment tried to play by those old gentlemen’s rules of decorum and honor and centered on arguments about what constitutes high crimes or misdemeanors and whether or not procedural blah blah blah made a difference. This year’s work by the house managers feels like a radioactive infusion of stark, powerful, naked truth.

People will always tell stories to try to understand the world around us. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of time and we will continue to do it forever. For my own personal preference, the narrative that was woven on the Senate floor today leaned a bit too heavily on the tug-on-your-heartstrings dramatic spectacle where suddenly the fear of “cop killers” took front and center and the existential threats to our democracy were on a side burner, simmering quietly.

I watched in disgust as the footage of rabid, blood-thirsty Trumpster white supremacists showed their ugly true nature. And yet I found myself caught in a confusing mixture of disgust, rage, loathing, and pity. Yes, pity. I felt sorry that they could be so delusional, so duped by a narcissistic megalomaniac sociopathic autocrat into thinking that their “whites-only” vision of America was somehow great. If anything, it is the greatest threat to our collective well-being. We have seen the enemy and it is us. We have seen the cancer among us and it is very difficult to see how we will excise this cancer without killing ourselves in the process.

Years ago my ex-mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer for the second time. The family decided to keep her in the dark about her prognosis, fostering her delusional hopes that she might somehow recover. I was livid. I believed it was a terrible injustice not to be honest with her about her condition. But I was not blood family and it was not my fight so I kept my mouth shut. This democracy is my blood family and I will not keep my mouth shut.

Trump is the center of this festering malignant tumor, but he is by no means the entire disease. There is an entire ecosystem of enablers that must be addressed if we want us to recover from this cancer and not have a flare-up yank us out of remission the next time a smarter or more charismatic neo-fascist comes along. We must look at all the toxins and poisons being ingested by our body politic. But I would caution us against the chemo approach, nuking the entire system. We must find a way to neutralize the enablers and the leeches while also giving nutritional boosts to our marketplace of ideas.

The grand and beautiful irony of all this is that the very people claiming that the democrats are evil and corrupt are going to rely on decades of work by folks who have been historically targeted by our collective systems of surveillance, policing and incarceration – those folks who have been labeled as “other.” When representative Ilhan Omar speaks about domestic terrorism, she does so from a place of being someone who has been both labeled a “Muslim terrorist” and targeted by domestic terrorists. You can read more about her experience in The Washington Post or in The Guardian. She fights for their rights to be treated fairly and humanely as much as she fights for her own rights. When BLM activists call for a de-funding of police, they are not asking for chaos in the streets, they are asking for resources to be directed towards programs that provide support for vulnerable populations and and compassionate approaches to potential conflicts. Our insurrectionists will benefit from their activism. Perhaps they will simply get a taste of their own medicine and be treated like “hooligans.” We already see these moves happening in Arizona. There are Draconian bills being presented that will label all protestors as gang members and create laws that make “unlawful protest” a felony, effectively stripping the rights of those who choose to exercise their first amendment rights to peaceful assembly and petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.

That’s the sad and bitter irony of all this. Trump and his Proud Boys have nothing to address. Their grievances are petty. And, as John Pavlovitz so eloquently opined:

“What precisely were they overthrowing?
What exactly were they protesting?
How specifically had this nation so grievously wronged them?
This was a nothing revolution.
An empty display of cheap anger formed in staggering privilege, made of fake oppression, inflamed by a massive lie.”

They are like my overactive immune system, attacking everything, even the healthy tissue, because they just want to attack something, anything.

In the summer of 2017 I was preparing to teach a class in Media Literacy, a class a friend and colleague helped develop. As I tried to think of creative and interesting ways to engage the students into the ongoing collective work of being conscious of what we consume in our media diets and how important that is for civic discourse, I wrote this little adaptation of William Shakespeare’s famous speech from Act III of Hamlet.

To Tweet or Not to Tweet
To tweet or not to tweet
That is the question
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind
To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous alt-facts
Or to take arms against a sea of hate speech
And by resisting, end it?

To tweet?  Re-post?
No more!  And with a re-post we claim we stand in solidarity
To end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that news is made of
Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

To tweet?  Perhaps to Snopes?  Ay – there’s the rub!
For in that tweet storm of hate, what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this cloak of lies
Must give us pause – There’s the respect
That makes the work of verifying one’s sources
Seem to be a long road of calamity

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time
When the oppressor’s chains are built and strengthened
In lies and deception?  When the proud man’s narcissism
Bleeds tweetstorms of rage and ridicule? 
When a despised lover posts vengeful rants?
Or when the rule of law is overturned by an insolent officer of a so-called governing body?

The patience that made our mothers saints
Makes fools of us who would believe the bare facts
Who would gladly accept these tales of woe?
But that the dread of finding out that something underneath the hype
That undiscovered country of deep and painful truths
Might allow no traveler to return to the land of ignorant bliss
It puzzles the mind and makes us rather accept blindly
The memes and tweets of ill-informed trolls
Than to fly in the face of common sense to ask the deeper questions!

Thus comfort doth make cowards of us all
when the privileged shade of whiteness
Is sickened by reflections of the truth in our mirrors
Our desire to be right clouds our desire to be true
And all our good-intentions fall flat on the same couch
From whence we drown in our Facebook newsfeeds
And all our justified rage at these current events
Falls by the wayside and we lose the name of action.

It’s a bit eerie how that writing exercise from four years ago holds so much resonance even today.

Stay well. Stay human.

Laurelann Porter
February 10, 2021

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