When I was 4 years old, my parents sat me and my brothers down and calmly explained that my father was going to jail.
He was going to jail, they said, because he would be joining hands with other people to stop cars from going in and out of an air force base near our house. He was doing this because the United States was in a war in a faraway place called Vietnam, and that war was killing a lot of people.
I don’t remember how I reacted to this news, exactly, but I do remember the joy and relief I felt the next day, when my father appeared — fresh from jail, as it would turn out, and dressed in a suit and tie.
Americans have a civic duty to rise up from our nests of privilege, and to organize and to protest.
I’ve thought about this episode a lot over the past week, as my emotional state that has veered from bewilderment to anxiety to despondence.
I respect the democratic institutions of our country. Although Donald Trump’s path to victory was via a crooked Electoral College system that subverts the foundational principle of one person-one vote, I accept that he is the president-elect. I hope he can help the people he’s promised to help — not by peddling them hate and stoking fear, as he did so often on the campaign trail, but by improving their lives.
For the rest of us, the question is: What do we do now?
How do we contend with a president who repudiates our values of tolerance and social justice, and who — with the consent of his congressional quislings — may pursue an agenda that targets our most vulnerable citizens?
The question I’m really asking here is this: Do Americans of conscience have the energy and the will to shape themselves into a genuine and enduring protest movement?
I ask this because, for too long, Americans of all persuasions have been content to regard politics as a form of entertainment, a kind of dismal reality TV show playing out in some distant cable studio where caffeinated pundits snipe, while we rage or laugh on our couches. Our basic approach to the political system has been passive consumption rather than active participation.
With the aid of a craven and profit-starved Fourth Estate, the corporate interests of this country have engaged in a massive game of divide and conquer, cleaving our citizenry into two bigoted halves, and cleaving us from our own civic ideals.
We’ve become spoiled cynics, eager to grumble about “government” as the source of our all problems and unwilling to recognize all that government does to make our lives of unprecedented ease possible, everything from clean water and garbage pickup to public safety and medical care.
For the most part, our government acts as a force for good in the lives of people. But when that good is ignored, or imperiled, the burdens of self-governance kick in.
It’s not enough simply to vote or post on social media. Americans have a civic duty to rise up from our nests of privilege, and to organize and to protest. This doesn’t make us radicals, or enemies of the state. It makes us responsible citizens.
Every major social movement in this country, from abolition to suffrage to labor rights to Civil Rights, has been fueled by individuals who turned away from convenience and took action.
Think about it. Every major social movement in this country, from abolition to suffrage to labor rights to civil rights, has been fueled by individuals who turned away from convenience and took action.
This is why I keep returning to that memory of my father protesting the Vietnam War more than 40 years ago. He was a doctor with a position at a prestigious university and three small children. His actions put him at personal risk and damaged his academic career.
But he believed that the simple act of joining hands with other citizens would make a difference.
He was right.