I am a coward.
I am an American living abroad. My local newspaper asked to interview me offering me chance to publicly express my feelings about the current American administration, yet I refused to be interviewed. I am just a private citizen, not a well-spoken political commentator and I was afraid I would not be able to express myself well enough in my foreign language and I would look stupid in public.
Privately, I am doing what I can to participate in the resistance from here (donating money to worthy causes, writing letters to senators and congressmen), but I am disgusted with myself that I refused the chance to go on the record and publicly denounce Trump and his cronies.
How can I live with myself? And what else should I be doing to help advance the resistance from here?
Dear Scared Silent,
I’m not sure it makes much sense for you to beat yourself up for “refusing to go on record and publicly denounce Trump and his cronies.” Millions of American citizens are publicly denouncing Trump every single second of the day at this point. (Check Twitter.) While that act may feel gratifying, I would argue that their energies would be better spent on genuine political action, such as volunteering for a progressive candidate or cause, or contributing money to one. You can also devote yourself to professional work that helps make the world a better place. As a moral actor in the world, and an American specifically, there are a lot of ways you can enact your values in the world.
Publicly criticizing a president who has proved himself to be inept, incompetent, and calculatingly divisive is not at (or even near) the top of the list. Indeed, one of the central features of the Trump era is a kind of hyper-partisan feedback loop, whereby critics of the president blast him (however fairly) and his supporters respond with a kind of ecstatic sense of persecution that redoubles their faith in him. So let’s suppose you had chosen to do this interview, and had slammed the Trump administration. What would the net effect be? Readers who agreed with you would nod their heads righteously. And those who didn’t would be furious.
But your central concern here has to do with feeling cowardly for not taking a public stand. And specifically, feeling that you’re not qualified to comment in a second language, that you would “look stupid.” Both of these feelings are worth examining.
To begin with, it’s worth noting that the proliferation of “professional political commentators” (or pundits) hasn’t exactly been a boon to our nation’s discourse. In fact, these folks and their slick argot of talking points and spin are part of what Trump exploited when he railed about “Washington elites.” As phony as his motives might have been, he was picking up on something genuine: that lots of citizens feel a quiet sense of shame about their own capacity to express themselves, and a resentment at the “professionalization” of political speech (i.e. punditry).
But the truth is that speaking from the heart about your political and moral beliefs is one of the great gifts of American democracy. The power of our voices resides not in sophistication, but simple, direct language, telling the truth about those things that matter to us most. This capacity to express our beliefs — freedom of speech, to use the formal term -- is something to be cherished, a privilege that previous generations had to fight for, and that many other people on earth don’t enjoy.
I’m not suggesting that you betrayed that legacy by not giving an interview. I am observing that your own feelings of regret, and self-loathing, indicate that a part of you feels you betrayed yourself. So listen to that, Scared. Next time you’re offered the chance, remember that speaking your truth should (almost always) take precedent over fears of “feeling stupid.”
Author's note: I can’t wait to hear what folks have to say about this. In particular, because the comments sections of pieces like this are often so full of binary denunciations, ad hominems, etc. Do we benefit from engaging in these flame wars? Or are they exercises in futility? Post your feedback, and/or counsel, in the comments section below. And please send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. — S.A.
Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.