How to reclaim the narrative – and power – in post-truth America

Hope plus action and investment equals revolutionary muscle. Now is the time for the progressive majority to set the terms of the conversation.

Image Credit: John Garrison

Traveling through my hometown in North Carolina in the days after the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., I ran into an old friend getting a drink at a bar I used to frequent. He was there with a colleague of his – a fellow high school teacher. The conversation turned to politics pretty quickly, and the friend, B., adamantly put forth the notion that there was nothing to be done except wait out the next four awful years. Look at the numbers in Congress, he said. Look at the Supreme Court. We’re all fucked.

For those of us who checked out after Obama was elected, it can be tempting to do the same now. This, too, is something I fear – that progressives will once again be pushed back on our heels, responding to those in power with, at worst, our heads in the sand, and at best, a robust “no.” Too often in this process of saying no, we lose sight of – and energy for—the work of making demands, recognizing our own power, insisting on the reality we live in, and the reality we must work toward.

B. and I began to hash it out. In his mind, he was being realistic, practical, pragmatic. From my perspective, he was being profoundly cynical, and making an argument that flew in the face of history. What about the millions of people around the world who took to the streets on the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration? What about the ever-leftward-moving views of Americans – particularly among the younger generation that would soon be of voting age? What about the growth of progressive movements over the past decade, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the civil rights era?

The majority of us inhabit a reality that exists parallel to Trump’s. I told B. that if we buy into the cynicism that there is nothing to be done, we lose sight of the world we already live in. We let the Roves and Trumps of the world dictate reality. After decades of progressive momentum, we’ve reached an important juncture where we either surrender our narrative, our reality, to those in power, or hold fast and push forward. To choose now as the moment in which we give in to cynicism and say, What’s the point?, is to throw into the fire the history books of a future generation – the ones that might tell the story of how Americans seized democracy from the clutches of an elite handful of cynical, opportunistic oligarchs.

The stakes have never been higher: Every day brings new initiatives aimed at turning back the clock, consolidating wealth in the hands of the 1 percent, slashing access to medical care and education, removing protections for the most marginalized among us. Many of us are experiencing a shift in our perception of time because of the intensity and trauma of a leadership that shocks us daily – a single day can feel like a week, a week can feel like a month. News curation projects like “What the Fuck Just Happened Today” – an email digest, billing itself as “[t]oday’s essential guide to the daily shock and awe in national politics” – have cropped up in direct response to the barrage of Trump-related headlines emerging every day.

There are now countless opportunities for action, but that also means more opportunities to feel hopeless and disempowered. If we don’t reframe our relationship to our own power and recognize the vital role we must play now, we sacrifice our current challenging reality to one that may become unsurvivable.

Now is the time for us to set the terms of the conversation, to push back with the reality we insist on.

About an hour and a couple of drinks later, B. was still unconvinced and I was still deeply frustrated. It seemed to me that he was funneling energy that could be used to fight for the reality he wanted into defending his choice to not do anything. He was weaving a narrative about how powerless we were, one that echoed Rove’s infamous quote perfectly: “We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This is why the cynical narrative is so dangerous: it can be much easier to believe there’s nothing we can do. Hope and action are dangerous things – they speak of time, effort, investment, of giving a shit, of potential failure. For too long, hope has been associated with a kind of humorless, dewy-eyed naïveté. But look back on the civil rights era: Who would argue that those fighting to end Jim Crow laws were naive? Hope is only naive when it’s divorced from action and investment. With those forces in play, it becomes a revolutionary muscle.

Hope is the thing that makes us try, that makes us human, that makes us consciously evolve. It is what sustains long-term vision – something many of us too easily relinquish in the face of opposition. As LGBTQ activist Rea Carey entreated in the wake of Trump’s election: “Just take a few seconds and imagine a world where we are truly free, where you are truly free. What will that feel like?”

Without a vision to fight for, we relegate ourselves to a paralyzing narrative that serves as a straitjacket for the majority of Americans. At best, that narrative keeps us bound by inequality; at worst, it kills us. Hope is about staying in the fight, it’s about survival. Understood in this light, we realize that hope is not some indulgence, it is practical and pragmatic. In short: There is no other option.

Two days after our conversation, I received a message from B., referencing an interview I had recently published at Rolling Stone about the history and power of protest: “Our conversation has been on my mind, and after reading your article I see how deeply engaged you are in trying to take positive action during this dreary time. I’m really trying to rally, and felt more than a touch ashamed of my wearying cynicism. So, for what it’s worth, thank you.” It was a message I did not expect, and it was one that encouraged me to dig further, to examine the narratives that have led me and so many others to count ourselves out or sit on the sidelines.

One day recently in Brooklyn, a man boarded my subway train and let loose an impassioned and bigoted tirade. My fellow New Yorkers did their job of ignoring him admirably, but he didn’t keep up his end of the bargain, which was to move on after a few stops and pester the next car down.

After 15 minutes straight of his proselytizing, some passengers told him to shut up. He wouldn’t. Some tried reasoning with him. But here’s the thing about narcissistic ideologues: They don’t respond to logic, or dissuasion in the name of facts or reason. We could fact-check him all day and night, but he wasn’t playing by the rules of the game.

In that moment, I wrestled with a familiar feeling of resignation and powerlessness. I closed my eyes in the stuffy train and thought to myself: It’ll be over soon. But I was tired of allowing the loudest and most bombastic among us to take control by default.

I decided that if the man would not shut up, the only way to improve the situation would be to make it so we no longer had to listen to him. I told him that if he wouldn’t stop talking, I would start singing so that I’d no longer have to hear him.

He kept talking. So I sang.

The first round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” was shaky and a little off-key. It was all I could muster. But a few people joined in the next round, and by the third, everyone on the train was singing robustly – including a couple kids in strollers who clapped their hands in glee. The proselytizer tried to get loud, but we got louder. Suddenly, we were no longer the audience for a hateful man. He got off at the next stop, yet we kept singing a few more rounds, smiling at each other and enjoying the simple joy of the reality and world that we’d reclaimed.

I know we cannot simply sing Trump off the train. But I wonder at the strategic uses of ignoring the loudest bigot on the train by turning our attention and intentions toward each other—the quieter majority. I wonder at the strategic uses of denial and disbelief—that privilege I’ve occasionally allowed myself in order to feel more free as a brown woman to say and think what I please, to not police myself with the expectations of bigots and buffoons. I think about the lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights era. How at the heart of the strategy was a refusal to accept unjust laws and policies. To strategically ignore the rules and insist on a different world: one in which black men and women could sit and eat at the same counter as any other human being.

I want to take this principle and apply it more broadly. How can we actively, strategically, ignore Donald Trump?

A part of that answer lies in recognizing the power we already have and counting ourselves in rather than sitting on the sidelines, only explicitly acknowledging that we’re American when, say, checking the citizenship box on official paperwork.

History is happening now and we are history’s actors. But only if we can turn our attention to each other, acknowledge the power we have, and step up to own it. There are millions of us who are fighting for the same things – and millions more who want the same things but call them by a different name. Yet we still seem to struggle to understand ourselves as a movement, we struggle to recognize and take responsibility for how powerful we are. The shape of our potential remains a dotted line describing the parameters of something we’re hesitant to inhabit and lay claim to.

Part of this is about the anemic narratives on offer – about the marginalized, the ineffectual, and disorganized Left. For too long, we’ve accepted stories that disenfranchise us even when they fly in the face of facts, logic, and our shared reality. We have all come of age in a society that privileges white Americans – particularly straight, white, cisgender men. But this has become an increasingly odd dissonance with the reality of our population: Only 31 percent of Americans today are white men – and some fraction of them are more marginalized queer and transgender men.

The marginalized are now the majority, but our narratives around power haven’t kept up. As long as we continue to operate within the strictures of outdated narratives, we sacrifice our ability to recognize the reality of our power, our ability to produce reality, to live in the world we want (and need). History is full of narratives that correct this perspective, but these stories have been forgotten or given short shrift in textbooks. Even when they are presented, too often they’re shrouded in a tone of inevitability when the untold details speak of profound struggle and the necessity of “failed” efforts that preceded that “inevitable” turn.

What follows is an attempt to resurface stories that have gone missing, and to reckon with narratives that have been passed off as common sense when they’re anything but. These problematic narratives include a deeply flawed connotation of “objectivity” that has come to be dominant in the media and daily life; the perceived divide between the personal and political; the ineffectiveness of protest; and the conceit that we must always listen and respond to those in power. By holding these narratives up to the light, we see space for other possibilities. When we surface – and contribute – richer narratives, we see a different history and a different reality; one in which the stories of “marginalized” folks are, and always have been, at the heart of this country.

I wonder what kind of power we might find in recognizing the centrality of our stories.

Edited excerpt from The Marginalized Majority: Claiming Our Power in a Post-Truth America. Used with permission of Melville House Books. Copyright © 2018 by Onnesha Roychoudhuri.


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Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and educator. Her work has appeared in publications such as Rolling Stone, n+1, Virginia Quarterly Review, Boston Review, The Nation, The American Prospect, Salon, and Mother Jones. She is the co-founder of Speech/Act, an organization working at the intersection of storytelling and social justice. Headshot by Edward Menashy.