Where was your outrage when…?

My children had, in many ways, an idyllic, throw-back childhood. We lived in a small mountain community, where neighborhood kids spent countless low-supervised hours tromping through woods as they acted out epic dramas in imaginary kingdoms built on the banks of the creek and river that ran past our homes.

On the 4th of July, most of us gathered for a parade, led by a local fire truck and an older, beloved couple who dressed as Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. We all decorated bikes and wagons and walked with the kids and waved to neighbors who lined the streets and waved back. Like something out of a movie about times gone by–except it was our time.

I miss those days.

I miss how sweetly innocent and simple the 4th of July felt then. I miss the optimism I felt for our children’s futures. I miss my ignorance–which was, in many ways, bliss.

Because it’s all different now. My children are grown, and the 4th of July will likely never again be a sweet, simple, or nostalgic holiday for me. This year, I cannot look at this picture of my babies without thinking of the thousands of children currently being held, by my government, in cages away from their parents. I can’t help thinking of their parents and the pain they must be enduring as they imagine that of their children.

To all those who have asked/accused people like me, who are horrified at these actions and are raising our voices against it, Where was your outrage when___ (fill in the blank)? all I can really say is, “You’re right.” They aren’t always right about what actually happened in the past, but their question gets at an important and essential truth:  Our governmental institutions have been responsible for unjust, painful, outrageous actions all through my life, and I did not protest most of them. I didn’t even know about a lot of them.

Recently, my daughter asked me how I could bring children into such a difficult and troubled world (“just the climate issue alone, Mom!”), and the only answer I could give was that I didn’t understand, when I was making that decision, how troubled our world really is. “How could you not?” she demanded of me. “All the information was available.”

She is not wrong.

And I don’t have any kind of good defense. The second time Bush won the presidency through a questionable election, I checked out. I decided my contribution was going to come through my work as an educator and parent, and that that was enough. I stopped paying close attention because paying attention frustrated me and made me feel powerless and because–I understand now, but didn’t then–my privileges shielded me from the impact of so many things that were happening. I told myself that none of it really mattered that much. Life goes on, went on, much as it always had, for me. I checked out because I could. Simple as that.

There’s really no excuse for me not knowing the things I didn’t know then, but I know them now. And you know how it is with so many truths we don’t really want to know:  Once we know them, we can’t un-know them.

I can’t un-know that people of color have a very different lived experience in this country than people who look like me.

I can’t un-know that I have lived my whole life in a country founded on white supremacy, and that race has been at play in every aspect of our history.

I can’t un-know that we are in a place I never thought we could be but that I should have known was possible. The balance of powers is gone, as are collective agreements about how to play fair in a democracy. There appear to be very few checks still in place, and the ones that remain are under attack.

And this is knowledge I cannot simply turn away from, much as part of me wishes I still could.

It is not so much that I’ve become “woke” as that I’ve just started to pay attention again. To pull my head out of the sand. And to all who ask, “Where was your outrage when___?” all I can say is, “Fair question, but it’s a time-waster, a diversion, a straw man.”

That I wasn’t outraged when ____ does not invalidate my outrage now.

Just  because I (and so many others) failed to protest in the past, it does not mean we should be quiet now or that our protest now lacks legitimacy. It does not mean that past wrongs justify current ones. And it does not mean that our outrage now is only because we don’t like your guy. To be clear:  We don’t. He’s a racist, misogynistic, corrupt, dishonest man who’s surrounded himself with people a lot like himself.

The important fact is not that we dislike them as people, but that we don’t like what they are doing. We don’t like elimination of due process, violation of laws, and irreparable psychological damage done to children for political gain. We don’t like their lies and their abuses of power. We don’t like the ways in which they have not played fair. We don’t like any of them because collectively they pose a greater threat to our country than any I’ve ever seen. I like to think we’d be against that no matter who occupied the White House, if we knew about it.

What I know today is that patriotism requires so much more than fireworks and colorful streamers woven through the spokes of a bicycle wheel. It requires that we inform ourselves, seek out truth, and, once we know it, speak it to authority–through our words, our votes, and, if necessary, our protest. As the bumper sticker says, Dissent is Patriotic. Good Lord, as much as our country was founded on white supremacy, it was also founded on dissent. We have always been a complex, contradictory nation, one who idealizes tradition and decorum with the same breath we use to smash them. Our understanding and celebration of our country–our patriotism–should be equally dimensional.

While I’d like to wish you a happy 4th, that doesn’t seem the right sentiment this year. In fact, what I most wish for your 4th is that it be a complicated one, a mix of love and pride and anger and alarm and–above all else–one of resolve to preserve the best of what this day has traditionally stood for. Our children need that from us, much more than they need sparklers and streamers. (But hey, I hope you enjoy the sparklers and streamers. We need those, too.)




13 thoughts on “Where was your outrage when…?

  1. Kathy says:

    I’m not saying this in a “woe is me” way, but I don’t think I’ll ever celebrate the Fourth again like I have in the past. Not Thanksgiving either, for that matter.
    Yes, “where was I”? I don’t know. I believed what I learned in school. I was 10 the summer of the bicentennial. George Washington and the founding fathers were heroic figures. America was the land of opportunity. I lived among people who looked and sounded like me. I see now, so much of what I wasn’t taught then -what was hidden and harder to see and talk about.

    I will just keep educating myself. And giving my time and money and voice when and where I am able.

  2. Marian says:

    In your defense (and mine; my middle child is the same age as your twins) — the information about climate change might have been out there 20 years ago, but it wasn’t in-our-faces-out-there, the way it is today, or the way it was a decade ago. That would have been a snippet on a newscast, and then months of silence on the subject, unless you were in scientific circles. Let’s face it, pre-Internet, many of us were blissfully unaware of, well, nearly everything. (Maybe “many of us” is a reach? I don’t know for sure, but I know I was mostly clueless.) And if we DID happen to cotton on to some mess-in-the-making (I’m thinking of plastic grocery bags and disposable coffee cups hitting my radar 25+ years ago) perhaps most people’s response was what mine was: we can fix this. If we can just ALL become aware of the problem, we can effect change. It was easy (or easier) to be idealistic back then, to have hope for the future, to imagine that humankind would be able to solve all its problems, and that made the having-of-children an ok thing to do.

    That must have been a really hard conversation to have had with your daughter, Rita. I’ve mentioned before that my daughter (nearly 22) has said she doesn’t know how people are still having kids, but she’s never told me I shouldn’t have had her or her brothers 🙁 .

  3. Dana Brenner-Kelley says:

    Thank you Rita. For bearing witness in this way. Yes.
    I cannot celebrate. I cannot un-know. Ignorance was bliss and folly. I look at my nine year old and say “how could I have thought it was ok to bring a child into this world?” How did I not know better?
    How can I help him navigate this? Two babies were born this week to people in know and my heart dropped. You said it all.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Dana,
      It’s nice to see you here. 🙂 I guess I thought that the struggles of the early 20th century had been fought and won. I am not sure (memory is a tricky, slippery thing, I know), but I think I was taught that we had somehow turned some corner. People, humanity. That the atrocities of the world wars had cured us of fundamental ills. I believed the myth of US exceptionality. I can see now what a Euro-centric story that one was. I can see that it required denying a whole lot of history and a whole lot of what was going on in other parts of the world (including places in my own country) throughout my life. I can see that I grew up and have lived in a lovely, protected pocket of place and time–how very rare and privileged my experience has been (in all the meanings of that word, privilege) when set in the context of so many people’s lives, both historically and in my lifetime. Sure, I’ve had challenges, but I have never directly experienced war, famine, physical violence (of any real consequence) or the threat of it, poverty. I’ve always had enough food and water, safe places to live, health care when I needed it. If such hardships were to become part of my life, I feel spectacularly ill-equipped to manage them.

      I don’t know if you’ve ever read Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe, but it’s a book I read multiple times when I was growing up. I find myself often now thinking of the grandmother in that story. She had lived her whole life much as I’ve lived mine (comfortably), and it was suddenly all stripped away, so late in the game for her. I don’t know how this story of our time is going to play out. I try to be both hopeful and wide-eyed, in ways I wasn’t before. I am thankful for the company (real or virtual) of others who confirm that I’m not the only one seeing things as I’m seeing them. It’s so easy to be gas-lighted. I appreciate you being one of those people for me.

  4. Kate says:

    We didn’t do much yesterday. Jesse had to work the day before and the day after. It was gray and stormy. We tackled some projects around the house. Played a few extra games with our kids. Watched the storms roll past. My patriotism seems to be a lot less of the ohh rah rah sparkler kind and a lot more of the our nation has faced great imperfections and divisions before and generally speaking, we move in the right directions. Even if it is at a slower pace than we’d like. I’ve been listening to a lot of folk music from 40-50 years ago. Somethings are scarily the same.

    My brother was shocked when I recently said that knowing what I know now, I don’t know that I would bring children into the world. It’s such a hopeful thing…choosing to become parents. It makes me sad hearing that so many young adults (yours, Marian’s) question that decision. I understand it (as my comment to my brother illustrates), but it breaks my heart too.

    All in all, I hope your 4th was…good.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Kate. My 4th was a nice day–but it wasn’t much about the holiday. I find myself struggling with lots of holidays any more. Actually, struggle is too strong a word. Many are sort of non-events (Easter), and others that are still events (Christmas) just aren’t the same kind they once were. I try to find my own meaning in them when/how I can, and the rest I’ve been able to let go of.

      I agree with you that we have generally moved in the right direction, and that’s something I’m trying to hold onto. This backlash to Civil Rights and the women’s movement (as that’s my interpretation of current events–a decades-in-the-making response to the forward movement of the 60s and 70s) is turning particularly nasty and scary. Layer on the threat from climate change, and…this feels like something unprecedented. I hope I am wrong. I have never hoped for anything more than to be wrong in how I’m seeing things right now.

      As for having children–yes, that is always (if deliberately chosen) an act of hope, isn’t it? I am sad, too, that my children are not living in as hopeful a time as I got to when I was their age. As I wrote to Dana in this thread just a minute ago, I am realizing what a lucky person I’ve been.

  5. Stephenie says:

    Rita, it is so hard not to feel overwhelmed at times, and I hope writing it out helps even if you still feel helpless in the face of everything. “Canada Day” is something that has changed for me as well, as I can’t help thinking about the fact that celebrating the “birth of Canada” 151 years ago is a little ridiculous in many ways, given that Indigenous people lived here quite happily before colonization and have since been marginalized in the extreme. “Reconcilliation” is the word here, and it makes people angry because so many still think we have nothing to apologise for, nothing to reconcile, despite all of the pain caused through residential schools and other ways of taking children away from their families. In Canada we like to think we are more open-minded but underneath there is still a strong current of racism against Indigenous Canadians that is going to take years and generations to undo. Even in myself, I have to check what deeply ingrained, unconscious prejudices I have, and constantly reframe my thinking. But then I hear the casual racism coming from some others, and I just feel like it is fighting against a raging river.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Stephanie,

      I think many of us on this side of the border like to idealize Canada and Canadians, and I appreciate this reminder that people are people, and we all face the same challenges. Clearly, what’s happening in the US is not specific to the US–look at Europe–it’s just that our president is so obnoxious and extreme and our actions have impacts far beyond our own borders.

      I understand the raging river metaphor, too. We are all so tribal. We are programmed to see difference, to draw lines of separation between us. And, yes, I agree, this is the work of generations. Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges facing us. I know we might not overcome them. But I like to think we will. I find some comfort in taking the long view. I do think that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but up close it’s nothing close to a straight line. And we live in the up-close, where it is messy and uncomfortable and we take many steps back for all that we take forward. I try to remember that, too.

  6. Kristin Johnson says:

    Thank you Rita for putting so many of my thoughts (and confusions) into such eloquent words.
    I’ve never been a big one for this holiday, for various reasons, but mainly because I always think about the money literally being blown up that could provide food, shelter, education…
    This year I cleaned my toilets, read Thanks Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years (Litt) and watched referenced speeches from the book then cried, and lastly cheered on the Sounders (aka REAL futbol).

    • Rita says:

      Hi Kristin,
      I’ve never been too big on this holiday, either, for the same reasons. I did love the parade when my kids were little, but the symbolism of the fireworks has always bothered me, along with the waste. People behave stupidly and hurt each other (and animals) on the 4th, and somehow that’s supposed to be about love of country? Has never made much sense to me.

      Your 4th sounds like a pretty good way to spend the day. I had a nice dinner with people I love. We took a walk as the sun was setting, and it was a gorgeous sunset. (So much more amazing than fireworks!) We saw neighbors in their driveways lighting small (legal) fireworks for their kids, and I liked that a lot. It reminded me of when we were kids and most people didn’t feel the need to light up rockets. It was a quiet day, which seemed fitting this year.

  7. May says:

    Yup. Once again across the miles our hearts are simpatico. My own resistance happens on two fronts: Citizen Me will not let my elected representation rest. I bug them at least three times per week and some weeks more like three times a day. Professional Me does my life’s work with all the love and passion I can muster and hopes the world is at least the slightest bit changed for good because of that.
    May recently posted…Summer’s EndMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I believe the world is changed for good by your work. And mine. I just wish it had been enough to prevent what we’re now living through. We can only do what we can do, and every little bit helps. I’m so grateful to know that you are there, calling. I think all of us who live in blue states are grateful for the resistance put up by those living in the red ones. (I just re-read that sentence and can hardly believe it came through my hands. I miss thinking of all of us as just Americans, before red state/blue state became the kind of short-hand it now is.) Wishing you a good school year. Keep fighting all the good fights.

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