I’ve been busy becoming politically active for the first time in my life. Kind of. Within reason.
I haven’t ever stirred myself to get involved in my country and its direction before, and so I haven’t really known what to do, but I’ve just sort of waded in. Here’s what I’ve been doing, in case it’s of interest to anyone else.
The easiest, lowest barrier, and arguably most effective way to change things is to give money to people who know what they’re doing. I don’t know if this is accurate or not, but someone once told me that the best way to donate to nonprofits is to set up a monthly recurring donation. They said that this is more helpful than one time big donations even if the amounts are quite small, because nonprofits need to budget for what they can do based on the money they know they will have, and sporadic big donations are hard to plan for. This made sense to me, so I’ve always had 2-3 recurring monthly donations, usually to Planned Parenthood, CARE, and a local food bank.
After the election, I doubled my Planned Parenthood donation and added monthly donations to NARAL Pro-Choice and the ACLU. I try to donate just enough that it hurts a bit, but not so much that it seriously limits me. I don’t have children, so I’m able to give. I also joined the NAACP, Amnesty International, and NOW (yearly membership donations).
And finally, and most painfully, I canceled my Prime membership and have not purchased anything at Amazon since the election. Reason being, I felt that I finally need to start really thinking through which companies I support with my spending. I’ve always avoided doing this, because it’s inconvenient and it’s easy to rationalize yourself out of it, since it is impossible to spend your money in a 100% ethical fashion, so where draw the line?
Well, really, you can draw the line as best you can, and I know Amazon is a bad company for various reasons and I shouldn’t be spending so much money with them, so now I don’t. It turned out to be easy. I do a lot of online ordering from Target now — they certainly aren’t perfect either, but they at least make a big public show of embracing some of the political positions that I want to support, so they’re a better choice for me to buy from.
Other than that, I just try to spend a little bit more time thinking through what/where I want to purchase things, when I need to purchase them. I don’t drive myself crazy over it, but if there’s a more ethical choice that will get me what I want at a bit more cost, I make it. I consult Grab Your Wallet. If I have to choose between sweatshop clothes from a company that supports progressive causes and sweatshop clothes from a company that’s neutral, then I pick the former even though it’s not a great option either.
I went to the Women’s March here in Austin. I’m dubious of protests and performative political action in general — mostly because it’s fun and dramatic and it’s all about being seen, and I don’t trust the motivations of anyone standing in a spotlight. I spent my 20s trying to get everyone to pay attention to me, and I love being the center of focus too much for it to really be about anything but me. Plus, the humorless joy-fearing Puritan in me feels that the only good work is tedious and punishing, and so surely the revolution can only truly be won by licking envelopes in a windowless office somewhere.
Also, I’m sensitive to the valid criticisms that white people have been dominating public focus for far too long, in the area of activism along with everything else. We ought to be working to center people of color and amplify their messages, not taking center stage ourselves.
Also, I’m just not a screamer — I’m too Southern.
All that said, the women’s march was a great experience, and I’m really glad I went. There were anywhere from 40-50k people there, just a sea of people everywhere you looked. I panic in crowds generally, but this was completely different. I’ve never been in a crowd where everyone was working hard to be considerate of everyone else’s personal space. We were packed in at all times, but I was jostled maybe twice, and each time the person apologized and moved away from me — even when it was a man! It was the most comfortable I’ve ever been in a crowd in my entire life. If all crowds were like that, I’d actually go to concerts.
There are quite a lot of protests just now, and I haven’t gone to any others yet (see before-mentioned dubiousness), but I will turn out for the ones that I really think need a lot of support and are well organized. I sometimes think the optics of protests are careless: like if you’re going to counter another protest but you can only get a small group together, isn’t it better not to go, because if the media covers you, your group size as compared to the main group will make it look like almost no one agrees with you? I don’t know, I’ll leave this up to the experts.
I’m trying to make myself available to organizations doing good work for whatever small assistance they need. Most of the time, people don’t actually need anything, and when they do, it’s not anything particularly interesting — like, I went over to the NARAL Pro-Choice office the other night and helped roll a bunch of T-shirts and organize a small storage office. It’s nice just to let the organizations you support know you’re around and available in case they need any extra hands.
Shortly after the election, I went to an organizing meetup for an Indivisible group in my congressional district. If you’re unfamiliar with Indivisible, it’s an opposition movement modeling itself on the tactics used by the Tea Party — holding local representatives accountable to their constituents by calling and showing up at their offices and town halls. One of the very first things that the organizer asked was whether anyone in the group had experience in building websites and helping people communicate remotely through online platforms, which just happens to be my entire day job.
I didn’t particularly want to spend my free time doing more of the same sort of work I do all day, but I realized this is a valuable skill that I have and other people don’t, so I stepped up, and as the group has gotten bigger and more active, I’ve become more and more involved. I’ve done pretty much all of this from the comfort of my own home and introvert bubble — I built a website, and have been helping to come up with moderation guidelines for our very active Facebook group (nearly 3000 members!), and just generally being a touchpoint for questions about software and communication in general.
I also got deputized to register voters in Travis county and when the elections get nearer, I’d like to push myself to get out there and do some community outreach, but I’m also accepting that going out and talking to people is not in my comfort zone, whereas I know I can easily do this online work without a lot of stress or effort.
If you’re looking to get involved yourself and you’re not sure how, I recommend finding something that plays to your existing strengths and lifestyle so it’s easy for you to just start contributing in small ways, rather than try to reinvent yourself as a person at the same time as you’re trying to build a new habit of involvement.
Calling My Reps
One of the big tactics of Indivisible groups is calling your representatives — over and over and over. I am maybe 50% successful at this. I use the actual phone part of my phone for three things: talking to my parents once a week and talking to two of my aunts maybe once a month. That’s it. That’s the most I’ve used the phone for in years and years. Speaking on the phone to strangers makes me intensely uncomfortable, far more so than talking to strangers face-to-face. I can’t seem to hear very well, I have no idea who I’m going to get, I can’t judge facial expressions or read the person on the other end at all. It feels like walking around blindfolded.
Most of the time when you call your reps, you get voicemail. But sometimes you get a staffer. And it feels really awkward. But by all accounts, it’s the most effective way to reach out to your reps and make your will known. It doesn’t feel very effective in the moment, and also I have a super busy day job, so I rarely can make the time to break midday for phone calls, but I try very hard to do it whenever I can, and trust that it will feel more natural over time.
I zoned out during the Obama administration. I didn’t pay any attention to what was going on at all. And I’m pretty sure that if Clinton had been elected, I would have stayed zoned out. And that was wrong — of course Obama did things that I should have been speaking up about, but that I was privileged enough to ignore (like deportations). I have a full-time job and quite a few time-consuming outside interests, and I don’t have time to do more than just read the news every couple of days. But we are nominally a democracy, and so we are all supposed to be paying attention.
And now, none of us have any choice — you can’t ignore a Trump presidency. It’s beaming into our eyes and ears 24/7, we’ve been pinned down by the Trump presidency and it’s screaming into our faces. No one knows what’s going to happen next, except that every day, there will be something and it will be poorly executed and outrageous, and it will make life harder for many people.
One of the first things I did after Trump was elected was to follow a number of conservative websites, so that I am now actively paying attention to the narrative that so much of the country is invested in, and one of the most notable things about it is that it defines itself entirely in opposition to its idea of what “liberals” want and think. There is very little about Trump and what he’s doing at all; almost all of it is framed by comparing something that Trump has done to something that Obama did (or that Hillary Clinton did).
This is especially odd to me because, having followed exclusively very liberal media throughout the Obama administration, all I ever read was how Obama was fucking everything up. But conservative media seems to think that liberals approved of everything Obama did and so their disapproval of Trump doing any similar things is hypocritical (they never actually say whether they like what Trump is doing or not or why; this seems to be entirely outside the scope of what they prefer to talk about).
Meanwhile, the mainstream media is almost entirely focused on its own slap-fight with Trump. And so one of the weirdest things so far about this presidency is how impossible it is to find anyone anywhere reporting on what they’re actually doing.
Anyway, I’m making myself read everything, but it’s infuriating and depressing at the same time, and I’m feeling really burnt out already. It’s a tough balance to strike: I don’t want to zone out, but I don’t want to be miserable all the time, either. I haven’t figured out a good way to manage this yet.
Since the election, everyone’s been talking about how divided we are as a nation when really, deep down, we all want the same things, and so we have to start bridging that gap and connecting with each other. This is a nice sentiment, but it’s not true at all.
The more I listen to people who hold varying positions (liberals, secular conservatives, Christian conservatives, Christian progressives, secular progressives, libertarians, dem socialists, special interest groups), the more I realize that we all want entirely different things. We have fundamentally different philosophies about how society should be structured and how people ought to treat each other and live together. It’s not that one of these visions is necessarily better than the others on its face; they’re just all very different.
Take me and my representatives: there is zero common ground between me and Ted Cruz. And yes, I know that Ted Cruz is an extreme example, but that’s why he’s a good one. It’s not just that he and I disagree on policy matters or what aspects of life the government ought to involve itself in. It’s that our ideas of what a good life and a healthy, happy society looks like are diametrically opposed. In his utopia, I would be utterly miserable. Even our basic moral compasses are different: I see vice where he sees virtue, and vice versa. There is no common ground between us. There’s almost nothing on which we will agree. And yet, he represents me in Congress.
So, I don’t see much room for compromise. We’re all deeply divided because we are truly pulling in opposite directions. This doesn’t mean we have to be enemies on a personal level, and I find much of the hyperbole about how we are all so intolerant of people who don’t think like us to be really overblown. In reality, we all have many friends and relatives who vote differently than we do, and we mostly get along ok. But we won’t ever see eye to eye on the deep things in life, which is why we mostly avoid talking about them with each other.
I’m not sure why people assume that true understanding will ultimately result in agreement. The problem isn’t that we don’t understand each other; it’s that we do, and we flat out don’t want the same things.