like a man, like a woman, in the city
my visionary anger cleansing my sight
and the detailed perceptions of mercy
flowering from that anger
Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck (1973)
As we move into the third year of the Trump presidency, I want to remember how I felt a few days after the election. I fear that so many of us have become numb to the transgressions of morality and precedent that bombard us every day, that it is worth remembering what we felt only a few days after the election. We need to hold onto every ounce of our own visionary anger.
* * *
November 13, 2016:
I first heard Adrienne Rich use the phrase “visionary anger” in the mid 1970s at a reading she gave in Boston. She may have just read her poem “Phenomenology of Anger” when a man in the audience rose to ask a question. “Aren’t you afraid,” he wanted to know, “that your anger will make you a bitter woman?” There was an intake of breath in the audience. We knew what he meant. Not just a bitter woman, but a bitter hateful old woman. Rich smiled at him. “No,” she said, “like the poet William Blake, my anger is visionary anger. It gives direction to my work.”
Those are words I will need to remember in the weeks and months ahead as my mind and emotions adjust to this new reality of my country reclaimed by an empowered white minority.
Is my anger a form of hatred? No, in spite of what some are saying — that “liberals” are full of hate, that we rejoice in violence and tearing things down. I don’t carry hate in my heart, I carry a great deal of grief for the loss of what I had thought were shared values of kindness and inclusion, things that were denied by Trump’s rhetoric in this campaign, whether he meant them or not. You can’t refer to an entire nationality as “rapists and murderers” and promise to build a wall to keep them out, you can’t diminish your opponents as liars and crooks you will “lock up” and not expect to be taken seriously, at least by some. Encourage a “second amendment remedy” to deal with an opponent and then insist you were only joking? You can’t stoke your rallies with chants of “lock her up” and “trump the bitch” and expect all women to look the other way. Some will. And some of us will not.
There was hatred in this campaign and in the voting in this election, but it was not all or even primarily stoked by liberals.
No. My anger stems not from hatred of anyone, but from “detailed perceptions of mercy,” in the words of Rich’s poem, that have always informed my political views. I work for change because I believe that “whatever you do for the least of these” is part of my walk toward social justice. I am angry at injustice and my anger focuses on those injustices I see.
My anger is not for myself, although some parts of my identity and of those I love are in fact threatened by this election. My anger is for those who have always been vulnerable and now are more visibly at risk. My friends and students who are black and brown and Muslim and undocumented and LGBTQ and Jewish and female. I can’t know why people voted for Trump, but I can guess that for the most part they voted out of self-interest. “I want a better job. I want my old manufacturing or coal mining job back. I want to send a message to those Washington politicians. I want… I want…
Granted, some have policy reasons for voting from Trump rather than self-interest. “I am against NAFTA or TPP. I think Washington needs more business acumen and less politicians.” But the reality is, as has been pointed out numerous times, if you buy the package, you buy the content.
I have not heard from any Republicans or Democrats who voted for Donald Trump because they thought he would make a better world for everyone. I don’t know how that would work, when you propose to exclude groups of people like Syrian refugees and children who were brought to this country by parents who were fleeing and have no official documents. And others.
So please. Don’t tell me to tamp down my anger. Don’t tell me I need to “get over it.” Don’t tell me to give Donald Trump a chance. I want my visionary anger to cleanse my sight. I want to save my anger and my energy to work for those who are more vulnerable this week than they were last week.