From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
How Can You Not See This?
by Lev Grossman
We need to make a change.
I don’t talk about politics a lot, at least not publicly. I don’t write about politics much either. I justify this to myself with the argument that I write fiction, and fiction promotes empathy, and critical thinking, and ideological skepticism. It strengthens whatever mental muscles you use to see other people’s points of view. It’s deeper and more fundamental than politics. Once you taint it with politics, you’ve already lost.
This may or may not be true. But it makes me feel a bit better.
Nevertheless, I think about politics a lot. A lot of this thinking takes the form of conversations with imaginary Trump supporters where we talk about the president and what he’s doing.
It’s become a pretty elaborate fantasy. It’s actually escalated to the point where in my head I regularly host an imaginary talk show, where a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican come on and discuss hot-button issues like gun control or immigration or climate change or economic inequality. I’m the host of the show. I’m also the liberal Democrat. (Sorry, but look, it’s my fantasy.) Whenever the guests disagree over a fact or a point of law, there’s a bipartisan panel of experts there to try to clear it up.
The only rule on my fantasy show is that no one’s allowed to get angry. You can talk about your values, you can make arguments, you can cite facts, the Bible, whatever; you just can’t get pissed off. If you get pissed off then you’re kicked off the show. (I actually think this is a really good idea, by the way. Hollywood, call me!)
I spend a lot of time saying — mentally, in character as the liberal Democrat — things like How can you not see this? How — for example — can you forget that only a few years ago we had a massive financial crisis because a lot of rich people were getting richer by selling fraudulent financial instruments, which they could do because their industry was under-regulated? That when the hoax failed the American people bailed them out with our own tax dollars, then put in place regulations to make sure it didn’t happen again? And now those same plutocrats, in the form of Trump and his cabinet, are dismantling these regulations and telling us it’s for our own good? How can you believe them? How? How?
But at the same time I’m haunted by the sound — coming from the other side of the thin partition that divides this country — of literally millions of other people asking me the same thing, in exactly the same tone of voice, from the opposite side of the argument. How can you not understand? They are as incredulous about my political convictions as I am about theirs. What on earth has happened? It’s as though America’s timeline forked, but incompletely, so that two divergent countries are stuck in the same universe, sloppily superimposed on each other. And the inhabitants are all mightily pissed off at each other.
I take the opinions of the right seriously. I could not in good conscience dispense with or discard the passionate opinions of millions of Americans who disagree with me. I have no patience for the name-calling and appearance-mocking and gotcha-smugness that come from both sides of the aisle. And I think I recognize the extent to which the media I consume is biased. (I worked for Time magazine for twenty years. I know how the news sausage is made.) I don’t like taking sides in an America that is already bitterly divided and pitted against itself.
But the trouble is that reality, as the saying goes, has a well-known liberal bias. The facts, or the closest thing I can get to them, tell me that this country is in real and terrible danger from its own executive branch. We’re in danger of destroying our own habitat. Children are dying by gunfire every single day. Our health care system is terribly broken. We’re in danger of destroying immigrant families, and consigning millions of people to lives of hard work that don’t even get them above the poverty line. We’re in danger of squandering vast wealth and decades’ worth of international goodwill that we could be using to make the world better.
I can’t watch that happening and stay silent. I just can’t. That’s why I wrote this essay.
Take action today:
Donate to a charity that works for the things you care about. Personally I support the National Resources Defense Council.
Lev Grossman is the author of the Magicians trilogy and the former book critic and lead technology writer for Time. He is currently writing a King Arthur novel called The Bright Sword.