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.
The Natural Order of the World Depends On It
by Jesse Eisenberg
I commit to take action because Donald Trump robbed me of cantankerous parents.
In 1968, my fourteen-year-old mother was sent to the principal’s office for refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance. Colin Kaepernick she was not, but she was a precocious, politically aware kid who opposed the Vietnam War. On the other side of Queens Boulevard, my teenage father sat too close to his family’s new television, rooting for Eugene McCarthy and planning a life fighting for social justice. My parents were individuating, doing what every bright, empathic kid does and embracing a political ideology to the left of their parents’.
But on a recent visit home, while exploiting their large-barrel suburban washing machine, I overheard my parents watching The Rachel Maddow Show. I was shocked. They’re lifelong liberal Jewish democrats, to be sure, but Rachel Maddow? She’s polemical, rebellious, unabashedly liberal. She’s everything that I embrace and that my parents had grown to dismiss about the left. Overhearing them in their bedroom with Rachel Maddow felt like the political equivalent of walking in on your parents having sex.
Among the many healthy traditions that Donald Trump has upended, I realized, was the right for me to have cantankerous, increasingly conservative parents. Here they were, sneaking some MSNBC and encroaching on my territory, stifling my need to self-actualize through liberal idealism and upsetting the sustainable balance of political thought within a family.
Until Trump, my parents were on a relatively normal track to middle-aged moderation. They embraced Clinton-era centrist Democratic policies and, although they viewed the invasion of Iraq as arrogant and misguided, my dad made the seemingly sound argument that a world without American leadership was a world with a dangerous power vacuum. And while my friends and I drove to Washington to protest the invasion, my father TiVo’d Colin Powell making his infamous speech to the United Nations.
In its way, everything was going according to plan. I railed against Obama’s expansion of drone warfare while my parents drove into New York City to catch Bill Kristol at the 92nd Street Y. My dad even started reading every book about Lincoln, which is the liberal’s gateway drug to watching History Channel war documentaries, freebasing some National Review, and becoming unbearable at Thanksgiving. Just as things are supposed to be.
I was to the left of them just as they had been to the left of their parents and their parents before them and, as the lions become the grass, the Circle of Life made sense.
But Trump is so shockingly off-putting that my parents and I have been forced together, awkwardly floating on the same life raft with the other multigenerational dupes. I send my dad an article about Trump’s dog-whistle antisemitism and he replies with an even more damning article citing Trump’s redlining policies back in Queens. I tell my mom that my wife and I are going to a Bernie rally in Chicago and she asks if she can bum a ride, like we’re all teenagers trying to get to Woodstock.
What the hell is going on here?
My parents should be telling me that Bernie is as impractical and narrow as Rand Paul. They should be forwarding me articles about Mitch Daniels (“one of the good ones!”) and the importance of public-private partnerships. The natural order of the world depends on it.
All young people know that they’re wrong about some of the stuff they think. We all know that Bernie Sanders promises a lot of impractical things but we fight for him anyway because it feels like the right thing to do. And my parents know that Rand Paul would create a plutocracy that left them out on the (privatized) streets. But they’re supposed to lecture me about him because he’s an important political voice. And I’m supposed to lecture them about Bernie because he is, too. And somewhere in the middle of all of these things, sensibility exists.
But Trump hasn’t tipped the scale — he’s knocked the whole thing over, and we’re all scrambling to find our version of dry land. He’s turned an important ideological balancing act into a fight about him. And something valuable has been lost.
Because I don’t want to agree with my parents. But, for the sake of stability, I do want to become them.
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Jesse Eisenberg is an actor, a playwright, and the author of Bream Gives Me Hiccups, which originated at McSweeney’s.