I was born in November 1961, so some of my earliest impressions of the world beyond my little hometown were shaped by the tumult of the late 60s/early 70s. The war in Vietnam, the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the Kent State shootings, Watergate — I was very aware of all those things as they were happening. Our TV was always on, and in between the soap operas, variety shows, and sitcoms came regular doses of real-world political upheaval. Those reports scared me pretty badly, though I don’t think I ever said so to my parents. I had a strong sense that the country I lived in was in crisis. It seemed as if we were on the verge of catastrophe, and my comfy existence might change for the worse at any moment.
By the time I was into my teens, those deep fears had fallen away. I was fully aware that bad things still went on, of course, but I had moved quite unconsciously into the psychic bubble of safety most white Americans inhabit. I stopped thinking catastrophe was imminent. My grandmother had insisted I watch the Watergate hearings with her, and the outcome of that scandal seemed to me to offer proof that we had a kind of bedrock stability in this country that almost nothing — certainly no sorry-ass politician or political dispute — could destroy. Not that I trusted or admired the government. No, my default position was always distrust, leaning toward outright opposition, and there’ve been plenty of things worth opposing in every political era in my lifetime. But no matter how much ugliness invaded Washington, a better day seemed eternally possible, even likely.
How incredibly stupid and naive that idea seems now.
These days I’m back to being that kid glued to the TV, watching the news footage from Vietnam and envisioning the end of the United States as I know it. This mindset has been slowly overtaking me since the election, but the news this weekend of Bannon’s appointment to the NSC erased all lingering hope that we might get through this without irreparable damage to the country and the world. That sounds overwrought even to me, but my heart and head tell me it’s true.
Which brings me to my proposal: I’ve decided to keep a private record of my impressions and experiences in this new, unlovely political era, and I hope some of you will do the same. Essays, op-eds, blog posts, Facebook rants, and Twitter zingers are all great, but I want the freedom to write words that are safe from the eyes of strangers, at least for now. I don’t want to debate my thoughts away or tweak them to attract a wider audience. I want to be both thoughtful and unfiltered. Most of us do very little writing of that sort anymore. We no longer write long, reflective letters to each other, since it’s so easy to pick up the phone or get the instant gratification of texting. The few people I know who keep journals write about themselves, not the world. I suspect most people feel they haven’t anything important to say, but I believe just the opposite is true. The more powerless and insignificant you feel yourself to be, the more we need a record of how this time looks to you. History is what happens to ordinary people. History is happening to us, right now, and we will do the future a favor if we keep a record of it.
One more thing: I’m writing my record by hand in a simple bound notebook. For now, I won’t digitize it in any way. I encourage you to do likewise. That’s partly paranoia. No electronic medium seems safe to me these days. But it’s also a practical, cheap hedge against changing technology, and there’s something mood- and mind-altering about the physical process of putting pen to paper. It’s calming, and it makes me feel focused and fully human in a way I never do before a keyboard.
Mary Magdalene writing, Master of the Female Half-Lengths, c.1520