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What I’m Leaving Behind in 2016: Complacency

The year taught me I can’t expect things to get better unless I’m willing to put in the work

As the year comes to an end MEL asked four of our favorite writers to reflect on what they’re leaving behind in 2016.

Ordinarily at this time of year I’d be steeling myself for Drynuary, the horrible but salutary post-holiday alcohol fast: A gentle month of sobriety and reflection, repentance and tea with lemon. But this year? Please. Is there a chance in hell I am going to get through January 2017 without the aid of booze?



There is one thing I plan to give up at the end of 2016, this year of reckoning: Complacency. That is, the idea that things were going halfway okay, that progress was being made — not just in the United States or around the world, but in my own life, convictions and practices. Now that the unthinkable has happened in the election of Trump, the national values I’d believed were increasingly shared, such as tolerance, fairness, anti-violence and faith in science, seem farther away than ever before in my lifetime.

Now, a climate-change denier is asked to preside over environmental regulation; an avowed enemy of public schools is asked to run our public school system; and a Wall Street foreclosure king is invited to lead the Treasury. That Darth Cheeto would himself become extinct as the result of his gang of villains’ policies is cold comfort.

So those of us who love democracy, and who love the ideal of a perfectable Union, are suddenly in the fight of our lives, and I see how, in some ways, I’ve been complicit all along.

For too long I’ve behaved like I could somehow just go on, the same as always, waiting and waiting for leadership on education, prison reform, climate change and income inequality that I now know isn’t coming at all. How much have I really altered my habits in the face of the near-certain catastrophe of rising seas, drought and famine? Not enough.

Why am I planning a totally unnecessary trip on an airplane? Why do I still have a car, even? Why is there mineral water from France in my refrigerator? Should I even have a refrigerator? Should I have a smaller refrigerator? Why are there Chinese products in probably every room of my house? The fuel (“heavy fuel oil”) they use on the container ships that bring all the crap we don’t need here from China is a toxic sludge the consistency of Nutella. Each one of the biggest of those ships creates more pollution than 50 million cars.

Why did I wait so patiently for Obama’s Justice Department to jail one single banker in the financial crisis? It took until last year for Elizabeth Warren to deliver the magical slap of well-deserved shame to Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf to see at last what should have happened, at the barest minimum, seven long years ago. I trusted and hoped for the best and now, matters are… complicated.

I don’t say this because I believe one person’s actions will make a difference on their own. I say it because I want more than ever to live according to real values and principles, and to work to make a new, better way of life for the future, and not just pretend to do so; not just repeat all the good slogans and give a little money to NPR and the Sierra Club, while I arrange for my next vacation, while I make my plans to clamber onto the next rung of the materialist ladder.

Why have I been behaving as though the insanely profligate way of life, the freedoms and the quality of civilization I grew up with, could somehow continue indefinitely into the future, as if by magic?

The Chicago Reader recently featured a profile of Jamie Kalven, who won a Polk Award for exposing police misconduct in the case of the shooting of Laquan McDonald. Kalven’s words have been reverberating through my head like the gong at the beginning of a Rank film.

With this election, we’ve joined the rest of the world. Think of all the other nations that live under moronic, venal leadership. […] All over the world there are people in repressive settings who find ways to live as free human beings, act in solidarity with their neighbors, and fashion strategies to resist state power. […]

One of the dangers is that people will instead become demoralized and retreat into denial, that they will seek refuge amid the pleasures and fulfillments of private life. That would give carte blanche to power […] That is certainly tempting at a time like this: to live one’s life in the wholly private realm, enjoying the company of friends, good food and drink, the pleasures of literature and music, and so on. Privileged sectors of our society are already heavily skewed that way. It’s a real danger…

The disconnect between the public and private parts of life has suddenly become harder to navigate in other ways, as well. I’m not going to my large, noisy Cuban family’s holiday festivities this year, which feels terrible, because I’ve been so sad to lose that lifelong illusion of solid, affectionate family bonds, despite our differences. But it’s also been super-liberating, because I won’t have to listen to anyone angrily insisting to me that black people want to kill cops. And I’m so, so not alone in that gnarly mixture of relief and sadness. The really gentle guy who cuts my hair in Silver Lake; my first love from high school; colleague after colleague — literally dozens of people have told me they’ve broken off friendships and family relations of a lifetime’s duration because of this election.

Before this year I was living in a fool’s paradise, thinking that my differences with my conservative relatives were exaggerated, because: tolerance! They went low, I went high! After all they were decent people, really; in the end we would agree on the things that mattered, if push came to shove.

And then push came to shove, all right.

I shouldn’t have tolerated those clowns for five minutes, let alone three decades. But at least now I’m facing the schism honestly.

I have also deleted Facebook, not only because it has enabled fascists, but because it’s ruining my profession. I’m deleting Amazon and ABEbooks, too, and Airbnb and Lyft. I’ll be staying only in hotels, and riding only with cab companies, whose employees are unionized. From here on out I’m spending every dollar with a view to whose pocket it winds up in.

Then there’s activism: This list of actions from John Cassidy at The New Yorker last week is great. And so is Indivisible, an action plan cooked up by former congressional aides on putting your power as an individual citizen to work most effectively.

Drinking, as I was saying, rounds out the list of my plans. As I take my leave of 2016, and of the innocent world that is now in the irrecoverable past, I plan to be leaving sobriety behind along with it — though not to excess. We’re all going to need our wits about us.