How to Be a Patriot in America
David L. Ulin on Who We Are, and Where We're Going
On the morning of the inauguration, I drove my wife and daughter to the airport for a flight to Philadelphia, first leg of their journey to the Women’s March. Then, I went home and got back into bed. Not to hide, but to work, to stage my own small anti-inauguration, to deny the incoming president at least one drop of the attention he so craves. This was not denial; the next morning, while my family was in Washington, I was on the streets of downtown Los Angeles with 750,000 fellow citizens: a glorious mosaic, as former mayor Tom Bradley used to refer to us somewhat optimistically, although Lord knows we could use a bit of optimism now. No, this was normalization in the sense of staking out, or keeping, my own territory, in the sense of protecting what is essential to me. If we are to maintain, or participate in, an effective resistance, we need to preserve our values and our energies; we fight not only by protesting and calling our officials but also by refusing to capitulate in the inner corridors of our private lives.
Consequently, I didn’t watch the America First speech; I didn’t gloat over the tiny crowds. I wrote, instead, a piece I had been putting off, made a few phone calls, spent time with the dog. Late in the afternoon, I met a friend for drinks, then went to the University of Southern California, where a recital version of the opera Hopscotch was to be performed. For those who don’t know it, Hopscotch is a love story, loosely inspired by Julio Cortázar’s 1963 novel; it was first staged—if that’s the word—during the fall of 2015 by performers riding with small audience clusters in 24 cars. The intent (or one of them) was to activate the streets of Los Angeles as public space, which makes that original production a precursor, in some sense, to Saturday’s march. Los Angeles has long had an ambivalent relationship to its streets, the notion of the commons; it is a built environment developed around the ideal of the single family home. All this is changing with increased density and renewed focus on public transit (a shift kicked into gear, not coincidentally, by an earlier set of protests, the 2006 immigration marches against H.R. 4437, which—sound familiar?—sought to criminalize the undocumented and mandate construction of a border wall), but a city takes time to transform. In that sense, Hopscotch presents both an aesthetic and a social challenge: asking, requiring even, that we consider art, or narrative, as a public act. If the streets themselves can be a landscape for creativity, they can be a landscape for anything, an idea encoded into the very structure of the piece.
As it happens, I couldn’t see Hopscotch during its initial run. That made attending this performance feel more urgent, even in its attenuated form. I also wanted to be there on the night of the inauguration, again as a form of quiet protest, an assertion of what let’s call aesthetic faith. Part of the reimagining Hopscotch demands is that of the derivé, the Situationist strategy for dislocation, in which the map of one city is superimposed over the streets of another, forcing us to encounter familiar landscapes fresh. I think about this a lot, and never more than since the election, when the blurring of boundaries, the subjectivity of perspective, our inability to know anything except in fragments, has become weaponized. I am a relativist—moral, aesthetic, intellectual; I don’t believe in the innate authority of anything. And yet, what do I do with such a point-of-view in a culture that appears to have slipped the bounds of reason altogether, in which a sizable percentage of the population is willing to believe the Democratic nominee ran a child pornography ring, while a senior advisor to the president invents a massacre to justify the administration’s travel ban? That none of this is true, that none of it ever happened, is, of course, beside the point. A week or two ago, during another useless social media argument, I was told that the Fort Hood shooter, the San Bernardino terrorists, the 9/11 hijackers, and the Fort Lauderdale Airport gunman were all refugees, when in fact there has not been a single instance of a refugee committing a deadly act of terrorism on American soil.
In such a disconnected landscape, I want to believe art affords us certain answers, or at least a common experience. We come together through the movement of the work, through our immersion, and when it is finished, we may feel, for a moment anyway, less alone. That’s what happened at USC, in a recital hall full of people uncertain about the country in which we live. I sat with friends, although I had not known they would be in attendance; to find them in that audience was like discovering a passage home. Before the performance, Yuval Sharon, who conceived and directed Hopscotch for his company The Industry, offered a few contextual notes. “I pledge allegiance,” he told us, “to a vision of art as a communal activity because this too has its utopian function. … For when the lost part of our souls can find its voice in a communal setting, inspired by the cooperative work of a large and diverse group of individuals, then perhaps we can find the strength as individuals and as a community to rise to the challenges that now face us. For when everything that made up our identity seems under attack, art can remind us what it is we are called to fight for, namely our humanity.”
This is the point of Hopscotch, which is an opera, in many ways, driven by its own disorientation. Hence, the use of cars as performative environment, which re-enforces the idea that we can never apprehend anything fully, just the pieces we see. If we aspire to a larger vision, we have no choice but to come together; as the protagonist, a young woman named Lucha, is told during a mysterious phone call, “A thousand streets lead into one great road, and no gate blocks your way.” At the end of the night, as I headed home from the recital hall, I felt something like that whisper of movement: Art as communion, art as community, art as (yes) resistance in the sense that it invites, or provokes, us to engage complexity.
I am, I consider myself, an American patriot. I write this with no irony, although with plenty of outrage, a new outrage (Nevertheless, she persisted) every day. I hold as exemplars Thomas Paine and John Peter Zenger, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman, Eugene V. Debs and Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Abbie Hoffman, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King. The America I love exists as idea and landscape, not unlike the Los Angeles Hopscotch evokes. It is not an institution but a movement, ever in transition, progressive on the most essential terms. “[T]he arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Dr. King insisted in a February 26, 1965 sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood, and everything about that statement, including the pulpit from which it was delivered, suggests what is finest and most resonant about the American experiment. King gave this sermon just a few weeks before Selma, tracing his own moral arc across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That three-day march led from Montgomery to the Voting Rights Act, signed into law in August of the same year. This is the value of rallies, of public protest. This is the power of citizens to influence policy. We see it now: pushback on the travel ban, from the airports to the Ninth Circuit, because people have been willing to resist. “First they came for the Muslims and we said not today motherfucker!” declared one placard at the JFK protest on January 28. Or, as Daniel Webster put it 187 years earlier almost to the day, arguing in the Senate that the Constitution was no mere treaty of convenience: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”
Webster was speaking, on that January day in 1830, against states’ rights—particularly the rights of southern states to “nullify” federal laws they regarded as unconstitutional, in this case the so-called “Tariff of Abominations,” derided as such by their lawmakers because of its effect on the slave economy. Living in California, I’m not unaware that the concept of states’ rights is already beginning to take on a very different set of associations; earlier this month, a pair of bills moved out of committee in the State Senate that would effectively make this a sanctuary state. “California in many ways is out of control, as you know,” the president blustered in response, during a Super Bowl pregame interview. Still, there’s a larger point I want to make. For me, the key is Webster’s confluence of liberty and union, with its implicit argument that we are all in this together, that, for better and for worse, there is (there can be) only one America. “[T]he banality of violence,” Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in Between the World and Me, “can never excuse America because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.”
Coates is right, of course—a notion even the president appears, in his way, to recognize; “There are a lot of killers,” he also said in that Super Bowl interview. “You think our country’s so innocent?” And yet, how then can we claim to bear the standard for democracy? Negative capability, cognitive dissonance: This is the problem with exceptionalism, that it allows us to imagine ourselves apart, as if history begins and ends with us, as if rhetoric is responsibility. Is it a stretch to see in this the seeds of our current crisis, in which all we need to do, it seems, is say a thing to make it true, regardless of evidence? At the same time, I agree with Coates about living up to our moral fantasies. The arc of the universe, bending its slow way toward justice again. “[I]n this world,” Zadie Smith wrote not long after the election, “there is only incremental progress. Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress. It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous.”
Yes, enormous, and bending toward justice, if at the moment very much at risk. This is why I keep coming back to Hopscotch: “A thousand streets lead into one great road, and no gate blocks your way.” This is why I keep thinking about the commons, public space. The president, the New York Times recently reported, “feels increasingly pinched by … the constant presence of protests”—a revelation that reminds us, as if we needed more reminding, why we have to keep the pressure on. It’s not just the streets, it is the nation, which belongs to everyone. “So in America,” Jack Kerouac writes at the end of On the Road, “when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.” It’s been a long time—decades—since I imagined America so romantically, but if I’m honest, this remains a signifier for what the country means to me.
On the morning after my wife and daughter returned from the Women’s March, I left Los Angeles for Las Vegas, where I am spending the winter and spring on a fellowship. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” Hunter S. Thompson opens Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but the only drug I had taken was Aleve. Whatever Barstow may have been in 1971, it is now a roadside town like any other, fast food joints and outlet malls, halfway point (or almost) of my drive. The great American homogenization, in which chains and cheap construction have yielded a landscape where towns appear interchangeable, although beneath their bland and echoed surfaces, I’m sure, beat many distinct and differentiated hearts.
The first time I made this drive—or one like it—was in 1968; I was not quite seven. My family had spent a year in Long Beach and was returning east. Outside Barstow, we took the turnoff for Interstate 40, heading first to Needles, California, then Arizona; we would take three weeks to return home. Over the intervening years, I’ve done this a dozen times or more, although not since I settled in California in 1991. Driving to Las Vegas, then, became an unanticipated act of reconnection, on both personal and collective terms. On the one hand, the road, the emptiness of it, all those mountains and the desert, it offered markers for my memory, at 7 and 18 and 25. On the other, there was the highway itself. Were I to merge onto I-40, it would carry me across New Mexico into the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee. Were I to linger on I-15 past Las Vegas, I would eventually reach Salt Lake City, Butte. There is a mileage sign in Wilmington, North Carolina, not far from Route 40’s terminus; “Barstow, Calif. 2,554,” it reads. You can interpret this as information, or you can interpret it as metaphor, but for me it is an emblem of the country as its own expression of the commons, in the sense that it’s a landscape we all share.
Back in the 1980s, when I used to travel these roads at every opportunity, we were also a nation divided; it was the Reagan era. For vast stretches, hundreds of miles, radio gave up only farm reports and AM evangelicals, and when I stopped to eat or sleep or fill the tank with gas, I was never unaware that I was a stranger in a strange land. “You a Jew, boy?” someone once asked in a small town in South Texas, and if he wasn’t exactly threatening (more curious, I thought, then and now), there was a moment when I wasn’t sure how to respond. Three decades later, in the same town, I found myself at a 7-Eleven, which had not been there the first time, in line between a mother with three young kids and a teenager in board shorts and flip-flops, immersed in his phone. The scene was familiar, similar to what I might encounter in Santa Monica or suburban Boston; it made me feel as if our differences had been flattened out. I don’t mean to make too much of this, except to acknowledge that I was mistaken, clearly, but I keep coming back to it, as well. “A thousand streets lead into one great road, and no gate blocks your way.” Yet what does that mean if all those streets lead to 7-Eleven, and we are driving them, as I drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, with my satellite presets, in my climate-controlled car? That kid, he could have been my son, or so I liked to delude myself. I am not deluding myself now.
This is why the streets are so important, because when we give them up or turn away from them, we also give up any notion of common destiny. Look at the president, at the fear, the isolation, that governs every one of his positions; look at the states—including Michigan, North Dakota, Washington, and Iowa—where Republican legislators are proposing bills to limit public protest and dissent. Why do they do this? Because they understand that to reclaim the streets is in a very real way to reclaim the discourse, because it requires us to be engaged. That’s the message of Hopscotch also, which operates from a simple premise: Art, like the streets, like the very country, not only belongs to but depends on us. If we want it, we have to create, or take back, the space for it. We have to participate.
The night of the march, my wife sent a photo of herself and our daughter, taken in front of the president’s hotel. As a police officer smirks behind them, they give the finger to the large gold name above the door. In regard to outcome, effect, such a protest is meaningless, if we can call it a protest at all. And yet, to see their glee, especially my daughter’s, was to feel a whisper of liberation all the same. My daughter worked the polls on election day; I walked her home that evening in tears. Prior to marching, we had been doing what we could, making calls and signing petitions, giving money, sharing information, although it would be untrue to say we weren’t in despair. A month later, there’s plenty of despair to go around—and yet, what about the resistance that has grown? This is not a matter of consolation, or optimism, and it’s not about complacency. This is about progress, about history. How we respond represents the measure of who we are. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” the president’s chief strategist said after the inauguration. But when what’s at stake is the arc of the moral universe, which is (it must be) long but bends toward justice, and a thousand streets lead into one great road, and no gate blocks your way—we must be neither embarrassed nor afraid.