Staying Engaged: Why I Decided to Read A Book

Most Americans in the age of Trump are not, like the subjects of a totalitarian regime, subjected to state terror. But even before the coronavirus, they were subjected to constant, sometimes debilitating anxiety. One way out of that anxiety is to relieve the mind of stress by accepting Trumpian reality. Another—and this too is an option often exercised by people living under totalitarianism—is to stop paying attention, disengage, and retreat to one’s private sphere. Both approaches are victories for Trump in his attack on politics. 
― Masha Gessen, Surviving Autocracy

This is becoming today’s theme: non-action can be as important as action in enabling political violence and persecution. Police, firefighters–and the Pentagon on Jan.6–can all help take down democracy by what they choose not to do.

– Ruth Ben-Ghiat


We spend a lot of time at the library, having decided to homeschool my bookworm of a son this year.

And last week, just before we checked out at the local library, out of the corner of my eye I saw Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book Peril on the Best Seller end cap. (If you’ve not heard of the book, it’s an ominous inside look into the end of the Trump presidency, including January 6 and the aftermath.)

I grabbed it – excited it was available and surprised at my luck.

But then I paused, turning it over in my hands a few times.

Did I really want to read it?

Did I really want to go back in time, to that cold January 6 when I watched live reports of Red Hat insurrectionists while stirring a pot over the stove? When I saw images of the grand facade of the Capitol building, softened yet hardened by the fog of bear mace and tear gas… photos of white men in revolutionary war garb, dabbing their eyes with the corners of an American flag… videos of rioters pummeling capitol police…?

Did I want to go there again?

I didn’t, really.

I had the sudden urge to put the book back and walk away. I thumbed through the pages, appreciating the brand-new-book smell and the creak of the binding, welcoming me as the first reader.

As I did, my mind darted back to October 2016 – when during the long drive to preschool my son and I would listen to a podcast about HRC. (Let’s not kid ourselves – he was just looking out the window. Mom was listening to the podcast.)

In the evenings while making dinner I would make calls for her campaign. One night I called Ohio and a man screamed into my ear that his wife would never – never-ever-ever-ever! – vote for Hillary and he would make sure of that thankyouverymuch. As he hung up the phone, he angrily yelled his wife’s name. I felt guilty, like I had outed her. It was unsetting. I considered it a bad omen.

But Obama was still president, then. The world – and the U.S. – seemed blissfully stable. The air was fresh, the music upbeat. My attention was occupied not by concerns about large-scale voter suppression, or destruction of democratic norms, or whether the Chief Executive was going to launch a coup to remain in power … but by personal worries. Some of them seem almost petty now.

Last week, standing in the library, embraced by the tall stacks of books and surrounded by cheerful library signage, I blinked hard a few times as the past five years played out in my head like a fast-forwarded movie reel.

Life has gone on, while we’ve managed a country constantly teetering at the precipice. As it turns out, history is a series of overlays.

My son has gotten taller, leaner, hungrier. I’ve gotten older (much to my chagrin, although the alternative is less optimal, so I’ll take it). There have been deaths, and births, and jobs, and our fair share of heartbreaks and celebrations. I’m sure you’ve had something similar.

And overlaid on top of our already complicated lives, we’ve had crisis upon crisis. Rising authoritarianism; climate emergencies; a global pandemic. It’s no wonder if we feel overtired, overwrought, overexposed.

That, for the Trump administration specifically and for Republicans generally, seems to have been the point.

So in that moment of uncertainty – did I want to read this book or not? – I understood just how easy it is to disengage, not because of lack of interest. But out of self-preservation.

As you probably expected, I did get the book and read it, cover to cover. Days later, the Washington Post published its own remarkable long-form pieces detailing the lead up to January 6 and the fallout since.

(It’s worth noting that Robert Costa, the co-author of Peril, is a Washington Post reporter. In many ways I saw the WaPo long-form pieces as supplements and additional chapters to Peril, but that could also be because I had just finished the book.)

Both – the book and the reporting – are remarkable, not just for their content, but for how they changed my state of mind. I emerged from both with a refocused vision, and a reinvigorated sense of the importance of our voices right now.

Because (spoiler alert) the lesson in both is that disengagement by officials allowed January 6 to happen. Disengagement by voters allowed 2016 to happen. Disengagement is their weapon of choice.

It may feel protective … but it’s actually the most dangerous.

But, as my own experience in the library proves, disengagement is enticing. So when I saw the WaPo report come out, I wondered if anyone else – if you, in particular – would wonder if reading it would be a productive use of your limited time and bandwidth, or whether it would just be an anger-inducing energy suck.

Is it worth it to stay informed? Does it matter?

It is, and it does.

Friends, the last five years have been a lot. The pressure’s been enough to grind granite into dust.

That you’re still engaged (enough to read this!), thoughtful, pushing ever onward, is a testament to your dedication and stamina.

But if you have at times questioned whether – or perhaps how – to take that additional step, I can relate. You’re certainly not alone.

And perhaps it doesn’t feel like a lot to just … read something.

But gaining knowledge and information – knowing the truth – is so important that they’re desperately trying to keep it from public eyes. (Note the “executive privilege” arguments made by Trump and the Gang to cover up as much information as possible. Witnesses are slow-walking their responses to – and in some cases outright refusing to abide by – congressional subpoenas.)

So, while it might not seem like an “action,” it turns out that reading a book, or an article, or otherwise staying informed is some of the most meaningful work you can do. It means you’re not turning away. You’re not disengaging. You’re not just changing the channel.

You’re not letting them win so easily.

Of course, I prefer that after we finish the article or the book or the podcast we all take five minutes and make a call to our congresscritters. Because unless we stay informed and engaged (and all work together) we’re letting them run roughshod over the country, without so much as a fight.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sit well with me. Not after January 6.

So let’s take a deep breath. (Inhale. Exhale.)

And let’s get to work.

Actions for the Week of November 1, 2021

Help With Ballot Curing in Virginia:

This is a cool opportunity to help voters “cure” their mail-in ballots – and you can participate even after Tuesday! From Red2Blue: Virginia voters have until Friday at noon to fix errors such as missing signatures that would otherwise invalidate their ballots. These could be the votes that decide House of Delegates races — and the balance of power in Virginia. Make calls to help Democratic voters cure issues with their ballots so that every vote counts. Training is provided.

Join here: https://www.mobilize.us/virginiavoterprotection/event/417808/

Voting Rights Advancement Act:

Yesterday, Schumer took to the Senate floor to file cloture to move forward on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. This bill would advance critical reforms to protect the freedom to vote, upholding the life and legacy of John Lewis.

The Senate will vote on Wednesday. The Republicans are expected to filibuster. You know what to do!

Script: Hi my name is ____ and I’m a constituent at ____. I’m calling to ask the Senator to support the Voting Rights Advancement Act. Too many states are restricting the right to vote, and I know the Senator believes that constitutional right to be sacred, right? Then I expect the Senator to support this bill and at least allow debate on it. Thanks!

Read the Washington Post long form piece.

It’s long. It’s worth it. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/interactive/2021/fallout-jan-6-insurrection/?itid=hp-top-table-main

Just Get It Done

By the time you read this, no doubt things will have changed and Manchin or Sinema could have asked for yet some additional provision to be added or subtracted. House progressives (who I agree with on policy, but with whom I disagree on their tactics here) could be making their own demands. Who can say. At this point, we need to get it done.

So today, call your Democratic Congressperson and tell them that you want an inclusive recovery bill that works for everyone, and that most importantly – you want this actually done. (I said: “I appreciate the congresswoman’s energy and enthusiasm and desire to get the most for us constituents, but let’s not let perfect be the enemy of the good.”) Once you have called your representative call your senators and demand they pass the bill immediately after the House sends it over.

WHEW! GO TEAM!

P.S.: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

If you’d like to sign up to get this pep talk and action list in your in-box each week, you can do that here. Welcome, friend!

P.P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at
https://www.patreon.com/smalldeedsdone or via paypal at https://www.paypal.me/smalldeeds
My deepest gratitude in advance.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. I read and respond to every e-mail. (Really! I really do!) We’re in this together. Don’t you forget it.

Have a thought? A small deed to suggest? Share it here!

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