Idiot Wind

In the wake of the riots at the U.S. Capitol, we in higher education must recommit to encouraging the kind of democratic practice that's in sync with the goals of liberal education, writes Michael S. Roth.

January 7, 2021
 
 
Roberto Schmidt/AFP via getty images
Trump supporter protests at U.S. Capitol

“Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull, from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.” The words of the Bob Dylan song echo in my mind as I watch rioters marauding in Washington, D.C., playing make-believe politics in their cloud cuckoo world of conspiracies and fantasies. “You’re an idiot, babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”

The certification of the ballots of the Electoral College by a joint session of Congress has always been ceremonial. A ritual of democracy, so it has been explained to us again and again. And a ritual it has been, until today. Today we also learned that if you are a white protester, you can storm the United States Capitol without fear of repercussions. You can disrupt “the people’s business” without consequences, and, because you are white and aggrieved, and because President Trump says “I love you,” you can return to your hotel room tonight bragging about how you stood up and tried to “stop the steal.” Pride in idiocy has been the hallmark of this administration, from the stoked resentment against anyone with an education to the arrogant rejection of basic public health precautions during a pandemic that has already taken far too many lives.

Although as I write this the rioters at the Capitol are still roaming the grounds, already the “I told you so” crowd is working social media with reflections on how this isn’t that different from what America has always really been like. They seem not to be surprised. For my part, although I have been writing about “the Trumpian calamity” for more than four years, I am still shocked by the events today. I don’t want ever to grow accustomed to this kakistocracy or the brazen opportunism of those who enable it. Now, as I write this with one eye on the news reports, I confess that I’m stunned.

That said, I was surprised, if not quite stunned, when I got up in the middle of last night and saw the results from Georgia. I know how hard people worked to turn out the vote in this runoff election, and how Black women and their allies overcame obstacles to ensure that the right to vote would be respected -- and their votes counted. I have also been heartened and surprised how young people across the country have found so many ways to engage in the political system over these many months, despite the pandemic. A recent conversation I had with a Wesleyan University sophomore who took a leave to work on a Georgia campaign captured the energy, thoughtfulness and perseverance of so many young people during this long election season. I was surprised and proud to see her spirit, despite the dark times we’re living through.

So when I watch the infantile insurrection of those who follow the magical thinking of their petulant president, I try to remember the extraordinary efforts made by students, professors and staff members across higher education to practice democracy over these last several months. Democratic practice depends on conversation, and conversation depends on nonviolence, agreed-upon facts and the ability to listen to views different from one’s own. Today we are seeing the violation of democratic practice. We are seeing manufactured outrage and outrageous efforts to deny the facts of the election. I write this just before the curfew goes into effect in Washington. I know we will not let this violation stand; I know we will not let this insurrection succeed. I do hope it will be put down with minimal harm.

Once again, we in higher education must recommit to encouraging the kind of democratic practice that is fully in sync with the goals of liberal education: habits of discussion, compromise, collective aspiration and care for the vulnerable. Our students and colleagues have planted those seeds, our neighbors have nurtured them and I am confident in the harvest. Weeding out outrage and resentment and nourishing what we sow with common purpose, we will make democracy bountiful for our communities and for our country. This is work we must do or watch it all be blown away in some idiot wind.

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