Having the Courage to Love Like Grown-Ups (thoughts from a former Franken staffer)

Emily Flesch is a third year law student at Mitchell Hamline.  I asked her to write something after the news broke on Thursday.

“For many of us, living under the Trump administration has cast everything into sharper relief: It’s as if we’ve all been given fancy polarized sunglasses with which to more clearly see the fault lines of the patriarchy. It’s no longer possible to ignore what was there all along.” – Lauren Duca,  https://www.teenvogue.com/story/sexism-remembered-and-forgotten

The goggles our class has been exploring this semester are difficult to wear, which is a hallmark of the privilege of the wearer, as we are forced to see what has been obvious all along to those without privilege. The other defining feature of these goggles is that, as Duca notes, above, once you have had them on, it is impossible not to see through them.  And with our gender goggles on, the landscape is pretty grim. Here, as Lindy West describes:

“Not only are women expected to weather sexual violence, intimate partner violence, workplace discrimination, institutional subordination, the expectation of free domestic labor, the blame for our own victimization, and all the subtler, invisible cuts that undermine us daily, we are not even allowed to be angry about it. Close your eyes and think of America. We are expected to keep quiet about the men who prey upon us, as though their predation was our choice, not theirs.https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/08/opinion/anger-women-weinstein-assault.html?_r=0

So I have spent these last several weeks shocked, but not surprised at the men being named for their predatory behavior. My experiences, and the experiences of countless other women (and men) have made it clear that even (and especially) the people we love, respect, trust, and admire are capable of horrific acts. If this post-Weinstein “reckoning” is to have any meaning, we must steel ourselves to hold accountable even (and especially) the people that we love, respect, trust, and admire.

This brings me to Senator Al Franken.

I first met Al at his book signing when I was 15. Yes, I was the weird kind of kid who read political satire. Neither of my parents was especially political, but I had always been fascinated by how our government works and the business of politics.

My dad drove me, and I remember waiting in the line. I remember meeting Al and I remember his smile. I remember what I said to him – that I hoped he decided to run for Senate. If he did, I promised I would work for him.

A few years later, Al officially announced his senate run. I made good on my promise and joined Team Franken as an intern. It was a dream come true for this nerd. I went to my first political convention, where I helped Al win the DFL endorsement. I got to introduce Al at an event in Duluth. Together, we told the story of meeting at the book signing. I loved talking with voters about the issues. Working on Al’s campaign is one of things I am most proud to have done.

When Al was finally elected as our Senator (by only 312 votes), I knew that my work had mattered. And I truly believed that Al was going to make a difference in Washington, not just for Minnesotans, but for all of us. I believed him when he told us that his crass jokes from SNL were “just jokes.” I believed him when he promised he was going to work hard and take his job as a Senator seriously.

Over his first two terms, I have continued to be impressed. His work on behalf of veterans, on behalf of women, on behalf of consumers, and on the judiciary committee has exceeded even my expectations. Senator Al Franken, I have told people many times over the years, is the one politician that I truly believe in 100%.

And then, the photograph of him groping Leeann Tweeden.

“He needs to resign,” I texted my parents, after the story broke. My father responded, “I don’t think there is a man our age who hasn’t acted inappropriately at some point.”  And that, I explained, is precisely the problem.  Look through your goggles, people!

The road forks now, in terms of what should come next. There is a political reality, and there is that reality that has existed in the shadows, without the benefit of the polarized sunglasses, for too long.  Hovering over both realities is this discussion of nuance, of degrees. Of whether what Al did was better than many, and worse than some.  I am not sure that it matters.

The political reality as I see it is that we cannot afford not to hold Al accountable. Any leniency will be used against us from the right, who, so far, has failed to hold credible allegations of child molestation against Roy Moore, and has elected Donald “grab them by the pussy” Trump as our president. Any wavering here will not be understood as the product of weighing the facts and circumstances and reaching a reasoned conclusion. It will be a cudgel to beat us with, and shield to hide behind the next time a Republican is accused of sexual misconduct.

The other reality, the “shadow realm” that is being dragged, flailing and screaming into the light, is the one illuminated by our “power vision” goggles,  In this reality too, Al, and the rest of us, must be held accountable. Not in an angry, vengeful way, but because we recognize that as humans, we hurt each other. Because we want to be better. Because we understand that we are all in this together.  And because we love the ugly and deeply flawed Democratic experiment that is America.

I have been thinking a lot about ‘love’ this semester.  For a long time, my concept of love in a political and social sense was informed by none other than Senator Al Franken. He wrote in Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: “Grown-up love means actually understanding what you love, taking the good with the bad, and helping your loved one grow. Love takes attention and work.” This framing of love has become one of the bedrock principles of my personal political ethos. But today, it falls short.

I love Al Franken. Not like a child, or a former staffer, or a constituent. I love him like a grown-up. But I am over just “taking the good with the bad.” And I am over “helping your loved one grow.” Women have been doing that since the dawn of time. We are not the only grown-ups in the room. Al is a grown-up too. It is time for him, and the rest of the men whose names we have heard, and whose names we have yet to hear, to do their own work — the hard work of taking responsibility for their bad behavior, of understanding the pain and hurt they have caused, and of accepting whatever consequences follow.

We have a foundational problem in this country, with racism, with sexism, with violence, and poverty and capitalism and war. We have a problem in the White House, at the highest levels of our government, and we have a problem in our states, our cities, and our small communities.

Loving America — ourselves and our society — means doing the difficult work of admitting that problem in all its complexity: it means being uncomfortable, being proximate, and owning our own complicity. To me, that means summoning the personal and political will to hold ourselves and each other accountable. It means there are no free passes.  It means wondering, constantly and publicly, how things would be different if the status quo were to really shift, foundationally:  where woman-identified voices, and the voices of people of color were truly elevated in our society, instead of relegated to the margins.

What if there had been more female voices in politics to inspire the younger version of myself, into whose campaigns I could have invested my time, my energy, my idealism? An oft-cited statistic is that women need to be asked an average of seven times to run for public office before agreeing. To all my woman-identified friends, consider this ask Number One: please run for office. I promise, when you do, I will come work for you.

Keeping Our Hope

Mitchell Hamline student, Laurel Blanchard, offers these reflections on hope and where she finds it. (And if you’re just joining us, check out http://profgrose.com/critical-lawyering-in-todays-world/ for a description of the class.)

In a recent class session, considering Bryan Stevenson’s work around on for justice, we discussed the difficulty of existing in our world today; and that in order to prevent living in complete despair (both as humans and as attorneys) we must hold on to our hope — to something which reassures us everything will be OK. This discussion later resurfaced for me in an unexpected way.

A couple evenings ago I was listening to the song “Someday at Christmas” by Stevie Wonder. As the song played I meditated on the lyrics. I was overwhelmed at the aspiration to one day live in a world where “all men are free.”

How hopeful these lyrics must have been 50 years ago when the song was released by Stevie Wonder. I imagine a glimmer of hope blooming in Stevie’s mind while these dreams danced about in the form of piano notes. Perhaps a fog of peace gently fills the air each time he plays this song. But, sadly, “Someday” has not arrived. Will it ever? “No hungry children, and no empty hand,” the song continues. I wouldn’t have to go far to be reminded that this ideal has not yet been realized.

Yet tucked inside this whirlwind of sweet aspiration that is “Someday at Christmas” is a confident assurance. Ah, yes, as the song continues I dare to dream that “maybe not in time for you and me, but someday at Christmas time” …our world will be a better place.

I’ve heard this song a dozen times. But never has it spoken to me as it did in this moment. If “Someday (fill in the blank)” is our hope, then how do we reconcile our human need for assurance that everything will be “OK” with the dark reality in which we live?

Honestly, I don’t think we do. And I don’t think we should try.

The fact of the matter is that humankind is self-destructive on its own. We just are. (Hello, the ice caps are actually melting.) So instead we ought to look to hope to bridge the gap between our needs as fragile humans and our reality.

To be sure, this is not to minimize our reality nor to satisfy our need for assurance. Instead this bridge serves as a way to live in between the two. To live in the tension. Why? Because we have no other choice. In this very moment nothing is getting better. And for now we will continue to live in this moment where the world perpetuates its own demise. It’s the human condition. We must find a way to live in the tension.

And you know what? Maybe that’s all right.

Maybe keeping our hope is not about “Someday” ever actually arriving. Perhaps in this world of incessant doom, hope is all about looking onward to “Someday” with faithful assurance that it will come, but never expecting to live in it.

If we expect otherwise I dare to say that we are lying to ourselves. For as long as we roam the earth I don’t believe that we will see world peace. If our world has existed for countless lifetimes and has yet to maintain a complete absence of evil, the odds of change are undeniably bleak. But in order to move from a place of despair, into the tension, we must recognize that on our own we are prone to chaos and destruction.

And this is why we need hope.

For me, my hope rests in the belief that I will one day live in peace – in heaven with Christ where there will be no more death, no crying, and no pain. This doesn’t have to be your hope. This is not a plug for Christianity. I’m simply expressing the place from which my relief comes. I live with hope. I live in the tension. I’ve not reconciled my need with my reality because the two are mutually exclusive. I’m merely living in between the two.

I encourage you to find a place of hope, in whatever season you’re currently living. We can’t hedge our bets on world peace, but we also can’t live with our feet in the sinking sand that is the chaos around us. We must find a way to live in the tension. And we must do our parts to sow seeds in contribution to “Someday,” whether or not we believe that it will ever come. Quite honestly, I’m OK with that . . . and I hope that you are too.

Wisdom and Hope from a Law Student

Third year Mitchell Hamline student, Thomas Dolan, reflects on the semester:

The past few weeks’ classes have felt particularly fraught—with anxiety, with dread, with the grim specter of hopelessness hanging over our every word, but in a strange way, these sessions have been productive in a way others were not.

After learning, over the past few months, how to don our various critical “goggles,” we had to reckon with the fact that, now that we have these goggles, what we see through them will likely take a real and devastating toll on us, both psychologically and emotionally.

To a straight, white male from a background of economic privilege, much of the appeal of this class lay in the opportunity to hear the experiences and perspectives of people whose lives have been very different from my own, and to confront within myself those aspects of privilege that can lead even the most well-intentioned people into serving and reproducing relationships of oppression.

Another point of interest to me was the prospect of really delving into the ways lawyers can recognize and help to dismantle the kinds of toxic, hierarchical systems that have long under-girded our society. If such systems were once invisible, hidden by layers of “tradition” or law, it seems they have grown weary of the shadows, now strutting about in our midst, handily personified by the shambling oafs and dead-eyed charlatans currently infesting the White House.

This course has delivered on both counts, and I’m deeply grateful to have this new set of analytical tools and emotional awarenesses.  But the last few weeks have involved the discussion of an utterly essential parallel skill. We have tried to answer the following questions:

Once awakened to the utter, all-encompassing subjugation, exploitation, and systemic dehumanization built into so much of our reality, how the hell is a person supposed to get out of bed in the morning?

And is it ever okay to take these goddamn goggles off?

Whether one is frozen by fear—as my trans cousin has been since the election; or by hopelessness—like many who thought a Clinton Presidency was as certain as the sun rising again tomorrow; or by guilt, rage, or the sense that there is JUST TOO MUCH [CRAP] GOING ON TO FOCUS ON ONE THING, FOR GOD’S SAKE; we must hold paralysis and resignation at bay. But how?

Our discussions here were difficult, but necessarily so. Thankfully, the group has developed enough trust in each other that we were able to get really vulnerable and specific about our fears and despairs, and nobody seemed to feel obligated to reflexively bright-side anyone else. As a result, what began as a very un-Midwestern baring of our deepest existential anxieties turned into something that—for me—took on a really cathartic tone, and, eventually, a discussion on the very nature, utility, and feasibility of what we might dare to call “hope” in times like these.

We discussed the deeply jarring cognitive dissonance provoked by an abiding faith in Dr. King’s “Long Arc of History Bending Toward Justice” metaphor on the one hand, and Everything Going On in the World Right Now on the other. After decades of being able to take some degree of incremental social progress as something of a given, the psychotically cruel and shockingly petty political revanchism of the Trumpenreich feels less like a political setback and more like watching a gang of feces-flinging baboons eating the Constitution and beating up our dad.

Personally, however, I don’t believe the “Long Arc” theory is refuted by recent events. In my mind, the metaphor describes not a law of nature—like gravity, say—but an observation about the nature of human beings. What I mean is that I don’t think Dr. King meant to imply that there’s some cosmic force compelling the world toward justice, and that if we just wait long enough, things will work themselves out. Obviously, this is not true; if there is any historic-gravitational force at work—that is, if there is a predictable direction in which modern societies drift when people of conscience stop paying attention—it is almost certainly in the opposite direction: toward feudalism, hierarchy, and rule by force. The long arc of history, when looked at from a distance, does bend toward justice, but a closer look reveals that it only does so when there are people bending it with all their might.