Yesterday, acclaimed social activist, cultural critic, and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti officially became a centenarian. Long before turning 100, Ferlinghetti became world-renowned for his poetry collections and political activism. Urging poets and artists to become more socially and politically engaged, Ferlinghetti was a pioneer in utilizing art to challenge the political establishment and the threats of nationalism on our democracy. On the occasion of his 100th birthday, his chosen home of San Francisco declared the date as “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day,” honoring the artist’s commitment to social justice within his own community.
The same day as Ferlinghetti’s birthday, acting Attorney General for the Trump administration, William Barr, issued a summary of the findings from Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into the president’s alleged involvement with Russia meddling in the 2016 presidential election. While Mueller’s full report has not been released at this time, Barr issued a statement that said that while the report did not find enough evidence to prove Trump colluded with the Russians, the president could not be fully exonerated.
While politicians, pundits, and the public continue to debate the details over the report, and the aftermath of it, one thing remains quite clear to me. This summary, if accurate and entirely reflective of Mueller’s findings, emboldens Trump and his supporters. This summary serves to validate their cries that the special counsel investigation was a witch hunt and that Donald Trump is the only person who can save America from the brink of tyranny from the political establishment.
Among Trump’s supporters, there is a subgroup of nationalists and white supremacists that have become the most emboldened and energized of the group. These are individuals who are committing violence against liberals, people of color, and anyone else who is different from them in terms of ethnicity and ideology. And this is nothing new in 2019. Even before the mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, Trump has validated white supremacists going as far back as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that erupted in violence during August 2017, with Trump blaming “both sides” for the violence.
Recent reports and polling have indicated that nationalism and white supremacy are not only on the rise within Trump’s America, they are on the rise around the world. Even non-Americans, people who could never vote for Trump in any election, espouse his rhetoric and champion their toxic beliefs that undermine the rights of people they view as an other. And while opponents of Trump’s vitriol were putting their faith in the Mueller report, Trump’s supporters were becoming active, engaging social media on a grassroots level to sow discord and misinformation for mass public consumption.
It is important to stay grounded. The report has not been officially released, and efforts will continue within the Southern District of New York. So, work isn’t over. Regardless of the report’s outcome, it is widely known that Trump is a vile criminal with campaign staff currently indicted or serving prison terms. While his supporters are celebrating “so much winning,” it is important to realize that there is a long game here and not to give up hope. If anything, we must step up more to counter this bump in nationalistic fervor.
The fact that Ferlinghetti turned 100 on the same day Barr issued his summary was an interesting coincidence to me, especially considering Ferlinghetti’s advocacy against nationalism and the Trump administration’s sponsorship of it. I spent some time last night reviewing some of Ferlinghetti’s most political charged writings, to find something that reflected our current political climate with a kind of wisdom only the past can provide.
In 1958, Ferlinghetti released a spoken-word poetry album called Tentative Description Of A Dinner To Promote The Impeachment Of President Eisenhower And Other Poems By Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The album’s opening track is the poem “Tentative Description Of A Dinner To Promote The Impeachment Of President Eisenhower.” Backed with a drum beating ominously in the background with varying rhythm and tempo, Ferlinghetti recites his poem. “Tentative Description…” is a condemnation of American presidents, present and future, for not recognizing the devastating potential of nuclear oblivion, a subject Ferlinghetti came to understand after seeing the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki while serving in the Navy.
While Ferlinghetti’s poem specifically addresses Washington’s complicit view of nuclear apocalypse, a few lines jumped out to me as poignant and relevant on a different level.
And after it became obvious that the President was doing everything
in his power to make the world safe for nationalism
his brilliant military mind never having realized
that nationalism itself was the idiotic superstition
which would blow up the world
Even though Ferlinghetti is addressing the carelessness of nuclear war, he identifies the true heart of why someone can commit such carelessness: nationalism. Nationalism, now just as much as it was back then, is a philosophy based on hatred for others that don’t share the same characteristics as you or ones that you value. Whether it is skin color, religion, creed, sexual orientation, or even political party, it is nationalism that gives violent and hateful people an excuse to exercise violence as an act of self-preservation, resulting from fear that their maligned and false sense of reality will be infringed upon by others practicing their own way of life.
There is no debate that nationalism is the cause of violence coming from a sect within Trump’s base. Patriotism, not nationalism, is an expression of love for country. However, through misinformation, nationalism has become a sacred right to these people, and they feel compelled to cause violence to uphold it. Nevermind that someone of a different belief system doesn’t infringe on your rights, nationalism has become a motivator to exert power and authority to uphold racist and classist hierarchies. Nuclear annihilation, while still possible, can be argued as not being as much of a threat now as it was in 1958. However, the vile acts of destructive nationalists spells doom for this country. Though the body count is lower, the country and its democratic system will die a death by a thousand cuts.