I left the United States on January 2 for a year of living and working in Asia. My husband and I made our plans to leave well before Donald Trump became president. I did not envision that as a possibility; I considered it merely as a potential plot for a dystopian work of fiction. I had champagne at the ready on election night, to celebrate, at last, a woman holding our highest political office — only to watch the results with a profound fear and loathing.
I also felt a primal need to reassure my daughter. I wanted her to know that, despite the results of this, the first election she voted in, the rule of law would still prevail, that she and her friends would be safe to share their views and to love their loves, and that goodness still abounds. I wanted her to take comfort in the faith that, despite this blow, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.
Nearly two months after our departure, and over one month into Donald Trump’s presidency, my thoughts have coalesced, shaped by events at home and travel abroad. This is what I’ve come to understand.
Art is important.
This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil. — Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
The day before the Trump inauguration, I saw Tycho in concert in Taipei. I had forgotten how live music can make me feel. The shared focus at a live show, the subconscious sway and nod, the sheer exuberance —it’s a communal rebelliousness that I find reassuring.
I woke the next day to news reports and Instagram photos of the Women’s March on Washington and felt proud to be an American, to see nearly every person I know there proclaiming that they are prepared to resist.
This solace was short-lived. In Trump’s first week in office, his administration:
- Purged climate change information from the White House and State Department websites;
- Ordered a halt to external communications from the E.P.A. and the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture and Health and Human Services
- Reinstated the Global Gag Rule;
- Expedited the approval of permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline; and
- Announced an across-the-board ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Just one week in, I was reeling, compulsively reading the news, trying to figure out how to help. I donated, I offered to volunteer, but I still felt anxious, angry, impotent.
Since I have been traveling, though, I have spent a lot more time seeing art and seeking out beauty than I did when in the United States. From the immersive, interactive digital art installation by teamLab at Huashan 1914 Creative Park in Taipei:
… I again found solace in the lack of cynicism, the commitment to beauty, the refusal to succumb to the quotidian. This requires audacity, and it inspired me to be less scornful, more courageous.
Fear is the mind-killer.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.” — Frank Herbert, Dune
In the seven weeks since I left the United States, I have visited Taiwan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Each of these countries has faced serious internal conflicts and political uncertainty within living memory. Taiwan was under martial law until 1987 and its independence from China remains fraught. Myanmar has multiple ongoing internal armed conflicts, and when I was there, U Ko Ni, a prominent human rights lawyer was assassinated at the Yangon airport. Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese Army ended in 2009. Nepal’s civil war ended in 2006.
Despite this recent turmoil, and huge unresolved political, social and economic issues, life has gone on in these places. People have tea with their friends, chat at the market, play with their children in the park.
Everywhere, I was struck by the graciousness of the people I encountered, not just to me, but to each other. And this made me think that, no matter how bad things get in the U.S., human decency will prevail.
That is not to say that the dangers posed by the Trump administration are imagined. They are brutally real for far too many people. But my citizenship, my race, my law degree and other accoutrements of privilege mean that I personally have little to fear. People without such privilege need support. There is work to do — and despair accomplishes nothing.
As a first step, I have resolved to refrain from scorn and to instead try to share useful information. Turns out, knowledge of the law is handy in that regard.
I care about my country.
“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want just any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.” — Albert Camus, in Resistance, Rebellion and Death
Everywhere I have been, I have spoken with people who asked about our new President, and I am ashamed to tell them that our election results are questionable, that our leader is a liar and a racist, that I cannot explain how he came to be in power. And I’ve realized that I care about the United States enough to want to make it better. That is why I became an attorney. I saw the great cases, Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia, Roe v. Wade , and believed the law can be a powerful tool for positive change, and a shield to protect the vulnerable or unpopular.
I still think that is true (see Oberfell v. Hodges), but I also know that the law can perpetrate enormous injustice. Last week marked the 75th anniversary, of the Executive Order, that led to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. It was upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States. The majority wrote, “Pressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; racial antagonism never can.” Thus, while the Korematsu result is abhorrent in its unquestioning deference to racist lies in the name of military expediency, it also stands for the proposition that discriminatory animus is legally unjustifiable. The point is, the law is imperfect and malleable.
Despite this, I still choose the law as my praxis and aspire to use it for good. So yes, I want to love my country and still love justice. I could choose to continue to live overseas and cynically watch United States’ descent into autocracy as inevitable. But I find I do care.
This is not an abstract patriotism. It is, in part, an optimistic fealty to the separation of powers and the rule of law. It is also a gut-level belief that the United States will one day be better, and that I can contribute to that struggle.