February 10, 2017

Duty in the Age of Trump

So far 2017 has been painful for me. I’ve never felt such concern and trepidation over a new administration. My birthday was January 19th, President Barack Obama’s last day in office. There was no celebration.

January 20th, as Donald Trump took the oath of office, I worked in the darkroom, making photographic art, an act of solitary resistance to an untenable political situation. Emerging from my own confinement, I learned of budget proposals intended to cut funding to institutions including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). And, later, a bill introduced to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


On one hand, I get it. I’m not stupid. No blind liberal allegiance here. We’ve moved into a period of conservative backlash. Eight years of Obama, and the liberal institutions he stood for are under fire. Modern Conservatives don’t particularly care to culturally acknowledge the importance of the arts, responsible journalism, or a healthy natural environment. But this administration seems to think they hold no value at all. It doesn’t matter the federal budget impact is negligible; it won’t move the needle. One less B1 bomber would fund the NEA, NEH, CPB, and EPA for decades. This is war, a cultural war.

And what’s going on now is anything but normal compared to previous Republican administrations. The administrations of Reagan and Bush Sr. suddenly seem liberal compared to the angry isolating populist rise represented by Trump.

I tell myself, I can live with this. I recognize the cyclical nature of government. We’re a two party society and we ebb and flow every 8-12 years between the two. The long view back through history, still shows progress. We evolve. As a society, we’ve grown more inclusive, more progressive, more emphatic.

But this is different. The lack of economic progress for the abandoned predominately white middle class has spawned a resentful angry movement. A movement that propelled an angry puppet voice, Trump’s, into office. Someone wholly unqualified for the responsibility, the diginity, the fairness, the empathy such a position holds. Instead we have an administration of propaganda, leveraging the psychology of fear, to push policies, that, upon reasonable investigation, don’t legitimately address real problems. The world has changed, dramatically, in this new information age. Globalization and automation are fundamentally changing business worldwide. The administration’s proposed solutions: cut taxes, negotiate new trade agreements, build walls, all don’t address the fundamental challenges. They’ll just prove a waste of taxpayer money. A failure of true change.

The assault on principles and institutions I hold dear, at a time, when I myself, figuratively at least, am jumping off a cliff of security into an unknown artistic path, only heightened my own fears. I was in Zion with a friend on election night, a slow dread infecting me as it became increasingly clear Trump was going to win. At one point, anxious thoughts penetrated my disbelief. Is this the right time to quit my job? Is this the right time to pursue art as a primary vocation. Is this fucking nuts?

I simmered those thoughts a few days. Did some reading. Searched for inspiration. And found it.

It came in the form of a weekly newsletter, Brain Pickings, a passion project of Maria Popova that explores issues of philosophy, love, art, and growth. In short, self-actualization, a dangerous word to Conservatives. An article transported me to 1964 and an Amherst College address by our 35th president, John F. Kennedy. The speech honored one of our great American poets, Robert Frost, an anthem to a man who exemplified living his own words, “the road less traveled”. A truly inspirational listen, the speech is a call to civic service and a meditation on the value of art in society.

There, in the midst of my dilemna, one passage took hold:

“If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.”

Hearing this, a wave of conviction rose in me. Here I am fretting over the possible implications of this new administration and whether they could be detrimental to my own interests. It doesn’t matter. This is what I must do. If anything, the fact of the Trump administration and its assaults on values I hold dear, are all the more reason I must do this now.

It is my duty.


Its beauty stirs the imagination, and I wonder if the last refuge of all that is truly wild lies not on earth but in light.

Ellen Meloy