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Let’s get this done

Excuse me for a little minute while I go off, and apologies in advance for some swears:

Today is September 14, 2016. And here is the truth: polls are showing a dangerously thin margin between a competent and dedicated public servant and someone who has zero qualifications for the presidency and negligible interest in policy. That truth makes me want to put my head in a hole for the next two months.

But today is not the day to despair, bitches.

The day to despair *would be* November 9, 2016, if on that day we realize that we have not done everything in our power to shout YES! to a rational candidate and NO! to a sociopath. If on that day, we realize that we posted a bunch to Facebook, but didn’t talk to a single live undecided voter about why we think Hillary is the best choice, that will be the day to despair. The days to despair would be all those days coming after, if we were to realize that we spent more time thinking about where to move if an egomaniac is elected president than we did making phone calls, or knocking on doors, or registering new voters.

Nope. Today is not the day to despair. Today is the day to get this thing done. Today is the day that we decide to channel our anger and worry and stress into energy and enthusiasm and commitment.

Today is not the day to put our hands over our ears and la-la-la our way to November.

And today is not the day that we sit back and complain about the New York Times, or wonder why Hillary isn’t doing this or doing that.

This is our freaking democracy and yes, the media is a pain and yes, there is a whole giant basket filled with deplorable people on Twitter and Facebook, but this is OUR freaking democracy. And there are people whose lives will be devastated in very real ways if he wins. That is what is at stake. And if we decide to despair on this day, there is no way we are going to win.

Today is the day that we kiss our families goodbye until November, or drag them along behind us door to door, because we’re doing this for our kids. Today is the day that we go to the Hillary Clinton website and we order that damn sign (or I will seriously order one for you if you want) because even if you live in the bluest or reddest state in the country, that shit matters. Enthusiasm matters. Wearing the button, putting on the bumper sticker, talking to people in the grocery store – being loud and proud about supporting an actual super intelligent and experienced woman for the presidency – that matters.

The time for sitting is over. The time for being shy about this is over.

We know that bitches get stuff done. Let us freaking get this shit done, bitches.

Revolution and Inequality

Maybe it’s just my own personal Hamilton-mania talking, but it feels like we’re living in a revolutionary time.

Even if not quite revolutionary in the precise political science definition of the word, it is at least a moment brimming with possibility.[i] In sharp contrast to every other election in my lifetime, tackling inequality is among the fundamental urgencies driving voter decisions in the U.S. Democratic Party primaries. People seem to have their eyes fully open to the degree of transformation they are asking for, if not all the potential consequences. After all, disrupting the layered and interwoven financial and political systems that are sustaining (and sustained by) economic, social, gender, and racial inequality would be nothing short of tectonic.

But then, George Washington, in all his post-Cabinet-rap-battle wisdom,[ii] pulls me back to reality. Winning – whether it’s a war or an election – is easy, and governing is indeed harder. Politics is inevitably messy, and we often have to settle for better instead of best, as President Obama recently expressed so well in a speech to Howard University grads.

It is this tension between visionary idealism and incremental change that divides so many of those I know on the left. I’m not interested in writing another Bernie vs. Hillary piece, but just to boil it down: In Bernie Sanders, many see a refreshing break from politics-as-usual, a bold truth-teller, a debate changer, a person who can be trusted to take principled stands. While Hillary Clinton’s policy proposals share many of the same values, the course she articulates is consistently more measured. Many of her supporters see this as a more reasonable approach in line with current political realities.

Ideally, we would have both – a political leader who inspires broad support by igniting the fire of the possible in us, while deftly navigating a thorny political atmosphere by outsmarting opponents and (yes, sometimes) making deals. But if we cannot have both of those in one package, then the deft navigator is more important. It all comes down to the roles of government vs. civil society in creating progressive change.

Throughout history, progressive civil society organizations in the U.S. (as elsewhere) have worked separately and in concert to voice dissent, reveal oppressions, propose alternative political and economic visions, mobilize support, craft policy solutions, and hold authorities accountable to progressive policies and laws. It is essential that movement protagonists sit outside of government. This ensures at least a modicum of independence from government and party interests and pushes the boundaries of debate beyond what is politically accepted at the moment. It also allows civil society to play that watchdog role that is so essential – even (or especially) when a friendly political party holds power. Principled, well-articulated demands from civil society meet the political reality of negotiated progress. It’s usually not pretty, but it’s what has worked.

So when people talk about “revolution” in the context of a presidential campaign, I get nervous – mostly because I don’t believe it’s the role of a U.S. president to embody revolution. Why do we want so desperately to believe that one person at the executive level has to be the vanguard? Why do we give that power away from ourselves?

I also get nervous because many of the people supporting the revolution against inequality don’t seem to be as concerned about racial and gender inequality as they are about economic inequality – as if race and gender will sort themselves out once the economics are taken care of.[iii] Those most affected by economic and political inequality (people of color, especially women) are not the primary protagonists of this revolution, and that raises all kinds of questions about authenticity. Would their voices be lost when choices inevitably have to be made?

There’s also a practical reason for the president to not be the leader of the revolution. Pitching revolution in a campaign, promising an end to inequality, voicing commitment to a wide range of progressive goals – all of these are easy. But once someone promising massive change is in power, he or she has limited ability to fundamentally alter political and economic structures without support. Sustained mass mobilization – including the kind necessary to elect progressive allies at the state and local level – is essential to a progressive agenda. And it’s something we haven’t managed recently.

But we can. We can take all the passions that this campaign has stirred up on behalf of social and political transformation and we can channel it into civil society – into the organizations that work daily to win and sustain progress on a broader progressive agenda, including gun violence, abortion rights, institutional racism, pay equity, family leave, immigration, and campaign finance reform. All of the social media energy, all of the rallying – this can fuel a real revolution from the bottom up. There are already promising signals that this is happening. For example, some Sanders supporters have drafted a plan to harness the campaign’s strength to defeat Trump in the fall, fully aware that a Trump presidency would seriously impede a progressive agenda.

I really want to close on this optimistic note, but I unfortunately can’t. I fear that Sanders’ campaign is becoming cynical, and nothing kills participation in the political process better than cynicism – the overwhelming feeling that the game is fixed and there’s no chance to influence the process. Top Sanders officials dismissed reports of that plan for anti-Trump mobilization by actually saying “we could care less.” The campaign’s response to the vile insults and threats leveled against Nevada’s Democratic Party convention chair was a tepid repudiation of harassment couched in a full throated proclamation that they had been cheated by “the establishment.” One of the texts the convention chair received from an apparent Sanders supporter said, “I would rather vote for Hitler than Hillary.” Let that sink in a bit.

Progressives can certainly squander this moment and decide politics is bull and compromise is capitulation. But that will do nothing to end inequality. If people really think Hillary will not fight for progressive ideals as president, what better way to ensure she does than to stay mobilized, get a progressive Congress, and put pressure on her from outside the White House?

We have a revolutionary moment to challenge inequality. We cannot throw away our shot.[iv]

 

[i] In political science terms, I would label Sanders as more of a populist than a revolutionary.

[ii] All praise and thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda, from whose brilliant work I have borrowed phrases and concepts.

[iii] There are endless examples of populist movements (and even revolutions) in Latin America failing to address racial and gender inequality. For example, leftist leader and former revolutionary Daniela Ortega in Nicaragua made abortion laws stricter in his country in exchange for support from the Catholic Church.

[iv] Lin Manuel Miranda’s words again.

Women. Power. Childbirth.

 

It was Friday, my fifth day of labor. Unable to keep food down or get more than a half hour of continuous sleep since Monday evening, I was relieved when my midwives decided to speed things up by admitting me to the birth center and rupturing the membranes of my placental sac. And still more relieved when one of their more experienced midwives sat with me, coaxing me to relax and let my body do the work.

But soon after, I was left in the care of the one midwife in the practice I didn’t feel a connection with. It was this new midwife who, in our first meeting at my 40-week visit, had immediately started talking about how they would induce me at 42 weeks, even though I was confident that wouldn’t be necessary. And it was this midwife who, on Monday, had told me over the phone that my contractions weren’t strong enough or regular enough to warrant coming in to the birth center, even though I’d been tracking them all day and they had been 5 minutes apart for over an hour. I sensed she didn’t want to take the trouble to come in to the center and monitor my labor in person.

That conversation affected my labor profoundly. I had been en route to the birth center – with all the certainty a first-time mother could have that I wasn’t imagining actual labor. When she said – no, go back home, wait until it’s been two hours – I suddenly felt even more powerless over the forces that had taken over my body. In a surge of frustration and anger, I began to sob. When my husband and I reached our home and I stepped through the front door, a violent contraction trembled through me, and a fit of nausea sent me running to the bathroom. I couldn’t keep food down the rest of the week.

In the thirteen years since, part of me has remained baffled by the helplessness I demonstrated during those five days. In my personal and professional life, I work daily on behalf of gender equality. I experience the privileges that U.S. society gives to white, upper middle class women, particularly those above the age of 30. I was not, in short, the kind of woman who regularly experiences discrimination at the hands of health providers.

And I planned my birth precisely to avoid an imbalanced power dynamic. Wary of the lack of control that I often felt interacting with doctors during my life, I had long known that I wanted midwives to assist me in childbirth.

Yet never once did I express my discomfort with the new midwife, never once spoke up with a strong opinion about my care, never once even questioned the dose of castor oil they gave me on Friday to speed up labor (as if that would stay down when the Haagen Dazs milkshake a couple days before hadn’t). I didn’t ask the comforting midwife to stay, and I didn’t say I wanted someone other than the new midwife to attend my labor. Against my better judgment, in my exhaustion, I even accepted the lithotomy (flat on the back) position for the seemingly endless pushing stage when the midwife insisted that was what the baby’s position required.

The truth is I wasn’t powerless – I’m sure if I had asserted myself at the outset, I could have had a smoother birth. But I was focused – getting that baby out of my body was my only goal, and anything else felt like a distraction, a waste of precious energy. I made myself powerless, because that’s what I needed to do at the time. Powerless in the face of strong contractions, and powerless in the face of the threat that I would be transferred to a hospital if my labor didn’t speed up. Powerless to even make the midwifery practice aware of my complaints afterwards, because after all, I ended up with a healthy baby.

If I felt powerless, as someone who knows and defends women’s rights on a daily basis, as someone who had the ability to seek out providers who would listen to me, as someone who benefits from so many privileges, what must women around the world feel?

I have since learned a great deal about what women around the world are experiencing. Thanks to the diligent efforts of global advocates, and the women who have bravely spoken up, we know that feelings of powerlessness are all too common during childbirth – in the face of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. We also know that layers of discrimination – due to race, age, religion, poverty, HIV status – add to these experiences of disrespect and abuse.

Reading birth stories of women who have experienced disrespect and abuse in childbirth, I know how lucky I am. Being turned away, not listened to, not respected, left alone, denied information, not consulted – women experience this kind of treatment daily around the world, and it drives them away from skilled care, causes critical delays in their care – and violates their human rights. I was never physically in danger from the disrespect I experienced. Unfortunately, many women are. For example, the maternal mortality rate in the United States for women of color is shocking – almost four times higher for black women than white women.

Today is the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights. It’s an opportunity to push forward the structural changes necessary to end the silence and power imbalances that all too often accompany childbirth. We can give women the information they need to understand their pregnancies and how powerful they really are. But most importantly, we can create cultures that honor and respect women’s voices, most critically when they are engaged in the amazing, precarious, painful, heartbreaking, earth-shattering process of creating life.

To add your name to the petition to get official United Nations recognition of the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights, see this page

To learn more about the movement to end disrespect and abuse in childbirth, see this brief I wrote for White Ribbon Alliance.