It’s frequently said of Millenials in general and Harvard students in particular: we like to do many things at once. This past Fourth of July, I settled for doing just two: traveling from London to Madrid and, whilst on the flight, catching up on foreign policy articles for my summer research job. It was a decidedly un-American morning, and the only reminder of my nationality came from a short stop at customs. There were no barbeques and no water balloon fights, and I felt worlds away from the shores of Lake Michigan, where just a year earlier I had sat with my bright-eyed, democratically-engaged co-interns on the Obama campaign and watched fireworks.
Still, I can’t complain. The first month of my research fellowship at Cambridge University has been the best kind of adventure, filled with new places and friends, as well as continuing opportunities to learn British phrases like “stag do” (that’s a bachelor party) and “rank” (disgusting). My work has been fulfilling and has kept me busy, and I almost don’t notice the day go by as I research and write. After two college summers, my friends and I have become used to dispersing to different parts of the globe, and so for the most part my residence on another continent doesn’t feel alienating.
There are times, though, when I’m acutely reminded of the fact that I’m away from home. Skype will sputter out, or I’ll do a time conversion wrong and call my parents in the middle of the night. Or, as happened about two weeks ago, I’ll wake up at 6 a.m. and see everyone talking about someone named Wendy on Facebook. It was that morning, running shoes on but unable to move from my computer, that I really understood the consequences of my physical distance from home. It seemed that, while asleep, I had missed out on a truly beautiful moment in American democracy. Where did this woman come from? And why hadn’t there been some kind of warning? For God’s sake, I would have TiVoed the last four hours of that night if it had been possible. But it wasn’t, because I was in England.
So instead I caught up as quickly as I could, scrolling through friend’s statuses and news articles and liking, liking, liking all of it as a way to express the heady pride rising up in me. At that point, 1 a.m. in Austin and 6 a.m. in London, there was still confusion about the validity of the vote. Wendy Davis was still in the state house; my stateside friends were still up and studying the livestream. AP reported the failure of the bill, yet people were only half-jokingly starting to suggest that a feature film be made about the night. It seemed that the collective political conscious of the United States was reeling, unable to fully comprehend Davis’ expression of faith in the usefulness of democratic action. When was the last time an elected official had literally stood up for us? Not sent a memo saying they could theoretically filibuster (as is usually done), but actually stood up because the issue was that urgent? The night of June 25 was important, for reasons that I hoped would reverberate in our state houses for the next few years.
Yet I’m cynical, apt to replace the “years” of the last sentence with “weeks,” or maybe “days.” Perhaps it was something about being so far away, but the initial rush of S.B. 5’s failure was quickly soured by a realization of the realities that existed outside of the fairytale. Another special legislative session would be called. The bill, in all of its flawed, backwards glory, would be passed. Thousands of women would effectively lose the right to choose, joining the thousands already in that position. From my vantage point, sitting in a country where the morning-after pill has been available prescription-free for over a decade, and where the right to an abortion is relatively uncontested, it all seemed a bit silly—and very, very tiring. Was this our version of progress?
The same sentence ran through my head just a few hours later, as I patiently waited to hear the results of Windsor v. United States and Perry v. Hollingsworth. Sure, there were parts of the experience that were downright beautiful—the breathless anticipation with which everyone watched SCOTUS blog, the pictures of the expectant crowd on Capitol Hill. This was a Political Moment, and when the Defense of Marriage Act was officially struck down I pumped my fist and did a little dance of joy in the empty Cambridge University library. It was a good thing, something worth celebrating. I knew on a deeper, more measured level, though, that this wasn’t It—this wasn’t the exultant moment that my generation had been fighting for and waiting for over the past decade.
We weren’t celebrating true equality in our country—we were celebrating federal recognition of equality for residents of only 13 out of the 50 states. And as if to add insult to injury, we were celebrating the fact the decision had been made by one citizen, a swing vote in a non-elected group of nine that stays in power for life. Initial impressions to the contrary, someone measuring the health of American democracy before and after the week of June 24 would have seen a decline—especially if they took into account the gutting of the democratically-passed 1965 Voting Rights Act, an act that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg described as “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
There is a frequent debate in Harvard’s activist community about the value of “staying angry”; of not abandoning purity of purpose. Being content with the mainstream-defined halfway measure, the argument goes, means we are ourselves complicit in oppression. Thus championing marriage equality ignores the concerns of a homosexual citizen who wants reliable workplace benefits more than marriage; celebrating the failure of an anti-abortion bill insults the woman who can’t afford the procedure in the first place. I’ve always struggled with this way of looking at things, thinking that activists should at least get a moment of happiness and congratulation before they go on fighting the good fight.
Sitting alone in a library in England, though, this perspective of dissatisfaction and of continued struggle started to make more sense. It had been a rollercoaster week in American politics, to be sure, but recent developments weren’t as unabashedly good as most were making them out to be. I spent a few minutes in the silence of the dusty books, probing at my newfound, disquieting uncertainty. It’s incredibly difficult not to fall into hyperbolic reveling with one’s peers—to consciously take a step back and create a sense of critical separation. To be honest, I was a bit surprised at myself for doing so. It felt a bit, I realized, like spending the Fourth of July abroad. A stream of Facebook statuses and conventional wisdom told me I should be happy; a pre-marked day of celebration had come. But from where I was sitting there were no fireworks and no parade. In the solitude of Cambridge, I could see that nothing had really changed.
Photo Credit: Harleen Gambhir