Column: What Is the Language of Resistance?

For the Valley News
Published: 2/10/2017 9:00:17 PM
Modified: 2/10/2017 9:00:29 PM

Adam Gopnik, one of the best in The New Yorker’s stable of astute writers, said recently that “resistance” is too romantic a word for the opposition to bad government that has surfaced in the streets and courts and even the State Department since Donald Trump was inaugurated. Gopnik’s point was that dissent is, or should be, completely normal in a democratic society.

To compare the opposition rising in this time of Trump with resistance movements that arose all over German-occupied Europe during World War II, Gopnik suggests, might exaggerate the immediate danger we face. “Democratic civilization has turned out to be even more fragile than we imagined,” he admits, but he adds, “the resources of civil society have turned out to be even deeper than we knew.”

If there are questions about the level of our political extremity, there is little doubt about our need to find language that illuminates the dark abyss separating those who approve of our new president’s words and executive orders and Cabinet appointments from those appalled by them. It is the challenge faced by an activist composing a sign for a march, a student preparing to spend an afternoon with a Trump-supporting uncle, a citizen hoping to persuade her neighbor about the risk of despotism in the administration she admires, a lawyer addressing the executive order on immigration, or a senator explaining her vote on the nominee for secretary of education.

Recently, I took in a gathering of art and poetry at Vassar College called “The World After January 20, 2017,” hoping to learn something from poets and painters about the language of political opposition. The exhibits displayed a wide range of feelings, including anger, sorrow, fear, contempt, amusement, hope and longing.

Liza Donnelly, a cartoonist, provides just one word in her picture of a nude painter who is hunched over her canvas and easel, while standing on seemingly sturdy, colorful letters that spell HOPE. The criticism here seems indirect. Art in our new political environment, Donnelly appears to suggest, must be built on hope, which may be especially hard for women to sustain.

In his poem Christmas at Washington’s Crossing John Balaban retells the story of General George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware. The general who would become our first president, he says, “risked his neck,” and he describes farmers who “row into the snowstorm, then march all night for battle, /saving the Republic for Valley Forge and victory at Yorktown.”

Balaban reminds us of the courage Washington and his followers needed to win battles that led ultimately to establishing the United States and our Constitution. He concludes the poem with questions: “What would it take to call us together today?/ For what common cause would we abandon all?” Like Donnelly, Balaban works by indirection, suggesting it may once again take great courage at many levels of our society to preserve the union when we have leaders who divide us.

As I walked among the exhibits responding to the inauguration of President Donald Trump, I found myself returning to Balaban’s poem and Donnelly’s cartoon because they seemed to raise questions that might make sense across the chasm that is now our country’s political predicament. Balaban asks, what can bring us together in this time of disagreement? He doesn’t pretend to know the answer. And there is a question implicit in the image of the naked artist who stands on HOPE. How sturdy is this hope really? Is the artist whistling in the dark, or is there reason to believe her art can make a difference?

There is humor in the image of the naked painter, and it differs from much contemporary opposition humor. Presidents provoke satirical humor, as they should in a democracy, and much recent political humor is built on Donald Trump’s seemingly unplanned clownishness. This is not humor likely to stir laughter across the Great Divide. But Donnelly seems to be amused by the naked painter and by herself — vulnerable but persistent, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at

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