During the Trump presidency, writers in various pursuits have often felt a professional obligation to call attention to or criticize the administration’s flagrant use of rhetoric to foster cruelty and perpetuate a fantasy of violence. The fantasy, what 50 years ago literary critic Richard Slotkin described as germane to “American mythogenesis,” imagines a nation “tor[n] violently from the implacable and opulent wilderness.” It helps code potential administrative action as valiant, while soliciting heroism from readers who can ascend from the rank-and-file to warriors in the life-threatening context of American life.

On the one hand, it’s just words.

On the other, it’s not.

Trump recently tweeted another contribution to the annals of his fantasy in response to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 DACA ruling. The majority decision, penned by Bush appointee, John Roberts, called the federal administration’s decision to terminate DACA “arbitrary and capricious,” noting it failed to provide adequate information that “policy concerns outweigh[ed] reliance interests.” Dreamers were consequently granted  temporary reprieve.

Trump’s response:

The aggressive language casts the decision as murderous, and its violent imagery helps facilitate the Manichean worldview on which fascism depends. It’s us against them, Trump warns, by any means necessary. Here, fascism’s nationalists are redefined as a Trumpian army of warriors who, because they face the life-endangering threat of political opposition, are freed from the rules governing shared reality.

The fantasy of violence is effective in part because it activates a superficial imitation of the limbic system’s flight-or-flight trap. Its efficacy is activated by defining a threat to life that  justifies any retaliatory action, even if unreasonable or illogical (ironically justifying Trump’s oblique claim to the protector position).

It’s not surprising that a fantasy of violence bolsters a federal policy apparently  informed by white supremacy. But it’s important to recognize its degradation of the shared reality on which we depend. It’s also important to note that it’s the same fantasy informing the “warrior worldview,” which, propagated through rhetoric, fosters systemic division through perpetual distortion.

It’s Earth Day, which means Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, my book with Margaret Klein Salamon, is now available from New Society! But because we’re quarantined in a pandemic while radical pro-gun extremists bully nurses, doctors, and state governments to sacrifice the weak—as if that’s a meaningful solution to the precarious futures of important industries (like publishing)—it’s a muted celebration.

Earth Day was established in 1970 on the presumption that Americans deeply cared about the environmental damage wreaked by industrial development. Bipartisan, cross-generational, and cross-class supporters verified this belief, publicly recognizing our fundamental human reliance on a healthy environment for sustenance.

Although the recognition is often collapsed into a niche interest in  “environmentalism,” it’s an extension of fact: We can’t bear children, raise children, be children, grow into adults, or function as adults without the benefit of clean air, good food, and drinkable water. This is the requirement of every member of our species, whether or not we care about sustaining the planet beyond our mere survival.

Today, care—such a crucial requirement for change—feels like a scarce resource. Callous examples of leadership reinforce the sense of finitude: Trump’s pride in his antipathy seems to inspire those who enjoy participating in a rigid Darwinian contest where every resource is limited. In this game, sacrificing the weak is the only available strategy for defining the strong.

Then, of course, there are those who must attend to so many pressures from so many sides that care can only be parceled out on an as-needed basis. COVID-19 has simply made manifest this pressure: Who can care about anything else when a minimum of 45,000 Americans are dead and 22 million Americans are unemployed?

When care is considered finite—whether because it serves “the strong” or preserves “the weak”—it can be utilized only as an aid to survival.

Yet care is not essentially limited. In Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, Margaret argues that our environment is essential to our practical and spiritual lives, and we must care enough about it to prioritize its preservation. It’s not just a practical decision; it’s also an emotional one. The book guides readers to welcome the pain contingent on caring, because, by welcoming the pain, we can expand our capacity to care.

Margaret is a psychologist, and she knows from personal and professional experience that caring can hurt. In fact, to care is rooted in Germanic Old English to sorrow or to grieve. While our desire to avoid pain is natural, it is not possible. And because it limits our ability to feel and thus to empathize, it should not be desirable. Pain is a part of life, sometimes a very big part of life: When we learn not just to withstand that pain but to welcome it, we become truly strong because we become capable of infinite care. 

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We’re writing under a NWO here in Minnesota…and everywhere else. Schools are closed, and events, bars, restaurants, cafes, clubs, and anyplace else people want to congregate, are cancelled or shut down to flatten the COVID-19 curve.

It’s a new normal that can be hard to process in the permanent now of Twitter’s micro-moods. Some of us (or just me) are swinging between a fight-or-flight response to the immediate crisis and the more considered calm required to take care—of ourselves, our families, our communities, our jobs.

In this case, taking care may mean thinking through—like thinking through the consequences of choices about self-quarantining, social distancing, and vector-stymying so that we can take care of ourselves and each other.

But we can also take care by thinking through seemingly less impactful choices, like the words we use.

Because language is an everyday modus operandi, words sometimes feel arbitrary and unimportant. But even in their apparent meaningless (see Molly Young’s expose of garbage language, Mark Morgioni’s defense, and George Orwell’s 1946 anticipation of the same), words carry political implications.

The words of the pandemic, for example, have been shaped into weaponry for deployment in infectious warfare. Over the years (errr, likely throughout the history of language), war metaphors have been dulled by overuse. But such metaphors still signal the scale of struggle and the unity required to face and fight a common enemy.

Often, the referent makes the difference: When the federal administration chooses to refer to the coronavirus or COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” for example, it matters. An enemy called COVID-19, for example, requires armament in kind: masks, tests, hospital beds, a systemic and coordinated frontline—and rearguard—response. Since we know we don’t yet have these weapons in effective numbers, we know we cannot effectively fight this enemy.

An enemy called the “Chinese virus,” on the other hand, diverts attention from the weapons we don’t have (and why) by modifying virality with origins. It unifies an “us” against a foreign invader, and signals the need for weaponry of a different order (such as the border closures President Trump indicates have aided the fight). In this way, the racism contingent on and inherent to the distinction may not be considered by its users to be a symptom but salutary.

The challenges inherent to naming diseases are significant: Just ask the WHO. Yet, because language is not “a natural growth” but, as Orwell argued, “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes,” we should take care to think these challenges through. Our words won’t keep us safe from COVID-19, but they can make a difference in how and where we focus the fight.