The Politics of Joy

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Just because last weekend’s surge of solidarity and celebration can’t last doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

The news, when it finally arrived, didn’t come via cable, or network television, or even via Twitter. It came up from the streets. Last Saturday morning, I was taking a break from endlessly refreshing the New York Times home page—where the gap between Joe Biden’s electoral vote count and the 270 needed to secure the presidency was starting to seem like an abyss—making some coffee in my Brooklyn kitchen, when a wave of cheers and honking car horns drew me to the window. Three floors down I could see young people in masks hugging one another while an elderly woman waved her arms above her head. After checking my phone to confirm what just happened—CNN had declared Biden the winner at 11:40 am—I opened my window, got out an old saucepan and wooden spoon, and joined the cacerolazo. My own vote for Biden-Harris had felt like a duty, not a pleasure—a far cry from the vote for Sanders I’d cast in the primary. But the release of that moment was powerful.

As I put on my Count Every Vote hoodie (thank you, PA Stands Up!) and walked along the half-mile-long impromptu victory parade on Atlantic Avenue, I sensed that what I was seeing was not just a celebration but also a kind of coming-out party for the other America, the one that had spent much of the past four years crouching in fear. I saw two women wearing hijabs lift their children up onto a mailbox so they could join in the dancing. An African American fireman looked at the message on my hoodie and gave me a big smile and a thumbs-up. The crowd waiting in line outside of Sahadi’s grocery were clapping along with the beat from passing cars, as the soundtrack shifted from hip-hop to Springsteen to Ray Charles. A young man in checked chef pants kept running in and out of a restaurant kitchen, waving and dancing for a minute and then dashing back inside. For the day, at least, the endless war between gentrifiers and gentrified seemed to have paused for a truce.

Later that afternoon, the scene in Central Park was even more jubilant. Sitting on the bench across from Strawberry Fields, a young woman was accompanying herself on guitar. At the Bethesda Fountain (named, as Angels in America reminds us, after a fountain in Jerusalem that healed the sick), I saw couples—in many colors and gender configurations—literally dancing for joy. It was as if that other America, the America that has spent the past four years on a psychic pendulum between fear and rage, all too aware of its own powerlessness, had come out from hiding. Co-conspirators for a day, when even the weather seemed determined to celebrate.

The moment passed, as such moments always do. But before we all lose ourselves in poring over the composition of Biden’s transition team, or struggling—not always successfully—to avoid getting sucked into the social media mirror maze over how Trump, having now clearly failed to steal the election, might still stage a coup to remain in power, I want to hold onto the profoundly political emotions of that morning and name them: joy, relief, compassion, solidarity. Liberation. We had been released.

“Hold fast to dreams,” urged Langston Hughes. The same Hughes who also asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” and suggested the answer just might be an explosion.

An election is not a revolution. And this election was a far cry from the “political revolution” some of us once dreamed of. In a country as polarized as ours, in a society as profoundly unequal as ours, there are good reasons to remain wary. Joy can’t be compelled, and or sustained artificially. So much—nearly everything, except defeating Donald Trump—remains to be done.

As we’re already beginning to find out, some dreams—as simple as justice, as expansive as equality, and long, long overdue—will be deferred yet again. Privilege will have its privileges if we allow the intoxication of the moment to blind us to the hard task of demanding justice. “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose,” Mario Cuomo famously observed. How much, then, can we expect from Joe Biden, a candidate who, although occasionally given to quoting Seamus Heaney, often struggled even to campaign in coherent prose?

And yet, once experienced, that sense of release can’t be unremembered. That fragile, improbable, and necessarily temporary coalition—stretching from Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky to Chuck Schumer—may have been built by submerging differences that can’t long be denied. But it got the job done, and that simple fact is worth remembering too.

Trump can huff and puff, and it would be a mistake to forget how dangerous a wounded soon-to-be-ex-president can be. The joy we felt in coming out and coming together last Saturday, the sense of agency and solidarity suddenly uncorked, won’t easily go back in the bottle. If we hold on to it, the memory of that joy can be a source of power, not just against Trump’s increasingly desperate machinations, but against all the squalid compromises and accommodations with evil that so often pass for political sophistication. Because now we know not just what democracy could look like but also what it could feel like, and what it could sound like (a party!). It should feel like dancing in the streets. Let’s remember the power of that day—our power. Let’s hold fast to dreams.

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