“It’s relaxing to read about World War II,” my cousin says, “because we know we won it.”
She has a point, I thought, until the Trump era began. Now, more than 70 years after the war, our freedom and sense of decency are again under assault. The Trump administration assails LGBTQ rights at every turn: from banning transgender people from serving in the military to appointing anti-LGBTQ Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
I don’t want to make irresponsible analogies. Trump, though a dangerous, cruel, uncaring, unethical, bigoted, fascistic demagogue isn’t Hitler. Our situation in the Trump presidency, however frightening and disturbing isn’t equivalent to World War II. Yet, I can’t remember a time when so many of us have felt as if we were Londoners nightly seeking safety in air raid shelters during the Blitz, our grandparents sitting by our radios listening to FDR give one of his “fireside chats” or (often scared) soldiers fighting the Nazis.
I’m not surprised that “Dunkirk,” directed by Christopher Nolan is a hit at the box office. It takes place in May 1940 in the French port city of Dunkirk. The Germans have blocked in more than 200,000 members of the British army. The British in “Operation Dynamo,” working against the odds, evacuate the soldiers (keeping these troops from being captured by the Germans). Watching “Dunkirk,” recently with a friend, I felt as if I’d been transported from a Virginia cinema into the middle of a gritty, horrifying struggle. “Dunkirk” doesn’t romanticize the war. There’s no cliched Hollywood heroism. Just terrified troops serving their country as best they can.
In the Trump age, life often feels like “Dunkirk.” Fighting against the attacks on our civil rights and freedom, it’s easy to lose perspective – to succumb to despair. Mired in discouragement, we’re all too apt to forget: Dunkirk was only one battle in the war. More importantly, the evacuation of the troops from Dunkirk encouraged Britain and America to keep fighting.
How can we resist Trump’s assault on our freedom? What gives us courage to keep living, loving and resisting? As artists – from poets to painters to filmmakers – we can make art; and as viewers, readers and audience members we can experience art.
Art can seem as relevant as finger bowls and poets don’t legislate. Yet, it’s hard to imagine anything that does more to trump the taunts of bullies or to nourish our spirits than art.
Irony is an essential element of art. It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you’re queer, irony is embedded in your DNA. Irony has sustained the LGBTQ community through suppression, repression, bullying, discrimination, Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt and the AIDS epidemic. Without irony, we’ll be too dispirited to resist Trump.
Few have mastered irony as superbly as Jane Austen, the author of “Pride and Prejudice,” who died on July 18, 1817. Using wit and irony, Austen punctures pomposity and the conventions of society.
“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal,” she wrote. What could be more queer?
In September, Austen will become the only woman other than Queen Elizabeth II to be on a United Kingdom 10-pound bank note. In her new book “Jane Austen at Home: A Biography,” BBC presenter Lucy Worsley says Austen may have had “lesbian sex.” Worsley says Austen wrote frequently about sleeping in the same bed with women. “People were much less worried about lesbian sex in general,” she said.
Some dismiss Austen’s novels as confections. Yet, this misses her work’s laser-like sharpness. “Of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness,” Virginia Woolf said of Austen.
Do you want to keep your ironic chops in fighting shape in the Trump era? Read Jane Austen.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.