Make No Plans
It’s now less than three weeks until the launch of Torch on November 1. One week later is the date of the midterm elections. With one of the two parties still challenging the legitimacy of the presidential election that led to the loss of their standard bearer, this election, like the three before it, is a referendum. On one side is an inclusive, competitive democratic system that has been in effect since the civil rights movement of the 1960s; on the other, an “illiberal” or “managed” democracy” in which people have little say once they’ve turned the reins over to a strongman. Under illiberal democracy, the strongman and his party only have to win once before they change the rules to make sure they never lose again.
The former president’s three Supreme Court appointments have already curtailed a major liberty right — that of reproductive choice, with the additional threat of a nationwide abortion ban. In 2021, a valedictory speech by a Texas teenager, then referring to the state’s 6-week abortion ban, went viral. In her speech, Paxton Smith talked about the effect of these laws on her future and that of her classmates:
I have dreams and hopes and ambitions. Every girl graduating today does, and we have spent our entire lives working towards our future, and without our input and without our consent our control over that future has been stripped away from us. I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail, I am terrified that if I am raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter.
When my son was in high school, I saw how hard the girls in his class worked for their future, while he and most of the other boys took a lackadaisical attitude. Derrick believed that all that work to get into the right college, the right graduate school, the right job, and so on meant that there would never be enough time to enjoy life. The girls who disagreed with that attitude became the valedictorians and over the years moved into leadership positions in more and more fields — and we are all better off because of their contributions.
But as Paxton Smith shows us, this is all in danger because of laws that restrict women’s choices. And it’s not just the peril of an unwanted pregnancy or one that jeopardizes health and life. It’s the fact that an illiberal government can pass laws that bind a segment of the population, keeping them down so that the traditionally powerful can rule without challenge. In the past, how much wisdom and innovation went to waste because of slavery and Jim Crow, and because of restrictions on women?
I think about this valedictory speech as well because one of my characters in Torch, Pavol, also worked hard and made plans, only to have them stripped away after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the democratic reforms in this communist country. The only son of a coal miner who died of black lung disease in his thirties, Pavol was inspired by a fourth grade teacher who in his words, “turned school around for me. She showed me…I could do great things with my life for the country.” He was full of plans. With the second highest grades in his school, he was on his way to study engineering at Czech Technical University and intended to take his girlfriend with him so she could one day finish her education.
Then the Soviets invaded. Pavol was one of the young resisters who tore down road signs or turned them around so the tanks wouldn’t get to Prague. For that, he was arrested and beaten, but then released:
[H]e’d thought it was a lucky break…until early January, when the government rejected his application to Czech Technical University and assigned him instead to a black-lung shortened life in the mines.
They hadn’t said they’d turned him down for political reasons. They’d found out what he wanted most and snatched it away without giving any reason at all.
In democracies governed by rule of law, people can make plans. They know that making an effort will lead to a desired result. That the fruits of their labor will not be taken away by arbitrary acts of violence — like a pregnancy that results from a rape — or by laws applied unequally because of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religious belief, or political affiliation. Or for no reason at all, except they have something that a powerful person wants.
All of the kids in Torch are dreamers, but they also make concrete plans to achieve their dreams. Pavol and Tomáš study hard. Štěpán doesn’t study as much as he could, but he shows up to pre-dawn hockey practice every day in pursuit of his Olympic dreams. Lída, who has already lost so much in her life, continues her education in the library and community center, in moments snatched from her factory job and chores. When the repression comes, all of their plans are upended. What to do next is a life-or-death choice.
Are we headed in that direction? I hope we never have to find out.