The Unlikely Activist

In August, Omaha seethes. But downtown, in the Old Market, the bookstore is cool and dark. Books run up the walks and collect in piles on every surface, including the floor. A cigarette burns in a tray beside the register.

A first-time visitor to Nebraska, I make a beeline to the shelf for local authors, hoping to get a feel for the place through the words of those who live here. Wright Morris’ The Home Place catches my eye. In this novel a Nebraskan man returns to his childhood home and luxuriates in persisting traces of his old life—indentations in the carpet, rectangles of wallpaper unfaded by sunlight. He heads upstairs to his attic haunt: “All the light was on the floor—I used to lie there and read.”

Sold.

Heading for the register, I nearly collide with a pillar. Guns & Ammo to the left, a sign tells me. To the right, Women’s Studies.

I smile. Perhaps the bookseller is making a point: Conversation might still be possible.

At the register, the bookseller is talking to another customer, a man. Minutes pass. My amused mood modulates to something darker. There is a point after which it is impossible to sustain the fiction that this is an unavoidable delay.

When I pay, it’s in cash, exact change. “Keep the receipt,” I say. I can’t get out of there fast enough.

**

I’m in Omaha as an organizer for a Democratic organization hoping to retake Nebraska’s second Congressional district. Brad Ashcroft, a Democrat, held the seat for one term before losing narrowly to a Trump-lite Republican in 2016. The narrowness of that loss, coupled with Omaha’s increasingly Democratic-leaning electorate, has made the district a prime target for the midterms.

I began as a volunteer in early 2017, after the Women’s March. My first task was to produce research about my nearest swing district, in New Hampshire, except that I mishandled the website’s pull-down menu and landed on the Nebraska team instead.

A few Google searches later, I was hooked. Omaha has a rich history. The TV dinner was born there. So was Tillie Olsen, who organized workers at a meatpacking plant before turning to writing. So was Malcolm X.

In addition to meeting K—, my counterpart on the ground in Omaha, I’m scheduled to help canvass a neighborhood. I’ve never done that before, so I’m apprehensive, but I’m more afraid of what might happen if I don’t. If no one does.

Around the block from the bookstore, an industrial building has been converted into a hip-looking market. There’s coffee shop, an artists’ cooperative, craft breweries, a wine bar. Everyone I see is white and middle-class, comfortable with themselves and their surroundings. They talk loudly and swing their shopping bags.

But they are not the only ones here. I pass a group of Somali women as they leave a hotel, coming off a cleaning shift. A Black man plays a saxophone in an empty courtyard.

 “I wasn’t really anxious about Trump until now,” my husband confesses later, on the phone.

“What changed?”

“You left your desk.” He pauses. “You never leave your desk.

**

Before I went to Omaha, I was at my desk every day, plugging away at a history of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. What had at first seemed narrowly academic history of a puzzle and its solution has become a sprawling story of difference—national, generational, temperamental, educational, political. At the center was a rivalry between two men, each in their way an emblem of their times, at the turn of the nineteenth century: Thomas Young, a priggish scientist who really ought to have studied classics, and Jean-François Champollion, a fiercely republican polyglot who, when he was not deciphering hieroglyphs, was writing broadsides against the king.

As a historian, I’m supposed to avoid becoming part of any story I’m writing. And yet, the deeper I dig into organizing, the closer I feel to Champollion. A dangerous development, but then danger seems everywhere. Why should this be different?

Champollion came to politics through circumstance and temperament. Grenoble, where he pursued his early work, was an important seat of power for Napoleon, who launched his comeback there, after escaping from Elba in 1815. His idealism attracted Champollion. His obsession with Egypt helped, too.

The Champollions were among Napoleon’s favorites. Napoleon had selected Champollion’s older brother, known as Champollion-Figeac, to run the local paper, ensuring that its messaging agreed with his aims. Meanwhile the prefect, another friend of Napoleon, recruited both brothers to help with the Description de l’Égypte, a twenty-volume souvenir of Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt. These connections brought the Champollions so close to power that  when Champollion needed money to write books about ancient Egypt, he submitted his proposal directly to Napoleon.

But then the leader’s fortunes shifted. In June, he was defeated at Waterloo. Upon hearing the news, the writer Stendhal doodled a candle-snuffer in his notebook. What had been snuffed out? Only the bright republican dream, which Napoleon still seemed to represent.

To his disappointment, Champollion’s book project was rejected. But loss of professional momentum was the least of his problems. Restored to the throne, Louis-Philippe was beholden to the reactionary forces that returned him to power. The emboldened Ultras took their vengeance. Civil servants, including the Champollions, lost their positions. A new prefect was installed, Montlivaut, who persecuted them. The press was muzzled; freedom of assembly curtailed. When they banned the republican tricolour, white royalist flags unfurled from windows all over Grenoble. Mercenaries moved in, to keep a lid on mounting unrest.

Maybe this sounds familiar.

The Champollion brothers joined the fédères—in essence, a resistance group. They harbored fugitives in the library; they passed along messages for their comrades-in-arms; once, Champollion-Figeac delivered them a suitcase full of money.

Soon they were under state surveillance. Night after night, Montlivaut’s goons watched the library. Leaving for the day, Champollion took different routes to avoid the spies, playing a game he called croquer le marmot, which translates, roughly, as whack-a-mole.

As winter deepened, the fédères were blamed for every public disturbance. By spring, the brothers were sentenced to internal exile in Figeac, the small town where they grew up.

Nous sommes rasés, Champollion wrote to his brother. We’re finished. Fucked.

It could have been worse. Another dissident, Jean-Paul Didier, was publicly executed in Grenoble’s central square. Champollion only escaped this fate thanks to the behind-the-scenes machinations of his brother, who, for all his idealism, also understood the importance of banking favors, even with those you dislike; it seems that he used this moment to call in a chit.

**

K. wants to show me the city, so we’re driving around. A small woman, bright and chirpy as a sparrow, K. seems barely to see over the steering wheel, which she operates with one hand while pointing out sights with the other. We turn down leafy streets lined with pretty Craftsman houses, and K. points out where the neighborhoods shift. 

 “What do you mean?” I can’t see any differences.

K smiles slyly. That’s her point.  

Approximately a million people live in greater Omaha, and approximately three-fourths of them are white. Although most Nebraska voters are Republicans, Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans in Omaha, where voters are among the most well-educated in the nation. Barack Obama won here in 2008, earning one of Nebraska’s three electoral votes. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Omaha by almost six thousand votes but lost the district overall. Further down the ballot, a retired Air Force general named Don Bacon, riding the coattails of the conman who would become president, beat the incumbent Democrat by three thousand votes, or just over one percent of all votes cast.

Democrats generally blamed low turnout for these results, but redistricting also played a role. After a bitter struggle in 2011, the second district’s boundaries were redrawn to include predominantly white, suburban, and GOP-leaning Sarpy County. Clinton performed well in Douglas County, but she bombed in Sarpy.

On my first day in Omaha, K. and I set out to canvass one of the pretty neighborhoods she’d shown me. As we walk from house to house, she describes a phenomenon called the “purple” marriage, a household comprising one Republican and one Democrat, almost always the wife. Evidently the suburbs of Omaha are full of such marriages. We are out here today to talk to these women.

When it’s my turn to knock on a door, K. advises, “Knock, don’t ring; otherwise you’ll wake the kids.”

Right: It’s naptime. I steady my clipboard. My smile feels like a wince.

I knock, and the door opens. A woman peers around the side of it. Confronted by a real human being, I’m speechless.

Perky in her baseball cap, K. shouts: “So what do you think of Donald Trump?”

It’s a great gambit. Virtually everyone has an opinion. No one slams the door. But this time’s a little different. Instead of a boisterous exchange, we’re having a hushed conversation with a woman who both needs to talk and can’t. A male figure looms in the background.

My parents’ marriage was like this—angry father, cowed mother. My father liked to humiliate my mother for being the sort Democrat she was—pro-labor, anti-racist.

You’re a bigot, she told him once. She did not say: A slap is always in your voice.

As a child, I was afraid of my father. The fear has persisted in more acceptable forms—thoughtfulness, reticence, deference. These are not terrible qualities in a scholar. But, knocking on doors in Omaha, secretly hoping no one’s home, I realize these qualities are no preparation for citizenship. None at all.

Driving alone later that day, I stop short at the sound of masculine shout, the kind with a choked-off scream at its peak. A door slams, an engine roars, and a matte black truck shoots backward out of a driveway before taking off down the road.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the driver, his pinched white face behind the wheel.

**

I am an unlikely activist. If I had never found Champollion, I’d be in my office cowering at my desk. Instead I’m in Omaha—and still cowering. Turns out that getting in touch with a national reality feels a lot like coming home.

I’m a creature of the library, and I’ll tell you why I like it: It keeps me away from uncontrolled human interaction. I’m not proud of this timidity, and it does not serve me well in electoral work. The most powerful forms of voter outreach—canvassing and phone banking—are moments of great vulnerability. I am judged for the person I seem to be in that moment. This is not a job for a timid person.

Knocking doors, I find myself thinking of Champollion. Where did he—a creature of the library if ever there was one—find the courage?

Like me, Champollion had an angry father, and he relied on a fellowship of like-minded friends to get through the bad patches. Many of the volunteers I met through Swing Left were teachers. Another little-known fact about Champollion: He was a master teacher who pioneered a system of student-to-student learning. He believed students did well when learning from each other, without excessive intervention from an authority figure.

Weeks later, I attend a meeting that goes badly. Unusually, I struggle to hold my tongue. My new assertiveness takes some getting used to, and so, to settle myself, I head out for a walk. 

It’s a beautiful midsummer evening, and the election seems far away. Yet planning for get-out-the-vote is in full swing, and no one has any idea what will happen. K. calls while I’m out: What if we lose?

A warmth settles around my shoulders. Heavy fabric swishes at my heels. For a moment I am with Champollion, traveling under his cloak.

We won’t win them all, I tell K. But we’ll win some.

**

Two weeks before the election, I take a bus to New Hampshire with a group of volunteers assigned to canvass Democrats in “purple” suburbs who have not yet confirmed their intention to vote. I’m happy to be there, but I’m apprehensive, too. For one thing, my mother has just died. Her death has blown me open. I’m afraid I’ll break down on the canvass, or say something stupid out of grief.

The day begins poorly. The neighborhood has been canvassed several times already, and no one is answering their door. A pickup truck bearing a huge GOP logo follows my team—two college students, a driver, and me—for a while, pulling over when we do. We plod on, making nervous small talk on the doorsteps, trying to keep our spirits up.

The sky darkens. In moments, a few drops become a downpour. I share my umbrella, but it’s completely insufficient. Soon all three of us are soaked.

Having the appearance of a drowned rat turns out to be its own form of persuasion. Now people are not just opening their doors—they’re offering hot drinks and towels.

 “I was once in your shoes,” one woman says. She’s pretty, coiffed and made-up, but there’s tension around her eyes.

“Canvassing?”

A little boy runs toward us. She catches him at her hip, and he clings to her leg, wild-eyed.

“Yeah, I did a lot of it—” She interrupts herself, sensing something. A man looms behind her, silhouetted against a distant glass door.

“So you’ll vote?” The door is already closing. Before it does, she meets my gaze. Holds it.

I mark her: Confirmed, voting.

The election’s next week. My mother’s gone, and even Champollion—my sense of him—has slipped away. What remains are the names on my list and one hour of daylight to reach them all.

I make my way up another front walk. I knock. A wind hushes high in the pines.

On the other side of the door, you’re deciding whether to open it.

I’m on your doorstep, burning with a message.

I see you. We can do this. Vote.    

A writer and historian, Diane Josefowicz is most recently the author, with Jed Z. Buchwald, of The Riddle of the Rosetta: How an English Polymath and a French Polyglot Discovered the Meaning of Egyptian Hieroglyphs, published in September by Princeton University Press. In 2018, she served as national research director for Swing Left; she is currently director of communications for Swing Left Rhode Island. She lives in Providence, RI.