“Allegiance” and the Importance of Knowing History

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Allegiance starts George Takei, Lea Salonga,
Telly Leung, and Michael K. Lee

Allegiance, the brilliant musical based on George Takei’s experience of internment during WWII, is coming back to theaters on February 19, and I can’t say enough about how important it is that as many people as possible go to see it.

I had the privilege of seeing Allegiance in December, when Fathom Events brought it to theaters for what was to become the highest-grossing one-night Broadway musical screening in Fathom Events history. The theater in my Midwest town was delightfully packed—a fact that gave me hope for the future and courage to face it. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, after all, and it’s incredibly encouraging to see just how many people are committed to knowing their history. Allegiance is the story of one of the United States’ darker chapters, and it—in many ways—parallels the dark chapter we find ourselves in now. It behooves us all to remember.

The play follows the Kimura family through their internment in the Heart Mountain concentration camp and explores their differing responses to the indignity of their treatment at the hands of the US government. As the story progresses, the Kimuras, and their fellow interned citizens, struggle to face the injustice of their situation with bravery and make the best of their lives in the appalling conditions of the facility. But Allegiance is not merely about the situation inside the camps; it is also—and fundamentally—about the ideological divide that existed between Japanese-Americans interned in the camps. While the Kimuras’ only son, Sammy, endeavors to enlist in the army and prove his loyalty to his country, his father Tatsuo refuses to answer yes to the required loyalty questionnaire and his sister Kei joins the in-camp resistance—falling in love with an anti-draft activist in the process.

Sammy’s stance reflects the viewpoint of many Japanese-Americans at that time: that it was their duty to prove to the US government and to their neighbors that they were real Americans. Kei’s stance, and the stance of her fiancé, Frankie Suzuki, reflects the viewpoint of a vocal minority in the camps: that it was their duty to resist maltreatment and to refuse to serve a country that had abandoned and abused them.

In an era of polarized beliefs and philosophical debates over the effectiveness of respectability vs the effectiveness of resistance, the message of Allegiance—that, while each person must protest injustice in the manner they deem best, we cannot allow our differing viewpoints to divide us—feels more timely than ever. The political divide existing between Sammy and the rest of his family ultimately tears them apart—keeping them from one another until it is almost too late to find closure and offer forgiveness. And this is a message we must keep in mind in the days to come. We face grave challenges to our national ideals and freedoms, and many of us have strong opinions about how those challenges should be met, but we must never lose sight of our shared humanity. We must never lose empathy for those of us who are at different stages of the journey.

The internment of Japanese-American citizens in WWII bears an uncanny resemblance to the current targeting of non-white citizens by the current administration, and both have their roots in the same place: ignorance and fear. Time and time again, ignorance and fear have lead American citizens to do terrible things: to burn women to death, to incarcerate Japanese-Americans, to beat, lynch, and segregate black Americans, to persecute intellectuals with counter-culture views. Time and time again, we have fallen from our ideals. But time and time again, we have risen. The outpouring of love and praise for Allegiance is a reminder that we still have the ability to rise, to remember, and to resolve: never again. These are dark days, but so many people are committed to rejecting them—to learning about the past so that we might not go down those terrible and well-trod paths again—and that gives me such faith.

Go see Allegiance on February 19. See, learn, resolve, resist.

And find a theater near you at the official Allegiance website where tickets are currently on sale.

The Problem of Captain Marvel (in “Civil War II”)

I finally made some time to catch up on the last of the Civil War II crossover, which has received mixed reviews—such reviews being mainly concerned with the problem of Captain Marvel. There’s been a lot of talk about how Carol Danvers was portrayed by Brian Michael Bendis, namely that he made her into a two-dimensional supervillian and then failed to provide a meaningful resolution for her story arc (read: consequences).(1) This is, in my view, true to a certain extent. As I noted in a previous post on this crossover, lasting effects in comic books are effectively non-existent. Consequently, the only thing that matters is whether or not the story of the moment is good.

The main Civil War II series, unfortunately, is not very good, and it is not very good mainly because of the way it shortchanges the Carol’s motivations. For the purposes of this critique I’m going to set aside the core concept of whether or not its ethical to punish people for the things they might do, and the fact that no one in the story ever ever gets to what is—in my view—the crux of the issue: the very real problem that these vision, even when correct, lack all context.(2) My problem, and—seemingly—most people’s problem centers on Carol’s depiction in the main series.

The ideological question in Civil War II is whether or not it’s right to use prediction (in this case via the glimpses of possible futures by an Inhuman named Ulysses) as evidence in the prevention, and prosecution, of crime. In the main series, Carol Danvers is provided with only the most basic of motivations: if she can stop one bad thing from happening, she doesn’t care about the cost. It’s a position that shows no nuance at all. From this perspective, Carol is a one-trick pony, inexplicably dedicated to a flawed a system and unwilling to allow dissent or debate on the subject. At the start of the series, it’s possible to chalk this behavior up to her feelings about the death of James Rhodes and her inability to accept that what happened to him was a) partially her responsibility and b) unnecessary. But as things start to go wrong, as Ulysses’ visions start to prove fallible and sometimes self-fulling, Carol still won’t change course. She doesn’t come to any realization about what she’s been doing and repent. She maintains the belief that she’s right from start to finish. More than the fact that she fails to realize the moral quandary of her choices, though, is her failure—in the main series—to sufficiently explain her actions.

We get a much fuller understanding of Carol’s position in Ruth and Christos Gage’s Captain Marvel title. We see her work through the reasoning. We see her struggle with the ethics. We see her face political pressure. We see her worry about what will happen if someone other than her takes over the operation. She’s still wrong, of course, but she’s wrong with decency and thoughtfulness.

She’s not a supervillain…

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Captain Marvel vol. 9, no. 7 (2016)
Ruth Fletcher Gage, Christos Gage, Marco Failla, Matt Wilson
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Figure it out, assholes, ’cause I ain’t giving any hints…

Civil War II no. 7 (2016)
Brian Michael Bendis, David Marquez, Justin Ponsor

The same cannot be said of the main title. Carol’s actions in Civil War II read like those of a supervillain, and not even a three-dimensional one. It’s clear that, like all villains, she doesn’t think that she’s the villain, but we don’t know why she thinks that. This is a major failing on the part of the writing, although I’m not sure if it’s a failing on the part of Brian Michael Bendis(3) or if it is a failing on the part of the mini-series structure, but I suspect it’s probably a bit of both. In order to get all of the bombastic action into the series—all the fighting, all the twists, all the turns, all the perspectives, all the set-up for the new status quo—something has to give. There’s simply not enough space for all the action and all the motivations in an eight-issue mini-series, and the editors were probably thinking, “Readers can get Carol’s perspective from her title anyway, so we don’t need to worry about it here.” But the same could be said of Tony Stark (who had not one but two personal titles during this crossover), and his motivations were never unclear. We always knew exactly why he was doing what he was doing.

Carol, meanwhile, never discusses her point of view. She never explains. She just pushes forward. And she refuses to be swayed by any counter-argument. She refuses to accept any moral authority other than her own, but she won’t say why. Not in the main series, at any rate. An explanation for her tight-lipped approach is somewhat addressed in Captain Marvel, when Carol explains to Hawkeye that, while she is truly concerned about making mistakes, she cannot express her doubts to anyone lest they be used against her by either her “allies” or her “enemies.”

It’s a useful take on Carol’s position, but it’s not in the main series and it—or something like it—should have been. It would have done a world of good.

Superhero-vs-superhero stories are difficult to pull off. Outside of Captain America: Civil War, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a truly successful take on the genre. The desire is—as it should be—to create a conflict that enables the reader to feel empathy for both sides, and that’s extremely difficult to do. But by burying Captain Marvel’s motivations behind a wall of bravado and bluster, Bendis makes dual empathy virtually impossible.

Notes
1) See, for example, Evan Narcisse, “Civil War II is Ruining Captain Marvel,” io9 (August 18, 2016); Kieran Schiach, “The Character Assassination of Carol Danvers by the Writer Brian Michael Bendis,” Comics Alliance (September 23, 2016); and Rob Bricken, “How Civil War II Turned Captain Marvel Into a Supervillian,” io9 (January 26, 2017).
2) The context question is addressed in Kelly Thompson’s excellent A-Force tie-in (issues 8-10), but it never comes up in the main series, whose focus is solely on the probability of accuracy.
3) For the record, I quite like Bendis’s work, and he’s particularly good at character-building. Bendis’s talent for characterization makes the lack of characterization here all the more glaring.

Sara Reads, no. 20

An Object History Lesson: Roanoke
In 1587, a small group of colonists settled on Roanoke Island. Three years later, they had vanished—seemingly without a trace. The disappearance of the Roanoke Colony is one of US history’s most enduring mysteries. It is a tale filled with twists, turns, and peculiar clues that have enthralled the imaginations of countless historians and entertainers. Neil Gaiman reimagined the fate of the Roanoke Colony in the Marvel 1602 graphic novel, American Horror Story reimagined it in their recent sixth season, and an assortment of people and have offered a multiplicity of theories, ranging from the mundane (the colonists integrated with local native tribes out of necessity) to the frankly bizarre (the colonists were all wiped out by a zombie plague). For our purposes, however, the ultimate fate of the colonists is neither here nor there. What interests me is an anecdote from the brief period of their history that we are sure about.

The John White party was not the first group of settlers to colonize Roanoke Island, and the previous group had developed very bad relations with the Aguascogocs tribe. Not long after White’s party arrived, a man named George Howe was killed while out crabbing. The Roanoke colonists responded by attacking a Croatoan village, a tribe that had—previously—been friendly to them. They did this, seemingly, because they could not tell the difference between the Croatoan and the Aguascogocs. Allies were turned into enemies, and life got a hell of a lot harder for the Roanoke colonists than it otherwise might have been. We’ll never know, of course, but the mistaken attack on the Croatoan tribe may well have been a fatal mistake.

Last weekend, protests erupted across the United States in response to the Executive Order banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The ACLU immediately began legal proceedings to enact a stay on the order until its constitutionality could be assessed by the country’s judicial branch, and the Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, was fired for instructing the Justice Department not to defend the order. The administration claims that the ban (which they refer to as “extreme vetting”) is a reasonable safety measure, but critics have pointed out that none of the seven countries that were (initially) banned have produced extremist terrorists. By contrast, four countries that have produced extremist terrorists (including those responsible for the September 11th attacks) were not included.

As I read the breaking news and followed the various developments in the story, I couldn’t help but think of the tale of the Roanoke colonists and their inability to tell friend from foe, of their impulsive need for vengeance and what it might have cost them. We still, apparently, lack the ability to tell friend from foe, and if we can’t get that straight we might just disappear—seemingly without a trace.

The Protest Path Leads to the Airport
Speaking of the weekend protests, I noticed something interesting about them. Because of the nature of the executive order under protest, the majority of the demonstrations took place at airports across the nation. And they, like the Women’s March, remained peaceful. There’s a temptation on the part of white liberals (particularly those in the media) to imagine the reason for this peacefulness is the (white) people involved in the protests. I’m not convinced that’s the case, however. I’d like to offer an alternate hypothesis.

In an LA Times article on the protests at LAX, reporters noted how police officers negotiated with protestors to get them to unblock the roadways leading to departure and arrival curbs, eventually conceding protestors the right to block the roads for alternating and limited periods of time. This isn’t typical behavior on the part of the police. They did not negotiate with the Occupy Wall Street protestors. They have not negotiated with Black Lives Matter protesters. (They didn’t negotiate with the president of the NAACP who staged a sit-in at the office of Senator Jeff Sessions). But they did negotiate with the Ban protestors this weekend, and I am convinced those negotiations had nothing to do with the people involved and everything to do with the location of the protest.

An airport is always busy, and there are always people who are there who have to be. (And who can prove that they have to be there—who, in fact, are required to prove that they have to be there.) For that reason, the police cannot engage in escalation tactics. There’s simply too much of a possibly of doing collateral damage with exceptionally bad PR.

So clearly more protests need to happen in airports.

In Search of Common Ground
Economist Andrés Miguel Rondón, who grew up amid the upheaval of Venezuela’s populist movement and the rise of Hugo Chávez, recently wrote an article for the Washington Post in which he encourages American progressives to learn from Venezuela’s mistakes. He notes—most particularly—the sovereign importance of not playing into polarization, of resisting the siren song of outraged ethics and righteous contempt, and of seeking common ground.

Now, as anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, I have been very angry since the election—and even angrier since the inauguration—and I haven’t been much for the concept of common ground. It’s hard to remember sometimes that the people you disagree with are people, rather than enemies. But a lot of the mess the US is in at the moment stems, in my opinion, from the inability of the average American conservative to understand that minorities agitating for rights and progressives pushing for social change are not their enemy. So the question is, putting aside the frustration and—yes—the moral high ground, how do we make that clear to them? How do we get them on our side?

Obviously, I’m not advocating for progressives to cast a blind eye on injustice. I’m not even advocating for progressives to empathize with prejudicial views and actions. What I am advocating for is a strategic change in the way we talk about the problems we face. I’m a big proponent of equity over equality, but there’s no getting around the fact that equity looks threatening to those of us in the majority, so we’re going to have to find a compromise that everyone can live with.

Final Thought: Reframing White Supremacy
One tactic for finding common ground that I’ve been thinking about is the reframing of white supremacy. White supremacy is well understood as a social structure that harms people of color. I think it needs to be better understood as a social structure that harms white people as well. Certainly, this is not a new concept (it has been discussed—far more eloquently than I will discuss it here—by more than one person), but it is, I think, a concept that lacks the mainstream currency it needs. In much the same way that patriarchy has come to be more broadly understood as toxic to men (and feminism as therefore a movement that seeks to help both men and women), white supremacy needs to be more broadly understood as toxic to white people (and anti-racism as therefore a movement that seeks to help both white people and people of color).

It’s frustrating that it isn’t enough that patriarchy and white supremacy are harmful to women and to people of color, that we have to make it readily understood how they are harmful to men and to white people as well if we want to get wide-spread traction—that we have to shift much needed focus away from issues that have lacked it to once-again discuss the problems of people who are always in the spotlight. But I believe that’s one of the things we have to do. We have to get the conversation to a place where those who disagree with us don’t begin and end the discourse with an eye roll. I wonder if we can. Or if we will. But I hope.

Mental Illness, Trauma, and ‘Sherlock’ Series 4

I think we can all agree it’s been a memorable January on multiple fronts. I’ve had a lot to say about the current political climate—indeed, I sometimes feel like all I ever talk about these days is politics (and I imagine some of y’all feel the same)—but there are other items of interest to talk about, and I’m going to talk about one them now.

The fourth (and possibly final) series of the BBC show, Sherlock, aired from January 1 to January 15 and drew a bevy of highly mixed reviews. My feelings about the show, like those of many viewers, were likewise mixed, and it’s taken me a while to get a handle on them. I thought that the most recent series featured a number of very fine character moments (and performances) but that the plots of the individual episodes—and of the season as a whole—were generally clunky, bordering on nonsensical in places. I can live with all of that, however. It’s something else entirely, I’ve come to realize, that hasn’t been sitting entirely well with me.

Spoilers follow.

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BBC Sherlock Publicity Still

The overarching mystery of series 4 is a dark and traumatic secret from Sherlock’s past: he had a younger sister who was psychotic and who murdered his childhood best friend before trying to burn down the family estate and being confined to a mental institution for life. This secret was so dark and so traumatic that Sherlock repressed all memory of it and spent the rest of his life subconsciously shutting himself off from any and all emotional response. As the series draws to a close, events force him to at last confront his memories. He allows himself to remember his traumatic past, reaches out to his sister, and is then able (through the power of a montage sequence) (montage!) (even Rocky had a montage!) to begin a healing process.

On the one hand, there is a feeling of well-rounded character development. On the other hand, it’s deeply disturbing that Sherlock’s previous emotional reticence is ultimately tied to horrifying trauma. In making the connection between trauma and emotional reserve implicit, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss (Sherlock‘s showrunners) abnormalize an aspect of Sherlock’s personality that had been beautifully normalized up until that point.

As a somewhat emotionally reticent person myself, the depiction of a character who was less emotionally involved (or less emotionally expressive) with the people around him than is expected—or respected—by society was really refreshing. I liked that Sherlock simply was the way he was; that nothing had made him that way. I liked that his preference for cold reason wasn’t a defect; that it was merely an aspect of his personality that the people around him needed to understand. Over the course of the show, Sherlock had to learn about the value of, if not kindness, at least consideration, but he didn’t need to learn their value because a tortured past had deprived him of the faculty to appreciate them, or because that past had imbued in him an unconquerable fear. His brain simply hadn’t been hardwired with them to begin with, and that was fantastic.

I loved that Sherlock’s personality was not the result of trauma. I hated that, in series 4, his personality became the result of trauma. Before the advent of the secret psychotic sister, Sherlock’s personality was—though not easy to deal with—a normal part of who he was. It was a kind of mental disability, but one which could be managed and about which there was no need to feel shame. After her, his personality became a defect. Something that should not have happened. Something that would not have happened in the so-called “normal” course of things. All of the beautifully inclusive representation that Moffat and Gatiss set up was utterly undone.

That, for me—more than the sometimes sloppy writing, the periodic lack of narrative cohesion, the occasionally out-of-character characters—is what made series 4 problematic. I can handle a less-than-wieldy plot, but reductive representation of mental illness is one of my bugaboos. And I’m not sure I’ll ever be totally comfortable with the direction Sherlock went in the end.

Sara Reads no. 19

Little Things, Big Differences
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ability of a single person to effect significant and sweeping change. Here’s two stories on the subject that recently caught my eye:

Last week, The New York Times reported on the death of Zhou Younguang. Zhou was the father of Pinyin, the system of romanized Chinese that revolutionized literacy and language-learning for untold numbers of people. Prior to Pinyin’s implementation in 1958, romanization of Chinese was mainly via Wade-Giles—a system developed in the 19th century that was at best archaic and at worst confusing. Pinyin, on the other hand, was simple, streamlined, and designed with a clear understanding of the phonetics of Chinese. It’s been an invaluable tool for me as a scholar of East Asian art, but I never gave much thought to what went in to creating it or who I had to thank. In my imagination an endeavor of this nature involves many and varied complex moving parts, and indeed there was a committee that worked together to bring the project to fruition, but the man overseeing that committee… he was just one man. And he gave the world something incredible.

I’ve taken to starting my day with something funny of late. I’ve felt, overwhelmingly, that me and my countrymen are headed for dark days, and regularly engaging comedic material has been a huge help in keeping my mood fairly stable. One of my favorite go-to comedies is the UK’s Big Fat Quiz, basically an end-of-the-year pub quiz that showcases a collection of competing comedy teams. During a viewing this past week, one of the questions concerned the vandalizing of a Spanish church fresco by a well-meaning parishioner: Cecilia Giménez. Her failed attempts to restore the fresco resulted in a patently hilarious image, the “Ecce Homo” became an “Ecce Mono,” and Giménez was humiliated. Watching The Big Fat Quiz and recalling the event, I wondered if the fresco had ever been properly restored. It hadn’t. There is a happy ending to the story, though. International interest in the fresco resulted in such an uptick in tourism that the small town of 5,000 was largely spared the recession that has plagued the country for years. Mrs. Giménez set out to save her church’s fresco, and she saved her whole town. Not bad for one little old lady.

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(L) Ecce Homo by Elías García Martínez, 1930; (R) restoration attempt by Cecilia Giménez, 2012

Opinion: On the Merits of Punching Nazis
The Internet has been on fire with Nazi-punching memes since Richard Spencer, a Neo Nazi piece of trash, got punched out on national television by an as-yet unidentified assailant. The incident sparked a massive debate on the ethics of violent protest in response to hate speech, with some arguing that violence is never the answer and others arguing that—when dealing with someone who advocates for genocide—yes, it bloody well is. Naturally, I had some thoughts.

First, I’m really tired of the folks who have been trying to frame this as a free speech issue. It’s not a free speech issue. The first amendment guarantees citizens, religious adherents, and the press freedom of expression without fear of government persecution. It does not guarantee freedom from any and all consequences. A public boycott is not an assault on freedom of speech; someone getting fired for making a deeply offensive joke in a public forum is not an assault on freedom of speech. A Nazi getting punched on national television is not an assault on freedom of speech. Now, there’s no denying that—according to the laws of the land—Richard Spencer was the victim of an assault, and if the authorities catch the person who punched him, they’ll probably be prosecuted. And I can’t say anything against that; an important part of civil disobedience is understanding that there will be consequences for your actions (no matter how justified those actions may be).

Second, the morality police need to stand down because I am 100% not here for all this “being glad he got punched is as bad as punching him” bullshit. Watching a video of a Nazi getting punched and feeling good about it is not a morally compromising activity. Watching one of the videos of Richard Spencer getting punched, and thinking to yourself, “I’m glad to see that hateful son of a bitch take one on the chin,” is not stooping to your enemy’s level. It’s feeling satisfaction that a loathsome person got what they deserved. It doesn’t mean that the people who feel that sense of satisfaction are going to go out and punch other people in the face, and it’s not the same as going out and punching someone in the face. It’s fucking not. Stop treating it like it is.

Third, The Beat posted an interesting point-counterpoint article on the subject, contrasting the views of Warren Ellis and A. David Lewis, which I highly recommend. Though I’m pretty solidly in Ellis’ court on this one, I think that Lewis makes a valid point about remembering that violence should be a weapon of last resort—particularly when there are other weapons still waiting to be used. I think he’s mistaken, however, when he argues that violence against Nazis will embolden them to be violent themselves. They have already been violent and have signaled their intent to continue to be so. Worrying about whether or not the occasional violent response is going embolden them is, in my view, nonsensical. They have already been emboldened: not by the violence of progressives but by our passivity. We must not remain passive.

Worldwide Women’s March

Today I watched as millions of people across the globe rose up to protest the election and ideology of Trump and his GOP cohort. And it was a thing of beauty.

My mother and I attended a local march. We had toyed with the idea of going to DC but decided it was too complicated to pull off. The local march was plenty amazing, though. Thousands of people showed up. So many more, I think, than were expected. We wound up in the vanguard of the march—a one mile circuit that took the protest past City Hall. When we completed that circuit, there was still a massive crowd of people queuing to begin the route themselves. We walked down to a nearby farmer’s market and back to our car, crossing the march route as we went. An hour after we’d finished, and the march was still going strong. There were so many people.

And they ran the gamut. Every age, every race, every gender, every orientation, every body type. Abled and disabled alike. Everyone was out to protest against those who would seek to divide us with their hateful rhetoric and petty intolerance.

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Protest Sign in Support of Reproductive Rights
Women’s March, January 21, 2017

 

All of the signs were incredible, and there was a rewarding variety all over the place. Signs in support of black lives, Muslim Americans, immigrants, public education, public housing, the environment, reproductive rights, lgbtq rights, feminism, intersectionality, inclusivity. It was so beautiful, and to know that similar gatherings were happening all around the country, and all around the world, made it even more beautiful.

There were marches in every big city in the US (and in many of the small ones as well.) There were marches in more than sixty countries, on every continent in the world, and the turnout was huge—a political protest on a historical scale. My Facebook feed was aglow with pictures and videos from friends marching on the East Coast, on the West Coast, in the Heartland, in our nation’s capital. A million people went to the march in DC. A million. More people attended the Women’s March on Washington than attended the inauguration yesterday, and Trump is furious—and furiously denying the facts. And even though we are now in a very precarious position, I feel such tremendous hope that we will find a way to extricate ourselves. Because we—the real Americans, the Americans who want progress, the Americans who believe in justice and healthcare and education for everyone—we outnumber Trump and his deplorables. We outnumber them, and we’re going to win.

But we have to keep fighting.

There was a common refrain on several of the signs I saw at the march today: I can’t believe we still have to fight for this. Personally, I don’t have any difficulty believing that we still have to fight. What I can’t believe is that there are people who actually think that there will come a time when we won’t have to fight. We’re always going to have to fight. The flow of history, contrary to popular belief, is not a steady and irreversible march toward a better tomorrow. We advance, we regress, then we go back, Jack, and do it again. Every step we—the human race—have taken toward a better tomorrow has been hard fought, and every step we take will be hard fought.

So revel in today’s triumph, we’ve fucking earned it, but remember that we have to keep the momentum going tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.