Today marks the two-week anniversary of the election.
I keep hearing it in Garrison Keillor’s voice from The Writer’s Almanac…
On this day, in 2016…
This is comforting, yet chilling, particularly as I consider what comes next–a thought which keeps me up at night; and waits for me each morning.
He’s history repeating…
That line from the recently released, Seriously?, commissioned by This American Life, written by Sara Barielles, in the of voice of President Obama, sung by Leslie Odom, Jr., of Hamilton, about President-Elect, before he was elected, keeps repeating on me.
There are so many ways to be distracted.
Every day I meditate on distractions like this, and every day I grow more and more enraged and engaged; and every day, I meditate on me, as counterbalance to culture, and grow more and more curious and clear, as I attempt to answer the question:
What part can I play in making sure that history doesn’t repeat itself?
Part of me wants to turn it all off, and say, like John Oliver & friends:
I want to go back to the nights of binge watching Netflix, and scrolling through feeds filled with pets and weather and food, but I’m pretty certain, no I’m totally certain, that nothing is the same, or will ever be the same, in my lifetime; so I dedicate a huge chunk of time to sit down and begin reading all the articles I’ve saved since 11/9 when everything changed.
“These are First World problems,” writes David Runciman, Department Head of Politics and International Studies, at Cambridge, in his London Book Review essay entitled: Is this how democracy ends?
Just the title makes me want to hide. He doesn’t even soften it with capital letters, and then after the “first-world” critique, adds insult to injury with this sobering follow:
That doesn’t make them any less serious. It just makes it much harder to find historical precedents for what comes next.
But enough from England!
An essay, from the New York Times, entitled The End of Identity Liberalism, is more palatable, probably because it pisses me off. Author Mark Lilla offers rich insight along with sharp critique, not just of liberal politics, but of high school history curricula.
I immediately send the article to my husband–a high school history teacher–who is sitting in our living room, shaping curriculum, with the entire Social Studies department of the local high school while I hide out in our local library attempting to understand our future.
I’m not surprised to discover that Lilla is college professor. Like politicians, teachers love to blame the teachers before them, beginning with preschool teachers who blame parents.
Here’s Lilla’s take:
At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good.
But this election isn’t a liberal issue, it’s a national issue.
Even my aunt, and previous Presidents, and the Arizonia Republic–a publication with more than a 125 years supporting conservative candidates (long before my kind could vote) understands the stakes.
“Normal is coming unhinged,” writes Charles Eisenstein in his essay The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story which is not in the Times or the London Book Review, but on his own website, where he has this to say about himself:
I can’t really tell you my plans for the future… the world is approaching a state of flux that could easily render most plans irrelevant.
I feel this uncertainty most acutely. Inside.
It’s what leads some to put up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving or to demonizing others or to find some way, any way, to shove President Elect into normal shoes.
This reminds me of a horrific chapter in my young life when an evil stepparent was the solid foundation upon which I stood; so that when my therapist suggested that the marriage was on the rocks (he was their therapist too, and yes, had inappropriate boundaries), I panicked, and was shocked to find, in the face of great suffering, that I preferred the status quo to uncertainty.
Eisenstein explores stability’s facade:
For the last eight years it has been possible for most people (at least in the relatively privileged classes) to believe that society is sound, that the system, though creaky, basically works, and that the progressive deterioration of everything from ecology to economy is a temporary deviation from the evolutionary imperative of progress.
He doesn’t stop there:
A Clinton Presidency would have offered four more years of that pretense. A woman President following a black President would have meant to many that things are getting better.
Next he takes aim at what has been most central to my despair:
Racism and misogyny are devastatingly real in this country, but to blame bigotry and sexism for voters’ repudiation of the Establishment is to deny the validity of their deep sense of betrayal and alienation… The blame-the-racists (the fools, the yokels…) narrative generates a clear demarcation between good (us) and evil (them), but it does violence to the truth.
If you’re nodding, wait for it:
It also obscures an important root of racism – anger displaced away from an oppressive system and its elites and onto other victims of that system. Finally, it employs the same dehumanization of the other that is the essence of racism and the precondition for war. Such is the cost of preserving a dying story. That is one reason why paroxysms of violence so often accompany a culture-defining story’s demise.
Here’s the added twist:
…As we enter a period of intensifying disorder, it is important to introduce a different kind of force to animate the structures that might appear after the old ones crumble. I would call it love if it weren’t for the risk of triggering your New Age bullshit detector…
So let’s start with empathy. Politically, empathy is akin to solidarity, born of the understanding that we are all in this together.
In what together? For starters, we are in the uncertainty together…
We are entering a space between stories…
It is time… to up our game.
It is time to stop feeding hate.
…to stop making our opponents invisible behind a caricature of evil.
I felt awakened by Eisenstein’s words until I returned to the Times and read: A Time for Refusal which gave me nightmares last night about rhinoceroses.
Author Teju Cole centers the essay on a play entitled Rhinoceros, written in 1958, by Eugène Ionesco, in response to the totalitarian movements in Europe.
It is a Sunday afternoon in a provincial town in France. Two men meet at a cafe… All of the sudden, they hear a great noise… they see a large animal thundering down one of the streets, stamping and snorting all the way. A rhinoceros! Not long after, there’s another. They are startled. It’s outrageous. Something must be done. What they begin to do is argue heatedly about whether the second rhino was the first one going past a second time or a different one, and then about whether the rhinos are African or Asiatic.
“It is an epidemic of rhinoceritis,” writes Teju Cole:
…One by one, various people in the town begin to turn into rhinos.Almost everyone succumbs: those who admire the brute force of the rhinos, those who didn’t believe the sightings to begin with, those who initially found them alarming. One character, Dudard, declares, “If you’re going to criticize, it’s better to do so from the inside.” And so he willingly undergoes the metamorphosis, and there’s no way back for him.
I tried to shake the rhinoceros from my consciousness this morning, but then I remembered the oddly apolitical post that my husband shared yesterday about skin cancer:
Made up of the same protein as the kind in your nails, cutaneous horns occur most often in people with these characteristics.
And my mind swung back to Coles words:
Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else.
And then I remembered the pool of rhinoceros beside the soon to be Queen in the Netflix series that I’d been watching ever since my dreams for a President–who looks like me–were not just dashed, but desecrated; and I decide the rhinoceroses were a sign!
At the end of “Rhinoceros,” Daisy finds the call of the herd irresistible. Her skin goes green, she develops a horn, she’s gone.
As I consider not just President-Elect, but his appointments, I want to scream: “This is not the time for compassion and understanding. Rhinoceros are everywhere!”
And then I meditated.
On the surface of life, there are many reasons to be uneasy, anxious, doubtful and angry. If you struggle against these things by engaging with events–out there–in the external world, you will never win because your struggle takes place at the level of the problem where the restless mind dominates.
The level of the solution lies deeper than the surface activity of mind, deeper than the external events that disturb us.
History shows that enduring peace hasn’t been achieved through fighting.
Instead of seeing peace as the opposite of violence–which pits good people against bad people–peace should be regarded as a natural state of awareness available to everyone.
Each person is responsible for becoming a unit of peace consciousness.
The world would be transformed if we approached peace through consciousness.
(Chopra Center Meditation)
In meditation, I take personal responsibility for what I expect of the world.
I return to Eisenstein words and realize that the love he speaks of is not passive in the face of horns:
This does not mean to withdraw from political conversation, but to rewrite its vocabulary. It is to speak hard truths with love. It is to offer acute political analysis that doesn’t carry the implicit message of “Aren’t those people horrible?”
…We must not shy away from those confrontations. Instead, we can engage them empowered by the inner mantra that my friend Pancho Ramos-Stierle uses in confrontations with his jailers:
“Brother, your soul is too beautiful to be doing this work.”
I parented my children in the same spirit. Calling on their higher natures. Entering the difficult conversations. Speaking the hard truths. Doing so with love.
Do we love democracy enough to do the same?
Runciman, of Cambridge, in his London Book Review essay, looks at the demise of democracy through a familial lens:
It is sometimes said that Trump appeals to his supporters because he represents the authoritarian father figure who they want to shield them from all the bad people out there making their lives hell. That can’t be right: Trump is a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime. The parent in this relationship is the American state itself, which allows the voters to throw a tantrum and join forces with the worst behaved kid in the class, safe in the knowledge that the grown-ups will always be there to pick up the pieces.
I remember this dynamic from raising my first teen. How he relied on us. Even in his acting out. And something more potent: how vital it was for us to give him space to own the effects of his behavior, without the welcome distraction of our condemnation.
The spaciousness was a risk. But it didn’t mean that we looked away. In fact, we paid even closer attention. We watched. We listened. We learned. We said, No. We said, Yes. We persevered. We remained a family.
Runciman expands on the real risk to democracy:
It is not possible to keep behaving like this without damaging the basic machinery of democratic government. It takes an extraordinarily fine-tuned political intelligence to target popular anger at the parts of the state that need reform while leaving intact the parts that make that reform possible. Trump – and indeed Brexit – are not that. They are the bluntest of instruments, indiscriminately shaking the foundations with nothing to offer by way of support. Under these conditions, the likeliest response is for the grown-ups in the room to hunker down, waiting for the storm to pass. While they do, politics atrophies and necessary change is put off by the overriding imperative of avoiding systemic collapse. The understandable desire to keep the tanks off the streets and the cashpoints open gets in the way of tackling the long-term threats we face. Fake disruption followed by institutional paralysis, and all the while the real dangers continue to mount. Ultimately, that is how democracy ends.
I’m not sure how we navigate this tension. Not on the left or the right.
My mind keeps bringing me back to my nursing days. To the toddler who threw lots of tantrums, and who insisted on nursing through the night.
“How do I get him to stop?” I asked my friend, the La Leche League leader.
Her response perplexed me. It made no sense.
“Surrender,” she said.
I wanted strategies. Action. Results.
But I also sensed into something–the radical suggestion that my very resistance accentuated and perpetuated the suffering I sought to diminish.
I think the same might be true now.
Those of us wrestling with the “other” may need to explore the place between boundaries and surrender… if democracy is to survive… if families are to thrive.
How can surrender shift something so sinister?
Perhaps by softening us.
By allowing space for consciousness.
…for clear seeing.
Democracies have failed in the past despite warning signs and despite champions.
At this precarious moment, I suspect that the right and the left of this nation need each other if we are to remain intact.
David Runciman, London Book Review, Is this how democracy ends?
Mark Lilla, New York Times,The End of Identity Liberalism
Charles Eisenstein, The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story
Teju Cole, New York Times, A Time for Refusal