Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Hope and Trust in Trumptime

I'm going to try to keep this upbeat, so I'm not going to give you yet another precis of our current historical moment.  I almost wrote "hysterical." I don't mean you, of course.  I mean the autocrats and the 1% and the electorate who believes the wealthy and the powerful know best.  And I mean the fifth estate, who rightly believes they are under fire but who also have attempted to offer us some explanation of Trump's election or Angela Merkel's minority government or Recep Erdogan's re-election. Of the many compelling and well-argued attempts on the part of journalists and political scientists I have read, there have been two constants:  fear and distrust of the "Other," particularly a Muslim or dark-skinned other, and anxiety on the part of white working class men (and some women too) who have begun to realize that the well-paying jobs that have bouyed their sense of agency and purpose in the world have disappeared.  They are no longer the centre of a knowable, comfortable universe.  But those jobs haven't been given to the Other, but to technology. Trump can caterwaul and fulminate as much as he likes:  "beautiful coal" and tariffs on steel and aluminum are not bringing those jobs back.

Instead, I want to talk about trust and hope.

But I can only do that by talking about distrust first.  I think we are living through a time of enormous distrust and that those who are not benefiting from the twenty-first century's economy or from new technologies are the most distrustful of governments that appear to have failed them and of people who look like they want their jobs.   

The old fart in me keeps saying that things have become too complicated, so that we bump up against unknowns daily.  Let me give some idiosyncratic examples, and if you have any hobby-horses of your own, please add them at the end of the post in the "Comments" section.  Let's talk about databases, about the fact that the University of Regina has changed its perfectly functional catalogue (well, perfectly functional from my point of view) yet again.  It now resembles something more like a Google search, and it's now harder for me to simply find books or--shock of ages--do a catalogue number browse so I can see what other books on my subject there might be.  Let's talk about the fact that there are organizations--national and international organizations--that specialize in rescuing people in caves full of water.  Or let's talk about that fact that there are myriad organizations that are dedicated to helping disabled children take part in sports.

I've chosen my examples carefully, so I can illustrate what I see to be three kinds of change taking place.  Let's begin with the last one:  all kinds of work has been done to make the daily lives of people with disabilities richer and filled with the possibilities we should all share.  I remember back in the dark ages--okay, it was only the early seventies--when the University of Michigan was one of the first institutions that made its campus accessible--probably because its prestigious medical school gave all their nurses an interesting assignment:  spend three days in a wheel chair.  But the "mainstreaming" of people with disabilities doesn't always make us comfortable.  How do we talk to someone with Down Syndrome?  (Probably the same way we talk to everyone else.)  If someone walks with a cane, do we helpfully hold the door open or do we respect their ability to be independent?

How many rescues of people in caves involve divers?  Enough that there is a body of people with this expertise?  Obviously the world has gotten more complicated and there are more and more groups of people with expertise we didn't know existed.

When we the last time you traveled when the procedures for checking in and getting through security were exactly the same as they were before?  Travel is always discombobulating:  that's one of the reasons we do it.  But I've found that everyone checks in online.  But "everyone" also has a cell phone.  Would you believe that I only have an iPad but that Veronica has figured out how to save my boarding pass to my iBooks.  My iBooks?  How do I get rid of it there, lodged between A Tale of Two Cities and Michael McCarthy's The Moth Snowstorm:  Nature and Joy?  Our technology changes almost daily--often for the better, but not always.

So in this world of increasing and often uncomfortable complexity, the Other--one more thing we don't entirely understand--makes some people uncomfortable.  It can be an opportunity.  But it can feel like "Six impossible things before breakfast," inspiring distrust in people who are exhausted by change.

So here's something we can do in Trumptime to challenge the distrust that is behind many of his policies.  First, stop walking around with your cell phone.  I'm convinced--and I've already admitted to being an old fart--that communities of familiar faces are disappearing because we're not looking up to see where we are, but that we walk in the world--in the beautiful and everchanging and miraculous world--looking at tiny letters on a screen, getting one more dopamine hit. We've become addicted to these hits because we are so lonely. So stop making yourself lonely.  I work out at the University of Regina Fitness and Lifestyle Centre, and there's a whole community of people I speak to daily--people who want to know how I am--because neither of us has our gaze on a cell phone--and people who would be viewed as the "Other."  Were I in trouble, I know one of them would help me--and in fact when the little old lady stretches up to add more weight to her machine, they frequently come over to help.  Want world peace?  It begins with a smile, and maybe a nod or a hello or a how's it going.

The other thing you can do is to keep hope alive.  I've gotten pretty bossy and cocksure in my old age, so you may take this with a grain of salt:  I believe the only ethical way to live now is with hope.  Because otherwise, we're going to have given up, letting Trump and his cronies win.  You don't need to change the world today, but you need to be hopeful.  I have been reading Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, and she provides a wonderful example of the way hope might work.  First, she argues that despair is not solidarity with the disadvantaged or oppressed.  We don't need to be despairing to acknowledge that the world right now is FUBAR.  Some days I will I admit I get up with a strong sense of unease--even of despair--and I think the confirmation of Trump's more recent Supreme Court Nominee will be one of those days--partly because it's a self-satisfied minority which is going to make some monumental decisions about how we live for the next generation.  But if I remain in despair, I don't have the energy to make anything better--even in the little microcosm I inhabit.  I stop smiling at those delightful familiar faces at the gym.

But Solnit points out that hope isn't a reflection of the world:  we're not hopeful because we think the world is just dandy.  Hope is, rather, our frame of mind in the face of a world that is out of whack.  Our ship is listing dangerously.  But she and Jonathan Schell, author of The unconquerable World:  Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, argue that hope begins in the imagination--which is why I'm writing to you.  If you are visiting Blue Duets, it's because you are in some way imaginative.  That is one of your greatest strengths.  It is imagination that allows you to be compassionate, kind, empathetic:  in any situation you immediately imagine what someone else's experience is like and imagine what they might need or like from us.  It is also how you conceive of a better world and how you navigate a route towards that time, even if that route, like a crab, must sometimes go sideways.  Ask the beautiful natural world that remains and the people who love you to help.

Let me end with a story Solnit tells of "Women Strike for Peace," a group founded in 1961 at the height of the cold war.  In its largest demonstration, 50,000 women in 60 US cities demonstrated against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and their work is credited for the nuclear test ban treaty signed two years later, ending the practice of open air tests of nuclear weapons.  But on the particular day Solnit writes of, a handful of them were standing with their placards in the rain in front of the White House--one of them reflecting that their whole project seemed particularly silly in the rain.  But unbeknownst to them, Dr. Spock, the world's beloved pediatrician, was watching them, thinking that if they were willing to demonstrate in the rain he had better give their goals a more careful look.  He became an outspoken supporter of the nuclear test ban treaty that was signed 2 years later.

You don't need to get up every morning hopeful. But you need to help us keep the practice of hope alive in dark times.

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