Saturday, 12 November 2016

Fires on the road

"Dissent is the highest form of Patriotism." - Thomas Jefferson 
“The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.” - Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches
As I write this I am listening to Leonard Cohen after an evening indulging in a little wallowing by watching videos that firmly justify my sadness and anger. I have read advice to take the time to mourn and be alone, the advice to comfort others and allow yourself to be comforted, the advice to roll up your sleeves and get involved, to speak up, to be silent. I've done a little of everything, vacillating in the directionless way of the bereaved.

I debated whether to write anything here about current events at all. After all, this is a quasi-professional blog and while I have never hidden my political leanings in my professional life, I've tended to be cagey about discussing politics openly in that context. I feel like that position has become unsupportable now. I feel the pressing need to become more of an activist. I need to speak up. The problem is that I have no idea what to say.

I could say something about the danger of echo chambers and need for media literacy. I could provide resources attempting to analyse what went wrong, how it happened, who is to blame. I could theorise about the best and worst case scenarios that could emerge over the next four years. I could talk about the role of libraries in supporting their communities during difficult times or the transformative power of reading in crisis situations. I could discuss any and all of these, but I think others have said it better and frankly I don't have the energy to analyse or prosthelytise right now.

I think what I need to do right now is be honest.

I'm terrified. I know that this fear was mirrored by those on the right when contemplating a Clinton presidency. I know that it's a symptom of the unhealthy divisiveness that has grown up in American and British politics, that Brexiters and Trump supporters find my political views as insupportable, as alien as I find theirs. It's a different set of values that has been thrown into sharp relief against my own by the polarising forces of journalism, social media, isolationism and confirmation bias. But right now I find it unhelpful to empathise, to agree with President Obama when he asserts that deep down we all want the same things, because from my point of view, here and now, I can't see how that's the case. Because what I want is for women to have equal rights, opportunities and treatment to men, for working class families to be able to afford to live without having to work multiple jobs so they can actually see their children and afford healthcare, for Muslim Americans to not feel demonised, for Mexican Americans to not feel outcast, for Black Americans to not feel criminalised, for LGBTQ+ youth to not be contemplating suicide as an alternative to facing the next four years of watching their few small, hard-won rights be stripped away. Because I am a pacifist and fear the bellicose instincts of the President-elect. Because every human has dignity and rights and I fear his ableism. Because I am pro-choice and a feminist and fear his misogyny. Because I believe that the most pressing issue facing the entire world is not "Obamacare" but the dangerously rapid warming of our planet due to human influence. Because I am an immigrant, a friend of immigrants, a supporter of immigration and I fear the growing nationalism around the globe that the President-elect has tapped into, emboldened and legitimised through his success. Because I am at heart a progressive and I fear his authoritarianism.

My mind keeps wandering back to a book I read last year called Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi. The main character is a young woman in Germany in the 30s and sees the world around her change, sees her neighbours and friends become complacent, then fearful, then complicit in atrocities that start to feel mundane. The xenophobia, paranoia and cruelty fostered by fascism became the new normal. I saw a tweet a few weeks ago that I wasn't able to find again to attribute it that said something along the lines of: If you could travel back in time the question is not whether you would kill Hitler. The question is, would you vote for him? With hindsight we forget that the figure we rightly deplore was democratically elected, that there is something appealing at particular moments in time about a strong leader who gives us a common enemy to blame for our problems and promises a solution. Now that we've voted for him (though I feel it's only right to point out that only about a quarter of registered voters actually did as half of them didn't vote at all), will we be complacent until it's too late? Will we cheer as lives are destroyed because we can sleep a little more soundly knowing that at least people who look like us have finally got what we deserve?

Like many others I know I'm desperate to find ways to help; protests I could join, petitions I could sign, acts of defiance I could perform. I will do all of this that I can but I think and hope the small daily acts matter just as much. Being kind, being there for people, listening, including people. I think this comes back to the Buddhist idea of "Right Livelihood"; doing the work that's in front of you to the best of your ability. That's all you can do. It feels small. It feels insignificant right now in the face of huge forces mobilised by hatred and greed. But, as Susan Sontag observed, that's no excuse to not do it.

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