Like many of my friends, I’m still struggling to find my place in the political, economic, and social circumstances of our world today. What do I have to offer in building a “countervailing force”?1
During the week-long pause after the 2016 election, I and many others in my very blue part of the country, simply wandered around stunned, caught our breath, and wondered how the results would change our lives and our priorities. But then the energy began to build. We needed to get out, talk with others, and figure out what to do. More people have been stepping up to become active than I’ve seen in decades. It didn’t take long before a deluge of news reports, alerts for critical causes, and entreaties to join this or that action started appearing in our email boxes and Facebook pages, on printed notices delivered by “snail mail” or stapled to telephone poles, and in conversations with friends over coffee or the telephone. There are marches to join, news reports to read, letters to send, meetings to attend or organize, and occasionally thoughtful talks and essays that help give perspective and context.
Back in fall 2015, when I created my website I added a subtitle to remind me of a basic fact that I keep forgetting, “You can’t do everything . . . at least not all at once.” That’s been hard to remember lately. And I thought by now I’d be clearer about how to narrow my focus, how to best use my skills and knowledge, short of trying to do it all.
Conversations often help me start figuring out something going on in my life. In this case, I need help finding the shape of my particular piece of the much bigger puzzle. One thing I’ve done is join with four or five other people who are interested in how we talk about the task facing us—about language and reframing the conversation (with a nod to George Lakoff)2 and John Boylan’s call for a new narrative.3 Our conversation has taken place in person and through lots of exchanged stories and articles. Just recently, I took time to write down and send some of my thoughts to them before an upcoming meeting. What started as a simple email message got to feeling more ponderous than an email message should be, it was more like an essay. So in addition to sending it to them, I fussed with it, made it a little more like an essay, and include it here.
February 22, 2017
By now, I think I’ve read everything you’ve sent, along with other things that have come my way. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get my arms around it all and what I want to do with it. What questions am I trying to answer? What do I have to offer? I definitely haven’t sorted it out yet, and I’m familiar with the tendency to think the latest thing I read or hear is the most important or the most urgent. I fully expect to keep learning and adjusting. Our conversation prompted me to write, to try to make a few ideas in a few pieces I’ve read hold still long enough to really see them. Here goes . . .
“Resistance” is crucial, but not enough. Unlike a couple of the writers I cite, I certainly believe resistance and protest are needed and make a difference. I’m so glad there are other people who are more active in the streets and on the phone than I am.
David Frum (“What effective protest could look like”4) had lots of good thoughts around why demonstrations won’t stop Trump, about the difference between self-expression and persuasion and our need for a large goal, like “protecting our democracy from authoritarianism.” And I especially liked his observation that “it is the steady and often tedious work of organization that sustains democracy.” (I so much identify with the, often invisible, behind-the-scenes work of organizing . . . organizing this or anything, for that matter). Frum wants us to “be motivated by hope, not outrage.” But beyond protest, he says little about what the hope and organizing should aim for.
David Brooks (“After the women’s march”5) also made a case that ”marches can never be effective opposition to Trump.” Their focus is wrong, he says, and grass roots movements only rarely lead to change, the civil rights movement being an exception; most change is made through the Democratic and Republican parties. He also says that the central challenge today “is to rebind a functioning polity and to modernize a binding American idea”—a coherent vision. That resonates with the sense we have of the need for reframing and a new narrative, but his call for “a better nationalism” and one that balances “the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality” doesn’t work for all of us.
Even finding new language isn’t enough by itself. New language also needs to help us get ahead of the moment and take a deeper look at how we understand and talk about what we hope to see happen. In a piece in The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, “Negative Energy”,6 the author, Beverly Gage, gives a brief overview of the history of resistance, and says that, today, we certainly have plenty to resist against. But what is the resistance for? She asks it this way, “If ‘yes’ seems impossible and ‘no’ seems insufficient, what fills the space in between?” And toward the end, she suggests that we need to think about “where we want history to go.” I thought, right. Where do we want it to go? This actually lies behind much of my concern. And going back to our discussion . . . the language, the new narrative, the reframing needs to reflect it, the “where.”
Then, in a recent Guardian Weekly, I found this: “Welcome to the Age of Anger,7” by Pankaj Mishra, with the subtitle: “The seismic events of 2016 have revealed a world in chaos—and one that old ideas of liberal rationalism can no longer explain.” One thing I like about his perspective is that it goes way beyond Trump and this election. It reaches 200 years back in time and outside the boundaries of this country to other parts of the world. Reading it helped me know that, If I’m to have any idea of how to move forward, I needed a better understanding of how we got here and what we’re actually facing. Mishra’s piece gives me a helpful, new place to start. Although, as the Guardian says, it’s a “long read,” it’s definitely worth it.
Here are a few snapshots of Mishra’s thinking: he was quoted in a Washington Post review8 of his new book, The Age of Anger: A history of the present (published 2017), saying, “Now with the victory of Donald Trump, it has become impossible to deny or obscure the great chasm. . .between an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses, who, on finding themselves cheated of the same fruits, recoil into cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality.” In the opening paragraph of his piece in the Guardian, he stresses that, “It is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world.”
Toward the end of the Guardian piece, after detailing the long history of this chasm and times it has widened in the past, he considers where we go from here. The reviews of his book that I’ve read hold him accountable for not offering any solutions. Not having read the book, I can’t counter this. But in the Guardian essay, while he doesn’t offer answers, but he does suggest some places to begin:
We need a more sophisticated analysis of how today’s landscape of hyperrational power has coerced a new and increasingly potent irrationalism into existence.”
And later . . .
Even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul. The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality, and prosperity.”
Finally, to throw just one more (much shorter) piece your way, I was glad to find a fairly recent column, again in the Guardian Weekly, by George Monbiot, “The case for despair is made. Now let’s start to get out of the mess we’re in.”9 His piece starts to give me a more solid place to begin. He caught my attention when he referred to Mishra—for example, writing:
“Pankaj Mishra, in his book Age of Anger, explains the current crises as new manifestations of one long disruption that has been ripping up society for 200 years or more. Our sanitised histories of Europe and America allow us to forget that bedlam and carnage, civil and international war, colonialism and overseas slaughter, racism and genocide, were the norms of this period, not exceptions.”
I was encouraged, though, that Monbiot continued by saying that in the face of convincing evidence for despair, “This column will try to champion new approaches to politics, economics, and social change. There is no going back, no comfort in old certainties. We must rethink the world from first principles.” And on top of that, given the keen interest I have in the commons (no surprise to many who know me), I was especially heartened by what came next:
There are many points at which I could begin, but it seems to me that an obvious one is this. The market alone cannot meet our needs; nor can the state. Both, by rooting out attachment, help fuel the alienation, rage and anomie that breed extremism. One element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons.”
He spends most of the rest of the column expanding on what the commons are and why they have great potential now, a discussion that he ends by saying: “In other words, reviving the commons can act as a counterweight to the atomizing, alienating forces now generating a thousand forms of toxic reaction.”
Then to close the column, he gives himself what seemed to be an audacious goal: to explore a wide range of potential solutions and “start to develop a synthesis: a new political, economic and social story that might be matched to the demands of the 21st century.” I like that he plans to do this “with the help of your comments and suggestions,” though I’m not yet sure how we readers can contribute. I’ve gone to his website, <monbiot.com>, and found that interspersed among other writings, he pursues his large goal in a series of three pieces so far: this one, retitled, “The Fortifying Commons,” as well as “All Together Now” and “All about that Base.” I plan to follow along.
The commons are so much on my mind that you won’t be surprised to know that comments by two of you jump out at me. One of you ended an email saying:
It would be a good idea to look at every issue and every program through this lens—is this a program that benefits us as a community, regardless of who specifically benefits more or less under it? Is the common good substantial enough to tolerate the redistribution? Can the redistribution be managed in a reasonably fair way? How can we talk compellingly about the common good?”
And, a second might be a little more of a stretch: you made an appeal for a narrative that can be seen as everyday “common sense,” that isn’t oppositional, that includes “plural stories,” all of which reflect values that I associate with the commons. Both the “common good“ and “common sense” seem closely related to the commons.
Carry on! I’m so grateful to be in this conversation with you.
- “A bigger choir, a countervailing force,” posted on my website on 12/31/16.
- “Don’t think of a rampaging elephant: Linguist George Lakoff explains how the Democrats helped elect Trump,” Salon.com, 1/15/17.
- “A new narrative,” John Boylan Essays and Comment, 12/14/16.
- “What effective protest could look like,” David Frum, The Atlantic, 2/6/17.
- “After the women’s march,” David Brooks, The New York Times, 1/2417/
- “Negative energy” (it seems to have a different title online), Beverly Gage, The New York Times, 1/31/17.
- “Welcome to the age of anger,” Pankaj Mishra, The Guardian, 12/8/16.
- “Inside the anger that gave us Donald Trump,” by Carlos Lozada, Washington Post, 2/16/17.
- “The case for despair is made. Now let’s start to get out of the mess we’re in,” George Monbiot, The Guardian, 12/13/16.