Friday, 21 October 2016

Politics in the year 2016

The other day I watched the delightful It Happened to Jane (Richard Quine 1959), which is billed as a romantic comedy but is more accurately described as a perky lesson in civic participation and local democracy, set in a small town in Maine (although shot in Chester, Connecticut). It made me nostalgic for a time of civility and when people had not yet begun to go bowling alone (to use Robert Putnam's phrase). But I suppose people in the 1950s were also nostalgic about the good old days, so that is not getting me very far. However, I wonder if it was not the case that, despite the fear of nuclear war, the 1950s were a time of far greater hope for the future, and hope for the possibility of improvements. Today, well, I am not so sure. In any event, the state of the world made me want to write something about politics again, as I do on occasion.

Reporters and columnists are fond of referencing Aaron Sorkin when writing about politics and elections, not least in the US. Obviously The West Wing but also The American President (Rob Reiner 1995) and even, as Lexington did in The Economist the other week, A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner 1992). Lexington compared Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, with Donald Trump, complaining that as the film was a courtroom drama it was less likely that things would end for Trump as they did for Jessup.

The one Sorkin quote on politics that is most popular to use is from The American President, when the president's assistant Lewis says:
People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.
What is less frequently mentioned is the response the president gives, namely this:
Lewis, we've had Presidents who were beloved who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand 'cause they're thirsty. They drink the sand 'cause they don't know the difference.
The reason the response is less popular than the first quote is, I would think, that the second one is darker, and partially blame the voters. That is not necessarily seen as a good thing; voters, the will of the people, must not be criticised. If things go bad it is because of the politicians, as if they were not reflecting the will of those voters but were somehow disconnected. Although how and why people vote as they do can sometimes be confusing or weird, it seems strange to assume that they do not vote for what they think they want, or for what they think is good for the country. You frequently get the politicians you deserve, at least in a democracy.

The last couple of years the world seems to have taken one nasty turn after another, with ignorance, anger and hatred, not to mention antisemitism, increasing in one country after country, and extremism of all sorts becoming more and more mainstream. Donald Trump is of course the most obvious example, but it is a global phenomenon and at the moment the arc of history seems to be bending towards injustice and intolerance. In some places it is in power, and forms the government, such as across eastern Europe, the Philippines, Venezuela. In other countries they are not yet in power but are growing, and are frequently in parliament or in local governments. We can see this in The Netherlands, France, Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere. (Not to mention the steadily increasing belligerence of Russia and China, threatening their neighbours and others.) At the moment it would seem almost everything is going the wrong way; the global society is frighteningly fragile at the moment. The nonsensical Brexit is yet another example of this.

The causes for this are many. The financial crash of 2007-2008, the ongoing war in Syria, extreme weather (partially due to climate change), widespread unemployment among the young and those without a university education, severe cutbacks at newspapers and in journalism in general (which leads to people being less well-informed and politicians not held to account as much as they need to be). Among the consequences is a growing number of "politiphobes" (as Jonathan Rauch calls them in an excellent article in The Atlantic) i.e. people who basically believe that politicians are corrupt and self-interested and that all problems have easy, obvious solutions if only an outsider would come and take charge. This feeling is spread across the political spectrum, as these knights that will supposedly save us are sometimes considered left-wing and sometimes right-wing, although many are just wingnuts.

All of these things then feed on each other, contributing to making everything worse. Sure, it looks highly likely that Clinton will defeat Trump, which will in itself be a good thing, but the damage Trump has already done to the social climate and the health and well-being of democracy in the US is remarkable, with him and his base of voters whipping each other into a frenzy of toxic anger.

There has to come a point when things turn around, and people come to their senses. But when? How low will we sink first? "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" W.B. Yeats's wrote in his poem The Second Coming, reflecting on World War 1 and its aftermath, but we are not there yet, far from it, even if it sometimes feels like we are heading in that direction. It would be a good thing for starters if people calmed down, and treated each other with some basic respect and decency, including those with whom they disagree, and including on social media. There are limits, a few people are beyond the pale, but not even those should be met with scorn or hatred. We should not act or talk in a way that only makes us feel better about ourselves, that is narcissism rather than progressiveness. (Screaming "You're a fucking racist!" to somebody might feel satisfying but it will not make that person less of a racist, or encourage him to become a better person.) We should act and talk in ways that make the world a better and more decent place, and acknowledge that everything matters. A grand gesture of a prime minister or the small gesture of an individual on the bus, and everything in between, a tweet, an article, a blog post, a union meeting; everything that is going on in public contributes to the general atmosphere. And as we are all contributing to that atmosphere, we are all responsible, whether we want to or not, or whether we are aware of it or not, for that atmosphere, its tone and temperature. The trick however is to do it with proper humility. It is easy to feel as an oppressed victim and lash out accordingly, while using the sense of victimhood as a shield against criticism.

So basic civility is a starting point, beyond the more complicated questions such as how to speed up the decrease of carbon emissions, end the war in Syria, finance quality journalism, combat unemployment, safeguard pensions, successfully integrate refugees and so on and so forth. The important thing is to turn things around, before it is too late. Some people might not know the difference, but most do.

Here is Edward Murrow as a reminder that the 1950s also had its threats against respect, democracy and decency, such as senator Joseph McCarthy.

1 comment:

  1. Social media seems to have turned into an outrage machine, which theoretically consists of political discourse but can just as easily be turned against any public figure who makes a misstep. On Facebook, people went from fury against Donald Trump to fury against Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize and back to fury against Donald Trump the next day. It's fine to disagree with the Nobel, but if you can fly into a serious rage at Dylan, you need some real problems in your life. Celebrities and politicians seem to have become interchangeable - I don't think the situation is as bad in Europe, but the very fact that a reality TV star with no political experience is one of the 2 presidential candidates in the U.S. suggests this.