Category Archives: Climate change
A few days ago, Noam Chomsky, longtime political activist and social critic, was interviewed on “Democracy Now,” and asked to sum up the first few months of the Trump regime. He said that “anything that can be of assistance to ordinary people” is being “decimated, while anything that adds to wealth and power or that increases the use of force is being carried forward.” Meanwhile, the two most important issues – climate change and the threat of nuclear war – on which our survival depend are being largely ignored. The media are largely taking the bait of daily Trumpist distractions, including the question of whether the Russians interfered in the 2016 US election. “Half the world is cracking up in laughter,” Chomsky said about this, since “the United States doesn’t just interfere in elections. It overthrows governments it doesn’t like.” Even in Russia, the US government got “their man Yeltsin in.” Chomsky understands that “Democratic Party managers want to try to find some blame for the way they utterly mishandled the election and blew a perfect opportunity to win. But that’s hardly a justification for allowing the Trump and right-wing Republican policies to slide by quietly, many of them not only harmful to the population, but extremely destructive, like the climate change policies.”
Chomsky finds the new hostility toward Russia disheartening, since lessening tensions with that country would be “a step forward. NATO maneuvers are taking place hundreds of yards from the Russian border, and Russian jet planes are buzzing American planes. This could get out of hand very easily. Both sides, meanwhile, are building up their military forces, and the US is establishing an anti-ballistic missile installation near the Russian border, allegedly to protect Europe from nonexistent Iranian missiles, a first strike threat. These are serious issues. People like William Perry, who has a distinguished career and is a nuclear strategist and is no alarmist, are saying that this is one of the worst moments of the Cold War. And we should bear in mind it’s the Russian border. It’s not the Mexican border. There are no Warsaw Pact maneuvers going on in Mexico.”
When asked about Trump’s policies with regard to North Korea, Chomsky noted, that North Korea didn’t seriously pursue a nuclear weapons program till after George W. Bush scuttled an agreement Clinton had negotiated according to which “North Korea would terminate its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and the U.S. would reduce hostile acts. I mean, you can say it’s the worst regime in history, but they’ve been following a pretty rational tit-for-tat policy. And why are they developing nuclear weapons? I mean, the economy is in bad shape. They could certainly use the resources. Everyone understands that it’s a deterrent.” North Korea is still offering to stop developing nuclear weapons if the US “stops carrying out threatening military maneuvers with South Korea on its border. Not an unreasonable proposal. And it’s worth bearing in mind that North Korea was practically destroyed during the Korean War by some of the most intensive bombing in history. When there were no targets left, the US bombed dams, a war crime that wiped out crops. The North Koreans lived through that, so having nuclear-capable B-52s flying on their border is no joke. Instead of concern about whether somebody talked to the Russians, this is the kind of thing that should be pursued. That’s what anyone hoping for some form of peace and justice should be working for.”
Relations with China are also “an extremely serious issue,” Chomsky said. “China isn’t going to back down on its fundamental demands, concerning Taiwan, for example. And Trump threatening force is extraordinarily dangerous. You can’t play that game in international affairs. We’re too close to destroying ourselves. You take a look at the record through the nuclear age, of near misses. It’s almost miraculous that we’ve survived. As soon as Trump came in, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock was moved to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, both because of the nuclear threat, recognized to be serious, and the threat of environmental catastrophe, which wasn’t considered in the earlier years, but now is. These are, overwhelmingly, the most crucial issues that face us. Everything else fades into insignificance in comparison. They’re literally questions of survival.
There are now three nuclear powers that have refused to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: China, the United States, and Israel. If tests begin again, it would be an extremely serious danger. It was when the first tests were carried out that the Doomsday Clock went to two minutes to midnight. There’s been an inadequate, but significant, reduction in nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, and the New START Treaty is supposed to carry that forward. Russia and the United States have the overwhelming mass of the nuclear weapons. And this would cut down the number, especially of the more threatening ones. Trump has said this a ‘bad deal’ for the United States, suggesting maybe we should pull out of it, which would be a disaster.
Sooner or later, people are going to see through Trump’s con game, and at that point something will have to be done to maintain control. The obvious technique is scapegoating – blame it on immigrants or Muslims. But that can only go so far. The next step would be an alleged terrorist attack, which would be easy to construct or stage. I don’t particularly anticipate it, but it’s a possibility. And this is a very frightened country. For years, this has been probably the most frightened country in the world. It’s also the safest country in the world. It’s easy to terrify people.”
On the question of Iran, Chomsky indicated that for years the US and Israel have insisted that it’s the greatest threat to world peace, even though the US comes first in international Gallup polls. “Nobody else even close, far ahead of any other threat. Pakistan, second, much lower. Iran, hardly mentioned. Why is Iran regarded here as the greatest threat to world peace? The intelligence community provides regular assessments to Congress on the global strategic situation. It’s said for years that Iran has very low military spending, even by the standards of the region, much lower than Saudi Arabia, Israel, others. Its strategy is defensive. So, if they’re developing nuclear weapons, it would be as a deterrent. Why are the United States and Israel so concerned about a deterrent? Because they want to be free to use force.”
When asked for his thoughts “on Syria, Russia, the United States,” Chomsky said, “Syria is a horrible catastrophe. The Assad regime is a moral disgrace. They’re carrying out horrendous acts, the Russians with them.”
“Why the Russians with them?”
“Syria is their one ally in the region. Their one Mediterranean base is in Syria. But it’s kind of like the North Korean case. There have been possible opportunities to terminate the horrors. In 2012, there was an initiative from the Russians, which wasn’t pursued, so we don’t know how serious it was, but it was a proposal for a negotiated settlement, in which Assad would be phased out. The West – France, England, the United States refused to consider it, believing at the time that they could overthrow Assad. Could it have worked? You never know. But it could have been pursued. Meanwhile, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting jihadi groups, which aren’t all that different from ISIS. So you have a horror story on all sides. The Syrian people are being decimated.”
On Israel-Palestine, Chomsky said, “There’s a systematic Israeli program that’s been going on since 1967 to try to take over every part of the West Bank that’s of any value, except for areas of Palestinian population concentration, which can rot on the vine. In 1980, the US joined the world not only in calling the settlements illegal, but in demanding that they be dismantled.”
Amy Goodman: “Now you have David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, who raised money for the settlements. And Jared Kushner in charge of the policy.”
“Yeah, it’s been step by step. Reagan and Clinton weakened it. Obama and Trump let it stand. Meanwhile, the Kushner Foundation and this new ambassador are strong supporters of the Israeli ultra-right, way to the right of Netanyahu. The Beit El, the community they’re pouring their money into, is run by an Orthodox rabbi whose position is that the army should follow the rabbi’s orders. General discussions about this are extremely misleading. What’s said on all sides is that there are two options: either a two-state settlement, in accord with the long-standing international consensus, or else one state, which would be an apartheid state, in which Palestinians wouldn’t have rights, and you could have an anti-apartheid struggle, and Israel would face what’s called the demographic problem – too many non-Jews in a Jewish state. But there’s a third option, the one that’s actually being implemented: construction of a Greater Israel, which won’t have a demographic problem, because they’re excluding the areas of dense Palestinian population and removing Palestinians from the areas they expect to take over. The United States is providing diplomatic, economic and military support for this project, which will leave the Palestinians with essentially nothing while Greater Israel won’t have to face the dread demographic problem.”
On Latin America, Chomsky agreed that after a 10-year period of enormous social progress via socially minded governments, there have been steps backward in the last few years. The popular governments, with the exception of Ecuador, have been thrown out of office, and there’s a deepening crisis in Venezuela. “The left governments failed to use the opportunity available to them to try to create sustainable, viable economies. Almost every one – Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and others – relied on the rise in commodity prices, which is a temporary phenomenon. Commodity prices rose, mainly because of the growth of China, so there was a rise in the price of oil, of soy, and so forth. But these countries didn’t try to develop a sustainable economy with manufacturing, agriculture and so on during this period. Venezuela, for example, is potentially a rich agricultural country, but they didn’t develop it – they simply relied on oil. On top of that, there was just enormous corruption. It’s painful to see the Workers’ Party in Brazil, which did carry out significant measures, but just couldn’t keep their hands out of the till. They joined the corrupt elite, which is robbing all the time, and discredited themselves. I don’t think the game is over by any means. There were real successes achieved, and I think a lot of those will be sustained. But there’s a regression. In Venezuela, the corruption, the robbery and so on, has been extreme, especially since Chávez’s death.”
On the question of whether fascism could come – or has come – to America, Chomsky said that we could be “in real danger, if a charismatic figure appears who can mobilize fears, anger, racism, a sense of loss of the future that belongs to us. We’re lucky that there never has been an honest, charismatic figure. McCarthy was too much of a thug, Nixon was too crooked, and Trump, I think, is too much of a clown. So, we’ve been lucky. But we may not be lucky forever.”
Noam Chomsky’s latest book, Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, was just published.
In his 3-15 article “Disengage from the spectacle,” posted at http://www.postcarbon.org, Richard Heinberg describes the beginning of the Trump administration as “Empire’s End,” TV’s latest and biggest-ever 24/7 reality show, decades in the making, “with a budget in the trillions, a cast of billions, and a hero-villain more colorful and pathetic than Tony Soprano or Walter White.” He advises that “at least some of us are better off severely limiting our consumption of American national news right now. It’s not that events in Washington won’t affect us – they will. Rather, there are even more important things to attend to, over which we have far greater agency.
First Premise: We’re at the end of the period of general economic growth that characterized the post-WWII era. I’ve written extensively about this, and there’s no need to repeat myself at length here. Suffice it to say that we humans have harvested the world’s cheap and easy-to-exploit energy resources, and the energy that’s left won’t support the kind of consumer economy we’ve built much longer. In order to keep the party roaring, we’ve built up consumer and government debt levels to unsustainable extremes. We’ve also pumped hundreds of billions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and oceans, putting the entire biosphere at risk. Our current economic and political systems also require further, endless growth in order to avert collapse. Almost no one wants to discuss all of this, but everyone senses a change in the air: despite jiggered statistics, workers know their wages have stagnated or fallen in recent years, and members of the younger generation generally expect to earn less that their parents. This generates a persistent low-level sense of fear and dissatisfaction, guaranteeing the type of political shift we’re seeing.
Second Premise: The new U.S. regime is adopting an essentially fascist character. When empires decline, people often turn to leaders perceived as strong, who promise to return the nation to its former glory. In extreme instances, such leaders can be characterized as fascist, using the word in a generic sense to refer to authoritarian nationalism distinguished by one-party rule, the demonization of internal and external enemies (usually tinged with some form of racism or anti-Semitism), controls on press freedoms, and social conservatism. Once a nation turns decisively toward fascism, it rarely turns back, since fascist regimes ruthlessly destroy all opposition. It usually takes a foreign invasion or a complete economic-political-social collapse to reset a national government that’s gone fascist.
Those who get the second premise but miss the first tend to conclude that, at least until the new regime neutralizes significant opposition within the government, there are still things we can do to return life to ‘normal.’ But the end of growth ensures that, beyond a certain point, there will be no more ‘normal.’ We’re headed into new territory no matter what. Taking both premises into account, what are the likely outcomes?
It’s possible that the Trump administration will succeed in rooting out or suppressing opposition not just in Congress and the media, but also in executive-branch departments, including the CIA and FBI. In that case we may see at least a few years of authoritarian national governance punctuated by worsening financial and environmental crises against a backdrop of accelerating national decline. But thanks to Premise One, short-term success won’t lead to a stable regime over the long term. Eventually, no matter how vigorously it suppresses real or perceived enemies, the U.S. federal government will collapse as a result of war, economic crisis, or the simple ongoing erosion of biophysical support systems. At that point a possible trajectory for the nation would be to break apart into smaller geographically defined political entities.
The short-term success of the current regime isn’t assured anyway. It’s still possible that establishmentarian Democratic and Republican members of Congress, working with renegade CIA and FBI mid-level officials and mainstream media outlets, could mire the new leadership in a scandal too deep to survive. Or, if Republicans lose control of Congress in 2018, articles of impeachment could be brought against Trump. This wouldn’t guarantee a return to status quo politics in Washington though. Not only does Premise One guarantee that the old status quo is no longer tenable, but on its own terms the political system is now too broken and the nation too divided. In this scenario, pro-regime and anti-regime elites might continue to escalate their attacks on one another until the whole system crashes.
In either case, there’s no national team to root for capable of restoring the status quo ante Trump for long, if that’s even desirable. Under either scenario, competent local governance might provide significantly better living conditions than the national average, but the overall picture is pretty grim. A few years from now I expect that we’ll be in very different territory socially, politically, and economically. Nevertheless, what we do in the meantime could make a big positive difference to people and planet, both over the short term and also over the long term. Here are some specific things you can do:
Disengage from the spectacle. Learn what you need to know in order to assess immediate threats and general trends, but otherwise avoid spending long periods of time ingesting online, print, radio, or televised media. It’s bad for your mental health and takes time away from other items on this list. If you haven’t already done so, make a personal and family resilience plan in case of a temporary breakdown in the basic functions of government (everyone should do this anyway in view of our vulnerability to earthquakes or weather disasters). Are you growing any of your own food? Do you have other practical skills? Do you have stored food and water? Do you have cash set aside? Work to build community resilience as well. If and when national governance breaks down, your local community’s degree of social and biophysical resilience will make all the difference for you and your family. Biophysical resilience relates to local food, water, and energy systems. A socially resilient community is one in which people are talking to and looking out for one another, and institutions for resolving disputes are trusted. Identify organizations that are building both kinds of resilience in your community and engage with them. These could be churches; government and non-profit organizations; food, energy, and health co-ops; neighborhood safety groups; local investment clubs; or Transition groups. Get involved with existing organizations or start new ones. It takes time, but friends like these are more important than money in the bank, especially in times of social and political upheaval. Direct some of your resilience-building efforts toward long-term and nature-centered concerns. – also work that proceeds best in the company of others. Take time as well for the conservation of culture – arts and skills that are their own reward. Connecting with others in your community by enjoying or playing music together, singing, dancing, or making visual art deepens relationships and gives life more dimension and meaning. Participating in protests could enable you to get to know other members of your community or further fragment your community if it’s deeply divided politically. At certain moments in history it’s necessary to take a stand one way or the other on a particular issue, and in the days ahead some issue may require you to plant your flag. This historical moment is also one in which many real heroes and heroines engage in ways that aren’t scripted by any of the elites.”
In an earlier essay, “Traditionalism” through the Lens of Cultural Ecology,” published 2-27 (also on postcarbon.org), Heinberg discusses the political philosophies now vying against each other in Washington. “The common terms liberalism and conservatism have lost their usefulness in navigating these political waters,” he says. Traditionalism is a more useful term, representing “the recent rightward ideological surge in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, but it remains widely unfamiliar and poorly defined. In this essay, I’ll explore the significance of traditionalism using a conceptual tool I call cultural ecology: an inquiry into the ways society shapes itself in response to geography, energy resources, and other environmental factors. My understanding of cultural ecology is derived from the work of anthropologist Marvin Harris, who investigated how societies were transformed by their shifts from hunting-and-gathering to farming, and how they adapted themselves to various geographies (geographer Jared Diamond also made important contributions along these lines).
In the last couple of centuries, a shift as profound as the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago occurred as societies came to base their economies on the use of fossil fuels. Now, as the fossil fuel era starts to wane, wrenching changes in the social, intellectual, political, and religious foundations of modern society should be anticipated. Fossil-fueled society came to full flower during the 20th century. With unprecedented amounts of energy available, economies grew rapidly, and the expectation of further and unending growth became a core feature of economic and political theory, along with the notion that unending progress was also to be expected in social, scientific, and political realms. Capitalism – the private ownership of what Marx called the ‘means of production,’ along with mechanisms for constant reinvestment in the expansion of those means – was never so much a coherent ideology as a set of cobbled-together agreements and institutions. Since capitalism’s tendency (as Marx observed) was to produce ever greater economic inequality along with worsening boom-bust cycles, efforts were made to restrain those tendencies through redistributive taxation and social programs, along with financial, labor, and environmental regulations (which were seen by many as signs of social and political progress). Immigration and globalization served to reduce labor costs, but were also regarded as evidence of progress toward a more egalitarian, multicultural ideal. The acceptance and resettlement of refugees from political strife or natural disasters represented a national expression of humanitarianism. This was the milieu within which liberal and conservative political discourse took place; that discourse questioned relative degrees of power and benefit enjoyed by social groups (e.g., workers versus managers versus owners of capital) but seldom challenged the shared allegiance to growth. Within a growing economy, there was always more for (nearly) everyone, even though some were able to obtain a much higher percentage of the increasing overall wealth.
The fossil fuel era is now failing. Even without climate change, oil, coal, and natural gas are finite resources extracted using the low-hanging fruit principle. While large amounts of these resources remain, each further increment extracted offers declining energy returns on the energy invested in production, an instance of the law of diminishing returns. The situation with respect to oil is approaching crisis: while production rates are high, costs to producers are soaring, and the higher prices needed to cover those costs can’t be sustained because they tend to frustrate economic growth and kill demand for motor fuel. The petroleum industry is between a proverbial rock and hard place, with debt increasing and profit evaporating. Alternative energy sources will need to be introduced at eight to ten times the current rate of solar and wind build-out to avert a climate or a depletion crisis. In any case, it’s highly doubtful that renewable or nuclear energy could support the consumer economy we’ve come to rely on. Since energy is the basis for all economic activity (a fact mainstream economists have been slow to grasp), the end of the fossil fuel era effectively means the end of growth.
Just as a growing economy encouraged the development of the ideological and social constructs of the 20th century, a stagnating or contracting economy is likely to favor a different and uglier politics whose main themes are: longing (and promises) for the return of a lost condition of abundance, blaming social or political groups for the current situation, and calling for the exclusion of others deemed to be competing with ‘us’ for increasingly scarce resources. This could be a description of what would, in ordinary political discourse, be termed far-right nationalist populism.
Insight into ideological Trumpism can be gleaned from the beliefs of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. According to the website Politico, his favored readings ‘tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. They tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone.’ One of Bannon’s influences is said to be blogger Curtis Yarvin, a leader of a movement called Dark Enlightenment that rejects egalitarianism and multiculturalism along with the progressive view of world history. Dark Enlightenment supports strong, centralized political leadership, libertarian economics, and socially conservative views on gender roles, race relations, and immigration. Another Bannon favorite is Nassim Taleb, author of the 2014 book Antifragile, which proposes managing systems in a way that benefits from random events, errors, and volatility.
The term traditionalism crops up in the work of Italian philosopher Julius Evola (1898-1974). A recent New York Times article explored Bannon’s fascination with Evola, ‘a leading proponent of traditionalism, a worldview popular in far-right and alternative religious circles that believes progress and equality are poisonous illusions.’ Evola’s book Revolt Against the Modern World speculated that the near-universal myth of a lost Golden Age is actually a collective memory of a time when religious and temporal power were united, and society was ruled by spiritual warriors. He believed that the modern world represents a serious decline from that society.
In my first book, Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age (1989, revised edition 1995), I explained how the idea of a lost Golden Age has long been associated with various forms of millenarianism, the notion that the current world is degraded and approaching a cleansing crisis from which a revived paradisiacal condition will emerge. Millenarian movements (of which many variants of Christianity and Islam are clear examples) often spring up during times of secular decline or crisis, and typically take the form of a cult led by a charismatic visionary aiming to ‘make the world great again.’ Sometimes a benign character, the leader is more often malign — like Hitler. In my view, the myth of a Golden Age is a deep cultural memory of our shared origin in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, when we lived embedded in nature rather than separate from and dominating it.
To summarize, cultural ecology predicts that a historical moment of change such as ours would provide the ideal growth medium for social and religious movements that glorify a largely imagined past, anticipate a cathartic renewal (which they may seek to precipitate), and promise followers a privileged position in the coming order.
Some of the basic features of traditionalism are evident in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which went through an end-of-growth crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR. In a 2013 speech at the Valdai conference in Russia, Putin warned, ‘We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They’re denying moral principles and traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.’ In a 2014 speech at the Vatican, Steve Bannon called Putin a kleptocrat, but spoke approvingly of his philosophy: ‘We the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what Putin is talking about as far as traditionalism goes, particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.’ One of Putin’s influence is Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right Russian political philosopher and fan of Julius Evola. Dugin has asserted that, ‘Only after restoring the Greater Russia that is the Eurasian Union, can we become a credible global player.” He’s helped Putin forge alliances with nationalist movements in Europe, including Marine LePen’s National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Ataka Party in Bulgaria, and Hungary’s Jobbik Party. Putin’s friend Viktor Orbán, now prime minister of Hungary, has promised to turn his country into an ‘illiberal democracy’ modeled on Russia. He is virulently anti-Muslim, seeing Islam as a ‘rulebook for another world.’
Traditionalism demands an enemy, and the fear and loathing of Islam is a key feature of far-right populism in both Europe and the U.S. Here’s Steve Bannon on the dangers of what he calls ‘jihadist Islamic fascism’: ‘I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis. There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.’ The expectation of an ultimate cathartic clash between a traditionalist Christian West and jihadist Islam is of course shared by radical Islamist movements such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which themselves represent brands of millenarianism. (The description of the relationship between Islam and the West as a “clash of civilizations” appeared first in a 1957 speech at Johns Hopkins University by British orientalist Bernard Lewis, and Harvard professor Samuel Huntington popularized the idea.)
Societies in decline or crisis don’t always elevate far-right leaders and social movements. The medieval Joachimites and Brethren of the Free Spirit (whose followers endured plagues and wrenching poverty), and the 17th century Ranters in Britain (where small farmers were losing their land to the wealthy) promoted a radically egalitarian vision of human relations. Much more recently, a period of economic contraction and crisis in the United States produced one of the country’s most left-leaning presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, it could be argued that Barack Obama was an FDR-like figure tasked to address the global financial crisis of 2008, but that his too-tepid response (or the fact that the crisis was too deeply-rooted to yield fully to Keynesian formulae) then opened the way for far-right Trumpism.
Traditionalism therefore characterizes only one phase of the cultural and political aftermath to the end of growth. While for the foreseeable future (and in certain nations or regions) circumstances may favor strong leaders who demonize racial or religious groups and promise a restoration of forsaken values, their regimes may disappear as quickly as they arrived on the scene. Polities may fragment, with formerly united regions choosing to follow separate paths. Currently, large swathes of America (accounting for over half its total population) are proving highly resistant to the Trumpist mental virus, and much the same could be said with regard to Europe.
A far-left millenarian movement could also arise, a form of militant egalitarianism like Bolshevism or Mao’s Red Brigades that could potentially prove as dangerous as any other brand of extreme millenarianism. But our future options need not be limited to competing brands of millenarianism. Individuals and communities can focus on practical efforts to bring the greatest good to the most people (and other species) over the longest time by rethinking and redesigning production and consumption patterns in anticipation of the failure of existing consumerist institutions. The word ‘good’ in the previous sentence is of course open to definition and redefinition, but even a meager understanding of ecology and psychology would suggest that it should point to values like diversity (permitting the flourishing of many kinds of species and cultures), happiness, health, autonomy, and sustainability.” Heinberg then gives the same recommendations as in his 3-15 post. He concludes: “Millenarianism is a collective psychological expression of stress and powerlessness. The antidote is to act. In a time of division, unite. In a time of demonization, reach out.” He then recommends a new Post Carbon Institute online course called ‘Think Resilience: Preparing Communities for the Rest of the 21st Century,'” available at education.resilience.org.
Climate change induced drought is sweeping across Africa, resulting in starvation and disease in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen. 20 million lives are at stake, and UN officials are billions of dollars short of being able to respond. The needed food and water are there, even within the affected countries, but people who have lost their crops and cattle are too poor to buy them, and/or unable to get to where they are because of distance and armed conflict. Yemen is being bombed and blockaded by the US-supported Saudis, determined to force regime change. In northeastern Nigeria, thousands of displaced people lacking clean water to drink and wash with are dying from preventable diseases as the battle grinds on between Islamist militants and the Nigerian military. In South Sudan, both rebel forces and government soldiers are intentionally blocking emergency food and hijacking food trucks, aid officials say. In Somalia, the Shabab militant Islamist group has banned Western aid agencies.
When rivers and other relatively clean water sources start drying up, as they are now in Somalia, people start to get sick from the slimy or cloudy water they’re forced to drink. They flee their villages, hoping to get help in the towns. Camps form, but they don’t have enough water either, and it’s hard to find a latrine or enough water for people to wash their hands. Shockingly fast, they become disease factories.
Water, of course, is less negotiable than food. A human being can survive weeks with nothing to eat. Five days without water leads to death.
Different helping strategies are being emphasized this time. One is simply giving out cash. United Nations agencies and private aid groups in Somalia are scaling up efforts to dole out money through a new electronic card system and by mobile phone. This allows poor people to get a monthly allowance and shop for food and water. It helps the local economy (importing food doesn’t), and people get help fast. The developed countries responsible for climate change owe this help to people who have done little or nothing to contribute to what’s killing them. And many more Africans may soon need it. Sweltering days and poor rains so far this year have also left Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania parched and on the edge of major food crises.
From a New York Times article, “Drought and War Heighten Threat of Not Just One Famine, but Four” by Jeffrey Gettleman (3-27-17).
Many of us are struggling daily with anxiety and questions about “what to do now.” Here are some (abridged) ideas from Rob Hopkins, Transition Towns leader, who wrote recently on post carbon.org:
“It’s an oddly Western notion that compassion and anger are incompatible polarities. Consider the ‘wrathful deities’ central to Tibetan Buddhism – wild, horrific visions who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish evil. They often carry ritual implements which symbolize wisdom and compassion. On its own, anger is a volatile, unskillful energy. Combined with compassion and wisdom, however, it can be a clear and powerful force. I see it in the work of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, facing militarization and brutality with resolution, strength and compassion. Wrathful compassion is a powerful tool, and we need it now more than ever before.”
Hopkins also recommends that we “dream big and unleash imagination – beautifully and with humor, care, kindness, and compassion…Before and after President Trump, we fetch wood and carry water – build resilient communities, model new futures, create new enterprises, support each other, and build connections. We speak truth to power in calling out the absurdity of economic growth and increasing emissions on a finite and ailing planet. We reimagine and rebuild local economies, weave imagination and playfulness through all that we do, and work to meet our communities’ needs rather than those of big business. We resist racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. We invest differently, tell new stories, and celebrate together.”
This is a long post, but I think worth reading in order to understand the outcome of the recent election and what faces us during the upcoming administration. It’s my edited and shortened version of an article in the November 21st issue of The New Yorker magazine entitled, “Aftermath: Sixteen Writers on Trump’s America.” Apologies to the writers, but I think their thoughts are important, and unshortened it’s too long to wade through..
In “A Democratic Opposition,” political analyst George Packer looks back at the way our democracy successfully dealt with Watergate’s revelation of “the potential of the modern presidency for abuse of power on a vast scale” by impeaching Nixon. None of the institutions that mobilized to deal with this challenge, Packer says, “could have functioned without the vitalizing power of public opinion. Within months of reëlecting Nixon by the largest margin in history, Americans gathered around the consensus that their president was a crook who had to go…
President Donald Trump should be given every chance to break his campaign promise to govern as an autocrat. But, until now, no one has ever won the office by pledging to ignore the rule of law and jail his opponent. Trump has the temperament of a leader who doesn’t distinguish between his private desires and demons and the public interest. If he’s true to his word, he’ll ignore the Constitution by imposing a religious test on immigrants and citizens alike. He’ll go after his critics in the press, with or without the benefit of libel law. He’ll force those below him in the chain of command to violate the code of military justice by torturing terrorist suspects and killing their next of kin. He’ll turn federal prosecutors, agents, even judges if he can, into personal tools of grievance and revenge.
All the pieces are in place for the abuse of power, and it could happen quickly. There will be precious few checks on President Trump. His party, unlike Nixon’s, will control the legislative as well as the executive branch, along with two-thirds of governorships and statehouses. Trump’s advisers are already vowing to go after the federal employees’ union, and breaking it would give the president sweeping power to bend the bureaucracy to his will and whim. The Supreme Court will soon have a conservative majority. Although some federal courts will block flagrant violations of constitutional rights, Congress could try to impeach the most independent-minded judges, and Trump could replace them with loyalists.
But, beyond these partisan advantages, something deeper is working in Trump’s favor, something that he shrewdly read and exploited during the campaign. The democratic institutions that held Nixon to account have lost their strength since the 1970s – eroded from within by poor leaders and loss of nerve, undermined from without by popular distrust. Bipartisan congressional action on behalf of the public good now sounds as quaint as antenna TV. The press is reviled, financially desperate, and undergoing a crisis of faith about the efficacy of gathering facts. And public opinion? We’re so divided, it no longer exists.
Among the institutions in decline are the political parties. This, too, was both intuited and accelerated by Trump. In succession, he crushed two party establishments and ended two dynasties. The Democratic Party claims half the country, but it’s hollowed out at the core. During Barack Obama’s presidency the Party lost both houses of Congress, fourteen governorships, and thirty state legislatures. Except for Obama, the Party’s leaders are all past the official retirement age. More than Republicans, Democrats tend to turn out only when they’re inspired. The Party has allowed personality and demography to take the place of political organizing.
The immediate obstacle in Trump’s way will be New York’s Charles Schumer and his minority caucus of 48 senators. During Obama’s presidency, Republican senators exploited ancient rules in order to put up massive resistance. Filibusters and holds became routine ways of taking budgets hostage and blocking appointments. Democratic senators can slow, though not stop, pieces of the Republican agenda if they find the nerve to behave like their nihilistic opponents, further damaging the institution for short-term gain. It would be ugly, but the alternative seems like a sucker’s game.
In the long run, the Democratic Party faces two choices. It can continue to collapse until it’s transformed into something new, like the 19th-century Whigs, forerunners of the Republican Party. Or it can rebuild itself from the ground up. Not every four years but continuously; not with celebrity endorsements but on school boards and town councils; not by creating more virtual echo chambers but by learning again how to talk and listen to other Americans, especially those who elected Trump because they felt ignored and left behind. President Trump is almost certain to betray them. The country will need an opposition capable of pointing that out.”
In “Health of the Nation,” Atul Gawande, medical doctor and author, addresses “the mismatch between the new administration’s proffered solutions and our aspirations,” using health care as an example. “Eliminating Obamacare isn’t going to stop the unnerving rise in families’ health-care costs,” Gawande writes. “It’ll worsen it. There are only two ways to assure people that they can afford the care they need: a single-payer system or a heavily regulated private one, with the kind of mandates, exchanges, and subsidies that Obama signed into law. The governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, was elected last year on a promise to dismantle Obamacare, only to stall when he found out that doing so would harm many of those who elected him. Republicans have talked of creating high-risk insurance pools and loosening state regulations, but neither tactic would do much to help the people who’ve been left out. If the G.O.P. sticks to its “repeal and replace” pledge, it will probably end Obama’s exchanges and subsidies, and embrace large Medicaid grants to the states, laying the groundwork, ironically, for single-payer government coverage.
It’s through the smaller-scale institutions of our daily lives that we can most effectively check the consequences of poor choices by our leaders. The test is whether the gap between what we preach and what we practice shrinks or expands for the nation as a whole. Our job will be to hold those in power to account for that result, including the future of the left out and the left behind. Decency, reason, and compassion require no less.”
In “Bryant Park: A Memoir,” British author Hilary Mantel describes her experience of the election. “The day before Election Day, the weather in New York was more like May than November,” she begins. It was a great afternoon to be an alien, ticket in your pocket, checked in already at J.F.K., leaving the country before it could elect Donald Trump.
During his campaign, Trump threatened unspecified punishments for women who tried to abort a child. We watched him, in the second debate, prowling behind his opponent, back and forth with lowered head, belligerent and looming, while she moved inside her space, tightly smiling, trying to be reasonable and impervious. It was an indecent mimicry of what’s happened at some point to almost every woman. She becomes aware of something brutal hovering on the periphery of her vision, and wonders what she should do. I willed Mrs. Clinton to turn and give a name to what was happening: to raise an arm like a goddess, point to the place her rival came from, and send him back there, into his own space, like a whimpering dog…
Campaigners talk about ‘a woman’s right to choose,’ as if it compares with picking a sweet from a box, but it’s not that sort of choice. The ‘choice’ is often made for us via miscarriage or some other problem. But, whatever happens, it happens in a private space. Let the woman choose, to the extent that the choice is hers. The state shouldn’t stalk her. The priest should seal his lips…
As the polls were closing, I was somewhere over the Atlantic. As we flew into the light, a flight attendant came with coffee and shocking news. ‘They don’t think,’ she said, ‘that Hillary can catch him now.’ I took off my watch to adjust it, unsure how many centuries to set it back. What would Donald Trump offer now? Salem witch trials? Public hangings? The young woman who’d prepared us for the news was gathering the nighttime blankets. Crinkling her brow, she said, “What I don’t comprehend is, who voted for him?”
No one we know – that’s the trouble. For decades, the nice and the good have been talking to each other, ignoring what stews beneath: envy, anger, lust. On both sides of the ocean, the bien-pensants put their fingers in their ears and smiled and bowed at one another, like nodding dogs or painted puppets. They thought we were all rational sophisticates who could defer gratification. They thought they had a majority, and screened out the roaring from the cages outside their gates. In this election as in any other, no candidate was shining white; politics isn’t a pursuit for angels. Yet it doesn’t seem much to ask – a world where a woman can live without jumping at shadows, without the crawling apprehension of something nasty constellating over her shoulder. Mr. Trump has promised a world where white men and rich men run the world their way, greed fueled by undaunted ignorance. He must make good on his promises, for his supporters will soon be hungry…I wanted to see a woman lead the great nation, so my own spine could be straighter this blustery sunny morning. I fear the ship of state is sinking, and we are thrashing in saltwater, snared in our own ropes and nets. Someone must strike out for the surface and clear air. It’s possible to cut free from some entanglements, some error and painful beginnings, whether you’re a soul or a whole nation.
In “Four-Cornered Flyover,” Peter Hessler, an author from southwestern Colorado, writes about how the views of people he knows, particularly women, have changed over time. He says “there’s something static about” demographic voting categories that’s not reflected in reality, especially this year. “For an unstable electorate, Trump was the perfect candidate, because he was also a moving target. It was possible for supporters to fixate on any specific message or characteristic while ignoring everything else. At rallies, when people chanted, ‘Build a wall!’ and ‘Lock her up!,’ these statements impressed me as real, tangible courses of action, endorsed by a faceless mob. But when I spoke with individual supporters the dynamic changed: the person had a face, and the proposed action seemed vague and symbolic. ‘I think that was a metaphor,’ a woman friend said, when I asked about the border wall. ‘It’s a metaphor for immigration laws being enforced,’ another woman added. Trump’s descriptions and treatment of women didn’t seem to bother them – in their eyes, it was a show of strength to ignore the candidate’s crudeness and transgressions. They thought only the weak would react with outrage.”
Hessler says it’s “hard to imagine a president entering office with less accountability. For supporters, this was central to his appeal – he owed nothing to the establishment. But he also owes nothing to the people who voted for him. Supporters cherry-picked specific statements or qualities that appealed to them, but didn’t attempt an assessment of the whole, because, given Trump’s lack of discipline, this was impossible.”
The black woman novelist Toni Morrison sees the results of the election as a reflection of whites’ concern about their continued domination politically and socially. In “Mourning for Whiteness,” she points out that immigrants to the US have always known “that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate to their whiteness. Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force, the definition of ‘Americanness.’
Under slavery, the necessity for color ranking was obvious, but in America today, post-civil-rights legislation, white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. There are ‘people of color’ everywhere, threatening to erase the long-understood definition of America.” This is why some whites are “abandoning their sense of human dignity and risking the appearance of cowardice, slaughtering churchgoers inviting them to pray and shooting black children in the street. To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs. Only the frightened would do that. Right? These sacrifices, made by supposedly tough white men, prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost [or threatened] status.
The comfort of being ‘naturally better than,’ of not having to struggle or demand civil treatment, is hard to give up. The confidence that you will not be watched in a department store, that you are the preferred customer in high-end restaurants – these social inflections, belonging to whiteness, are greedily relished. So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. On Election Day, how eagerly many white voters, however poorly or well educated, embraced the shame and fear sown by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.”
In “The Dark-Money Cabinet,” journalist Jane Mayer points out that Trump is doing the opposite of draining the Washington corruption swamp. “During the presidential primaries,” she says, “Donald Trump mocked his Republican rivals as ‘puppets’ for flocking to a secretive fund-raising session sponsored by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire co-owners of the energy conglomerate Koch Industries. Affronted, the Koch brothers, whose political spending has made their name a shorthand for special-interest clout, withheld their financial support from Trump. But on election night David Koch was reportedly among the revelers at Trump’s victory party in a Hilton Hotel in New York.
Likewise, many of Trump’s transition-team members are the corporate insiders he vowed to disempower. Marc Short, who until recently ran Freedom Partners, the Kochs’ political-donors group, is a senior adviser. The influence of the Kochs and their allies is particularly clear in the areas of energy and the environment, and the few remarks Trump made on these issues during the campaign reflected the fondest hopes of the oil, gas, and coal producers. He vowed to withdraw from the international climate treaty negotiated last year in Paris, remove regulations that curb carbon emissions, legalize oil drilling and mining on federal lands and in seas, approve the Keystone XL pipeline, and weaken the Environmental Protection Agency.
Michael Catanzaro, a partner at the lobbying firm CGCN Group, is the head of Trump’s energy transition team, and has been mentioned as a possible energy czar. Among his clients are Koch Industries and Devon Energy Corporation, a gas-and-oil company that’s made a fortune from vertical drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Another widely discussed candidate is Harold Hamm, the billionaire founder of the shale-oil company Continental Resources and major contributor to the Kochs’ fund-raising network, who’s ‘done all he can to subvert existing rules and regulations,’ according to Wenona Hauter, of Food and Water Watch.
Myron Ebell, an outspoken climate-change skeptic, heads Trump’s transition team for the E.P.A. Ebell runs the energy-and-environmental program at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an anti-regulatory Washington think tank that hides its sources of financial support but has been funded by fossil-fuel companies, including Exxon-Mobil and Koch Industries. Etc.
Questions to Trump’s transition team about its conflict-of-interest rules have gone unanswered, as have questions to the lobbyists and industry heads involved. All of this runs counter to a set of anti-lobbyist proposals that Trump released in October, to be enacted in his first hundred days. It called for a five-year ban on White House and congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave public office, and a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying for a foreign government.
In “On Saying No,” New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos says law professor Eric Posner told him “that, with both houses of Congress in Republican control, the greatest obstacle to the president’s use of power will be not the separation of powers but, more likely, the isolated actions of individuals in government positions. They won’t actually do what the president tells them to do, they’ll drag their feet, or they’ll leak to the press to try to embarrass him. Posner admitted that such actions are pretty unusual though, because they risk job loss or even going to jail if they leak confidential information.”
Sharing some thoughts about the Supreme Court in “The Highest Court,” lawyer and author Jeffrey Toobin writes that it “every major political issue of the day eventually winds up in the Justices’ courtroom, and they either embrace or resist what’s happening in the rest of the world. But resistance from the Justices never lasts long. The truism that the Supreme Court follows the election returns is true.
For the past eight years, a majority of the Justices have upheld the work of the Obama administration, most notably in two cases that posed existential threats to the Affordable Care Act. In other cases, the Court has rebuked the president. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Court rejected the administration’s view that the A.C.A. required closely held corporations to subsidize forms of birth control that the owners opposed on religious grounds. Overall, the Court has reflected the fierce partisan divisions in the country. Conservatives won many cases (striking down campaign-finance regulations and gutting the core of the Voting Rights Act), while liberals won others (expanding gay rights and reaffirming abortion rights).
Trump will have a Supreme Court vacancy to fill as soon as he takes the oath of office, thanks to the Republican-controlled Senate’s blocking of Obama’s nominee after the death of Antonin Scalia. Most of the possible nominees on Trump’s list are Republican appointees to the federal courts of appeal or state supreme courts, all strongly conservative in outlook. We can thus look forward to a conservative majority of five Justices, with Anthony Kennedy occasionally and John Roberts rarely voting with the liberals. Democrats have never mounted a successful filibuster against a Republican Supreme Court nominee, and McConnell would probably abolish the practice if they even tried. So Trump will have his Justice in short order.
When the new Court begins confronting the Trump agenda, two issues are likely to stand out: immigration and recent state-level Republican efforts at voter suppression. Photo-identification requirements and limitations on early voting and absentee voting, for example, may have limited Democratic turnout in such battleground states as Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina. Some lower federal courts, especially those with judges appointed by President Obama, have been interpreting what’s left of the Voting Rights Act as justification for curtailing these practices. A conservative majority on the Court would likely give the states a free hand, allowing them to enact even greater restrictions.
The Court’s senior liberals, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, are 83 and 78, and Kennedy is 80, and the chances for dramatic change on such issues as abortion rights and affirmative action hinge on their continued service.”
In “Donald Trump, Poet,” poet, essayist, and memoirist Mary Karr admits “at the risk of sounding like a total candy-ass,” that she’s developed “P.T.S.D. from the venom of this election. When I confessed to my shrink a month ago that I was sleeping less and checking news outlets compulsively, like a rat pushing a bar down for a pellet, she said, ‘So are 100% of my patients. So am I. Those of us who experienced trauma as children, often at the hands of bullies, have felt old wounds open up hearing Trump’s fierce idiom of threat and vengeance. For him, it’s not enough to ban abortion; women who have abortions should be punished. Similarly, it’s not enough to defeat Hillary Clinton; we have to hate, jail, possibly even kill her.
This violent poetry has been gathering force on our airwaves for decades. Then, there’s the ubiquitous browbeating by social media. It was only a matter of time before a hair-triggered guy took this vernacular to the national political stage. Nasty talk didn’t start with Trump, but until recently it’s been the province of people we all viewed as idiots – schoolyard mobs, drunks in bars, guys hollering out of moving cars.
Now, as a presidential candidate mocks a disabled man or a Muslim family that’s sacrificed a son for our country, the behavior is stamped with a big “O.K.” Some Trump supporters felt O.K. shoving and hitting protesters. At a Wisconsin football game, a fan wore an Obama mask and a noose. The vicious language of this election has infected us with enough anxiety and vitriol to launch a war. Still, I believe the hardest thing about democracy is the boring and irritating process of listening to people we don’t agree with, which is tolerable only when each side strives not to hurt the other’s feelings.
Historian Jill Lepore talks about significant beginnings and endings in “Wars Within,” admitting that it can be hard to see “the moment when a marriage started to fall apart; the hour when the first symptoms of a fatal illness set in; the season when a species of sparrow, trying to fly north, falls, weakened by the heat; and the day when the people of a nation began to lose faith in their form of government. The election of Donald Trump, like all elections, is an ending, the ending of one presidency and the beginning of another. But, unlike most elections, Trump’s is something different: it ends an era of American idealism, a high-mindedness of rhetoric, if not always of action, which has characterized most 20th– and 21st-century American presidencies.”
Lepore says we have to hark back to the Civil War for a rupture as big as this. Noting that the division of the nation then was over slavery and quoting Frederick Douglass (“We have sought to bind the chains of slavery on the limbs of the black man, without thinking that at last we should find the other end of that hateful chain about our own necks”), she says the problem now “is inequality: the forms of political, cultural, and economic polarization that have been widening, not narrowing, for decades. Inequality, like slavery, is a chain that binds at both ends.
The nation is at war with itself and with its ideals. Many Americans, having lost faith in a government that’s failed to address widening inequality, and in the policymakers and academics and journalists who have barely noticed it, see Trump as their deliverer…
Douglass saw that the end of a republic begins on the day when the heroism of the struggle for equality yields to the cowardice of resentment. Has that day come? It’s thought by many, lately, that the republic has seen its best days, and that it remains for the historian to chronicle the history of its decline and fall. I disagree. Sparrows may yet cross the sky.
Gary Shteyngart, an American writer born in Leningrad, writes about seeing the kind of prejudice he experienced as a Jew in the Soviet Union now in the US. He says that on Twitter nowadays “it’s impossible to know if the person pointing out your ethnicity and telling you to jump in an oven is an amateur troll in St. Petersburg, Florida, or a professional troll in St. Petersburg, Russia. What this election has proved is just how intertwined those two trolls may be.
‘Russia will rise from her knees!’ were the lyrics I heard outside a suburban train station in St. Petersburg half a decade ago. The song was coming out of an ancient tape player next to a bedraggled old woman selling sunflower seeds from a cup, who examined my physiognomy with a sneer. At the time, this seemed like just a typical Russian scene, the nation’s poorest citizens bristling at their humiliation after losing the Cold War, their ire concentrated on a familiar target, the country’s dwindling population of Jews. The surprise of 2016 – post-Brexit, post-Trump – is just how ably the Russians tweak those lyrics to ‘Whites will rise from their knees!’ and megaphone them into ready ears in eastern and western Europe and, eventually, here in the US. The graffito ‘Russia is for the Russians,’ scribbled next to a synagogue, and the words ‘Vote Trump,’ written on a torched black church in Mississippi, are separated by the cold waters of the Atlantic but united by an imaginary grievance – a vigil for better times that may never have existed.
I can understand these people. Growing up in 1980s Queens, my friends and I, as young Russian immigrants, unfamiliar with the language, our parents working menial jobs, looked down on blacks and Latinos, who were portrayed as threats by the Reagan administration. The first politicized term I learned in America was ‘welfare queen,’ even as my own grandmother collected food stamps and ate government cheese. We hated minorities, even though the neighborhoods many of us lived in were devoid of them.
If Ronald Reagan was the distant protector of us endangered white kids, Donald Trump was a local pasha. My buddies and I walked past his family’s becolumned mansion in Jamaica Estates with a sense of awe. Donald was a straight shooter, a magnate, a playboy, a marrier of eastern European blondes, a conqueror of distant Manhattan. He was everything a teenager in Queens could dream of being. If we were ever blessed to meet him, we knew he would understand the racism in our hearts, and we his. Successful people like him made us secure in our sense of whiteness.
Thirty years later, every Jew on Twitter who’s received a Photoshopped version of herself or himself in a concentration-camp outfit followed by ‘#MAGA’ knows how fleeting that sense of security can be. The idea that Jews should move to their ‘own’ country, Israel, brings together racial purists from Nashville to Novosibirsk. The jump from Twitter racism to a black church set aflame on a warm Southern night is steady and predictable. Putin’s team has discovered that racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism bind people closer than any other experiences. These carefully calibrated messages travel from Cyrillic and English keyboards to Breitbart ears and Trump’s mouth, sometimes in the space of hours. The message is clear. People want to rise from their knees. Even those who weren’t kneeling in the first place.
My parents and grandparents never fully recovered from the strains of having lived in an authoritarian society. Daily compromise ground them down, even after they came to America. They left Russia, but Russia never left them. How do you read through a newspaper composed solely of lies? How do you walk into a store while being Jewish? How do you tell the truth to your children? How do you even know what the truth is? A few days ago, I visited a local public school. On a second-grade civics bulletin board I saw written in large letters: ‘Citizens have rights – things that you deserve; responsibilities – things you’re expected to do; rules – things you have to follow.’ The message seemed to have come from a different era. What do those words have to do with America in 2016? I reflexively checked FiveThirtyEight on my phone. I thought, I grew up in a dystopia – will I have to die in one, too?”
Journalism professor Nicholas Lemann addresses economic issues in “Days of Rage.” Beginning with the crisis of 2008, he notes that the Republicans and Democrats cooperated in addressing it, which ended in “Congress authorizing the government to spend as much as $700 billion to stabilize the big banks. After Obama won the election, he made it clear that he’d continue with this approach. Altogether, these fiscal interventions,” which Lemann admits benefitted the rich far more than those who were really suffering, “were more aggressive than any ever taken by the federal government, surpassing even those taken by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his Hundred Days. Financial institutions got trillions of dollars’ worth of help to stay afloat, far more than the government spent on economic stimulus, unemployment benefits, or mortgage relief. The cities where finance is headquartered, especially New York and San Francisco, recovered quickly, while the suffering in great swaths of the rest of the country continued. Bankers got bonuses, the size and influence of the half-dozen or so largest financial institutions grew substantially, and not only was almost no one who led them was punished, they continued to reap unearned profits… By 2010, the Tea Party had become a national movement, and dozens of its adherents were elected to Congress. The left generated a protest movement, too, with Occupy Wall Street, which revolted against the mainstream of the Democratic Party and led to the emergence of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as major Party figures.
Astonishingly, the main political beneficiary of all this energy has been Donald Trump, a plutocrat with a long history of taking on too much debt, stiffing his business partners, and not paying taxes. While most of his primary opponents ran on familiar limited-government themes and Hillary Clinton dueled with Sanders, Trump figured out that a Republican could run against Wall Street. He also made unsubstantiated, sweeping, and brutally effective attacks on Clinton for having ‘done nothing’ for thirty years about the economic troubles of middle-class and poor Americans. Now he’s almost certain to enact policies that will exacerbate those difficulties. He’ll undo as much as he can of efforts like the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, which returned some regulation to the financial system. He’ll cut taxes in ways that will increase inequality, and restrict trade in ways that will decrease prosperity. He won’t reappoint Janet Yellen, the most unemployment-obsessed Federal Reserve chair in American history, after having subjected her to a barely veiled anti-Semitic attack, in a campaign ad that called her a tool of ‘global special interests.’ It’s yet another tragic consequence of the financial crisis that it’s brought to power the politician most likely to create the next one.”
Producer, actor, comedian, and writer Larry Wilmore addresses the new racism in “The Birther of a Nation,” saying that “for a long time, Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency seemed like a joke. How could this six-time-bankrupt billionaire-slash-reality-TV star expect to be taken seriously? His opening move – labeling Mexican immigrants rapists – immediately lost the left, and his demotion of John McCain, a former P.O.W., from hero to loser looked as if it would cost him the establishment right. After tussling with Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly at the first G.O.P. debate, and suggesting that she had blood coming out of her ‘wherever,’ he even lost Fox News. How did this mango Mussolini expect to win the White House? Who was left to vote for him? Apparently, half the country.
Shortly after that first debate, I joked in the writers’ room of my now defunct television program, ‘The Nightly Show,’ that Trump could win. I was immediately shouted down and told I was out of my mind. But I was half serious when I made that prediction: a part of me was deeply uneasy with the type of energy that surrounded the Trump insurgency. It was the same energy I’d felt around the ‘birther’ movement a few years earlier – a concerted attempt to delegitimize the first black president. In any case, my colleagues and I decided to title our coverage of the election ‘Blacklash 2016, the Unblackening.’
A little more than a hundred years ago, D. W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was screened at Woodrow Wilson’s White House. The film gave a distorted but sensational view of the Reconstruction South, where white heroes, in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, put uppity black villains back in their places. It was the Klan’s job to rescue white women from the black devils trying to rape them and create a mongrel race. The reality, of course, is that mixed-race Americans were [and are] largely the result of the cream being poured into the coffee, as it were, and not the other way around. But this lie – the myth of the black sexual predator – was powerful, both onscreen and off. It provoked a resurgence of the K.K.K., and led President Wilson [a Virginian] to praise Griffith’s film.
When Donald Trump expended so much effort not only criticizing President Obama but attempting to un-Americanize him, he was drawing a direct line from that horrible legacy to himself. When I heard chants of ‘Take our country back’ or ‘Make America great again,’ I wondered who trump supporters thought had stolen their country. Hint: the chief suspect lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I don’t mean to suggest that every person who voted for Trump is a racist. But there’s no denying that his message appealed to the lesser angels of the American psyche. Questioning Obama’s birthright, threatening to ban Muslims, painting entire immigrant groups as felons to be feared – these aren’t policy positions; they’re incendiary words and images meant to ignite a movement. My hope is that our country is more ready to come together than to be driven farther apart. But buckle up just in case.
As a 23-year-old woman of color, writer Jia Tolention says in “On the Streets” that she’s always thought of “pussy-grabbing as a pathetic, confusing cultural vestige that would would die out eventually, because women would be recognized as equals. Then nearly 50% of the American electorate voted Donald Trump into the Oval Office. We picked a president whose ex-wife once testified that he ripped out her hair and raped her, a man who’s been accused of sexual assault and misconduct by almost two dozen women, a man whose own words corroborate his accusers’ claims. In the ‘Access Hollywood’ videotape, Trump bragged about committing sexual assault – one of many hideous offenses he believed would make him appear powerful. For millions of Americans, it seems, he was right.
The night after the election, my girlfriends and I joined a protest that had been announced earlier that day on Facebook that brought thousands of people to Union Square in Manhattan. The crowd was young and colorful, restless and expectant. A gentle rain wilted signs that said ‘Not the End’ and ‘We Will Look Out for Each Other,’ and the men in front of me waved a rainbow banner and a blacked-out American flag. My girlfriends and I hugged each other, our eyes smeared and swollen. We hadn’t thought that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was specifically focused on women, but we experienced her loss as a woman-specific disaster.
The rain intensified as we marched from Union Square to Trump Tower. We high-fived cabdrivers and whooped at the office workers who opened their windows to cheer. ‘Our body, our choice! the women around us chanted, and men echoed, ‘Her body, her choice.’ A sign floated above the crowd: ‘Why Don’t Sexual Assault Victims Come Forward? Because Sometimes We Make Their Attackers the Leader of the Free World.’
I’m part of the generation that’s forced a mainstream reckoning with the misuse of other people’s bodies; we’re the victims of and the protestors against police brutality and sexual assault. During the Obama administration, in no small part because of the respect that the First Couple instilled for women and people of color, I had begun to feel, thrillingly, like a person. My freedom no longer seemed a miraculous historical accident; it was my birthright. Now I’m afraid that the empathy and respect that I’ve always had to display to survive as a woman of color will never be required from men or from whites. I also understand that I mistook a decrease in active interference for progress toward a world in which my personhood was seen as inextricable from everyone else’s.”
Journalist Mark Singer writes about Donald Trump as a “persona” in “In Character.” He says that “right after Trump met with Obama at the White House, he described the experience in language that, uncharacteristically, approached humility. It didn’t last. By dinnertime the same day, he was tweeting a familiar whine: ‘Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!’
After my first face-to-face encounter with Trump – twenty years ago, in his Trump Tower office, I told a colleague, ‘This guy’s a performance artist.’ To one degree or another, in our encounters with others we all inhabit a persona that masks our most intimate reflections, doubts, and feelings. Beyond Trump’s extraordinary talent as a salesman, however, his singular dubious achievement has been to remain fully in character at all times. He’s deliberately chosen to exist only as a persona, never as a person. No one’s ever figured out what truly goes on inside his head.
Among the grave uncertainties our country now faces, we can only wonder what becomes of ‘Donald Trump’ once President Trump takes the oath of office. I asked a number of highly regarded actors and acting teachers what to expect from a leader with such a thoroughly calculated persona.
Richard Feldman (Juilliard): ‘My hunch is that the persona is a complete creation, almost without volition. What makes Trump so powerful is that he believes his own story. My dismay is that millions of people don’t get that. No matter how deep their dissatisfactions, they were still willing to vote for someone who’s clearly a hollow person.’
Austin Pendleton (HB Studio): ‘With a really great actor, it always comes down to a feeling of spontaneity, that what they’re giving out is what’s happening to them in the moment. Trump has that – the freshness of a fine actor-artist. The reason his positions are all over the map is because he lives in the moment. That’s electric to some people, far more important than what he’s actually saying. Because if people were really paying attention to what he says he would never have been elected.’
In “Radical Hope,” Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz gives a friend, himself, and all of us dismayed at Trump’s election, a way forward. He admits to his friend, ‘Querida Q,’ that the first time they talked after Trump’s victory he didn’t really know what to say. “I thought about your e-mail all day and during my evening class. My students looked rocked. A few spoke about how frightened and betrayed they felt. Two of them wept. No easy task to take in the fact that half the voters – neighbors, friends, family – were willing to elect to the nation’s highest office a toxic misogynist, a racial demagogue who wants to make America great by destroying the civil-rights gains of the past fifty years. What now? you asked. And that was my students’ question, too. I answered them as poorly as I answered you. So I sit here now in the middle of the night, in an attempt to try again.
First and foremost, we need to feel. We need to connect courageously with the rejection, the fear, the vulnerability that Trump’s victory has inflicted on us, without turning away or numbing ourselves or lapsing into cynicism. We need to bear witness to what we’ve lost: our safety, our sense of belonging, our vision of our country. We need to mourn all these injuries fully, so that they don’t drag us into despair, so repair will be possible. And while we’re doing the hard, necessary work of mourning, we should avail ourselves of the old formations that have seen us through darkness. We organize. We form solidarities. And, yes: we fight. To be heard. To be safe. To be free.
For those of us who have been in the fight, the prospect of more fighting, after so cruel a setback, will seem impossible. At moments like these, it’s easy for even a matatana to feel that she can’t go on. [Matatana is a slang word in Spanish. Used by Dominicans, it means a female who’s the best at whatever she does. Such a guy would be a matatan.] But I believe that, once the shock settles, faith and energy will return. Because let’s be real: we always knew this shit wasn’t going to be easy. Colonial power, patriarchal power, capitalist power must always and everywhere be battled, because they never, ever quit. We have to keep fighting, because otherwise there will be no future – all will be consumed. Those of us whose ancestors were owned and bred like animals know that future all too well, because it’s our past. And we know that by fighting, against all odds, we who had nothing, not even our real names, transformed the universe. Our ancestors did this with very little, and we who have more must do the same. This is the joyous destiny of our people – to bury the arc of the moral universe so deep in justice that it will never be undone.
But all the fighting in the world won’t help us if we don’t also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it’s directed toward a future goodness that transcends our current ability to understand what it is.’ Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as ‘imaginative excellence.’ Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future. Time to face this hard new world, to return to the great shining work of our people. Darkness, after all, is breaking, a new day has come.