After a long exhale, a space for introspection, I'm back on this blog. If you noticed and wondered, then I'm sorry I've been away for so long. If not, you're probably in the majority. Thanks for all you've been doing since we last spoke.
It's been a hard year. I have a strong suspicion it's been a hard year for you. Whatever your political stripe, I imagine that as you look at the state of the world, it strikes you that we're putting ourselves in a pretty tight bind, a spiral that seems to point down.
I get several emails a day to sign petitions for liberal causes, from saving whales to protecting rainforests (still!) to sending strongly worded letters to dictators at home and abroad. Recently I've even been asked to "denounce" politicians for a particular action or lack of it, for a phrase they said or failed to say at a key time. Denounce? Really? It feels uncomfortably close to the Cultural Revolution or to the work of the Khmer Rouge. If only we can purge the resistance, then the revolution will be gloriously actualized...
I wrestle a lot with what is at the heart of our current conflicts. I hear a lot of focus on the President and a handful of nefarious senators. But is it really owing to our dubious leadership in all branches of government? Is everything just a wave of sunshine and roses and bulldog puppies waiting to cascade over the land if we could only get a few old white men out of the way? Or would replacing key leaders only lay bare a deeper level of dissonance and turmoil?
I wonder how much the untenability of our civilization is beginning to settle in, to shade more and more of how we see the world, even if just in our subconscious. We are so big, in America for sure but pretty much everywhere else in the world as well. 7.5 billion and counting, we are bursting at the seams and in need of food, water, and security. We're drilling deeper, decapitating more mountains, and engineering new ways to extract fossil fuels wherever they may lie in trace amounts. We're connected more and more in a global web of interdependence, that reaches into all elements of the biosphere and may soon reach into space (God help us).
And at the same time that we're binding ourselves together, it seems that we have revealed how much we're not on the same page about democracy, civil society, individual liberties, and the right of minorities to live in peace. In particular, I'm saddened by the more bald-faced attempts to curb democratic participation - voting - in various states in the U.S., and by the blind eyes of those who benefit from purging voter rolls, gerrymandering skewed districts, or launching red herring campaigns to distract from real interference in elections.
I'll make a generous description and say that America has a history of flawed but heart-felt efforts at making democracy work. We kicked and screamed, but eventually got to places where the significant majority of people were able to participate in the government viz-a-viz voting and holding positions of power. We seemed to be on an unending, albeit slow, path to dismantling any institutional blocks that keep people from exercising their power as citizens.
In the past two years, however, I've been deeply troubled by the shameless attempts of political oligarchs (mainly Republicans, though I don't doubt that Democrats might have reached the same place themselves under different circumstances) to arrest and impede democracy itself in order to maintain their own power in perpetuity. A fundamental question arises for me: what do you do when you are trapped in a country with others who don't value democracy, or points of view different from their own, and are willing to bypass and dismantle the democracy itself to keep their power? We see it happen in the developing world all the time. We call them dictatorships, juntas, or oligarchies. Do we think it can't happen here?
We seem very interested in having an uninterrupted stream of products delivered to our doorsteps at low prices. We are anxious to get the whole planet equipped with wi-fi. We love seeing how many games Google's latest AI can master in a short period of time. But how do we learn to love a functional society so much that we put energy into stewarding it? Where do we begin?
I'm not sure that a democracy as large as ours is even tenable anymore. Just take my home state of Pennsylvania. How much do white farmers in the middle of the state feel they have in common with black residents of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? How big is too big of an area to group everyone together in one electoral base? What do we do if we're trapped in a political unit like a city or state with folks who just don't value the same things we do (freedom of gender expression, views on abortion rights, letting non-white people vote)? Where is the overlap on the venn diagram sufficient to let us begin to cooperate again? What do we do when someone who is tribal, ethnocentric, and chauvinist can get into a high office?
These are vital questions to reflect on. It is clear that dictators around the world (and the men with guns who support them) don't value participatory government. And I think as Americans we are not as exceptional as many folks think. America is not an inevitably successful experiment. We have struggled all along these past 250 years, and are deep in struggle now. As the dominant force shaping the planet, how we choose to organize ourselves and take action will determine our future. Would you run a sports team, a research lab, or a business where 50.1% of the people were entrenched in opposition to the other 49.9% and they forcible took turns stealing leadership positions from each other? Sounds like hell to me.
How do we go beyond a nasty last-man-standing slugfest each election, with a narrow win and shaming the loser, to a society where we can relax at least a bit knowing that governance is something other than doling out revenge on those who have the audacity to value things differently than we do?