Ways of Seeing: Moving ahead will require our guidance
“A clarifying moment.” That’s how President Obama described the election of Donald Trump at his recent press conference. A clarifying moment.
I know he can’t articulate at a press conference how it feels to anticipate eight years — or 50 years or 100 years — of work undone. I know he can’t say “How the heck are we gonna survive this one?” He has to offer an optimistic interpretation. So I’m trying to look through those relatively optimistic glasses, to see what he sees.
I could sure use some clarity right now. I am struggling to regain equilibrium after an election that seems like a serious blow to my vision of what our nation is about. Journalist Neal Gabler (Moyers and Company, Nov. 10) describes some of my feeling: “We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.”
Yes, I could sure use some clarity right now. I can’t live in a state of fear and despair. I can’t live with the feeling that I’m tied to the railroad track, along with everyone and everything I love, with the train barreling down upon us. The anxiety keeps me from carrying on a normal life, and my blood pressure will soon be out of control.
So I was attracted to this phrase in Obama’s press conference. Somehow it offered hope.
One thing I need clarity on is some of the terms I’ve been hearing. I need some vocabulary lessons to begin the New Year.
Take the term “populism,” for instance. Our president-elect won in a “wave of populism” our commentators tell us. I do remember the term from high school history, associated with farmers and New Deal reforms. My American Heritage dictionary says this for populism: “A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite.”
I’m a child of the sixties; “power to the people” was a slogan of my generation. Power to the people was peace and love and equality and self-determination. Isn’t that a good thing?
Turns out it depends on your point of view.
Who are the people? Who are perceived to be the privileged elite?
Wikipedia (the people’s source for quick knowledge) describes these modern movements as having populist roots: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., and the recent Occupy Movement.
Yes, I say; these are My People struggling against Them.
But these movements and leaders also have populist roots: Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, Silvio Berlusconi (conservative prime minister of Italy for almost 10 years), Juan Peron in Argentina, the Tea Party, and the Brexit movement in the UK.
But wait, I say; I think these are Them struggling against My People!
For more confusion, there’s the Populist Party, active in the U.S. from 1984-1996, which promoted white nationalism and ran David Duke as a candidate for president. As opposed to the more progressive American Populist Party, founded in 2009 with the intent of abolishing poverty, curtailing corporate abuse, and limiting the power of the U.S. government as outlined by the Constitution.
So the term “populist” is claimed across the political spectrum, from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders. It doesn’t align with left-wing (My People) or right-wing (Them) beliefs; the common element is “struggle against the privileged elites.”
At this moment in American history, I think the privileged elites might be me! And my family, friends, and colleagues, the northeastern professional and intellectual establishment. I’m not sure what to do with that; it’s not how I have defined myself. Perhaps a revision of my worldview is in order, including breaking down the My People vs. Them construct.
Does that mean I have to sympathize with white nationalists? Never. But would it be healthy to find a way to empathize, to understand, to try to see through their glasses, too? I think so.
One thing that has become clear to me is that I have a lot to learn in order to begin to understand what’s going on at this unprecedented moment in the history of my life and our life as a nation. I want more than a Wikipedia-deep understanding of this life we’re in together.
In the New Year I will strive to cultivate a more educated and more nuanced view of our politics. I will read more than the headlines of my favorite newspapers and magazines. I will read publications and books that I don’t currently agree with. With my blood pressure monitor by my side, I will search for clarity in this moment.
Abi Sessions is a retired educator who lives in Cornwall with her husband, Bill. If you wish to join others in Addison County with an interest in creating a welcoming community, please email Abi at [email protected].