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Some Ruminations on the Current Moment

According to recent news reports, the “friendship tree” that Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump planted together last year on the White House lawn has died. [Please insert your witty quip here. I’ve got nothing.] Sometimes history and nature conspire to deliver a symbol so heavy-handed as to defy my own meager capacity for commentary.

 

Recently Jim Acosta talked on NPR about his temporary banishment from the White House after asking tough questions about Trump’s comments concerning immigration. He said that he later heard from a White House official that the president wanted Acosta to know his appreciation of how professionally the reporter handled himself. Acosta’s assessment of the feedback was that Trump continues to run the White House like a reality television show—by reacting professionally, Acosta was playing his role of absorbing Trump’s vitriol. I believe that there are many helpful and apt frameworks for thinking about national politics—Greek drama, epic poem, classic film, on and on—reality television is not one of them.

 

Back in 2016 a relative of mine said that he was voting for Trump not because he was for Trump, but rather because he was against the people who are against Trump. Born in 1961, I have witnessed what I take to be the growing fashion of cynicism about politics and politicians. It’s not that there was ever a time when everyone could agree on the virtue and wisdom of much of anything in our political life, but the assumption of corruption and self-interest grew, it seems to me, after the days of Watergate and the Vietnam war. Nor can I think of a time when politics was ever not nasty, but even when I read about past political figures dueling with pistols, I can nevertheless get the sensation that I’m reading about the Garden of Eden by comparison with today. Maybe this is because I hear news about Trump every day and tend to encounter the toxic tongues and manners of the past only when I pick up a history book. Surely our era did not invent hateful politics, but just as surely we can do better than choosing to vote for our leaders based on how much we hate the people who are against them.

 

Maybe I look on the days of Watergate and the Vietnam war, the days just before it seems the national cynicism set in, as more innocent than the present merely because during those days I was myself more innocent in all senses of that word; not only had I not yet had a chance to do much harm, I was also quite ignorant about the world. I recall that, while my older brother was away, first in college and later in the Navy, I made a habit of sitting in his room reading his back issues of Mad Magazine while listening to his Rolling Stones albums. Later I made a habit of sitting in the local young priest’s office, where he let me hang out while he was pursuing his vocation’s work, listening to his Cat Stevens albums and reading his back issues of Rolling Stone. Between the social satire of Mad Magazine and the New Journalism that Rolling Stone was publishing at the time, between the bluesy energy of the Stones and the spiritual searching of Cat Stevens, I of course came away from those retreat spaces—my brother’s room, my priest friend’s office—with a sense of hope and possibility. Sure, we’d spent years mired in a terrible and senseless war, and our president fell under the weight of his own corrupt ambitions, but we were coming to new realizations about these things, the times they were a-changin’.

The times are still a-changin’, but the changing doesn’t look the same as it used to even though the changes we are seeing now have in many ways grown out of the ferment of the sixties and seventies. Can anyone imagine the the Black Lives Matter movement taking place without the groundwork of those decades’ civil rights struggles, or the Me Too Movement without the precedent of second-wave feminism, which itself led into third-wave feminism? But there is today a very vocal backlash on a global scale, one that takes the forms of nationalism, populism, anti-immigration sentiment, and white nationalism. The visionary writer B. W. Powe, in his recent The Charge in the Global Membrane, a book that I highly recommend, writes about such movements as these as parts of a reaction against a much larger, and global, surge of energy to open boundaries, complicate identities, and enable more far-reaching modes of communication. Sometimes these cultural and noetic charges set off reactions such as we are seeing now in Trump and related phenomena. I believe these latter are beginning to fade. I’m placing my hope—which is not the same as as a cheery optimism, but rather a commitment to maintain the struggle even when the situation is not looking good—in this global charge of creative energy.