Uppermost in the causes of these extraordinary times is the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA. Despite the USA having elected some horrible presidents in recent years (and a monumentally disappointing one in Barack Obama – but that’s another discussion), and the country seriously lacking in a number of areas (inequality, healthcare costs, gun ownership and crime, astronomical incarceration rates, racial division, the prevalence of dangerous Christian fundamentalism, a disastrous imperialist foreign policy, politics being run by big business, the undue influence of various self-interested lobbies from farming to oil, and much more that would also be another discussion), there’s something qualitatively different about Trump being at the helm.
For all I – and you, maybe? – might condemn past presidents of the USA, they were all at least viewable within the context of a sort of liberal democracy and the numerous constitutional limits on their powers. And those who might criticise them could respond with logical, rationally constructed arguments that, however easily one might take sides, were at least a clear basis for debate between principled, if disagreeing, camps.
Trump, however, breaks the mould. It seems bewildering to think – and absurd to have to write – that a self-confessed groper of women, a man who has made racist, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant statements, a proven liar, a not very successful businessman with no political experience, and a man with appalling oratory should not be laughed out of town on day one by political rivals but, in fact, swept into office on a wave of anti-intellectualism, anti-establishment anger, disregard for the constitution, and not a little raw prejudice.
When immigrants (including those with the legal right to reside in the USA) are being stopped at the border and separated from their loved ones, when fascists are walking the corridors of the White House, when the foundations of liberal society appear to be crumbling, when it suddenly becomes a thing to take pride in ignoring evidence and facts, and when it starts to feel like we’re in the early chapters of a dystopian science fiction novel, it is tremendously unsettling, unnerving and disorientating.
And that’s coming from me as a white, straight, middle-income male who lives three thousand miles from the USA. I dread to think how, for instance, ethnic or societal minorities at the sharp end of the American Dream must be feeling.
Piled on top of the march of the far right in various countries in Europe and its iron grip in Russia, plus the hate-fuelled tide of Brexit in the UK, my usual nonchalant apathy about politics is reaching a cross-roads. Is this where I continue to avoid it all in the hope that it’ll go away? Or is it the point at which I decide that I, somehow, and however ineffectively, try to do something?
Unclear of where to turn and what to believe, I posted a simple question on Twitter the other day.
Been thinking about the world and cannot think of a good answer to this question: what can I realistically do?
Answers, please ⬇️
— Simon Varwell (@simonvarwell) January 28, 2017
It was a simple question, though of course, as is the nature of Twitter, there was a subtext to it all. What I would have said in addition, and what I hoped was obvious to those who know me on Twitter or in real life too, was what someone like me can realistically do who is a pretty ordinary, time-poor person with no great proclivity these days to get involved in politics (been there, done that, got fed up).
I don’t want to claim any great mantle, but I daresay there are many people out there like me: caring about various important things in life and in politics, but not willing or able to bust a gut to do much about them if things aren’t too extraordinarily awful. Which they look like they might be becoming now.
And so I want to do two things in this blog post. Firstly, I’ll run through the types of answers I got in the few days since I tweeted the above tweet. And secondly, I’ll offer some response to them, and try to come up with my own list of potential actions, however feeble.
So, first, the answers I got to that tweet could more or less be grouped into a few categories.
The most popular response was, sorry to be rude to those who made the effort, the wishy-washy “do good” suggestion. To fight evil, the answers appeared to suggest, I just need to do good things. The greatest antedote to evil acts are good acts, and by simply walking through life trying to do the best I can, it’s in effect a form of resistance.
A great theory. Indeed, more than that, it’s great practice. But the thing is, I probably try most of the time to do that anyway. I’m no saint – who is? – but doesn’t every vaguely ordinary person try to do good for those around them? We may fail some or most of the time, but at least the sentiment is there. So while it’s a brilliant idea, it doesn’t tell me in practical, every day terms, what I can do that is new, different and helpful.
A second answer I got was to sign a petition. I’m not a big practitioners of democracy’s most mundane but simplest participatory tools like writing to representatives or signing petitions. My problem with signing petitions is that there are so many out there for a range of spurious and ridiculous causes that it seems like a waste of time, a barely noticeable drop in an ocean of whiny noise.
But sometimes, I told myself, you do need to stand up to something and say “not in my name”. Maybe nobody will hear me, maybe nobody will care, and maybe nothing will happen. But then a petition isn’t about a single name. When numerous voices speak together, things can kick off. We’re lucky in this country to have rules whereby petitions can, with sufficient signatories, be guaranteed a debate in parliament (I think that’s the case for both Holyrood and Westminster), and so I recently signed the petition against Donald Trump being awarded a state visit to the UK.
— Simon Varwell (@simonvarwell) January 31, 2017
And, thanks to those collective voices, the Westminster parliament will indeed debate the issue later this month. I suspect it will be quite an occasion, and there will probably be a huge range of public action to let parliament know what folk think about the issue.
That is at least a small spark of optimism for me – that when voices come together, parliament does something. Quite what it does, again, depends at least in part on what people exhort it to do.
Thirdly, a good friend suggested that I should do what I can to unite the left against Trump.
@simonvarwell Here, help unite the left. Nat parties, Lib Dems, Greens are ready and willing but once Labour sorts itself out, get behind…
— Andrew Dandilly (@Andrew_Dandilly) January 29, 2017
Not a bad idea, albeit that it probably is already united against him. But yes, I am happy to give my support to radical parties like the SNP and the Greens, between whom I am somewhat torn these days. And stand by soon for a not entirely unrelated blog post on matters relating to Scottish independence.
Fourthly, there were suggestions that I demonstrate.
Yes, there’s been something quite heartening about the demonstrations that exploded across the world when the so-called Muslim Ban was introduced by Trump and when women took to the streets in dozens of cities.
— Luc Dockendorf (@LucDockendorf) January 29, 2017
That thousands – no, hundreds of thousands – could turn out at relatively short notice to condemn both the man and his action was a reassurance that when worse things come (and come they will) the crowds will be bigger and faster. And hopefully I’ll be part of them.
Here's a slightly hopeful thought. If this is the protest size for a "mere" executive order of Trump, imagine it for a state visit.
— Simon Varwell (@simonvarwell) January 30, 2017
Fifthly, another group of suggestions was very pleasingly simple and practical: give money.
Whether general good causes that Trump would oppose or crowdfunds to help individuals caught up in Trump’s various schemes, this is definitely something worth thinking about. I’m no moneybags, but I’m privileged enough to be able to spare a few quid here and there, and if it (for instance) helps people with legal fees for fights that ultimately inconvenience or annoy Trump then that’s all for the good. I’m not about to start bragging about my charitable giving, though I will confess I haven’t got going enough on this front. If anyone knows of a good one-stop repository of links to causes that would directly tackle the effects of Trump’s actions, do shout (or, more helpfully, post a comment below).
Sixthly and finally, I had this rather nice idea from a Twitter friend:
On one very basic level, the idea of mocking Trump on Twitter sounds petty, childish and exactly the sort of trollish behaviour that can make Twitter an unpleasant place. And I’m not going to condone being offensive to politicians on Twitter. They may not be perfect, but they deserve freedom from personal insults and threats.
Mind you, that’s not what John above is suggesting in his tweet. The idea of mere ridicule, of mocking Trump, genuinely does feel like the sort of thing that would get to him. He does, after all, do a lot of his own tweeting, and has done so for a long time. He probably doesn’t read the responses he gets, but maybe someone will – whether staff or supporters. And that’s got to have a cumulative effect in the long term.
I don’t follow him on Twitter, but if I see any of his tweets appear to which I could provide a firm, funny, fair response to – without lowering myself to his petty, spiteful standards – then yes, maybe it will, like a snowflakes in an avalanche, eventually get through to him.
So that’s a summary of some of the ideas I received. But what am I going to do?
What I can do… and what I will do
Based on all that, and a bit more thinking I’ve done myself, I’ve figured that there are a few things I can and will do to oppose Trump. Many of which I got from the above ideas.
I can sign more petitions, if they’re really important and strike at the heart of how our country responds to him. I can write to my MP, about the state visit plans and about the broader impact of Trump. I suspect I’ll get a favourable response from my MP, but it’s still worth doing. If numerous similar letters all add up, they do help create an impression of the public mood.
I can go on demonstrations. If I am around – which often I am not – then I’m happy to stand up publicly and tell Trump that I, and many others, oppose what he is doing and what he stands for.
I can give money where and when I can.
But more generally, I can do what I can to promote respect and understanding in what I do. That’s a glib and general statement, and as I have said earlier in this post, I do try to be a good person anyway.
But let me give two very practical examples that have come to my mind beyond the ideas I received above.
One is to continue to undertake and talk about my plan throughout 2017 to read female-authored travel writing. The project’s own page can speak for itself, but it strikes me as a happy coincidence that I am doing something that seems so counter to Trump’s character.
It’s about travel – something Trump is stopping many people from doing. It’s about the views and experiences of women – something Trump seems to care little for. It’s about other cultures – something Trump seems dismissive and fearful of. If I can keep reading and talking about the books I’m reading, then I am promoting the normalisation and right to safety of women, the idea of cultural diversity, the value of global outlooks, the need to walk humbly through this world with an inquiring mind, and indeed the very act of reading itself.
It’s rather exciting to imagine that my quiet reading project may be a small act of rebellion against Trump, but the more I think about it the more I’m convinced that it is.
The second practical example I have is speaking Esperanto. The very nature of Esperanto, indeed the reason for its creation, was internationalism. It is pointless – impossible, even – to learn and use Esperanto without interacting with people from other parts of the world that you otherwise wouldn’t meet. I’ve written elsewhere about how Esperanto has opened doors to meeting people in other countries and learning about other cultures, and that is something that is now under threat of becoming unfashionable or even impractical due to today’s growing insularity and racism.
And while I’ve no idea what Trump’s opinion of Esperanto is – or if he’s ever even expressed one – the globalism at the heart of the language does strike me as the absolute anathema of of what he stands for.
And finally, yes, I’ll try to do good and be nice to people. It’s a glib thing to do, but let’s not in these extraordinary times forget the basics.
I can but try, anyway.