The Pendulum

Driving between a daycare center and a pediatrician’s office, I heard a story on NPR about Trump’s cabinet.

The lede, as I heard it, was about how Trump is organizing a coup to deregulate Wall Street. This is, of course, infuriating to me, as I thought this was one of the only things the left and right agreed about: that Wall Street is too cushy, that it controls too much of the economy and doesn’t have any appreciable benefit for the family business or the struggling employee or the general productivity of this big hard-working country. How did partisanship lead us to this point, where a devil’s compromise undermines the interests of both sides?

Of course, the most honest answers are not hopeful. The interests of the left and right, whether in their respective populist or elitist form, are never going to merge, because we’re speaking different languages. The left takes its economic and inclusive messages for granted, and then communicates as though they’ve drifted above and beyond the mere pedestrian concerns of working, worrying, small-c conservative American adults. Their pop-culture snark and their social justice righteousness are MUCH louder than their messages of unity and individual hope and social cohesion and big-picture progress. And of course, that language has shaped the language of the opposition, who are coming to deeply resent these sorts of rhetorical frames. They are tired of hearing about Beyonce and Lena Dunham and Walter White… enlightened historical vignettes about Hitler and Stalin seem trite… and as they grapple with troubled race relations in their own communities, the aggressive rhetoric of identity-sorting and call-outs becomes nauseating.

To the vast populist right, rigorous political reasoning has been disqualified by smug self-importance, and that doesn’t leave much to believe in except the virtues of charisma and straight-talk and confidence. Not everybody emancipated themselves from family and community to embrace university culture and thinkpiece rhetoric… for some people, paternal wisdom and lived experience have been far more valuable than any shelf of non-fiction books. The left seems to have lost its will to speak to that sensibility.

But that difference has guided a special sort of animal into the halls of power. Trump’s strategy re: Wall Street regulation is emblematic of his other cabinet appointments. He’s not appointing people to manage these things… he’s appointing people to dismantle them. I heard it said that his cabinet picks are basically “sticks of dynamite” designed to implode these federal functions. It makes the other cabinet nominees make more sense… a climate-change denier in charge of the EPA, a Putin-allied corporatist to lead the State Department, a military commander in charge of the Interior, and a biblical literalist MD running HUD, for some bizarre reason.

The Secretary of State thing is the one that scares me the most. The world is losing its stability… regimes are collapsing in the Middle East, and terrorist organizations and quasi-state entities are moving into the vacuums. Russia, which seemed contained and developing just a few years ago, is now being bullish, using this instability in vague, opportunistic ways to expand its sphere of power. The European Union is suddenly at stake, and between Brexit and refugees and bankruptcy, it could be on the verge of any number of crises. So we have actors we could trust — the European Union, some sympathetic middle eastern allies — losing their reliability, and we have the most dangerous actors — terrorist organizations, ISIS, and Russia — ramping up their activity and building momentum in indecipherable ways.

I don’t know if it’s possible for there to be another war as simple as WWII, where two sides both consolidated a block of nations. If there’s conflict on the horizon, it will probably take the form of local proxy wars, guerrilla offensives, drone strikes, terrorist cells, and plausible deniability. Still, these kinds of wars could get big and destructive and volatile. I would prefer a steady hand and a wide, subtle, almost paranoid instinct at America’s helm.

Instead, we have Trump and Tillerson… the latter, a man enmeshed in profiteering moral compromises and conflicts of interest, under the guidance of the former, a bomb-thrower with no discernible principles or discretion, no collaborationist bone in his body… a commander-in-chief who seems intent on escalating conflicts, complicating diplomatic relations, antagonizing neutral parties, and undermining strategic partnerships. This isn’t even to mention his apparent intent to destabilize the United States by repealing Obamacare, and his blindness to global issues like climate change and energy management.

The future does not look bright. In fact, in some moments, like driving down the road listening to these NPR reports, it looks frankly terrifying. My head constructs something that looks like Flint in the middle of its water crisis, and NYC and Detroit at the height of urban decay, and the Rust Belt and Appalachia at their most desolate, featuring lone-wolf terrorists in prominent roles, both Middle Eastern and radicalized American. I think this is what they call “catastrophizing”… or just “hysteria,” if you want to spare a syllable.

At these times, I tell myself that I just have to protect my family and seek high ground. Civil society has always been build on the bedrock of a hostile wilderness, after all… will that world, where we have to fight for survival, finally start peeking through? When is it ethical for a non-violent leftist to buy a gun? Is a coming apocalypse the right time to rethink that principle?

At this point, it was not a pleasant drive.

But then, the next story on NPR was about the Thai Blind Orchestra (here’s a story about it from the Express Tribune in Pakistan). Thailand is not on my list of nations-to-be-nervous-about… it’s neither an emblem of failing stability, nor a newly-empowered threat to international peace… but it’s always had its issues with politics and coups and controversies. But it also has the simple, beautiful story of the orchestra: when a group of blind children visited the Thai Elephants Research and Conservation Fund in Khao Yai national park, they met Alongkot Chukaew, a staff member who also happens to be a classically-trained musician. The students expressed an interest in his music, and he used his resources in music education to secure them an opportunity… helped along by a Facebook request for donated instruments.

Social networking and good will… a cast of characters who step up to make life a more beautiful performance… and even an extra note of progress, as these students resist a traditional Buddhist stereotype that sees their blindness as a punishment for past-life transgressions.

Thai Blind Orchestra performing Jason Mraz’s I Won’t Give Up

All these things are out there in the world.

After the nervous sweats brought about by a Trump story and a glimpse of a hypothetical dystopian future, the story of the Thai Blind Orchestra is a reminder that we are living on a new frontier in more ways than one. Though the world may be fracturing politically, it’s more interconnected than it’s ever been. With this new fabric, where consciousness and compassion can find purchase across international and intercultural boundaries, there may still be some hope.

… Hope that the human race is getting smarter than its violent impulses and its authoritarian structures…

… And hope that the vast throes of instability in the future… though they will cause much heartache and suffering… will at least be buffered by this heightened awareness, and thus, that they may be endured, and eventually overridden.

And after that, and thinking about my strong, hopeful daughter playing with her toddler friends at daycare, the drive was a lot better.