This piece originally ran in 2016.
If you have a healthy news diet, you can easily be forgiven for thinking everything is going to Hell. Then again, that doesn’t seem too healthy. Perhaps “No news is good news” has a resonance far beyond the original intent of the folk saying.
Is there good in the world? Of course there is. People are helping each other and just being decent all the time. Yet in a world always closer together it seems as though there is a shortage of good things everywhere.
The difference, I believe, is what lies just outside of human scale. The world comes to us through machinery – ripped of context, stripped of humanity. It’s up to all of us to provide some context with our own empathy and judgment. Seeing good in the world is indeed about unplugging our brains from the noise and reveling in a good time with friends, a quiet moment alone, or even an hour passed in a patch of clover.
All good writing, especially political writing, has three components. I usually summarize these as “heart and arm and brain,” a line stolen from “The Mary Ellen Carter” by Stan Rogers. Think of it as reason, passion, and action if you want. A good piece has to resonate through the heart and head before sounding in a firm call to action.
Most of what is fed to us from national and international sources is stripped of its ability to sound and act clearly. Context takes time, after all, especially for those who aren’t there. Political writing often goes right for the heart, bypassing reason in favor of adrenalized passion which burns hot. The course of action isn’t always stated directly, allowing the now angry reader to decide for themselves that lashing out at the vile perpetrators is the only reasonable thing to do.
The problem with news, even when it comes from unbiased sources, is that politics is primarily about identity, not ideology. The word “politics” comes to us from the Greek word polis, or city. It is a term of organization which starts with citizenship or membership. It is not about thinking, per se, but about social organization.
What group or tribe do you belong to? How does that confirm your identity?
Immediately, interaction beyond the range of a smile or a kind word becomes an issue of identity. This is easily threatened in a world defined by anxiety, or a fear of the future. News which comes to us about a mysterious “other” can only reinforce the threat they may present to our own identity.
Nothing “good” can possibly come of this.
So how does that help us to find good in the world? How can we rise above this to find a politics which is based on an open exchange of ideas without threats? How do we get to a place where we start from a place of respect and, when we can swing it, love?
I will say we shouldn’t “rise above” intellectually as much as “go below” emotionally. As Barataria has said many times about banking systems and many other things it’s not about a world that has passed far beyond human scale and is simply too big. It may feel great to be a part of a large national movement that is going to smash the system and all that, but true democratic change never starts at the top. It has to start with simply humanity. It begins with an empathetic heart open to love, a clear head not threatened by being wrong, and a strong arm always eager to help.
As the election year cycles through there will be many more attempts to rile everyone up with a belief that everything is going to Hell. The root cause will be what “they” are doing, whoever “they” might tend to be. There will be anecdotes and maybe some carefully selected data, but the real purpose will always be an unspoken call to action – rise up and defend your tribe!
The wise among us will resist. If your politics doesn’t begin with humanity you have a lousy politics. Start with our frailty, start with our vulnerability. Start with respect and a wide smile. Start with empathy for those in pain. Start with an acceptance that not everyone is in your tribe.
A politics that is by and for people, not systems, is a politics that always finds good in the world. Start with that and see if you aren’t amazed.
I find myself withdrawing from it all. It’s just too much.