People have a great many misconceptions about dictionaries. For a start, we assume that dictionaries are authorities—that the usages of a word listed in the dictionary are allowed, and that other usages are not. We assume that words not in the dictionary are not words, and words in the dictionary but labeled “obsolete” are no longer allowed. And we assume these things because we fundamentally misunderstand what a dictionary is.
We think dictionaries are arbiters of language, determining what is and isn’t allowed. But, in reality, dictionaries are just records of language. They preserve old ideas, record new ideas, and describe how language is being used. They are slow to catch up, but not that slow, and they occasionally retain things we would rather forget.
We have many of the same misconceptions about government.
When a man shows us how cowardly, ignorant, and petty he is, we should believe him. We should not expect him to change. We should not expect him to become better. We should not expect him to stop being a bully when he is given power in addition to a bully pulpit. This man has shown us who he is, and he will be exactly the same for the next four years—but with power to remake the country with his actions and not just his words.
He has muzzled scientists and set in motion actions that, without exaggeration, will drive climate change from manageable disaster to runaway cataclysm. And he denies it exists. He has taken action to attack Americans, to strip us of our rights, and to expel us from the country. And he denies we deserve otherwise. He has decreed the building of an edifice of exclusion, and denied that we will pay the price.
And he has whined and complained about the depth of opposition to his dictatorial ambitions. Like any coward, he only knows how to silence those who critique him. A leader would strive to be better; this man strives for nothing.
Has it only been a week? There are so many more to come. The temptation to look away is strong—but despair, especially, we must resist.
And here we are, marking the passing of one era into another. I want to be optimistic, but I can’t. I can see how some people are, because for them, this was the last chance. They’ve been watching their jobs and communities withering away, and they blame regulation and government and outsiders. For them, this seems like a hopeful moment, when maybe something will change and the days will return when all you needed to get a good job was a high school degree and determination.
Those days will not return. It wasn’t government that took them, nor regulation, nor outsiders: the world has just changed, and it changed as a direct consequence of those days. America, as much as any nation, has insisted on a global role, and yet being an economic “leader” in the world doesn’t mean good jobs anymore—it means cheap jobs, and money concentrated in the hands of the powerful, and the rest of us are just grist.
Trump can’t fix this world any more than Obama could. Obama said “yes we can,” but his best wasn’t good enough. Trump says a bunch of vague things about how he will, and people believe him. They believe him because they want to. As a consequence of that deep and understandable yearning, an entire section of the country is embracing a great fiction. Here is the fiction:
At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.
This month we had a cultural and political upset in my country, and it left most of us wondering about the way forward. So this month all of these are about understanding that.
America needs a new coalition. I know this, because I see Americans marching in the streets, justifiably afraid that this country is not safe for them any longer. I know this because the same people who deride those protesters were, themselves, just a few days ago, talking about grabbing their guns and fighting a rigged election. I know this because a whole lot of people felt they had no one but Trump to address their struggles. I know this because we are a Democracy, and instead of running a candidate in either party who could energize the country, we ran candidates who pit us against one another. Sure, some of us feel like one of those was incredibly far above the other. But we’re tied with the people who thought the same about the other one. We have different value sets.
So I know we need a coalition that isn’t just one side. It’s hard to say that right now, when it feels like so many of us have been betrayed and continue to be hated. It’s hard, but it’s unambiguously true. Half the electorate said so.
So I ask myself, what’s next? This is a democracy. This is the president we voted for. Yes, only barely, but that doesn’t matter. Yes, I am angry that someone who espouses hate for so many of my fellow Americans is now our chosen leader, but he is. What’s next?
Some on the left will riot and declaim Trump. Some on the right will gloat and declaim the left. As they always have. More so now, but Trump is not a normal candidate—he is the most disliked president-elect in history, even by those who voted for him. And he has gone out of his way to make many of us feel we are not welcome. So let’s start there, and here’s what I’m going to do. And I invite you to join me.
“People are pouring across our borders.” “Immigrants are taking our jobs.” “Unemployment is the worst it’s ever been.” “Refugees are coming in and we have no idea who they are.” “The second amendment is absolutely under siege.” “Islamists want to conquer this country and impose sharia law.”
If there is a single narrative at stake for America, this is it—“they’re coming for you.”
And if you’re thinking “that’s the other guys,” flip the script—don’t just look at the words of one particularly unfiltered and untruthful demagogue, look at the narrative overall.
“Money is pouring into politics and controlling our elections.” “Corporations are destroying our jobs and our health.” “Chemicals are ending up in our food and we have no idea what they do.” “Christians want to take over the government and impose their restrictive beliefs.”
Whether you frame it as a story of fear or a story of heroic resistance, the core is the same: we’re under attack by dangerous, insidious people who have come to take what we have, and if we don’t fight back, we’ll watch our way of life disappear. So stand up and fight, or be prepared to lose your freedom.
Except… every single one of those statements is a lie. Every. Single. One. Some of them are motivated lies, and some of them are ignorant lies, and some of them are exaggerated lies, but they are all lies.
I can’t tell you how much I wanted something other than a Clinton/Trump election. But you know, I can tell you that I didn’t want it enough to avoid it. Sure, I didn’t vote for either of them in the primaries, and sure, I thought (and still think) that Trump was a joke, but I didn’t do very much to avoid this. In retrospect, I wish I had, but I’ll own that and plan ahead next time.
And in the meantime, I’ll deal with the choices I have. But I’m okay with dealing with the choices I have, because I don’t see voting as this big emotional weight. I see it as one strategic choice I can make to impact my country, but that impact is not huge. There are a lot of other things I could do that would have a lot more impact.
Which is why, as much as I want third and fourth party options as a regular part of our elections, I’m not about to cast a third-party vote in a close race. I don’t really want either of the options very much, but I also don’t need to shoe-horn my every belief into the ballot box. It’s not my only voice.
I’ve been having a problem lately with the word “establishment.” It’s a two-part problem, and one part of that problem is that I cannot seem to read anything about our current election cycle without getting run over by “the establishment.” The other part of the problem is the difference between what it means and how we actually use it.
To take the first part of the problem, I keep hearing about how Trump supporters are against the establishment, and how Bernie supporters are against the establishment, and about how no, actually Hillary is also against the establishment, and Cruz is most definitely against the establishment, and to be safe, lets just say all political candidates are anti-establishment.
We’ll gloss right over the problem of who the establishment actually is for now and accept that it’s fashionable to be against it.
There is an acceptable narrative about social change: that individual choices are the starting point, and that those choices add up, and that if enough people make those choices, change happens. That is a very attractive narrative, because it says that my choices matter. It says that what I do is part of a grand democratic society where, if my choices have majority support, the system will improve. It says that if I use reusable shopping bags, and I buy an electric car, I am making an impact.
That narrative is also, I think, wrong. Or, at least misleading.
It isn’t wrong in the sense that I am not making an impact—I am, albeit a small one. It also isn’t wrong in the sense that our choices don’t add up—they do, and if we all decide to drive electric cars, that will make a pretty noticeable impact.
As I see it, that narrative is wrong because it pretends that individual choices and systemic choices are the same, and they absolutely are not.
Common wisdom is that you can’t complain if you don’t vote, but that your vote doesn’t really count for much outside of a swing state. As it often is, the common wisdom is wrong. Since many of us are going to the polls in the next few weeks, and many of us a week from today, I thought I would take a minute to explain why your vote matters (even if it doesn’t always count).
In many states, the presidential primaries are held alongside a whole host of other elections. In my home state of Vermont, for example, my primary vote probably won’t swing the presidential primary one way or another, but it absolutely could swing a more critical election.