June 13, 2016
On Violence, Power, Politics, and Faith
I dropped my children at their schools this morning, and then had a meeting at the bank that got cancelled at the last minute, and so I had a half hour to kill at Starbucks while I prepared for a presentation on blogging that I was giving downtown at 11. When I left and started walking down Bloor Street, I noticed that Queen’s Park Crescent was blocked off by police cars and that the museum was surrounded by crowds who should have been inside the building. As I walked towards the Yonge Subway and went into some shops, I overheard people talking and wondering what was happening at the ROM. I was able to use WiFi at the subway station, and found out that the ROM was under lockdown, and so was much of the university campus, and the parliament buildings south of there. I was thinking about these buildings and how I knew people inside many of them, and I was worried and scared. Thinking about what happened in Orlando yesterday, the person on Twitter who’d confessed she felt hurt by the people who’d been able to go about in the world yesterday as though it was an ordinary day. How I’d confessed last night that I just can’t be devastated every time there is a mass shooting anymore, not because it’s not devastating, but because a person can only fall apart at peripheral events so many times before it all becomes rote. Because it’s exhausting. And then now here it is, fear and paranoia knocking at my door. My ignorance at imagining any of can achieve a distance from such things. (Until we’re all safe, none of us are safe.)
Although in actuality, we are pretty safe. From all accounts, police are acting on suspicions and no violence has occurred, and everything will probably be totally all right. It reminds me of September 11, 2001 when the UofT Faculty of Law (where today’s situation seems to centre) was on lockdown because of a bomb threat. It’s true that nothing often happens here, but this doesn’t mean we can’t be melodramatic about the possibility. These lockdowns (which have affected my kids’ schools—which hurts my heart, but also means that their schools remain safe places in a world that isn’t always so) are procedures that suggest there are systems here that are working, and I am sure that there are so many instances of people all over the place taking care of each other, as we do. People checking in with loved ones as I checked in with people this morning. (My husband’s office is also on lockdown, which means he picked a darn fine day to be working from home.)
I read a tweet shortly before my presentation that said someone had been arrested and I assumed from that that the situation had ended. (It hasn’t, but still…) Which was good, because I meant that I didn’t spend my presentation feeling like I was going to throw up. And then I switched on and talked about blogs and blogging, and the importance of room to wander and get lost in, and how the blogger must dare to be wrong sometimes, to even speak out of turn.
The group I was speaking to was political, and I knew that the stakes were different for them than they were for my own blog. But I think the same guidelines do apply, and that surely there is a possibility that a person can be human and political at once. Although I had an interesting question afterwards, about how blogs can be read out of context and used against someone for political reasons, as so many tweets were in the recent federal election, you know, the one with the guy who peed in a cup. I know I will never run for office, not just because I am short on charm, but also because somewhere in the depths of twitter archives, there lies a joke I made once…or twice..about a list of people I’d like to late-term abort. (Some people don’t think this is funny. What is the world coming to?) I did reply by stating that blogs at least offer the possibility of nuance that a 140 character limit does not. And that this question too is why we have to be really thoughtful in our blogging. There was a question too about the blog’s meta-narrative that gives the big picture, post after post, and how most readers don’t engage with blogs on that level anymore—and is the fault then with the reader who misses with the point or with the blogger who misunderstands how people are engaging her work, who is relying on archaic notions of what a blog reader is.
Interesting questions to which I don’t have answers…which is fine because this was a forum in which we were underlying the importance of asking questions without answers, of making process part of a product. But as I went home afterwards, and starting looking at newsfeed and twitter again and realizing that things were still fraught in my neighbourhood, it had me considering (and not for the first time) the nature of politics. It had me thinking about a man I walked past on an ordinary morning a few months ago, the type of person who is agitated and muttering into the air, and how what I heard him say that morning was, “I’m going to k*ll [our premier], that f*cking l*sbian.” And about how politicians practicing divisiveness and power-mongering via playing on people’s fears and anger don’t really understand the consequences of the game they’re playing. That they don’t exist in a vacuum and stoking those fires of fear and anger and injustice for short-term gain trickles down to influence the behaviour of people who are teetering on the edge of something dangerous. It’s the kind of thing that’s inevitable in a system in which elections have “war rooms” and parliamentary parties are literally regarded as being in opposition when in reality the project should be collaborative. The kind of system in which someone will spend days going through twitter archives in order to find something offensive a person tweeted in 2011 and use it to force them to resign. All the feigned outrage, as though there was really anything offensive about that. (Though it’s true that 2011 was not so long ago. The Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown still thought he could legislate the goings-on of my uterus AND thought it was his business to have an opinion on whether or not gay people should be able to marry.)
I think a lot about Patrick Finn’s book, Creative Condition: Replacing Critical Thinking With Creativity—you can read an excerpt from the chapter that’s applicable to politics here. From that passage:
The repercussions of critical thinking are visible everywhere. The financiers who nearly bankrupted the world economy were trained as critical thinkers. They were expert competitors who knew how to present their ideas in the most persuasive ways possible. They also knew how to fend off competing arguments when their practices were questioned. If community rather than rhetorical rivalry were at the centre of our education, perhaps they would have felt a greater need to respond directly to those who questioned the house of cards they were building.
Governments certainly do not need more critical thinkers. In Canada where I live, every year, big yellow school buses roll up to the parliament buildings in Ottawa. The children on the field trip step down with their backpacks and brown-bag lunches and are given an orientation session. Part of that session involves the teachers and organizers instructing the children to behave themselves while in the viewing area. Another involves a detailed explanation of why the people they see will be fighting, yelling, and insulting one another. The children are told that this is how high-level politics is conducted—that this is what civilized governance looks like.
The problem is not simply D*n*ld Tr*mp (although he is certainly a problem and a half in particular), and the problem isn’t even just America, but instead it’s a system that allows people to get ahead in politics by the virtues of building absolutely nothing except walls, and these on the backs of peoples’ fear and anger. We saw the very worst of it last fall during the election when the whole country seemed to go totally bonkers, and Conservatives rolled out their Barbaric Practices Hotline, and I still can’t fathom how the members of that government are able to look in the mirror these days let alone think themselves be accorded any moral high ground, that we’d actually feel good that these are people working to keep the current government in check. People so desperate to be in power that they’d lower themselves to ideas that start eroding who we are as a people, that take away the best parts of who we are. People so desperate for power that they’d rather rule a wasteland than rule nothing at all.
I have a lot of faith in the world, in people. I’m becoming better practiced at understanding the troublemakers and the shit-disturbers as the people who keep life “interesting.” And understanding that “interesting” is a good thing, a human thing. In my blog presentations, I talk a lot about imperfectionism and messiness and my understanding of the virtues of these ideas extends beyond the blog and into the world as well. Interesting is the best parts of the world along with the worst, and it’s our job to figure out how to live well in the midst of all that. The understand that we all have a role to play in creating a better us, a better world, and living consciously and thoughtfully—and that those with power have to be even more thoughtful than the rest of us. The stakes are so high.
It’s really easy to make fun of Justin Trudeau, to be exasperated by him. To roll your eyes at the idea of “Sunny Ways.” (I like Justin Trudeau, but I am still confused about why he opened his father’s eulogy with, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” He certainly does have a flair for the dramatic.) But the reason my world shifted on its axis last October 19 was not because all at once we had an effervescent personality leading our nation instead of a man with dead eyes and plastic hair, but because Canadians made a choice that day. Almost a year exactly before election day, a gunman entered our parliament buildings not only with the purpose of committing violence, stoking anger and unleashing his own personal demons, but with the objective of having us all respond within the limits of his harrowing vision of who we all are. Too many people were willing to underline that image for their own purposes, to have the rest of us living in fear and terror so that they could profit in their own ways—with power. Those who urged us to reelect our Conservative government because we live in a dangerous world and could only rely on people who come bearing barbaric practices hotlines to keep us safe. An idea that only makes the world more dangerous. The lunatic with a gun is a scary idea, but the people who are spouting rhetoric inciting these unhinged folks to take action is scarier times a million. A self-perpetuating cycle.
I haven’t been able to sing my national anthem in years and not just because its lyrics aren’t gender inclusive (and seriously people who are holding up legislation on that, I would like to call a hotline on you) but I have been singing it lately when called upon, and it’s because of what happened on October 19. Not simply that one political party was elected over another, but because Canadians made a choice that day between our living in a dangerous world, or our being part of something better than that. Do you know how easy it should have been for Canadians to have been manipulated with continuing with the status quo after what happened on Parliament Hill that day? That act of violence was the best thing that could have happened to those who are determined to convince us that we are constantly under threat because our fear is what they profit by—but it didn’t work. But hugely, and remarkably, and even courageously, one might say, we rejected that vision.
“I’ll pray that you’ll grow up a brave man in a brave country,” writes the father to his son in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. A simple aspiration that also seems impossibly huge, but impossible things can happen, as October 19 demonstrated to me. So that even when fear comes to knock on our door, we need neither open it wide or peer timidly through keyholes. Underlining my faith, in goodness, in people, in what cannot be broken, that one way or another (but still, the right way) everything is going to be okay.