So much has been written in the last week about what is happening in the US and why. I’m not sure I need to add much to it today, though there is plenty to say in due course. For now, I wanted to write about our response. And I say ‘our’, for two reasons. One is that the comments from my American friends on Facebook right now are so similar to what we were saying in Britain this summer, and many of the same forces have been at work behind the outcomes of our respective votes. And secondly, the USA remains the world’s principle, possibly only superpower. In our globally connected world, what happens there affects us all.
I’ve read a variety of reactions on my social media streams. There are the occasional expressions of jubilation, though as I mentioned on Friday, the Facebook algorithm assumes that I won’t want to see too many of those. There are expressions of shock and disbelief. There’s a lot of anger. And then there are those who are saying not to worry – either explaining the reasons why things won’t be as bad as expected, or saying that God is in control and has a plan, or some version of that most tired of memes, keep calm and carry on.
Needless to say, panic is not helpful. A level head is important. But I want to take issue with the suggestion that we stop worrying and get on with our lives. We cannot assume that everything will be alright, and that’s not a useful piece of advice.
It’s easy to be complacent about progress. Contemporary philosopher John Gray explains why in his book The Silence of Animals. “Science and technology are cumulative” he writes, “whereas ethics and politics deal with recurring dilemmas.” Because our modern worldview is so dominated by the idea of technological advance, it’s tempting to think that all things advance in this way, incrementally moving forwards greater tolerance, civil rights, cooperation and understanding.
Unfortunately, says Gray, civilisation is more fragile than it appears. Looking at the last century, he describes wealthy Germans burning their pianos for warmth during hyper-inflation, or the famine in Naples during the Second World War. These were unimaginable reversals for sophisticated societies, and I don’t want to imply that we’re in for anything quite that bad. But history should warn us that such breakdowns are possible.
If we value the society we have, then we must be prepared to defend it. And if we see injustices being perpetrated, then we need to stand against them. When minorities are persecuted with official sanction, when torture is normalised, when political opponents are threatened with jail, the correct response is not to keep calm and carry on.
Exactly how we act is a matter of wisdom and timing. I can understand those who want to march in protest at the results of the vote, but ongoing refusal to recognise it risks further undermining a democratic process that has already been abused on the campaign trail. Better to accept the result, and then watch the new administration like a hawk. There will be a time to march, to write to representatives, even for civil disobedience, but it’s going to have to be about something specific, something that can actually be stopped. That needs organisation, and it needs patience.
President Trump is not the end of the world. Brexit is not the apocalypse. But on both sides of the Altlantic, we are taking a turn towards a meaner, uglier society. We should not adjust to this new normal. We should resist it. So let’s put that meme to bed, with a little help from Edmund Burke: