Point Austin: The Best of Times …
Remaining optimistic in a world spinning into darkness
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
I'm sure I'm not the only Austinite wondering how to think clearly about our politics and our culture in this polarized historical moment. Every incident, and every political episode, seems to be split in two. I'm happy to applaud the actions of my neighbors – Council Member Greg Casar, Rev. Jim Rigby, Heather Busby, and dozens of others – in their quixotic sit-in protest at Gov. Greg Abbott's offices Monday. I am simultaneously alarmed at the realization that the Legislature and the governor remain determined to beat their chests and flex their financial muscles at "sanctuary cities" – places where, as the Republican fantasy has it, criminal immigrants are running loose in the streets because local law enforcement is keeping the peace rather than arresting refugees.
That sense of discord goes double nationally, where Donald Trump's administration sees enemies everywhere – among Mexicans, Muslims, and refugees – yet is happy to embrace Chinese despots, Russian oligarchs, even dictatorial Filipino thugs. At the same time, it's been gratifying to see the persistent outpouring of widespread public opposition, beginning Inauguration Day and continuing through last weekend's climate change protests. A large mass of people continue to insist that the emperor has no clothes, and despite the current capture of government by anti-science demagogues, public support for scientific research and environmental protection remains strong.
The statement released by Casar following his arrest for protesting SB 4 suggests the structural contradiction between what's necessary and what's possible. "I did not, and do not, expect that Governor Abbott will do the right thing. Communities across Texas have worked tirelessly for months to stop Senate Bill 4. We will only defeat this dangerous and discriminatory law if we continue to fight it every step of the way."
So here we are. The climate change marches seem particularly to encapsulate our absurd political moment, in that millions of people here and abroad (and indeed even most governments) realize the necessity of concerted international action against global warming – now accelerating at rates that shock even the climatologists – while the new U.S. administration is almost literally sticking its head in the sand, even erasing taxpayer-funded scientific reports from government web pages and withholding the research data that document the effects of climate change and the slim prospects for reversal.
It's certainly necessary to point out, denounce, and protest the reactionary policies that lead to (in these examples) abuse of immigrants and willful ignorance of science. But those policies also raise much broader issues of cultural disarray, even dissolution. In which of our schools, colleges, and communities were such public officials "educated," when they cannot bring themselves to offer alternative, "conservative" solutions to obvious social and environmental problems, but instead respond by denying those problems exist? What kind of a common culture have we built, if our dominant political options remain military adventures abroad, suspicion and oppression of "the other" at home, and an absurd determination to pretend we can wreak environmental havoc for decades without suffering the inevitable consequences?
As that initial 1859 quote from Dickens (writing of a period 80 years earlier still) reflects, ours is hardly the first era to experience a popular conviction that we are approaching the end of days, or in which (to cite another poet) "the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." Internationally, we have lived for decades under the shadow of nuclear holocaust (a fear undergoing an unwelcome revival under Trump). In more recent years, the growing threat of environmental catastrophe has added its own layers of uncertainty and even widespread despair.
Such scientific knowledge lends additional layers of melancholy to the understanding that our politics – not just in the U.S., but across Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere – seem to be heading pell-mell in the wrong direction. If we hope to address the international crises – in militarism, in dislocated populations, in loss of resources, in environmental degradation, in potential climate catastrophe – we can only do so by a local, national, and international collaboration in political understanding. Yet everywhere we look, our politics are polarized, centrifugal, and spinning out of control.
Is this the season of Light, or the season of Darkness? Are we all going direct to Heaven, or direct the other way? We can find out only in action, and in each of us doing our level best not to surrender to fanaticism and malice.