Friday, 27 January 2017

How to oppose populism (even if you're not all that political)

Wherever we live in the western world, we need, sadly, to deal with populism as a political and cultural fact of life.

Populism comes in different forms in different countries.  You can find populism on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.  Right-wing politicians such as Donald J. Trump, Binyamin Netanyahu, Nigel Farage, and Pauline Hanson can all be called populists.  As well, some left-wing politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn, Lee Rhiannon, or Bernie Sanders have populist tendencies.  If you happen to live in Northern Ireland, the province's two main opposing political parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, are both parties with an essentially populist appeal.

Populism bases itself essentially on the search for social and political scapegoats.  Populism seeks to tell the public that, whatever problems exist in the community, the nation, and the world, they're essentially someone else's fault. Someone else can be blamed.   And, what's more, the someone else is someone who is radically different from you:  someone of a different skin colour, someone of a different religious faith, someone of a different language background, ... some bastard who didn't goof off in school as much as you did

As we all are aware, populism has become very influential in recent years.  And, for those of us who want a decent public life in any western (or western-style) nation, populism is the foe we need to confront and defeat.

However, the struggle against populism cannot be a fight that's reserved for those of us who are particularly interested in politics.  If that's the case, the populists have won.  The only way we can successfully resist populism is to ensure that it's not only the political junkies who are doing the resisting.

Here is a somewhat long-ish list of practical suggestions (twelve, to be exact) for opposing populism, even for those who aren't terribly interested in politics.  Find a few of these you can do now.  Don't feel guilty about the others.  (But you may want to pick up on some of the others later, so it may be an idea to bookmark this article on your computer.)

1.  Read

The first suggestion is pretty simple:  read.  Read a lot.  Read different sorts of things.  Read fiction.  Read non-fiction.  Read a daily newspaper, particularly if it's a good one (i.e., one that isn't owned by the Murdoch family).  Better yet, read a number of different papers, if you have the time. 
  • Read non-fiction.  Read fiction. 
  • Read the classics.  Read popular stuff. 
  • Read for work.  Read for pleasure.
Just read!  The fact that Donald Trump says he "never reads" is a good indication of the positive impact that reading has on a person's character.

There are two particular types of fiction that I believe are particularly good for us all to be reading at the present time: nineteenth-century British novels and murder mysteries.  Here's why.

In nineteenth-century British novels, the courtesy and the respect that are almost universally shown by all to all are a useful antidote to the lack of respect and the lack of courtesy that is a mark of our public and private life in the era of populism, in era in which basic human decency is mocked and derided as "political correctness". 

Today, a man who openly mocks a disabled person and who boasts about grabbing women by their private parts can be nevertheless elected to high office.  In the world of the nineteen-century novel, however, everyone is addressed with respect.  Even a misanthrope such as Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge, a hypocrite such as Trollope's Obadiah Slope, or an absolute bounder such as Austen's George Wickham is still spoken to (and about) with courtesy, respect, and decency.  The behaviours now derided as "political correctness" were once the behaviours that showed one was a "lady" or a "gentleman".  Read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest.

And, in the world of the murder mystery, there is great reverence paid to that neglected commodity:  truth.  While a wise Jewish bloke of 2,000 years ago (1) spoke of the truth which liberates (and my undergraduate college - as a result of his words - has the Latin motto Veritas liberabit: "The truth liberates."), many of our populist movers and shakers treat truth as an "optional extra".  We are said to live now in a "post-truth" world in which "alternate facts" abound.  A banal "truthiness" is offered as a substitute for the full and complete truth. 

However, in the world of the murder mystery, there is no such thing as a "post-truth" world.  There are no "alternate facts".  There is no "truthiness" to function as an anaemic substitute for truth.  Truth is precious.   Truth is liberating.  Truth is transformative.  Truth is majestic. 

As well, murder mysteries teach us the important lesson that finding the truth often is hard work.  Sometimes innocence looks like guilt, and guilt looks like innocence.  Sometimes good looks like evil, and evil looks like good.  Holmes, or Poirot, or Miss Marple, or Father Brown, or Rabbi Small, or Phryne Fisher, or any other classic sleuth needs to actively engage what Poirot called "the little grey cells" to discover the liberating, majestic truth.  And using the "little grey cells" is bloody hard work.  And populist politicians hate it when we use our "little grey cells", because it means they'll soon be out of a job.

Read.  We need to create more Fitzwilliam Darcys and Bob Cratchits in a Donald Trump world, and more Jane Marples and Phryne Fishers in a Pauline Hanson world.  Reading helps you do that.

2.   Save

Save some cash, if you can.  Even for those of us without a great deal of disposable income, most of us can find some cash to save.  This accomplishes a few things.
  • Deciding what little economies we can make so as to save a bit gives us practice in using our "little grey cells", so we're less susceptible to populist appeals.
  • Realising that we're well off enough to save some money - even a little bit - combats the "Poor Me!" mentality that fosters the growth of populism. 
  • Having money in the bank - even a little bit - makes a person sceptical toward populism.  Instead, we start looking for ways to Trump-proof, Hanson-proof, and Brexit-proof the modest savings we have.

3.  Donate

Donate some money to a worthy cause, even if it's a small amount.  Do it regularly.  (Just as most of us can find some cash to save, so also most of us can find some cash to donate.)  Find a cause you like and an organisation you trust, whether its focus is local, or global, or a bit of both.  In addition to assisting those who are less well-off than ourselves, donating helps combat the "Poor Me!" attitude in which populism takes root and grows.

4.  Volunteer

Don't just donate your money.  Donate your time.  Volunteer.  Get involved in spending time doing something that helps others.  Whatever you're good at, there's some way to put that skill to use to help someone else.  In addition to helping the people involved, you're also helping yourself to get rid of the "Poor Me!" attitude in which populism grows. 

5.  Join

Join something.  It can be a service club such as Rotary, CWA, or Lions.  It can be a choir, a sporting team, or whatever.  (I'll say more about religious congregations in a later section.)  People who are members of community organisations have a positive impact on their communities.  They make a difference. 

Members of community organisations also tend not to fall for the sense of powerlessness and the "Poor Me!" mentality that encourages the growth of populist politics, on either the right or the left.  Populists want you - and other members of the public - to feel isolated from others.  That's where their power comes from.  Join something.

6.  Mind your manners

Courtesy, respect, and basic human decency cost nothing ... nada ... nix ... zero .... zilch .... zippedy-doo-dah ... and sweet Fanny Adams.  I hope I didn't mince my words here.  It doesn't cost you a thing to be polite and respectful to other people. 

In particular, it doesn't cost you a thing to be polite and respectful to those who are the vulnerable ones in our society:   the poor, the elderly, the disabled, children, women, members of minority groups (whether racial, religious, or cultural), those who are ill in any way.  Trump showed just how pitiful a specimen of humanity he was at the moment when he chose to make fun of a disabled person.

As Aretha Franklin said:  R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

And, if you're a parent, or a grandparent, or an aunt or an uncle, or a teacher, please teach the children for whom you are responsible a similar level of R-E-S-P-E-C-T (particularly respect for the vulnerable).

7.  Develop a taste for classical music

I really believe that a love for classical music ennobles the human spirit.  I really believe that spending time with the music of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, etc. helps most of us to bring out what Abe Lincoln once called (in another context) "the better angels of our nature".

Think about it.  Could you imagine Trump or Hanson choosing to enjoy Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, Bach's Christ lag in Todesbanden, Faure's Requiem, or Purcell's Bell Anthem?  I couldn't. 

8.  Develop a sense of humour

A sense of humour is crucial here.  The only way we can survive with our mental health intact in a world increasingly dominated by the Donald Trumps and the Pauline Hansons is to laugh our little butts off.

Importantly, political humour is only funny when you "punch upwards".  Political humour is never funny when you "punch downwards".  Laugh at the powerful; never laugh at the vulnerable.

9.  Re-connect with your faith tradition

Now, people who know me know I'm a clergy type.  I'm about to talk religion here (as well as in point 10 following this one).  If you can't cope with people talking religion, meet me at point 11 down the page a bit.

Now, I think one of the best ways to resist the Trumps and Hansons of this world is with positive, constructive faith communities.  (Most of the support base for these politicians is among people who have minimal practicing contact with religious faith of any sort.) 

I know these populist characters are trying to network with various ultra-conservative religious weirdos, but the majority of faith communities around the place (of whatever faith you care to name) are not dominated by ultra-conservative religious weirdos.  It may be time to re-connect with the faith of your upbringing, whatever that faith may be.

Find a good local congregation of your faith, one that respects a reasonably wide diversity of beliefs, practices, and lifestyles.  Look around.  You can probably find one in your area.  

If your experience with your faith community in the past (or even in the present) was/is negative, don't be discouraged.  See if you can find a better and more inclusive expression of your faith located in your area.  You probably can.

A good faith community (whether it's called a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, or whatever) could be a great source of support and meaning in confronting the madness of these days.  If you're not part of one, try to re-connect with one.

10.  Learn about someone else's faith tradition

But it's not only a matter of learning about your own faith tradition.  Learn a bit about a faith tradition other than your own.  And, when you do, try to learn from people within that faith, rather than people outside the faith who may have negative attitudes about the faith.  (This idea isn't original to me.  This comes from a brilliant Swedish theology professor and bishop named Krister Stendahl.)

Let me also suggest that, when you do this, that you start by trying to get to know a faith tradition that many of the people around you have a lot of prejudices against.   For many of us, this means that you may start by getting to know the faith of your neighbours who happen to be Jewish, or Muslim, or Mormon, or Catholic.  (Seriously, this would be a brilliant place to start.  And I say this as a person who happens not to be a member of any of these four faith groupings.)  Learn what the faith means to real people in real life.

11.  Make Friends

OK, now, I've stopped talking religion.  Those of you who are a bit religiophobic can come out now.

Another suggestion here is to make friends, particularly to make friends with people who are different from you in significant ways.  Take the initiative to make friends with the sort of person whom you were taught to distrust, to fear, and to hate.  And that's whether you were taught this distrust, hate, and fear by the loudmouth at the pub, by the shock jock on the radio, or at your granny's knee, or possibly even from the pulpit.  And if you are being taught from the pulpit now to hate anyone:  ... change churches ... now(Sorry, I'm talking religion again.) 

By making friends who are racially, religiously, or culturally different from you, you are challenging the whole foundation of populism.  Populism tells us that it's safer to stick with those who are culturally similar to ourselves.  By experiencing the fact that people who are culturally different from us "don't bite" (2), we undermine everything that the professional bigots and the populists stand for.  And that's a good thing.

12.  Get Out More

Populists don't get out a lot.  That's part of what makes a populist a populist.  They stay at home and watch TV.  If they have a job, they go to work.  They go shopping.  They have a quick beer or three at the pub on their way home from work, and then they go home to the tube.

Get out more.
  • If you like sports, go to a live match occasionally rather than just watching it on the tube.
  • If you like music, go to an occasional live concert.
  • See a movie at the cinema occasionally instead of waiting until it's on TV.
Do things that get you out into the wider general public.  Trust me, they won't bite.

I live in a smaller city (Hobart, Tasmania), where we have a wide range of public festivals.  The ones I like to get to every year are the Taste of Tasmania, the Festa Italia, and the Festival of Voices.  There are many others as well.  In a bigger city, wherever you are, there are even more festivals.  These are opportunities to be part of the broad general public enjoying the public event in the public space, and enjoying the reality of the wide variety of people in your area. 

The monk Thomas Merton (here I go, talking religion again)
one day had to leave his monastery to see a dentist.  It was his first time out of the monastery since he became a monk.  As he walked through the city streets, he saw the people passing by, of a variety of races and nationalities (or as much of a variety as you could find in Louisville, Kentucky), and he was almost ecstatic.  He felt a profound connection with the people around him and a profound gratitude for each of them, in their diversity.  He prayed, "God I thank you that I am like other people."

It's this profound gratitude for the whole human race in its all its diversity that will ultimately defeat the populists.

As I said earlier, you don't have to be terribly political to fight Trump, Hanson, and similar populists.  Just be a decent human being.


(1)  Jesus of Nazareth, if you hadn't guessed.

(2)  The importance of learning that people who are culturally different "don't bite" was a comment made in an address by the singer Brian Ritchie at a citizenship ceremony, I attended in Glenorchy, Tasmania, yesterday, 26th January 2017.  Both members of the majority culture in a country and members of minority cultures in the same country need to learn that the others are not a threat and "don't bite".  This can best be achieved through personal friendships.

1 comment:

  1. I'd add another idea of practical value to your already nicely long list - 12. Travel. Seeing other cultures face to face is a great way to discover that people all over the world are essentially similar - they all need food, shelter, affection - and that they are really not all that different from you. This is a surefire way of avoiding an 'us and them' attitude because we end up seeing every individual as important and every culture as being valid. People who simply never wander more than five miles from their place of birth are bound to have a narrower outlook on life than those who travel, even if only to the country next door.


Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.