How Now Shall We Live?
The dark cloud lingering over the national election is passing, but even darker clouds loom on the late-January horizon. The future of the nation seems to be a spiral of uncertainty. Gains in social progress and human rights hard-fought for over the decades seem to be at risk to an ideology of fear and distrust. How could America stoop so low to have this happen?
It’s easy to get cynical about national elections. Being registered to vote in a deeply red state (Idaho), I knew a vote either way wouldn’t change the national outcome. The Electoral College masks the voice of the people, instead turning the power of the popular vote into a pundit’s game. But with extra hope for democracy, I made sure to cast my absentee ballot. In the end, my suspicions were proven; my presidential vote far from mattered, with the winning candidate leading by 31 percentage points in my state regardless.
I watched the outcome on election night with my shipmates in New York, hovering over a smartphone below decks as the results trickled in. Hopes for a promising outcome were initially high. An air of disbelief gradually set in as key states on the east coast began to turn solidly red. Optimism gradually dampened. Late into the night, the tone turned somber and morose as the reality of the outcome sunk in.
There would have been no other place I’d rather be to watch the results than on the Clearwater. The ship is meant to be a safe place. It is meant to be an inclusive community, free from the hate and bigotry that have marred recent national politics. Individuals from all walks of life find themselves aboard the Clearwater. Whether you like the people you end up around on the ship often becomes irrelevant when you must cooperate with each other to form a functioning environment (though I’d say we really do actually like each other aboard the Clearwater). We’re all we have on the ship; we have to look out and take care of each other no matter who we may be.
I wish the ship could serve as a model for how our nation ought to operate. America is a vast mosaic of cultures and ideas and values that has been functioning continuously for over 260 years. The social narrative of this nation has been one of gradually recognizing that the inalienable rights originally granted in the Constitution are inherent to every human being—rights for women, ethnic minorities, indigenous people, religious groups, refugees, gender identities, sexual orientations, disabilities, immigrants, the impoverished and beyond. At the large national scale, it’s easy to become afraid of those groups of people who are different than you. We preferentially segregate ourselves to be with others similar to us. The outsiders—they are unknown, impersonal, different. They might try and change our comfortable status quo, we reason. When relations with the alien other remain impersonal, it’s easy to slip into stereotyping and generalizing fear and distrust. But if instead we were to know our neighbors—to actually learn who we are in community with—how different could things be? In the words of Clearwater’s founder Pete Seeger, “I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.” If only our nation could behave like a small village, knowing and understanding our neighbors, then maybe cooperation and compassion could win out over fear.
Personally, I’d hate to slip into the cynicism that I have no control in how the nation goes. We’re the second largest democracy in the world, holder of the largest worldwide economy, and home to 320 million people. America is an immense nation; an individual can easily feel overwhelmed by changes in national politics. But the future of our society, I believe, must be won at the level of the individual. Grassroots efforts at change in this nation have and will continue to bubble up and will ultimately succeed in crafting a society of equality and fraternity. These efforts will face many setbacks along the way. But keep on. Don’t get disheartened. As grassroots activist Pete Seeger believed, “the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” Though cynical about politics on a national and even a state level, I know voting still remains a fundamental act of resistance. Be part of your community. Go and vote in local elections.
The people’s voice may not have been heard this time, but we will be heard in the future. In the meantime, there is work to be done in the village. Bigotry and hate start locally, even within oneself. This must be stamped out. But it won’t be easy.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago