Nearly a fortnight after Donald Trump became President-elect of the United States we are still reading commentary in the media that suggests the writers still can’t believe it. Something has gone badly wrong with the world, and that bad wrong must be put right. The day after the result Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club (for which outfit, climate change and the need to stop it are more important than anything else) put out this message: This hurts. There’s no way right now to ease the shock and dismay of what we’re facing this morning. The pain is real — and so much of the people and places that we love — and the values that we hold dear — are now threatened. I called home late last night to hear that my kids cried themselves to sleep, and I know that for millions of people the fear is even more visceral.
Two days later came this one: It’s been 2 days since Trump won. I’ve barely slept. End of Paris climate deal. End of the EPA. End of federal clean energy. More drilling. More coal. More pipelines. More lives destroyed. More wildlife bulldozed. It’s all on the line.
Brune is still putting out these messages, encouraging the faithful to donate money. OK, he is partisan, and he sees his endeavours to be in danger. But many mainstream reporters, commentators and analysts seem to be infected with the same cataract-like vision-impairment. From the Australian papers I have read has come a stream of annoyance, ‘horror’, outrage and general angst at an election outcome in another country. It wasn’t supposed to happen, and some still don’t get it. Suddenly what our politicians are doing and saying has to be interpreted as part of ‘Trumpism’. So Bill Shorten is speaking out on 457 visas is taking a leaf out of Trump’s book, Barnaby Joyce is said to be doing the same, though I can’t see any real change in his behaviour or utterances. And the stuff I read sometimes seems way off, at least to me.
One of my favourite columnists (no names needed — I’m not pursuing individuals) has written to suggest that we are likely to see the rise of a fascist dictatorship in the US. He quoted Noam Chomsky (who is about as far to the left as you can be in the US) predicting before the election as follows: I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election. Well, the polls didn’t ever say that, as far as I can remember, and the crazed Republicans, whoever they are, didn’t win the election. Hillary lost it, as the numbers are increasingly showing. She just didn’t draw the numbers outside her heartland, indeed compared to 2012 Democratic voters for President in 2016 were 2.4 million fewer. Trump campaigned in the disaffected states, and he drew the votes in sufficient numbers to win.
But what caught my eye especially in the column was the following. The challenge [at a meeting in the USA about health-care]…was to develop a public health manifesto in the period before the swearing-in of the American President-elect. In reality, such agendas should be supported by all international organisations and all people of good social conscience who are concerned about divisiveness, inequity, misogyny, ignorance, hate, racism, marginalisation and persecution of minorities. Why on earth, in reality, should the rest of the world support an American health manifesto? There is a thumpingly large assumption in all this, if you think about it, which is that these concerns are superior to everything else. And they can’t be, for everyone. Other Americans have other concerns about jobs, about schooling, about retirement, about falling living standards, about immigration — about all sort of things. We in Australia have another raft of concerns, aside from those listed. To the surprise and even indignation of the progressives, the rest of America stood up and voted for someone who was talking about issues that concerned them, not those that are the current concern of ‘progressives’.
So I ask again: why did the columnist think all people of good social conscience in Australia should be supporting the development of a public health manifesto in the USA? The answer, I think, is that he and all right-thinking people — those who see themselves as progressive, who see the world as full of problems that need to be solved tomorrow, who listen to and watch the ABC and read the ‘better newspapers’, and so on — see these as the real issues in today’s society. Other things, like defence, jobs, poor transport, the size of the debt, access to water for irrigation, suicides in regional areas, the creeping strangulation by red tape in many parts of our life — these aren’t the real issues, and they are boring too, unless they are connected to the real issues, which are those the columnist listed above. Moreover, there is an assumption that all these issues are solvable, by government action and a groundswell of popular support. But they’re not.
Think about it. Take divisiveness. What exactly are we talking about here? It’s a new word, though the Latin root is part of a lot of English words. Even the Internet dictionaries make it only the noun version of divisive, and bring in notions of discord and unrest. I don’t know what the columnist had in mind. I wasn’t cheering for Tony Abbott’s Team Australia, when it came out, but he was presumably asking us to not be divisive. I might be concerned about it if I knew what it applied to. If it means reacting to immigrants, or Jews, or Muslims, or soccer fans, then it’s been about for a long time. How governments can stop it I don’t know. What it has to do with a public health manifesto isn’t clear either.
Take inequity, another buzz word of today. It is a word you’ll find in the Shorter Oxford, and has meant a want of justice, or an example of unfairness, since the mid 16th century. There seems to be a view that there is more inequity now than there used to be. Maybe so, maybe so not. Maybe there’s more inequality (not the same thing) than there used to be. Again, maybe so not. How much inequality ought there to be? There seems to be a shared fantasy that governments can make us all equal. I’ve written about this before (here, here and here). It is simply rubbish.
Misogyny? Literally, from ancient Greek, woman-hating. What does that have to do with a public health manifesto? In terms of government, we in Australia are hearing a lot about ‘domestic violence’, whose incidence seems to be slowly declining, while it is a steady item in the news. We have laws about it, and the laws are applied. Today’s police will intervene in cases of it, whereas in the past there was some reluctance to do so on their part. Ignorance? About what, exactly? Health? Who won the American presidential election? Hate? Heaven help me. Hate about what? What is government supposed to do about it? Marginalisation? Persecution of minorities? In Australia? By whom, which ones, where, evidence?
My columnist has listed a string of issues that concern him, issues which he thinks should be at the top of everyone’s worries. In fact, they are a group of poorly defined and rather abstract issues, and most of them are salient for relatively small groups of our citizens, and of the citizens of the USA. No matter. They are the ones that appear again and again on news broadcasts, in what politicians say and in the pages of the better newspapers. Readers and viewers might be inclined to think that they are the whole. But they are not. They are a small subset of the issues that concern the people of a whole society. Like ‘climate change’, which really concerns about seven per cent of Australians, they are important for small numbers of people. That doesn’t mean we should ignore them. But it does mean that we should remember, from time to time, that most people out there are trying to make a living, buy a house, bring up kids, get them to school, make sure they keep within a budget. They have other anxieties to grapple with.
And from time to time the electorate heaves an angry sigh and points to these more humdrum, but real and daily concerns that ordinary people have. It takes commentators some time to sort it out, I agree. There is still a sense, as with Brexit, that the people got it wrong, or even that some of them shouldn’t be taken seriously. That’s why I like decent elections.