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Silence = Violence

In a year of hearing astonishing things, sometimes it’s the words you don’t hear which should be even more staggering.

Yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia, during almost a week of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, a young woman was mowed down and dozens more injured when a far-right supporter rammed his car into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, and then proceeded to accelerate away before being apprehended by State police. The demonstrators (and the woman killed) were attempting to protect the city of Charlotteville’s decision to remove a controversial statue, one that commemorated the Confederate General and slave-owner Robert E. Lee. The young man behind the wheel of the vehicle was one of many who had flooded to Charlottesville to attend the “Unite the Right” rally – the largest assembly of alt-right, far-right, and white extremists along with more traditional conservatives – who wanted to see the statue kept in place.

Words are important. How we talk about things, and what we say, is important.

The words you might expect to hear about this incident are “terrorism” “hate crime” “first degree murder” or similar. You might also expect to hear condemnation of the extremist groups involved; the Klu Klux Klan, the douchy-extremists the Proud Boys, the predictable Neo-Nazi groups. So it is fairly astonishing that Mr Trump refuses to call out the far right ideologies responsible for the murder. The closest he has come so far is:

“We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for.”

Which must feel like slim condolences indeed to the family of the woman murdered.

I say, of course, that we should be staggered by Mr Trump’s silence – but of course we are not. The Alt Right are the ones, after all, who helped meme him into power, and we are seeing at work the now-expected display of good-cop, bad-cop behaviour from the White House. As with North Korea, it is allowable for Trump’s advisors to make conciliatory gestures (VP Vince Pence coming out as condeming the far right) whereas POTUS himself acts the tough guy. It’s a bad rendition of The Apprentice all over again, only this time played out on the big screen of politics, and with people’s lives.

What is less reported about the events in Charlottesville, is that the city has been fighting for its civic life. A state of emergency was declared just yesterday as far right groups flooded the town and went “hunting” the pro-democracy supporters. Members of Redneck Revolt (an anti-Trump, pro-diversity Southern group) were asked by community organisers to help peaceably evacuate a multi-faith prayer meeting when the Unite Rally decided to march across the Virginia college campus, bearing torches, towards the church. In scenes reminiscent of peace campaigners in the sixties, we have also seen human chains protecting the pro-democracy supporters against the hate.

No, we shouldn’t be staggered or astonished by Mr Trump’s silence – but we should all be outraged. The American white extremists have been talking for the last couple of years about how they wish to shift the Overton window, as the right-wing website The Ralph Report puts it:

What this tells us is that even loudly advocating viewpoints you’ve been told are so “toxic” that they will instantly discredit you and your cause can actually be to your benefit, if you just do so boldly, fearlessly. By simply not apologizing for saying the Unthinkable when they tell you to do so, you make it slightly less Unthinkable. And if by saying that Unthinkable thing out loud you inspire other people to do so as well, it might suddenly no longer seem so Unthinkable anymore. Hell, you might find out that what you did was wake up a silent majority!

The thing is, with the Overton Window, and with any public debate it’s not just what you say – whether unthinkable, radical, or toxic or not, it’s also what you don’t say that frames the discourse. This tired good-cop, bad-cop show with the leader of the free world is getting boring, and it’s also just started costing lives.


Travelling Hopefully

“You’re too down on your plants,” my much wiser other half advises me this morning. We are in the process of re-tying and staking the broad beans after the last couple days and nights of storm winds and heavy downpours.

As with most things, she is right. I anticipate the failure of my plants to shoot, or to not grow large enough, or to fall prey to the armies of slugs that hunt the borders. It’s a failing in me, I know. It’s not that I believe any blame belongs on the suckers, runners, shoots and leaves of the poor vegetabilia at all. It’s more a general outsourcing of my own anxieties over success and failure. Catastrophic thinking, they call it, to be either proved ‘correct’ (and hence psychically insulated from the failure) or to be proved ‘false’ (and yay; we have grown squashes!)

The garden is not the only site of my psychodrama; but perhaps it is easier to diagnose between the confines of compost, seed, and thumb. I worry about what will happen after the UK election (whomever wins), I worry about Mrs May’s eagerness to rip apart human rights conventions. I worry about climate change (and the chance of below 2degC rise by 2100 isn’t looking all that great, tbh); I worry about disability rights; I worry about my what could happen to my loved ones.

In short – all of the above might be pretty damn good motivation for some catastrophic thinking. The future does look pretty catastrophic, when viewed from this near distance.

But catastrophizing; or begging-the-failure that we might call it, is no good for growing things. There’s a quote that rings in the mind that goes something like this: ‘only optimists plant gardens’ [I don’t know who said it, but my money’s on Bob Flowerdew]. Lord knows what with the storms, the droughts, the slugs, the unseasonable frosts, the mysterious and sudden giving-up of some varieties you have to have something to keep your spirits up I guess. But it’s more then that as well, isn’t it? It’s the planting of a tree, hoping that one day it will bear apples. I have a growing colony of tree seedlings, with the awareness that I may never see some of them them reach maturity. But someone will.


On the Other Side of Despair

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope, not just in relation to plants, but hope as a mechanism for social change; hope as a mechanism in storygames; hope as an activity, not a statement of intent (although there’s a lot of overlap, right?)

Satre, that doyen and simultaneous go-to punchbag of Parisian intellectualism thought that one should live without ‘hope’, if that hope is the prediction of something to come. In an almost Buddhist turn, Sartre advocates not believing in the future – but rather believing in oneself to effect change. Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, writes in Between Past and Future about how we are stuck as citizens, between the two infinite forces of both past and future. The Past pushes us forward, the Future pushing backwards to re-enact the Past. For Sartre; the anxieties of the moment are the terrible awareness of total responsibility [it’s all on you, chump]. For Arendt; anxiety comes from trying to find freedom as forces seek to dictate to us.

Whilst there are elements to both philosophies that I like, I am drawn more to the Arendtian, as her philosophy suggests that we have to be engaged in the future, if we are even to be morally human. The future for Arendt is not an anonymous burden, or a roulette-wheel as it may seem for Sartre; but instead a site of dialogue. We gain our moral personhood only in hindsight, but by promising-forward.



Today the UK goes to the polls to vote in a new government. By this time tomorrow it’ll all be over except the parade, but I am hoping that this discussion will still be just as relevant. I’m thinking about hope as a mechanism that asks us to promise-forwards. I’m thinking about Robert Louis Stevenson  “travelling hopefully”.

And I’m thinking that maybe it’s time to plant some more salad crops for late cropping.





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