Silver Linings

It wasn’t the best of times. And the news frequently made it feel like the worst. I spent all but a few days in a fog of exhaustion. I had little time for movies and even less for books. I attended fewer concerts than in any year since 1988. Even sporting events I always used to watch live were experienced through my DVR. But I’ll still remember 2015 fondly.

Why? Because, against considerable odds, the last twelve months have restored my capacity for hope. That may seem counter-intuitive, given all of the badness multiplying around the world. But I think there are reasons to rein in despair.

1) I still don’t think Trump has much chance of being elected President of the United States. Nonetheless, it is obvious to me how much support he has been able to secure by saying things that even his fellow Republican candidates were reluctant to share. Millions of white Americans are clearly inspired by the Donald’s blustery button-pushing. Yet there is also no denying that his willingness to state aloud what other politicians keep to themselves has made it possible to mobilize a broad-based coalition to oppose him. And the constraints imposed by the belief that “polite company” is possible have given way to free-wheeling invocations of fascism. For those of us who have been saying for years that the United States is starting to feel like the Weimar Republic, this could be a crucial step towards meaningful mainstream critique.

2) The same goes, on the flip side, for the surprising impact that Bernie Sanders has has had on the Democratic Presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton will probably still win the nomination in a landslide. But the fact that a Jewish politician with a thick Brooklyn accent has helped to make “socialism” a concept that is taken seriously by those who prefer to stand in the middle of the road does give me hope. Particularly since a lot of Sanders’ support comes from young people who will be voting for the first time. Witnessing my teenage daughter’s enthusiasm for this gruff old man’s message, as well as its reflection in the social media she prefers, did a lot to counter all the pundits declaring that the political process in the United States was hopelessly broken.

3) The destabilizing effects of climate change have become increasingly difficult to deny, even though many conservatives still refuse to acknowledge its existence. This is scary, of course. But I would rather have people fearfully discussing the weather than using it as a way to confirm their complacency. It is particularly heartening to me that a lot of people who used to get tripped up on the concept of “global warming” were finally able to understand that extreme cold can also be an effect of the environmental devastation that puts us all at risk. When I found myself in the heart of the polar vortex during a trip to Louisville, Kentucky in February, I was grateful, as a desert dweller, to have a taste of “real” winter, but more grateful still that, even in that increasingly conservative state, the idea that the weather was at least partially the result of the anthropocene had a lot of currency.

4) The horrible refugee crisis created by the disaster centered in Syria and the concomitant rise of the Islamic State has brought out the worst in millions of people. At the same time, though, it has made it possible for many more to realize with a new degree of clarity that it is no longer possible to contain the problems we create “over there”. What we do and, more pressingly, allow to be done in our name unspools a chain of consequences that will impact us at home. Although there may not have been much agreement on how to respond to the crisis, I found it encouraging to see it being perceived as the by-product of policy decisions by global powers, rather than merely an outgrowth of “natural” conditions in the Middle East.

5) As grim as the mounting evidence of police violence against people of color here in the United States may be, the fact that there is so much awareness of practices that, to be honest, have been a national disgrace for decades at least holds the potential to compromise those leaders who seem to support them, such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Yes, the Black Lives Matter movement has, like Donald Trump’s rhetoric, revealed just how much racism still exists in “post-racial” American society. But I firmly believe that it is better for problems to be out in the open. I was repeatedly struck, throughout the year, by the degree to which suspicion towards the government as a whole was no longer being deflected away from the police. While one of the reasons for that has to do with a conservative movement to break public sector unions, it wasn’t the only reason. And I would rather have corruption exposed in the ranks of those empowered to use lethal force in the name of the State than see naked obedience to the “law-and-order” mentality.

Photograph courtesy of the author