Sunday, 15 January 2017

Trump That By Marching

Well January 20th looms and many of us are wondering how on earth someone with the opinions and experience of Donald Trump has been elected president of the USA. If ever I have been tempted to listen to voices that suggest I've overstated the case in defence of women's rights, this election has persuaded me that I have not! If ever I have been distracted by critics arguing that a 'soft' approach to the general misogyny and racism around is better than a direct approach, I repent! If ever I have allowed arguments that theological or philosophical views demeaning women or particular groups of people should be tolerated, I hang my head in shame! But while I think Trump's views about women and people who, in his opinion, are 'other' disqualify him from fitness for office, I don't think attitudes to gender, race and immigration explain Clinton's defeat or his election. All those things are part of a much deeper, more complex and potentially future-shaping phenomenon. 

Image from

One of the best articles I've seen on the Trump phenomenon is by Parag Khama titled 'Want To Understand How Trump happened? Study Quantum Physics'. It's on the blog Minds and Machines here. Khama argues that the whole of this decade, of which we are at the midpoint, will be remembered as 'the period when the global underclass revolt snowballed into a movement with political bite.' We have witnessed many, disparate movements growing up in apparently unconnected ways which are now challenging government and, more fundamentally, preconceptions about how societies are structured across the world.

So how is quantum physics relevant? Khan believes that just as Newtonian physics was based on apparently immutable laws which quantum mechanics showed to be insufficient to explain the complexity underpinning the micro-world, so the major political systems on which societies and global relations are based are now being shown up as incapable of containing the reality of global interconnectedness. In QM units are difficult to quantify and are in perpetual motion, invisible objects occupy space and exert pressure and the whole structure relies on probabilities, not certainties. Meaning is therefore relational or relative rather than absolute. Just as QM shook the Newtonian universe 100 years ago, there is a geopolitical revolution underway at the start of the 21st century.

In the political model we are used to, control over territory tends to trump (sorry!) all other considerations. When two forces collide in the political arena as well as in physics, one must give way and from the 17th century onwards (modernity) various models such as imperialism, capitalism, communism and now technological dominance have been used to provide the structure within which we all think and exercise or experience power. It is common parlance, now, to say that the 21st century will be one of complexity. We recognise that we live in a global network that has recently seen the end of the cold war, the  economic advance of South America, China and India, an increase in the mobility of labour and capital, rapid population growth with surging demand for commodities, and unprecedented technological development. We know (or most of us do!) that global warming is not itself the major problem facing existence, but the causes of it are and time to address them is running out. Quite small events and movements are contributing to massive and unpredicted change. Khan gives examples that, interestingly, range from ISIS and Al Qaeda to the Bill Gates Foundation to show how the power of relatively small organisations or even an individual can unexpectedly create new conditions.

This worldwide connectivity takes many forms - energy, knowledge, data, basic commodities like water and food, finance, transport  - and is now so complex that we are beginning to see the overthrow of political order as it has been understood for centuries. We have seen this in the emergence of Russia, the financial crash of 2008, the Arab Spring, the resurgence of the extreme right in Europe, Bexit and, now, the US election. We are seeing increasing numbers of 'feedback loops' producing unexpected outcomes. (Who would have guessed that the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would lead to increasing US isolationism, for example?) Are we in fact reaching the point where no leader, superpower, organisation, ethical, political or philosophical system appears to any of us robust enough to stand outside or above the whole? There is a loss of objectivity, a loss of trust in 'fact' and rationalism (who needs experts?) and a breakdown of regard for truth (as one person said in an interview I heard recently, 'If the facts suggest you have nothing worth hoping for, then who wants facts?') In different ways, in different cultures respect for authority - government, religions, media, knowledge - is crumbling. Faith in those who make you feel good within your own immediate cultural setting then becomes a given.

Because of the degree to which we are all now interdependent, it is no longer easy to identify consistently obvious 'others'. People are quick to try finding and naming them, but, in fact, they exist more in propaganda-fed minds and hearts than in reality. Put it like this: if your children and elderly parents are cared for by people whose origins lie in a different culture from your own, and your work depends on the contribution of people living half way across the world, while their livelihoods depend on market forces in a third part of the world over which neither of you has any direct influence, then who or what is the 'other'? And you may be tempted to despair or to focus on just a tiny part of the picture to find an object to hold responsible for your situation. 

The Trump phenomenon is, I believe, the result of the new, emerging political order in which there is a struggle going on to redefine the basic players and concepts. But here, I think, philosophy and religion help us. We have long learned to suspect rational absolutes and to question the means by which they are arrived at, especially in places where many cultures meet and engage. But where people of many backgrounds do engage there usually emerges some kind of slow recognition process. Every group has its way of identifying and speaking about truth, respect, authority, justice, harmony, care. And the way forward is through spotting the commonalities and being honest about the contradictions. What appears so worrying about Trump's political canvass is that he appears to play with these concepts in a capricious manner, demonstrating little consistency and saying things that sound contradictory. Much has been written in the press (and they are in the frontline of having to deal with this) about Trump's alleged 'gas lighting'. Frankly I am not convinced he does it intentionally so much as accidentally - unaware that he is playing with 'truth' until it gets him into trouble. That is possibly more worrying than if it were a deliberate, planned assault on truth.

What can we do other than engage with the political processes of our own countries, use our powers of comment, persuasion and protest, and bring to bear on the next four years our very best understanding of fundamentals like truth, justice, respect, harmony, care? We are all going to have to be vigilant and far more active and radical in speaking out, beginning with listening to other points of view, voting, campaigning and acting as agents of change. No path too small! Begin where you are! And let's make sure that the 21st century political revolution is shaped as much by women as it is by men.

For anyone concerned about issues such as women's contribution to peace brokering, female representation in government, education for women, women's health and access to contraception, equal pay and maternity rights, violence against women and how the justice system impacts on women, one place to start is

Join a march in your locality or link up with other people who have similar concerns and are working in similar areas.