In the year of Trump, Brexit, intolerance and fear, where can one look to for hope?
I am coming out of the closet. For years, I attempted to disguise my political opinions from everyone except those who know me best. As a journalist I believed that I should leave my personal views at home and that even my closest colleagues should not be able to guess how I vote. But I have changed and so has the world, and I feel that to remain silent now would be a rejection of the values that I hold most dear. And values matter. They, and not facts and theories, are what divide and unite us.
The last year has not been a pleasant one for those of us with a lifelong liberal disposition. The election of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit referendum in the UK were low points in a year with few highs. Those two events represented for me the triumph of fear and anger and hatred over tolerance and courage and empathy – even if I accept that that is, in fact, not quite fair, and that many of those who voted for Trump and Brexit were not motivated by anger and hatred. Fear, though, that’s another matter. I do think that most of those who voted for Trump and Brexit did so for reasons of fear – fear of migrants, Muslims, minorities, the Other. And also because of that most ghoulish of modern phenomena, counterfactual nostalgia: that desire to return to a wonderful time in the past which never actually existed.
I find this deeply depressing. Liberals, socialists, progressives, leftists are in retreat in most parts of the world. We became complacent and lost our nerve, and our elected representatives often ruled badly and with contempt, and deserved to be thrown out of power. Some of ‘us’ have crossed over, in order to, as ‘they’ now put it, ‘respect the will of the people’. And some have joined in the vituperation that marks the current western discourse on migration and minorities – and have not always stopped short of outright racism. I haven’t crossed over, and I won’t.
In the country of my birth, the UK, the left has retreated politically into self-righteous fratricidal warfare. It shows no signs of wishing to win an election or even of imparting any kind of vision of the society it would like to build. The centre has dissolved and the right is triumphant, full of the passionate intensity that once was a feature of the left. My adopted country, India (no longer, sadly, my home), has become a place of theatrically majoritarian politics, in which former liberals comfortably discuss the pros and cons of authoritarian government. The passing of the old coalition-building politics of yesteryear, which necessitated a tolerance of the Other, is unlamented, and understandably so given the hopelessness of the last two years of the Congress-managed coalition. It has been a bleak period for tolerance and diversity in India.
Now, I was one of the few among my friends who correctly and gloomily predicted the two most important electoral results of 2016 – Trump and Brexit. Not, I think, because of any great psephological insight on my part. It may instead be a deep-set pessimism about the Western world, particularly its closet racism, concealed and disguised for decades. I have felt for many years that beneath the old cod-liberal exteriors of a lot of my fellow British countrymen and women beat many hearts of stone. These are people who, ultimately, find it hard to find any sympathy for people beyond their own communities or who do not resemble them in colour or religion or language. And now it has become acceptable, even ‘normal’, to be unembarrassed by that lack of sympathy. I think, when I am at my most pessimistically despondent, that actually most of the world is like that.
Sometimes all this can feel overwhelming, as if I have suddenly realised that I am at the wrong end of history. That my confidence in the ultimate victory of a certain set of values, which constitute my idea of progress and of justice, is flawed. The new victors will say that people like me always had more sentiment than sense. That I am a bleeding heart, a dreamer who needs to grow up, get real – and even shut up. That my idealism would be fine in a 20 year old, but is downright embarrassing in someone who is well into his 50s. I am no good at silence, but I do have to accept that my views are, for now, not those of the majority. And my opinions on, for instance, people’s right to freedom of movement are held only by a minuscule minority.
Do I have much reason for hope, then? Not immediately. A rough beast is slouching towards Washington, and it’s clear that President Trump (how strange those two words, conjoined, still sound) will have nothing to offer to people who think like me. The politics of the UK will be dominated by its European divorce for a long time to come. There’s a prospect of a swing to the far right in France and in Germany – both facing elections in 2017.
But I do try to remind myself that, probably, time and demography are on my side. In the very long-run, so much has improved in areas which formed such a key part of the original progressive vision – from poverty, child mortality, female literacy, a commitment to safeguarding the environment, to the acceptance of homosexuality and the treatment of minorities – that it is hard to imagine a genuine, sustained worldwide reversal on any of these issues. And I’m comforted that the young seem to be the strongest defenders of liberal values. They did not vote for Brexit or for Trump – and seem to support a progressive vision of a more just society. Some may shift to the right, but still there is hope in the young. It will take time – for as the Irish poet Seamus Heaney once wrote, “and in the dirt lay justice like an acorn in the winter”. It may be a long winter, and the sapling oak will need protection.
Sam Miller is a former BBC journalist. His most recent book is a translation from of Once Upon a Time in India: the Marvellous Adventures of Captain Corcoran (Juggernaut 2016) by Alfred Assollant. His previous books include Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity and A Strange Kind of Paradise: India through Foreign Eyes.