What else is part of this perplexing question of how to “get to better”?
During my college days I spent eighteen months in graduate school in the USA (obtained an M.A. in Education and Social Reform). It was an interesting time. One afternoon, three of us, all with theological roots (former Jesuit, Anglican deacon, Presbyterian renegade) were on a bridge on the campus of the University of Minnesota. In the midst of that immense campus straddling the mighty Mississippi River, there was a delightful quad almost completely grass covered, lined by stately buildings and trees, ideal for student gatherings. On that afternoon, on a date that could be easily goggle’d, there was a very large rally against the Vietnam War — the target of choice for almost all campus rallies at that time in the USA. While we were standing there listening to the speeches, the Anglican told us to be quiet (or words to that effect) as he turned up the news on his transistor radio. A reporter from the campus in Kent Ohio was telling of an encounter the students had with the National Guard — he thought that at least four students were dead. We wondered what would happen at the U of M rally if this news got out. Eventually it did, but people didn’t fully believe it so the rally ended without any violence. Later that evening, or perhaps the next evening, the ROTC (Regular Officers Training Corps) building on campus was bombed. The reaction was — what could people expect from the New Left? They were obviously anti-American and needed to be condemned…
At the same time, in certain pockets on different campuses there were counter-demonstrations. Not necessarily linked or well-coordinated, these people would show up at certain rallies and attempt to wreck a bit of mayhem. They loved Barry Goldwater, they believed that North Vietnam should be “nuked”, their Christmas cards were pictures of B-52 bombers dropping their arsenal on Hanoi or some other Viet Cong target, and any who might take notice of them were simply labeled “the Cong lovers”. No one paid them any notice when they would violently protest again the New Left — it was the New Left that was the target. They, the New Left, were the “commie lovers”, the “peaceniks”, the “idealists”. The media covered the protests, but only really covered the New Left and all the negative stuff they were doing and how they espoused anti-American values by not supporting the troops as they returned (alive, wounded or in body bags). A few years later there was an horrific bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City — a white, new right extremist group was behind it and every one wondered “how did that happen?”
Today the media is all lathered up about the Alt-Right, some kind of surprise emergence of fascist ideology that everyone thought was, if not dead, certainly reduced to a few mental ingrates locked in cavernous cells in the hills of some confederate states. The KKK (Ku Klux Klan) was thought to have been last seen in the movie The Cardinal, and David Duke was simply a minstrel who had lost his sense of musical tonality. Few bother to draw the links back to the New Left/New Right issues of the late sixties, early seventies. And certainly no one wants to talk about anything like the Alt Left these days. Everyone who is against the Alt-Right and its apparent wanton disregard for life, is deemed to be perfect. They are in favour of all things good and there is no need to have a conversation about “getting to better” because they are against fascism and therefore are above reproach.
It is interesting therefore to note recent activities in Quebec City where a Canadian offshoot of this Alt-Right phenomenon decided to have a rally that was perceived to be somewhat anti-Muslim. A group of masked people appeared, cornered the rallyists in an underground parkade and then proceeded to attack the police, the news media, and just about anyone they thought was not “them”. When asked by one daring news reporter, why “they” were wearing face masks, the answer was “so those other guys won’t be able to recognize us!” What kind of answer is that for someone that is supposed to be upholding “the truth”? Why would anyone against the Alt-Right feel the need to cover-up? Ought they not to be considered heroes of the hour? Shouldn’t they be given immediate induction into the Order of Canada for their efforts to preserve “Canadian values”?
And so it is in 2017 that maybe we haven’t moved as far as we would like to think from 1967. Perhaps the past fifty years has simply shown us that when we don’t shun in equal parts those extremists on either end of the spectrum, sooner or later one of the extremes will gain the foreground and the fight resumes. We have seen it in the struggle for gender equality — some of the women, now empowered, instead of working to ensure all move forward together, seek to squelch any male initiative as if being a male automatically means “chauvinist” or worst. We see it in the immigration vs refugee debates — no one wants to talk about what the country needs going forward, rather it is that we must accept everyone without question because of Canadian values (and then when too many show up at the door or climb over the fence, we say “how did this happen?”).
Just what kind of a world are we leaving for our Grandkids? At the moment it seems the most helpful moves that level the playing field are provided by technology, with little regard for the social or even psychological impacts: Amazon (gone are the little book stores that actually let you brouse and would have conversations about interesting writers), Wal-Mart (gone are the local merchants and grocers who sold what we wanted not what could be obtained from Asia or some other poor country at rock-bottom prices), Uber (providing uncertain, but often more polite drivers), Google (answers so quick, we never get to explore the question anymore). Are we “getting to better”? — I’m not sure. With all the labeling and the increasing sense of isolation, perhaps people are actually moving away from the centre. More and more of them are now conditioned to expect the quick answer, the magic wand, the disregard for conversation. As a result they gravitate towards the voice-box that looks like a sure thing — “Make the USA Great Again” — “We give you Sunny Ways” — “We are an Island, let’s keep it that way” and on and on it goes…
I am not without hope though. Perhaps if enough of us will step back and look at where we are and what might be alternatives going forward, maybe we can start the conversation a-new. Maybe we can get people in power to realize they have to relinquish some of it, or at least share it more openly and vigorously. Maybe we can get people who are lonely to realize that they are not alone, but they don’t have to rebel to be heard. Perhaps we need to promote on a daily basis the idea that first and foremost, each of us needs to try a little harder with a little more compassion “to get to better”.