autocratic tendencies: is the president changing us?

Next week, Helsinki, Finland will host a Trump-Putin Summit. President Trump has requested that he be guaranteed a meeting with Vladimir Putin in total privacy, with no witnesses present. As these two leaders come together, I am saddened by their apparent similarities, and even more grieved by the impact they have on the rest of us. A year ago this week, Presidents Trump and Putin met face to face for the first time during the G20 gathering in Hamburg, Germany. In an article juxtaposing violent protests with that friendly and longer-than-planned encounter, in which both parties accepted as fact assurances repeatedly disproven by professional journalists and intelligence agencies, Edward Lucas, writing for CNN, reports “the sight of two autocratic, media-hating leaders with dodgy business connections getting together.” He describes Putin and the President of the United States, our President, with the same words: “autocratic”, “media-hating” and “with dodgy business connections.”

While it is easy to lament the similarities in these two leaders, and the abandonment of an honorable ideal that President Trump represents in my view, I am more concerned with the trickle down effect I see him having on the cultural norms of Americans. What happens to a society when there is no expectation of integrity in the leaders upon whose discernment we depend? What happens when strength and leadership are proven through unchecked power and unilateral decision forcing? What happens when people in power decide who is safe, who is human, and who is welcome, while all others are treated as hostile, animalistic and terrifying? What happens when differences of opinion are demonized and multiple angles of an issue are excluded as biased, fake news? 

I’m afraid that “what happens” in these hypothetical instances are the things we see happening all around us. Our multi-branched government can’t function with an autocratic leader, and inciting violent disdain for reporters who challenge authority undermines a society that theoretically champions our 1st Amendment. Despite the perspective coming from the White House, encountering diverse perspectives strengthens my ability to appreciate others, increases my understanding of complicated issues I need to navigate, and contextualizes my experience as an adult living in Nashville, TN in 2018. Autocratic leadership forgets that we need each other. I suspect that a quick glance at any of our pasts demonstrates the idea that we are all encouraged, challenged, matured, helped or advanced by the input of others.

We know what our President refutes. Humanity only works in community.

We not only need others, we specifically need people whose experiences differ from ours. During last year’s G20 Summit, my 13 year old learned to ride a motorcycle at my parents’ farm. My dad taught me to ride when I was 8, and his bikes had not been started for years. While I could teach my son the delicate rhythm required between the clutch and gears, or the ins and outs of cranking, braking and balancing, I did not have the experience required to take a carburetor apart. Luckily, my dad does, so my son not only learned to ride a dirt bike, but how to take apart, clean and rebuild a carburetor as well. Yes, I could teach him to ride, but no, I could not have started the bike in the first place without my dad’s distinct experience and expertise. We need each other.

Nevertheless, I see evidence, modeled best by our President, that our society is functioning in a way that meets difference with not just skepticism, but outright disdain. This is a failing strategy. Surely each of us knows our experiences would be severely limited if we refused to hear or learn from the people around us. Knowing this, we must expose the idea of being “autocratic” as a terrible way to lead. Deriving all knowledge exclusively from the self is limiting. When that self has unchecked power, it leads to tyranny, and is an affront to American governance.

Autocracy is decidedly not democracy. Nevertheless, consider: Are we moving toward autocratic ways of thinking and acting? We see these traits in our President as he discredits a disagreeing judge, refuses to follow the suggestions of an office created to help him manage his affairs ethically, insults people who approach a problem from different angles, ignores experts, uses Twitter to bully and even fire supporters, shames allies and dismisses professional reporters as irrelevant and dangerous. We cannot change his habits. Indeed, it appears we cannot even challenge his proven track record of unethical speech, action and business deals. Even as we find ourselves powerless in the face of such autocratic and media hating habits, we can actively resist our tendencies to follow his lead. 

Just as importantly, as a person who has been offended by our President dozens of times, I also speak to those of us who self-righteously claim to be nothing like him. Sure, it is easy to spot friends who make life choices based on a foundation of fear and mistrust of the ‘Other.’ Sure, it is easy to roll my eyes at people whose news sources prove to be driven not by facts and thoughtful reporting but by allegiance to a specific perspective. Sure, it is easy to pity people who live in a virtual hivemind, only trusting those who share a single perspective.

Here is the kicker: I do the same! I have autocratic tendencies! I belong at the Trump-Putin Summit!

Am I capable of dismissing the perspective of a person I disdain? Am I capable of thinking I know all, that I am best equipped to make a decision without consulting others? Am I capable of behaving unethically in certain parts of my life, while galloping across the moral high ground when it suits me? Am I capable of distrusting someone because of a stereotype, or ignoring experiences that challenge a notion I hold dear? Yes, to all of the above, yes.

In short, all of us have a part to play in resisting powerful leaders who could do us harm. Rather than railing on about how Trump and Putin deserve each other, lamenting how low the US has fallen in the eyes of the world, perhaps each of us should do a personal inventory, examining our own “autocratic”, “media-hating” and “dodgy business dealing” spots.  Those of us most appalled by our current regime might just fit right in. Changing norms change people unless they resist.

independence day: what is America, and who gets to decide?

This week Americans celebrate Independence Day, a holiday that cheers freedom and demonstrates patriotism, often with jorts, fireworks and excessive day drinking. Just as often, we mark the holiday with neighborhood bike parades, or BBQ and watermelon. Thinking about the various ways we spend our fourths of July leads me to also wonder what exactly it is that we are celebrating. Put another way, what is America, and who gets to decide?

Are we Lee Greenwood’s version? Proud, certain we are free and blessed, and familiar with the agricultural highlights of each state? Is Charlie Daniel’s vision of a national kumbaya correct? Will we “all stick together, you can take that to the bank. That’s the cowboys and the hippies, the rebels and the yanks?” Does Donald Glover get to decide? In “This is America” he reveals a country alive with movement and soul, but also littered with guns, violence, apathy and fear. Maybe Toby Keith gets it right, describing us as an international bar bouncer: “You’ll be sorry you messed with the U. S. of A; we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Do veterans who think we honor the whole America in the National Anthem by standing or kneeling get to decide what America is? On a national holiday that celebrates our origin story, it is worth thinking about who we think we are.

For many Americans, particularly those who celebrate our 45th President, America does represent freedom and independence. We are the magical land where people prove their worth through their work, where everyone gets a fair shot. God loves to bless us because we are His favorites (outside of Israel, of course). Real Americans have no need to protest anything, because we are great and protesters are just violent whiners. I like this idea of America, and sometimes wish I could believe it. I have learned, however, that in order to believe this is THE version of America, I have to erase more history than I remember. In order to believe, I have to ignore the fact that our country was founded to guarantee the freedom and equality of white men, and white men alone. I have to ignore that fact that we legally and intentionally oppressed, killed and stole from Native and Black peoples. I have to ignore the single mom in Appalachia who works incredibly hard but can’t establish her worth or sustainability to the world around her. 

I recognize these ideas can seem inflammatory, but I don’t write them to provoke. Instead, I am suggesting that we might best celebrate Independence Day by recognizing our entire history. We are both a country that loves our work ethic and a country that refuses to reward the hard work of some parts of our population. We are both a country that believes in equality and justice for all while sometimes legislating injustice and inequality. We are the home of the brave and yet we have punished displays of bravery in brown or female bodies. We cherish our religious freedom but we ban people on the basis of their religion. 

People who study American culture talk about our longstanding tradition of imagining American spaces really as white spaces. In our dominant cultural imagination, hard workers look like white workers. The American heartland looks like quilts sewn and fields plowed and pies baked by white hands. I know the mention of race is off-putting for some, but this is because many Americans have the privilege of not thinking about the cultural and historical racism that links color with suspicion. If we could recognize our passive linking of “real Americans” with “white Americans” then we might embrace our country’s entire story on this historical holiday.

This Independence Day, could we honor our nation’s legacy by thinking independently? Could we reject the narrative that the only way to be patriotic is to love Lee Greenwood and ignore Donald Glover? Could we listen to those who honor our flag by kneeling or standing? On July 4th, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. A group of brave white men in tights and wigs wrote an epic letter protesting the oppressive injustice of a group of powerful privileged men who refused to consider their perspective or value. The origin story of America is one of protest. Knowing this, it is hard to now accept the idea that those who protest are unpatriotic. Un-American.

I write this with a heavy heart, because I know the dangers of living in the middle space, where American failures and triumphs are remembered. I know the mention of white supremacy feels like an attack on America. While this gives me pause, I am even more afraid for all us if we continue to act as if America only belongs to a certain type of person. The thing that we celebrate on July 4th is the taking of power from a few and the sharing of power with the many. While we have yet to get this right, we come closer to living up to the American democratic ideal when we make room for all kinds of voices to share their experiences of America. This begins by remembering our whole history.

My three year old daughter has a funny speech pattern of addressing people with a possessive pronoun.  She calls her favorite neighbor “my Isabelle.” She says, “I want to go swim with my Emmett” or “I go play with my Marion.” Hearing her talk makes me think about what it means to claim a person. She is not trying to own them with her “my,” she is asserting her devotion to them. She is relationally bound by love and delight to these people. In an age where I hear angry voices claim, “He’s not my President,” or “They aren’t welcome in my America,” I want to celebrate the 4th of July by claiming my America. Our America, which has been exclusive and inclusive, brave and cowardly, bullying and welcoming, oppressing and dignifying...I love it enough to remember all of it. Let’s celebrate the whole America, and every person who helped build, cultivate and shape it. If we look closely, we’ll see that we lose very little, while we gain the ability to recognize that fear and greed reduce us as a people. We must see America as we really are in order to become the country we celebrate.

novel ecosystems: finding beauty in the unexpected

Some fields are given to extreme points of view, where compromise can feel catastrophic.  It is hard not to notice politics is more and more this way, but I have found hope in recent days through other entrenched disciplines.  When people begin to follow lines of inquiry into the nature of the status quo, they sometimes develop a refreshing ability to notice realities of nuanced compromise in the world around them.  These observations open new ways to frame “problems”, and that surely leads to innovative ideas in how to explore possible solutions. 

In ecological writer Emma Marris’ TED talk, she offers a hot take on how we might collectively work to enjoy, preserve and utilize the planet:  Many ecological professionals do not find beauty in the resiliency of nature or in the creative ways species have begun to thrive in non-native locations.  They only advocate for the unaffected, for pristine, original environments.  Marris challenges her discipline to expand it’s capacity to appreciate and study plants that thrive in non-native environments.

In her 2011 book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Marris is relentlessly positive about the possibilities for interaction and active conservation when we learn to love the parts of the natural world we access.  She argues, “we must give up our romantic notions of pristine wilderness and replace them with the concept of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden planet, tended by us.”  How fabulous!  Instead of preaching conservation to an expanding world in an uncompromising, restricting way, Marris observes that if we continue to believe the world is divided into pristine, beautiful spaces and ruined, developed spaces, then we will not develop the capacity to appreciate and advocate for the health and importance of ALL spaces that allow people to engage in nature.  If we only work on the places unspoiled by humans, then we will only work to protect a sliver of the world.

Marris goes on to urge the celebration of “novel ecosystems.”  This term describes the reality of species migration: plants not native to certain areas now thrive in their new realms.  While some ecologists might treat such evolving environments as aberrant, as mistakes which either should be corrected or at least looked down on by purists, Marris suggests we

1)   Observe environments to notice how such ecosystems develop and evolve.

2)   Find wonder and beauty in the very presence of a novel ecosystem.  Elevate it, investigate it and learn from it.  Sure, that ecosystem might not have existed forever, but it is part of our global environment now, so study it!

3)   Actively work to cultivate such novel ecosystems.  Stop shunning beauty because it reflects a new order rather than representing our origins.  Such a sense of discovery leads us to approach every space with wonder, with possibility. The natural plant world, through it’s passion for growth and survival, teaches us that migration and change can lead to beauty, even if the process challenges earlier accepted thought.

Marris’ challenge is helpful if we take her perspective into other arenas.  As a person of faith, who daily tries to imitate Christ in what he cared about, who he challenged, and who he went to bat for, I am learning, like Marris, that I need to begin my imitative efforts with observation.  If I observe the environment around me, I might notice that there is good work being done in unexpected places.  Rather than shunning such efforts as newfangled, or as an aberration from the original design, I want to lift those up and celebrate them.  Novel ecosystems abound!

A few examples:

This week was PRIDE week in Nashville.  Many Christians take scripture to indicate that God’s design for human growth comes through heterosexual, offspring producing unions.  Because of this, some are unable to see the novel ecosystems that exist in many of our cities.  From my observation, I see many LGBTQ communities beautifully demonstrating the ideals of Christ: that we take care of our neighbors, that we love God by loving others, that we challenge systems of power that abuse vulnerable others, that we embody solidarity with those who hurt, that we forgive and believe reconciliation is possible.  Could our understanding of faith provide space to appreciate a novel ecosystem that appears to be thriving even if it changes the original design?  Could we learn from our LGBTQ friends how to care well for each other?

Stop shunning beauty because it reflects a new order rather than representing our origins. 

This weekend I got to be a part of the Southside Blessfest.  In a world full of partisan meanness, angry pitting of government against impoverished communities, territorial non-profits, community suspicion of police forces and churches most committed to their own platforms, I was thoroughly delighted to watch this novel ecosystem thrive.  We came together to support an area known as Edgehill, which primarily consists of government housing.  Here, the details of the community or the event are less important than the communal effort I witnessed.  Rather than government agencies only helping if they ran the show, I witnessed our police precinct actively support the vision of pastors and non-profits.  Rather than the Nashville Housing Authority simply showing up with an anemic presence, I witnessed them actively partner to bring more generous help as the date approached.  Rather than a church helping only if it was their vision with their name attached, I watched churches bring 100s of volunteers to an event spearheaded by others. 

In many ways we are terrible at compromise and collaboration.  We are not great at disrupting our own spheres of influence, and we are even worse at supporting new ideas that challenge our sense of normal or good.  The beauty of Marris’ notion of novel ecosystems is that these new ways of relating to one another are, in fact, everywhere.  Just because it has not happened before does not mean it cannot happen now.  Do not dismiss a new thing just because it is a new thing.  Let’s agree to take Marris’ ideas into the public spheres of faith and social justice.  If we open our eyes and pay attention, novel ecosystems offer us beauty and hope.