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Reflecting on the US: Stories of Power

 4 min read / 

Power Out

The recent Nor’Easter left many areas of the Eastern Seaboard without power for hours/days. It brings into sharp focus what is accomplished while plugged into the grid and what can be achieved without it.

There are layers of withdrawal. Power to heat the home in winter is something it is tough to do without. Having gas fired hot water leaves that as a major consolation. Cooking is a challenge, but there are restaurants. If the cold is too bad, there are, for many, nearby friends to stay with. Local politicians make a point of communicating and reaching out to their constituents. That is important and underlines the value of community. And, there is the knowledge that it is not nearly as bad as Puerto Rico. There is still cell service and the expectation that Coned will prevail in a day or so.

The surprise is clarity of purpose and thinking. Without easy access to wifi and TV, the distractions are minimal; the world shrinks and the mind expands to fill the information void. Staring into an open fire leads thoughts astray and coaxes the imagination.

Stories Are the Future

A country’s future is shaped by the stories it tells about its past. Mysteries are unravelled through metaphor: it’s as if the United States is collectively struggling to determine which story is defining. Is it a story of refugees overcoming adversity to settle a new land? Is it a story of a land conquered and stolen? Is it a story of oppression overcome? Or is it a story of oppression evolved in form but still present in substance? Is it a story of visionary leaders taking heroic steps towards a great society? Or is it a story of increasing partisan discord exacerbated by ill-chosen leaders whose only qualification is having somehow prevailed?

The current story is a troubling one for America. Ceding leadership on climate change, foreign policy and trade will take its toll. The damage will not easily be repaired. A president with aspirations to arm teachers and who has a conviction that he would likely have rushed headlong, unarmed to save the lives of children (bone spur Vietnam deferments notwithstanding) is tragic-comically, misinformed and delusional. The same President taunting his Senate colleagues for fear of the NRA is confusing. The world beholds the spectacle and once again observes: only in America.

Progressives Victorious

David Brooks wrote about the culture wars. He observed that his counsel of caution on gun control – reaching across the aisle; not demonising; not pressing too far; accepting incremental change – may have been misguided. Perhaps, he surmised, the path to change on matters of social justice was better paved by extreme voices and bold steps. Perhaps, he reflected, demonising the NRA and ostracising its supporters was the more effective way. The constraints on speech on campus – clearly not a good thing but certainly evidence of victory for the culture warriors – are surely evidence that bold steps get results. Perhaps this is what it takes to get movement on gun control.

Brooks’ cautionary conclusion was that the victors should pause before celebrating too gleefully. The price of partisan victories can be a backlash: the roots of a World War II can be traced to the terms of surrender in World War I.

Stories of Woe

Nor’Easters; hurricanes; floods; fires; mass shootings; trade wars; politics in chaos. These are not hopeful stories. They do, however, have some hopeful chapters. Stories of people helping people; communities solidifying; tribal walls being scaled; schoolchildren mobilising and lawmakers being humbled. President Obama felt it was time for the United States to step back, to show more humility on the world stage. Presumably, humility through humiliation was not what he had in mind; but it may end up in a similar place.

The story of America has not been that long in the telling. It is younger than the time the Israelites spent in the slavery of Egypt. The cycle of news has no patience for stories that unfold slowly. Adversity teaches patience and humility. The power will return eventually.

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