Realities Are More Important Than Ideas
After days of watching an election that had me sleep-deprived and feeling as if the world around me had stopped, I was more-than-a-little relieved to learn Joe Biden would be the 46th President of the United States. I could finally peel myself away from CNN, shower, get some sleep - form some semblance of a life again. And yet a significant percentage of the country didn’t believe what I’d just seen.
With no evidence to support his claim, the current president - who suggested before the 2020 election that, should he lose, the whole thing would effectively be rigged - predictably declared he had been defrauded. As Joe Biden solidified a lead that would prompt all the major networks to call him the next president, Trump supporters gathered outside municipal buildings in Detroit and Philadelphia and other parts of the country, shouting at exhausted election volunteers doing their level best to count the outstanding votes. Even Republican officials who oversaw elections in swing states like Arizona and Georgia received verbal abuse from fellow Republicans for not having run a fair election. In the Hall of Mirrors that is Donald Trump’s world, the election would have only been fair had Trump won.
The scenes flashing across my television screen felt as if they were from a film about some other country’s post-truth, dystopian future. Adding to my concern was a social media app called Parler, first launched in 2018 for people with right-of-centre political views. Due to a recent media push, Parler had come to my attention and to the attention of millions of others just as American democracy was being stress-tested.
Unlike Twitter or Facebook, Parler promised never to regulate its users’ speech, even, presumably, when that speech was not only false but also harmful to others. While free speech is a nuanced topic that calls for thoughtful conversation, is conversation possible if people of different views won’t talk to each other? Parler felt like another brick in the wall separating the two Americas. Forget the border wall: the real wall might be the one in the mind.
The zeal with which some of my fellow citizens insisted fiction-was-fact this election had my stomach in knots - we still have no evidence of widespread voter fraud or electoral rigging, and even Trump’s own lawyers have admitted as much in court - but what finally led me to sit down and write this essay was watching two people I know in real-life get radicalised online, so much so that both would vehemently insist that Donald Trump had won the 2020 election, and that the so-called mainstream media was lying (incredibly and irresponsibly, the Republican Party broadcast these same baseless claims through its social media channels).
Even as Trump’s legal challenges fail and president-elect Biden continues to assemble his cabinet, my real-world acquaintances remain immune to any suggestion they might be wrong; they live in a different factual universe to the one I inhabit, and are likely to continue living there long after Trump is gone. How is it that we were having such different experiences of the same events?
One reason might be down to the fact that I lived with an African family for the first few months of my Peace Corps service in 2009. Like other Peace Corps volunteers who had joined this humanitarian arm of the U.S. government, I was encouraged to call my host parents “mom” and “dad” in the local language. Their two teenage children were my “brother” and “sister.” I was 32 years old, but under the circumstances I might as well have been a child given my poor linguistic abilities and dim understanding of what was happening.
Calling two strangers “mom” and “dad” felt less unusual then than it does now, a decade later, but the fact that I did has become more meaningful to me over time. As a white American man raised in a conservative white culture, treating a black African family like family changed me forever - an experience that would ultimately lead me to agree with the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, who writes, “We don’t think ourselves into new ways of living. We live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”
I was already a full-fledged adult ten years ago: I had been married, divorced and had worked as a freelance writer before taking up my Peace Corps service on that African island, but in a new culture, I needed help. My host family fed me, looked out for me and engaged me in simple conversation they knew I could understand. I joined them at the market, at mealtimes and at family and community events: the celebration of a new baby, the funeral of a nephew killed in a road accident (I remember the wailing at the cemetery, and the march through the centre of town to protest dangerous driving), a day-trip to the beach.
The entire Peace Corps experience was disorienting. I was often stressed. I had a bad reaction to the anti-malarial pills I was taking. And it’s an understatement to say that I wasn’t a great English teacher, which is the very thing I was meant to be at a rural, public high school.
Growing up in a largely segregated community in the American Midwest - and having received most of my political education in the late 1990s and early 2000s from a combination of conservative talk-radio and libertarian-minded college professors, some of whom actually believed that the oceans should be privatised, and that all taxation was theft - I had limited access to other perspectives.
The town I grew up in claimed to be the birthplace of the Republican Party (it’s contested) and proudly declared itself an “All-American City” on the sign you passed as you entered town. My Catholic high school wasn’t a very Pope Francis kind of place (Jorge Mario Bergoglio was still an obscure priest in Argentina), and the youth pastor at the white evangelical church my family attended showed our youth group apocalyptic movies of the terror that awaited the un-saved (me?) in between playing early ‘90s evangelical Christian music videos.
After high school, I enrolled in a liberal arts college about 40-minutes’ drive from my hometown. With mediocre grades and average ACT scores, I was just glad to be going somewhere other than the local community college. These were still the early days of the Internet, back when the closest thing college students had to Facebook was an actual book with individual photos of their fellow college freshmen. Yet even in that low-tech world of the mid-1990s, I had entered a political thought-bubble as self-reinforcing as any social media network.
My university was in Southern Michigan - an institution called Hillsdale College, with a student body largely made up of the sons and daughters of politically conservative, well-to-do white people. One fellow classmate’s surname was also the name of a famous brand of beer (not a coincidence - her family owned the company). Another classmate was the daughter of a national third-party presidential candidate who had once worked in the Nixon administration but quit when Nixon broke his pledge to cut more social welfare programs.
The biggest political groups on campus were the College Libertarians and the College Republicans. If the College Democrats existed at Hillsdale in 1995 - and I’m not sure they did - I didn’t know anyone in it, and can’t imagine it was very big. Perspectives that didn’t align with the college’s free-market philosophy received little airtime; rarely was a dissenting opinion offered in any college-sanctioned forum. Today, Hillsdale almost operates as a free-market think tank that also awards degrees. Its current president - a Trump supporter - previously ran a right-wing think-tank, and the college has amassed a large endowment by creating a safe-space for Republican causes. Mike Pence was its commencement speaker in 2018.
I wasn’t particularly political as a Hillsdale student - I was more interested in theatre and poetry and music, and enjoyed memorising Shakespearean sonnets for no particular reason - but to some extent the partisan politics of Hillsdale College changed that, or at least flattened some of the complexity of my world.
Like most of my fellow students, I was outraged when the U.S. Senate didn’t impeach Bill Clinton. I would later vote for George W. Bush - twice. And I would eventually become convinced it was only a matter of time before Weapons of Mass Destruction - much-maligned by the mainstream media - turned up in Iraq (after Hillsdale, I became a regular listener to Rush Limbaugh’s radio program, and like millions of other Limbaugh listeners, was encouraged to doubt the UN report that WMDs in Iraq - the pretext for the U.S. invasion - didn’t exist).
So how did I get out of this self-reinforcing information spiral?
When I got divorced in my late 20s - an unexpected event that upended life-as-I-knew-it - many of my illusions fell away. I stopped listening to Rush Limbaugh; I started reading novels. Two years later, I had saved enough money to quit my job (I was actually fired before I could quit) and go backpacking through Europe for three months. This mostly involved sitting in coffee shops, looking at rail timetables, lugging a pack around on sore shoulders and staring at paintings.
I wasn’t much of a traveler at the time, but that trip opened me up to the wider world enough to see that I should vote for a senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. And voting for Barack Obama might’ve opened me up enough to apply to the Peace Corps. When all was said and done, maybe I was the same person who had memorised those sonnets. Maybe my inner-child was trying to throw off someone else’s political agenda. Perhaps, like Whitman, I contained multitudes.
But to really understand myself, I have to go back to that African island where I once lived, a place where, centuries earlier, the Portuguese established a slave-trading outpost. Much of education is un-learning, and it’s difficult to un-learn anything if you know it all. But if over-confidence is what ails you, there’s no cure like having your certainties stripped bare by living in a very different culture, one in which you are not in charge, and where your mythologies are not other people’s mythologies; a place where hard work rarely means getting ahead, and where free-market capitalism has also led to the enslavement of other human beings, including the ancestors of the people I had come to treat as family.
This lonely and difficult period of forced observation - I would eventually move out of my host family’s house, to another town - taught me more than any teacher or book ever could. When you live on the far edge of a remote island, a place where no one makes much money, and where the nights are dark and the days are long, there’s plenty of time for thinking on a flat roof or a front step. There’s an inaudible voice just waiting to speak. Some people call it God.
After leaving the Peace Corps, I made my way to the UK: first to Scotland, where I studied for a master’s degree, and since 2015, London, where my wife is an Anglican priest. There are folks back home who will take a dim view of an American in London commenting on domestic politics: in our polarised age, there are even people in my hometown who, based on my social media feed, will see me as a leftist (a word I had never heard until a few years ago) even if I’m not a member of a political party, and would simply like to see Americans have the same things citizens of many other Western democracies have: free at-the-point-of-service health care, a government that understands we’re in a climate crisis and is willing to do something about it, an hourly wage people can live on, and policies that treat firearms as something that require at least as much regulation as cars do. And from the polls I’ve seen, most Americans want the same.
So how did we get to the point where a significant percentage of the population - including many of the people I went to Hillsdale with more than twenty years ago - would support a man as cruel and anti-democratic as Donald Trump? And how is it that millions of people believe Trump to have legitimately won a second term, not to mention the millions of Americans who, inspired by the baseless QAnon conspiracy, believe Democrats to be satanic child-abusers? Many books will be written in response to the Trump years and the concurrent collapse of our shared sense of reality, but Rt. Revd. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church U.S.A., diagnosed the web of problems we face as succinctly as anyone I’ve seen when, in 2016, he wrote, “we don’t know each other anymore.”
Even ten years ago, I remember locals from my host country laughing when I told them that Americans often didn’t know the names of the people who lived on their street; sometimes, I said, Americans didn’t even know the names of their next-door neighbours. Surely I must be joking, my African friends insisted. “I’m not,” I assured them. Of course, no one’s laughing now - our lack of familiarity with one another has led to a level of distrust and assumed malice that threatens the country’s future - but what I’ve learned living in London, in a parish where my wife has responsibility for 36,000 souls of all beliefs and backgrounds, is that knowing each other - as Bishop Curry has observed - is absolutely critical.
Theologian Ben Quash described the different approaches to “encountering the other” in a 2018 lecture he gave in Central London that I still think about. The two most popular ways of engaging, Quash suggested, are elimination and assimilation - “or to put it slightly differently,” Quash said, “kill or marry.”
But there’s a third option when encountering someone of a different background: friendship. Quash describes this as “neither the elimination of difference or the total assimilation of the other.” In other words, when I become friends with someone, I can be who I am, and the other person can be who he or she is, but in the process of becoming friends, we both change. This, Quash says, can lead to an “alarming creativity” that has the potential to alter the way we think, feel and act.
I’ve discovered something of this alarming creativity since moving to London and getting involved in community organising. The Anglican church my wife leads is one of more than 450 civil society institutions - churches, mosques, synagogues, community groups, schools and universities - that make up Citizens UK, the largest community organising alliance in the country. As institutions, we listen to our members and to the local communities of which we are a part, and then act on the things people are concerned about and want to change, from low wages to air pollution, high energy bills to a lack of affordable housing.
In the language of community organising, we call this working for the Common Good. To cite just one example: since 2001, the Citizens UK-instigated Living Wage Campaign has won over £1 billion for low-paid, hourly workers across the country.
Community organising is non-partisan, intentionally diverse, and - to my mind - a way to de-radicalise people and change how politics is practiced. Indeed, when we stop engaging with politicians as fans and start engaging with them as citizens, and when citizens work together across difference, decision-makers can be held to account, and citizens can reassert themselves and find common cause. Even Boris Johnson - a man not known to be particularly fond of accountability - has said of community organising: “You bend us politicians to your will, and you get us to deliver.”
Community organising’s motto could easily come from Pope Francis’s encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium: “Realities are more important than ideas.” This is something our alliance in London regularly puts into practice; we listen to people’s personal experiences rather than their political philosophies. In other words, it’s not important whether a given person self-identifies as a liberal, a moderate or a conservative; what’s important is that their child has asthma and stays awake at night, coughing, because the air pollution on their street is so bad; or that they work full-time, but don’t make enough money to heat their home properly.
This relational, pragmatic approach creates unusual alliances that can change lives and communities for the better. I first saw this play out in 2018 in front of 600 people; there, an impressive 18 year-old Muslim woman in a hijab who had moved to Britain as a child from Yemen stood next to an Anglo-Irish priest. Together, they put our alliance’s demands regarding affordable housing to the highest-ranking politician in our area. In that crowded auditorium, this senior politician, who had previously been unenthusiastic about our agenda, agreed to every item on it. Another elected official said to me afterwards, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
I’m currently helping to lead a new campaign along with nearly a dozen others that will ask the Mayor of London to work with us to prioritise poor and low-income communities as London transitions to a clean energy, carbon-neutral city.
We’ve just finished listening to over 500 citizen-leaders from around London, and are now gearing up for our a Mayoral Assembly in the spring of 2021 - held either in-person or online - where we’ll put our “Just Transition” policies to the candidates for Mayor of London. The diverse, non-partisan team leading this campaign includes Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists and people who don’t associate with a particular faith community. We come from six different countries. On our WhatsApp group, we share articles, policy ideas, and - occasionally - photos of pets.
While deep friendship and “alarming creativity” needn’t only happen in the context of community organising, joining forces in a shared endeavour can move people beyond simply knowing one another; it can re-shape us, break down our cultural barriers and open us up to new and previously unimagined possibilities.
If America were a country where community organising was a normal thing to participate in - or indeed, if the United Kingdom were such a country - I don’t think QAnon would get much traction. Or white supremacy. Or a president’s attempt to overturn a free and fair election. And I don’t think Parler would be long for the world. Pope Francis is right: realities are more important than ideas. My personal history, and the experiences of my neighbours, tells me so.