New beginnings in uncertain times

It’s been 2017 for over two weeks now, so we’ve all had a chance to make our New Year’s resolutions and to fail at them. Don’t worry, this isn’t a blog post about why you shouldn’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I wrote that one a few years ago (TL/DR: New Year’s resolutions generally backfire as they trigger “auto-insubordination” and just make you feel bad, so do yourself a favour and don’t bother), no need to rehash it now. What I’m thinking of today, what does it mean to make a fresh start in an uncertain world?

Back when Rob Ford was elected as Toronto’s mayor, I remember calling it a “slow catastrophe”. Nothing bad happened at first; it took time for the effects to be felt, and the nature of the catastrophe was not dramatic. A catastrophe of missed opportunities and continued deterioration rather than dramatic upheaval. Toronto failed to improve its transit system when it had the chance, failed to improve its property tax base, failed to improve public housing, etc, etc, but as I wrote in my Trump posts, it’s still pretty great here! Just not as great, or as welcoming, or as fair, as it could be.

And here I am. Once again I find myself writing about Trump. Yes, I don’t live in the US (thanks for that one, divinity that shapes our ends!). Yes, I should probably mind my own country’s business as we have our own terrible politicians and appalling electorates. Yes, other countries have had (or do have) worse leaders and the world hasn’t ended yet, so I should have faith in the human spirit and capacity to endure and overcome and should just relax a bit. But though I risk reifying the concept of “American exceptionalism” by saying this, you can’t deny that the USA is…exceptional. As the global superpower and our neighbour, they loom extremely large in the Canadian mind. In mine. Not to mention they could literally blow us all up if they wanted to and end human civilization as we know it, which is one favour we certainly can’t return.

So forgive me for letting my mind dwell on this as I wonder, what does it mean to make a fresh start in this environment? Can you really sit around planning your weight-loss strategy or signing up for online courses as the world’s greatest superpower takes a worryingly fascist turn? But then what else can you do, exactly, especially if you don’t actually live there? Do you get on the activist train and protest and organize and get out the vote? What vote? Do you turn your life into a showpiece of thoroughly thought-out DIY progressiveness – start growing your own quinoa and making your own shoes out of recycled tires or something – or is that the same self-centred magical garbage thinking that got us into this mess?

Politics is the ultimate expression of group behaviour: while we cast our votes alone, we do so in accordance with our identification with one group in opposition to others. This is one explanation as to why party affiliation is so “sticky” (i.e., people tend to stick with political parties even when they no longer agree with the party’s platform). We do this because the group – the political party, the movement – has a power that the individual does not, and much of that power comes from the ability of the group to tell a story that meets the unconscious needs of enough people to ensure enough success, electoral or otherwise, to keep the party/movement going.

So perhaps making a tiny, insignificant new beginning in the face of uncertainty tells a story of its own. The story is this: I can make things better. I can make things change. I can control something. I can be a better person, and if that’s true, then so can you. And since in politics, as in psychoanalysis, believing in a story goes a long way towards making it true…perhaps this isn’t such a bad response after all.

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