So what do I tell my children?

Teachers face a particular challenge of explaining the US presidential election outcome in a way which nurtures seeds of hope rather than despair. Three things you might say.

Ravi Rajan
28 November 2016

Trump Bubble. Kathy Willens AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Barely a few hours after the US Presidential election result was declared, I had to face a class of depressed and demoralised undergraduates. It is sad to see young people, full of energy, vitality, and promise, just lose hope in their future. As the hours went by, I heard of stories from elsewhere in the country — of citizens of minority ancestry worrying that they would be targets of violent racist abuse; of school teachers paralysed; and worst of all, young women articulating their fears that rape would henceforth be legitimised. “What do I tell my children?” has been a common refrain. Is the idea of a plural, inclusive, meritocratic America dead, democracy a sham, and justice a chimera?

There is a great deal of contingency in history; and time rewards those who make the effort. 

In times like these, teachers face a particular challenge — because we have to step up to nurture seeds of hope rather than despair. For my part, I decided to say three things to my students, and indeed, everyone who asks. Pray, mobilise, and rethink.

First, pray. Pray for all the things you want to happen. Pray that the elderly Supreme Court justices live and live healthily in the years to come. Pray that the citizens of this country retain their sense of humanity and fair play. Pray for the planet. Pray indeed that our new President succeeds in creating jobs and spurring the economy. Pray for anything that is for the good of all — but pray. If anything, it will make you feel good.

Second, mobilise and converse. Join a group. It might be something local, dealing with domestic violence in your community. It might be a non-profit helping juveniles get out of the life sapping criminal justice system and breathing new wind into their life and careers. It might be to prevent global warming, or save the planet. Whatever you do, be civic, participate, and organize, for there is strength and solace in numbers. Equally important, try and talk to people you don’t talk to. Of all the statistics of this election, the one that struck me most was how few people we know outside our own tribes. What are the odds of us engaging in civic conversations, or persuading others, if we do not even know them by name? If you are a hurting liberal, please try and find a conservative, an evangelical even, and learn to talk to them. I know it might be difficult, but at least the music is good, and you may well discover that these distant folks might be friendly and welcoming if you reach out. This way, you will sow seeds of good that we can all reap in the years to come.

What are the odds of us engaging in civic conversations, or persuading others, if we do not even know them by name?

Third, rethink and revitalise. Rather than blame the election on a vast right-wing conspiracy or the machinations of a con-artist, think about whether some of our own ideas need rethinking. More than half a century ago, the Austrian visionary, Karl Polanyi suggested that big social revolutions are few and far between. Instead, he argued, there are everyday movements for habitation, for spaces to survive. In democracies, elections afford a pressure valve, an avenue for common people to vent their frustrations. Bill Clinton rode these frustrations when he ran, and Donald Trump has today. Seen this way, this election is a Polanyian movement against the gutting of jobs due to free trade. Let us not forget, even the die-hard conservatives had no clue what was happening. What we need to do now is to use this time to do some of the hard intellectual work of rethinking the terms of organisation of our society — how we create sustainable jobs; how we re-build our institutions so that they are fair; how we heal the planet; and how we reward respectful discourse. Have no doubt; contenders will emerge in due course claiming to be hour next saviour. We also therefore need to figure how to vet and interview them. Electing the next charismatic person of colour or woman will itself not be enough. 

In the meanwhile, what about the Supreme Court? Here is my response. Ultimately, courts and legislatures reflect the world-view of their times. During the tumult of the late 60s and 70s, hardworking folks built the civil rights, environmental, and women’s movements that gave us landmark legislation and forced a Southern President to rethink. Even people with the most extreme views change if they realise that they are on the wrong side of majority opinion. There is a great deal of contingency in history; and time rewards those who make the effort. 

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