It is unlikely that the victory, for how ever long it stands, in America’s culture wars represented by the gathering clouds of the Trump presidency might nurture the next David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, or Guy Clark. Or even the next Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as America’s attorney general, writes Raymond Williams.
The ambiguity, the splendid exoticism, and difference-as-a-vocabulary of Bowie and Prince would be too discomforting for those contemporary fundamentalists in their high-fiving moment of triumph.
The open-hearted honesty, the emotional rawness and awareness of Cohen or Clark would be too awkward for those who see a preordained world in a black-or-white, you’re-with-us-or-against-us series of simplicities.
It is unlikely, too, that a strong, confident, admirable woman such as Reno would have regarded being sexually assaulted by a reality TV “star” as an honour.
Their successors, however — in whatever splendid plumage they choose to adopt — would have a relatively easy time, compared to those who might be brave enough to pick up the civil rights mantle so spectacularly worn by another world figure who also died this year.
It is hard to imagine that Muhammad Ali, who died last June, aged 74, after years of struggle with Parkinson’s disease, could have the inspirational, transformative impact he had half a century ago under an administration that, without a sliver of shame, consciously and repeatedly played the race card to a disconcertingly receptive audience to win the American presidency.
It is sobering to imagine how this uppity, charismatic, and tremendously courageous man — the most beautiful of them all, the Louisville Lip — would be excoriated and pilloried through today’s social media free-for-all. Imagine, too, how he might be relentlessly attacked by the alt-right hate jocks who are such useful, willing fools in the debasement of the great principles and values that sustained and enriched the West since the end of the Second World War.
It is not at all unreasonable to argue that, in the climate of tribal hate — the oldest and deepest of all animosities — so forcefully expressed at myriad Trump rallies, Ali might share the fate of another champion of equality and liberation Martin Luther King, who was assassinated in Ali’s home state of Kentucky in 1968.
It is also interesting to speculate if — when? — Trump’s unquestionable but questionable links with the corporate world, as well as the impossibility of “bringing your jobs back to America” lost to globalisation or automation, might inspire an American Fidel Castro.
Would such a figure, implausible as it may seem today, be to the left or right of Trump? A Republic of California or Montana, anyone? A totalitarian, free Tennessee seceded from the Union, anyone? Texit maybe? What a Pandora’s box has been opened!
This parlour game speculation may seem far-fetched, but, frighteningly, it is far less so than the idea of a train of limosuines ferrying billionaires to Trump Towers ,where they are asked to serve in a cabinet promising to “Make America Great Again”, seemed last Christmas.
A minor version of that game can be set in Brexit Britain, too, although, thankfully, it hardly seems likely to provide the bloodsport-in-waiting that Trump’s America may facilitate. But obvious parallels and questions arise.
Might Terry Wogan who, like generations of Irish people before him, be as welcome in an isolationist Britain that has quit the European Union as he was? Might William Trevor, that gentlest of men and a wonderful writer born in Ireland, be able to live as productively in Britain as he did until his death last month?
What of the tens of thousands of Irish footsoldiers supporting the foundations of the British economy, and especially that nation’s health services? Will they, and so many other nationalities working in that diminished country, be, as British home secretary Amber Rudd has suggested, forced to carry an identity card specifically designed for “aliens”.
Will this mean that the British people living all over Europe, and who like to describe themselves as “ex-pats”, come to be regarded like all other foreigners — strangers commonly know as immigrants?
These sands are shifting in continental Europe too. If the polls are accurate, and despite recent failures, it seems that France will celebrate Christmas next year with a far-right president — Marine Le Pen. German chancellor Angela Merkel must convince her electorate to re-elect her — a prospect that cannot be at all guaranteed.
The case for despair is profound and intimidating. The atmosphere, for anyone who wants to live in an open, tolerant and progressive world, is daunting. Establishment politics and unfettered capitalism have failed, and are failing, far too many people in far too many countries.
Change, and not all of it for the better, is knocking at the door ever more loudly. It seems almost as if the long, sad list of inspirational figures who died this year have bookended the West’s best days and that a different kind of public figure is stepping centre stage.
That need not be the case — though it might be.
Edmund Burke’s famous warning from more than 200 years ago — “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” — rings true once again. Political involvement,and sometimes even community activism, may seem a pointless, unattractive thing today, commitments only the vain and self-serving might undertake.
That attitude left America with the least attractive, most unsuitable presidential candidates in its history and, in less than a month, President Trump will be sworn in as the figurehead of what was once called the free world.
The choice is simple enough. Watch this decline as a spectator or work at any level in society or community to inculcate and advance the simple truths that decent societies are built on — honesty, inclusiveness, tolerance, respect, equal opportunity, respect for the environment, and all of those other demanding ideas thrown aside by the ugly face of capitalism and epitomised by Trump’s victory.
Neutrality or indifference are not options if the 1916 values we’ve spent most of this year celebrating are to prevail, much less survive. It’s time to reassert core beliefs and make them real again. It’s time to earn the privilege we’ve taken for granted for so long.
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