We live in a bleak world right now — bleak, because the ground beneath our feet is shifting; bleak, because the winners and losers are easy to identify, but more often than not, the true enemy is within; bleak, because we are increasingly isolated from one another.
Today, as I cleaned my kitchen, I was thinking about a political discussion I’ve been having with a friend. At one time, we agreed about most things. However, as our ideas have been influenced by different information sources, we have grown apart.
On a personal level, this has been difficult. Shared values create a strong foundation for friendship, and ultimately, politics is about values. What do you believe is important? How do you believe our nation’s resources should be invested? What legacy do you want to leave for future generations?
When that foundation is damaged, everything changes. The sanctuary of frank conversation no longer exists. The habit of easy discourse and laughter must be broken so new patterns of interaction can be developed that respectfully circumvent topics leading to discord. Underlying those efforts is the fear that even prayer and good intentions won’t be enough to salvage something.
As I was mulling this over, I found myself thinking of a movie from the 1990s called “The Swing Kids.” Set in Nazi Germany, it is about the friendship between three young men. They all love jazz — two love dancing; one is handicapped, but is an amazing musician.
Because jazz is verboten — forbidden — they each encounter problems with the authorities. One, the handicapped musician, ends up killing himself. One of the dancers is influenced by the materials used to indoctrinate Hitler’s Youth and embraces Nazi ideals. The other is repulsed by his experiences and makes a public statement of opposition by jazz dancing at a dance hall. He, of course, is arrested.
It’s easy with the 20/20 hindsight of history to know which one made the right decision — the young man who was repulsed by Nazi ideals. But, we don’t yet have 20/20 hindsight about the times through which we are living. We don’t know how the nationalism — so like that which led the world into war in the 1930s and 1940s — will shape our world in its current incarnation.
What we do know is that we can all be pawns of powers which hide behind the curtain and manipulate us with messages. The Internet makes it easy. Any individual can put any idea out there and be believed. The idea doesn’t have to be true. The idea doesn’t even have to be plausible. The idea only needs to resonate with a few people who pass it on to others and suddenly it is being embraced as real and true.
As a person who works professionally with words, this dynamic scares the living bejesus out of me. If we can’t trust the written word, what can we believe?
I try to stick to mainstream news sources — reading both those which lean left and those which lean right to have a more balanced perspective. By doing so, I hope to avoid the greatest risk of being manipulated, but even then I am not immune. A while back a video clip taken out of context made the news. As the full story emerged, the incident reflected bad judgment, but not the message it had been edited to imply.
I had jumped on the bandwagon of consternation, and experienced remorse for doing so. That raised alarm bells for me. If I — alert to the dangers posed by the Internet these days and taking preventative action — can be so easily misled, how might others who are less cautious be influenced? And how might they act on what they believe to be true?
That’s what frightens me the most. How might people act on what they believe to be true?
We live in volatile times. Gun violence is becoming normalized. Elected officials role model bullying. Changing weather patterns are creating personal stress on wide swaths of the world’s peoples. Making things worse, the Internet seems to fan sparks into fire all over the place.
I don’t know what we can do on the personal level to address any of the big problems, but I refuse to concede that nothing can be done. Maybe we can at least be kind to one another. Maybe we can hold our friends in our hearts with love, even when we have differences of opinion. Maybe we can resist all that threatens to destroy us by doing good — in our families and in our communities, knowing that by doing so we send ripples of hope into the world.
Maybe it will help. Maybe it won’t, but at least we’ll be making an effort to shine light into the darkness of these times.