It was clear and striking
It was light
Ready to break my iris
To give me clarity
That was the day
By the news
My hands began to shake
The skin of my forearms,
Darkened by the Indian sun,
Prickled like cactus
It stopped the day
For a moment
And as we floated
The river and I
Were exposed to a new era
As inevitable as the sea
It was disbelief
By my ignorance
Like a sound cannon
It was as though
The river turned
To flow uphill
It was clear and striking
You probably know what news I am talking about. On my last day with GangesSUP, approaching Kanpur, an industrial and largely muslim city, Donald Trump became president elect of the United States.
The Ganges River, from Haridwar to Kanpur, is a seam that draws an ever wandering squiggle through North India’s agricultural plane. It is a river jaded with sugarcane fields greening the water by the banks, punctuated by hordes of water buffalo like smug spa-goers, soaking in the river’s coolness. It is a river that moves through the land as steadily as the farmers chopping and gathering food for their animals and for themselves.
It is a river that meanders as it pleases with floodplains kilometers wide. Many villages are too accustomed to forced displacement by the floods. Along the banks, one will hear thuds and cracks then the following waves as considerable sections of earth plummet into the current, constant reminders that the river could arrive at one’s doorstep in the not-so-far future.
My desire to remain focused on the river was momentarily obliterated last week. The country whose passport brought me halfway around the globe elected a man who I had opposed as a leader down to my last hangnail, who has certain values that are to me the antithesis of my dream for the USA:
I dream of freedom and acceptance, of respect, sustainability, and equality.
I dream of a place where people can be empowered together to live a good life.
I dream of a place where culture is enriched by the magnificence of nature.
I dream of a place where everyone is able to dream as I dream.
Call me naive, ignorant, but the strands of patriotism and hope for the United States that I was indoctrinated with as a child still hold some sway. My nationalism, an association that has changed so much over my short life, my satisfaction to be American, more precisely USAn, is attached to that dream.
As Donald Trump’s electoral votes accumulated, I began to wonder if the country is worthy of its very name: the United States. Perhaps the “States” are United, but what of the people?
I am afraid my dream has no flag right now.
Color is as welcome
As maple sugar in the springtime
Colors are brilliant
Colors are soul
Colors are —
Just before leaving Delhi for the Ganga, I met Jonathan and Erika Du Ela, other travellers from the USA. Jonathan is from a Creole family rooted in New Orleans, but he was raised in South Central Los Angeles where his family has ties to the Black Panthers. Erika’s family is Mexican and living in the San Fernando Valley. Both are artists working to understand their ideas and philosophy about race and place, reaching for a planetary perspective in their journies. We shared a lengthy conversation about ourselves and our work.
The heart of the talk approached whiteness, whiteness as a construction, as a force of power and oppression, whiteness as a concept.
I have struggled to come to terms with what a white identity represents, in my case white and male. Here in India so often I have experienced the attitude that white is right. White is glorified to an extent that people wear fairness creams. People want to take pictures with me on the street and they stare at me when I go out. I’ve heard many men here express admiration of Trump–a rich white man, a man who could help relieve India’s struggles against Pakistan, India’s muslim neighbor, by ceasing to give them aid.
In my current context here, I cannot forget that whiteness is also associated with the slave owning whites of the confederacy, treaty breaking exceptionalists disregarding Native land claims and environmental treaties in pursuit of wealth, a supremacist, oppressive ruling class. That is not all whiteness is of course, but it is essential that we acknowledge these views, all of us, that in the face of conflict and extremism we remember empathy.
Trump’s anti establishment rhetoric and his blunt courage as a speaker resonate with many Indians and evidently many Americans. India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi shows similar tendencies. Sometimes called a Hindu supremacist, other times praised highly as a visionary leader, Modi appealed to a Hindu society feeling disenchanted with the long standing norms of Indian politics and a status quo threatened by India’s growing muslim population.
Let’s not shy away from the fact that muslims are dispersing across the globe in vast numbers now from the Middle East and North Africa. They are facing fearful and even hostile environments as they migrate. The changing demography of countries is a very real concern; I saw it myself in Northern Sweden in a small community transformed by incoming Afghani families. As my grandmother Irene Hecht, Tita to me, writes: “Because we have not lived through this for over 1,000 years, we are stunned by its effects. But the globe saw it before – Europe with the Germanic invasions, is one example, which stretched on for about 500 years. Today we need to see the phenomenon of population movements in the planetary context. We cannot settle this problem on the national level.”
That quote is from Tita’s reflections on the election, which she sent to me a few days ago. In her writings, she expressed a thought that has a scope which is comforting in uncomfortable times, that humanity is experiencing a great revolution. Having passed the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, we are now in the “Planetary Revolution” and norms such as the Nation State are due for examination and transformation.
In order to avoid a pessimistic stupor, her perspective is one that I can hold onto as a guiding light. She writes:
“Briefly, how do I see the Trump election? I see it as a self-inflicted kick-in-the pants. I dare not predict how we will use the jolt. Our greatest hope is Trump’s pragmatism. His words are wild, but his actions can be level-headed, at least from his perspective. There is the danger he may push us backward rather than forward.”
“Taking the optimistic approach my hope is that we will be thoroughly jarred and that by the next election we will find some serious answers that speak to the realities of our future. We first need to identify where we stand in the Planetary Revolution. Then we can look for leadership that is capable of moving beyond the Industrial Age into the new Planetary existence.”
I feel the weight of our inevitable and uncertain trajectory into that future. From Walter Benjamin:
“ A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
May we can call upon lessons of history, and remind ourselves of the value of relationships we have with the Earth and one another. Let us consider the responsibility we have for that storm blowing in from paradise, let us try our best to keep the metaphor a metaphor.
Planetary consciousness is not a new concept. We have plenty of cultures to look to for guidance — land based peoples through time have come up with many cosmologies based on the environment. Many of these cosmologies are with us today. One that is close to my heart is John Wesley Powell’s notions of using watershed boundaries, ecoLogical boundaries to govern ourselves and our spaces. Another one knocked right on my noggin this morning as I read an essay by Nick Jenei, a close friend and Planetary philosopher at heart. He wrote the piece nearly a decade ago when he was on his Watson Fellowship not far from where I am now:
“I have been hiking alone for hours when my guide Jam Yang, a native Tibetan and former Buddhist monk, joins me on the trail. Since I don’t have the physical ability to simultaneously walk and talk at that altitude, I am eager to stop and chat while catching up on my oxygen. I am also interested in learning more about the significance of the Kora (the Tibetan word for a religious circumambulation) and ask Jam Yang if he can tell me more about why Tibetans walk around mountains. His answer is one of the most profound yet simple insights into the crisis facing humanity I have ever heard articulated: ‘The Kora is a way of honoring a relationship, honoring our relationship with the mountain.’”
“Honoring a relationship. These three words not only hold the key to understanding the tension between humans and the environment, they also illuminate a clear path toward a more harmonious relationship with our world. ‘The pilgrims on this mountain understand the infinitely complex relationships that sustain them,’ continues Jam Yang. ‘They understand their place in the greater system; they understand their relationship to Kailash.’ Because of their sensitivity to this symbiosis, these pilgrims are not trying to conquer the mountain, they are not trying to conquer the environment — they are trying to honor a relationship.”
With communications today, the planet is a web of connection. Just think about what you and I are doing: I wrote this at a table in Allahabad and posted it… you can read this in an instant nearly anywhere there is “connectivity.” If we can usher into ourselves, our homes, our families a practice of considering these relationships, we can get onto a positive track towards planetary life. If we can learn from the election that petty media is not so petty, that twitter isn’t light as a feather, then we can develop what tita calls an “etiquette” for using this powerful young tool, the internet, so that we don’t become entangled.
The other day on the river, I asked my friend Devang, a Gujarati, if he believed in Hindu mythology. “No,” he said, “I believe in nature.”
That’s beautiful, and practical I thought to myself. No drudgery through scripture about someone else’s mystical journey, just find it anywhere. We are all a part of nature, it’s 100% inclusive. That’s great. So we have some common ground still. I want to focus that.
When I grow up
I will build a house
And on one wall I will install a mirror
A mirror that captures all the light of the world
And reflects me in everything
And reflects everything in me
So everyday when I wake
I can look into the world
see just how we all fit in
Think like a planet