EDITORIAL: The Biden-Harris era as an antidote to nihilism, full-spectrum

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Today’s the start of the Biden-Harris era. But more importantly, let’s make it the “End of Nihilism” era.

Nihilism, the belief that everything is hopeless, is the ugliest ‘ism of all. It encompasses all the other ‘isms, encouraging a belief that nothing matters and there is no hope for a better world. It’s the one ‘ism that has the danger of uniting the far right AND the far left, white and Black, mystical pagans and fundamentalist Christians, jacked-up young adults and the frail elderly.

Nihilism got a lot of fuel, at both extremes and all along the spectrum, during the time of Trump, writes The Star. He made nihilism an almost celebrity affair, writes Rick Satolin. “In Trump, the heavy metal, guitar-smashing caricature of nihilism finds a home,” he writes. Trump glorified “not caring,’ and for a time, had us all feeling like we were ready to throw in the towel. Trump’s angry, unjustly aggrieved followers expressed their desperate lack of hope by smashing up the U.S. Capitol. Justly aggrieved, outraged, BIPOC people have protested for decades and reached alarming new levels of agony through destruction this year. Allies aren’t immune, either; many of the most militantly nihilistic activists come from the most privileged identities. The line between civil disobedience and nihilism is a fine one, for sure.

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This is a sign that appeared in Oregon during the presidential campaign season (photo credit Rick Obst, Flickr)

The never-ending despair and “devil may care” attitude of nihilism can be alluring, especially if you already believe nothing matters anyway. Sometimes, generating tension and conflict can seem better than a steady march dotted with complexities and “two steps forward, one step back.” While we’re still in this powder keg of a nation, though, striving to dial back tension is a matter of public health. The “state of emergency” for Black Iowans is one reason; the “ready to roll” militia mentality of many Trump supporters and civil rights activists is another. The remaining danger of COVID-19 is yet another.

We need to tread lightly right now among all of those hidden bombs. A time for protest, challenge and tension has been here before, very recently, and will likely be here again soon. We’re ready. But right now, we need to focus on breaking the cult-like hold that Trump and his nihilism still will have on so many. As mind control expert Steven Hassan says, that requires leaving ample room for communication. It means “respect, kindness and warmth” for Trump followers, instead of harshly criticizing them for being indoctrinated, he says.

But as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take office, let’s be frank: many left and far left folks are still feeling pretty hopeless. Many on the far left see Biden-Harris as only a few steps removed from Trump-Pence. This theme circulated strongly in the months leading up to the November election. Whether it’s Biden’s history of inappropriate touching, or his role decades ago in harsh crime laws, or Harris’s history cracking down on crime in Los Angeles, or taking liberties with a childhood story about “fweedom,” our new presidential team rankles a lot of former Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Booker, Castro or other supporters who remain unconvinced.

The resentment that some of my friends of color have toward any politician is inappropriate for me to critique. More than once have I said to my white friends, “If I were a Black person, I’d be angry ALL the time.” I have tried to educate myself by spending decades interviewing Black people and People of Color about what it’s like to live in their shoes, or seeking out Black neighborhoods to live whenever possible and intentionally making myself the minority when possible. But still, I cannot know the experience of a Black person, or a Person of Color. I can never know how centuries of dismissiveness, and the endless struggle to walk off the edge of righteous and justified anger, affects a person’s thinking, words or action.

I do know “the establishment” has let them down, and “the establishment” is now Biden and Harris. We don’t owe our Black neighbors our outrage; we owe them new efforts, new solutions, new ideas for making a difference, and the willingness to do things that they cannot or should not be expected to do. Protesting is only the most obvious, superficial thing we can do.

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President Joseph Biden and First Lady Jill Biden during Wednesday’s inauguration and oath.

With that in mind, please consider our new Seven-Point Antidote to Nihilism. It’s a little bit local, a little bit communal, and a little bit personal. These Seven Points are all founded in a strategy of optimism. You don’t even have to actually support Biden-Harris; you just have to have hope. These ideas hold real promise, we believe, to finally break Iowa out of its cold, conservative red stupor. You’ll notice a distinctly LGBTQ-familiar theme throughout: Break the binary!

First, We Start With The Inside Talk:

  1. Break the activist action binary. Choosing between right and wrong (Trump or not Trump, for instance) is often a black and white choice, yes. Post more of that Elie Wiesel meme! It’s one of my favorites, too. But knowing your morals is just one phase of justice. The next phase is what action to take — and those choices are rarely binary. They are usually on a continuum, and they usually involve not so much action, but talking and listening, repeatedly. So before we leap from inaction to the ledge of conflict and protest, Step One is to do all we can to stay away from that precipice. Talk, listen, talk, listen. 
  2. Re-envision justice. During the Trump years, justice started to look like something delicate and barely clinging to life, ready to collapse at any moment, needing wary guardians to protect it and prop it up at all times. Leaving behind that nihilistic outlook, let’s choose to see justice differently, as it was intended: a strong, expansive, immovable foundation, getting stronger all the time, and capable of carrying everyone, from the deplorables to the everyday to the most saintly.

We Move to the Interpersonal:

  1. Bring the “truth and reconciliation movement” into relationships. Those T&R commissions are amazing — but they’re starting to become a government thing. Let’s bring “truth and reconciliation” into one-on-ones, and two-on-twos, and the ways we interact directly when no one else knows. One trademark of Trump and his crew was the endless back-stabbing and misleading each other. No one truly trusted anyone; no one was truthful with each other. I am confident we’ll be more prepared to reach beyond our progressive bubbles and earn the trust of others, if we relearn some things about relating to each other.
  2. Commit to a basic code of ethics for social media activism. Armchair activism rules the world today, rightfully, and is here to stay. It makes activism approachable to all of us, and that’s a good thing. But we’re all only human, and studies show online communication digresses into cruelty much easier than in-person communication. One study showed that 40 percent of Americans believe they have been abused online. Studies also show that posts expressing or demanding outrage are more likely to be recirculated. Social media right now is like a powder keg in the powder keg. But we can lower the heat and lessen the damage. Let’s create a culture of good habits and become known for it, distinguishing between facts and rumors and resisting the temptation to get down in the dirt. Let’s find the basics of “fair fighting” and become living examples of them online.
  3. Break the conflict binary, the “us versus them” dynamic. Trauma bonding is real — and so is the thrill of conquest, and divide and conquer. Don’t glorify it, because … those powder kegs. Whether it’s casually spouting or posting “they had that comin’ “, or loose talk about guns and arming ourselves and stocking up on ammunition, or making the act of protest a social occasion when it’s intended to be an almost sacred affair. Some activists are so disillusioned, they believe the only way to finally win the battle for civil rights is to literally fight for them. That’s nihilism sneaking in again– but we don’t actually have to tear it all down and start over.
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And Then, the Political and Communal:

  1. Break the binary and privilege of Iowa’s outdated caucus system. This past year, the caucuses were finally revealed to be what they are: mass peer pressure events, often swarming nests of privilege, personal intimidation and chaos. Group pressure is basically exerted for hours on end. Only the healthiest can actually participate. Let’s hope we replace them by 2024 with not only a primary system, but an open primary system, so that we simultaneously diminish the privilege and division of the caucus system, and the “us versus them” of the binary two-party system.
  2. Break the binary in the Electoral College. You’ll hear more and more about this idea, nationwide: dump the current version of the Electoral College, where “winner takes all.” Instead, follow the footsteps of Maine and Nebraska, as Bob Mueller wrote in his column here. Award our electoral college votes to candidates based on the percentage of votes they actually earned. We’ve been pioneers before; let’s do it again. This could be one of the most lasting differences we could make — for not only Iowa, but the country, by helping to pioneer the best possible alternative to the Electoral College system.
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Vice President Kamala Harris (photo courtesy of Flickr)

These are not replacements for protest, or for boycotts, or bans. They’re a package of ideas for which we’ll be advocating consistently, things to try before, instead of, in addition to, or simultaneously with protests, boycotts and other negative initiatives. Pursued consistently, these Seven Steps can help pull us all back, all along the political and ideological spectrum, from these scary ledges of conflict that began to seem so normal under our outgoing president. Trump was a key factor in driving us into nihilism, all the while profiting in some way off of the destruction, tension and divisiveness he left in his wake.

Let’s take away that nihilistic supply. There’s no better time than today.

Christine Hawes
Author Christine Hawes is founder and managing/executive editor of The Real MainStream.

(cover photo from Pixabay)

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