This is not an ordinary day. This is one of those rare days when events jar us enough that we unfix the lens through which we understand the moment we are in—and have a chance to reset it.
The chief lesson from last night should be that the range of our expectations really is too narrow. Reality keeps falling outside it. And so our priority must be to seize this single day of flux to obtain a wider perspective—to stretch our expectations somehow so that reality starts to fall somewhere within.
Otherwise, we are a ship adrift at sea, during a hurricane, without a compass. And that is a very dangerous place to be. We need that compass. We need that wider sense of direction so that we can navigate our own lives and also our responsibilities toward others.
I’ve talked a lot over the past several months about Trump becoming president. About how he is a “bonfire of vanity”, and about how he is a “second Savonarola”— a demagogue prophet in the mould of a certain Dominican friar who, back in the 1490s, waltzed into Florence (the most liberal, best educated nexus of Renaissance Europe). Armed with new media and ecstatic charisma, he whipped up the populace against the Medici establishment and installed himself as king.
I never meant it as a literal prediction, just as I never meant to “predict” Brexit. I meant to shake myself and others into imagining that we live in a similar moment. On tour, I began to talk about this as “my hallucination”. (I have just returned to London after a three-week East Coast book tour.)
My book began as a clever idea. Now I cling to it for the hope and determination that I desperately need for myself. My relationship to my own writing has changed profoundly. My hallucination and my reality are blurred, and I can’t tell them apart anymore.
And since I’m stuck in it now, I might as well embrace it. It seems my hallucination actually is a good guide for the time we live it. So what does it show me?
The overwhelming imperative being shouted at us from the history books right now is to stoke virtue. We must not turn away from this strange and terrible new world. That was the narrative that guided so much Renaissance art. It was on a day like today, in a moment like today, that Michelangelo began carving his statue of David. He carved it into marble, this moment of recognizing a giant foe and bidding oneself to join the contest. My American friends on the Democratic side: you can choose to withdraw from a society that no longer feels like home. You can emigrate to Canada and I will welcome you with open arms and glad smiles. But within my hallucination, that is the opposite of what we all must do. Our Goliath is clear, is standing right in front of us. In our personal and professional lives, we recognize intolerance, greed and division—values and attitudes that we know to be unworthy. If we individually join contest with them, if we individually resurrect the virtues of proportion, civility, humanity, dignity…then collectively those virtues can triumph, and endure.
And through those virtues, so can we.
We must not let the shocking immediacy of populist victories, of sharpening inequalities, of extremism, of terrorism blind us to the equal and opposite truth: that by tangling together the world’s peoples, economies and ideas together, global health, wealth and education have flourished more in thirty years than in the past millennium.How to translate wealth into well-being, how to distribute the aggregate gains so that every individual is lifted, how to forge ties of belonging amidst social upheaval—that is where we are failing each other. That is what we must solve. If we can solve those questions of translation, distribution and belonging, then yes, being tangled together will be better than being walled off from one another. But it’s not obvious yet.
As a boy growing up, my favourite books were fantasy novels. They were stories about knights and wizards and priests with magic powers to heal. They weren’t highbrow books—but I loved them because within those stories, life’s thorniest question, “What should I do?”, was so clear. There was always an overriding threat—a contest that had to be won, otherwise all was lost.
Again, I’m still just hallucinating here, but within my hallucination that is how we need to frame this present moment for ourselves: as a contest—a historic contest—between (and I’m quoting myself now :-P) “the good and bad consequences of our entanglement; between forces of inclusion and exclusion; between flourishing genius and flourishing risk.” This contest isn’t over; it’s just begun.
How history records it—that depends on all of us.
Goliath is waiting.
With hope and courage—and above all, together—let’s go face him.