Are these really days of awe? That's how the Jewish holidays just past are known. It also sounds like the U.S. election.
Hillary Clinton told the New York Times, "I'm the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse." She sounded Trumpian. The Times aptly ended an interminable story on her with it.
Fareed Zakaria says the world is "freaking out" over Trump. By world Zakaria always means those with wealth and power but it applies to the remnant as well. CNN's Michael Smerconish said last weekend it had been a unique moment in the history of politics -- and I already can't remember which moment he meant.
This is annoyingly braggadocious. Loopy elections and candidates occur everywhere. Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte is more sinister and monstrous than Trump. Human rights groups say he's responsible for about 1,500 "extrajudicial" killings and assassinations of drug dealers and street kids, which he's more or less proud of. For causing a traffic jam, he told the Pope ("son of a whore") to go home.
Italy's Silvio Berlusconi has been consistently outrageous over a longer period with more varied plot lines. He's had underage sex scandals and criminal convictions but keeps chugging. He has a stamina for public indignity that Trump, who flies home each night to sleep in his own bed, lacks. And Trump is way less entertaining and spontaneous than Rob Ford was.
The main reason the "world" can't avert its eyes from the Trump drama isn't because it's imaginative and dazzling but because it's happening in a nation that has fateful impacts on everyone beyond it. It's like watching a tragic play that will engulf you but you're not even a character in it. When the melodrama transforms into reality, it will ripple out over the audience beyond the apron. Americans loved the Ford show because they could tune in and out; it was a diversion. In Toronto we couldn't. It was our ongoing reality.
This is a version of imperialism. People all over the world watch not merely in fascination but dread. That's untrue of any other nation's politics. Not only do they invade and occupy you, then extract your wealth and undermine your culture -- they may even be doing it without forethought, since they're absorbed in their own domestic dramas. Some of it is conscious and planned, some inadvertent and oblivious -- like the casual obliteration of Pacific island nations.
There was news this week about U.S. warships firing on rebels in Yemen, as a distant result of U.S. policies toward the region going back 60 years, including the Iraq invasion. Generations of lives in the region have been crushed, it spills over into terror in Europe, the U.S. and here. The carnage in Colombia since the 1960s wouldn't have occurred without U.S. meddling. If not for such effects, their electoral capering would be merely amusing, like the Fords to outsiders.
But U.S. leaders are both willing and able to incinerate the planet for their pathetically macho reasons. JFK was, in 1962, over missiles in Cuba -- and he was one of their more thoughtful leaders. He didn't want to, hoped he wouldn't have to but was utterly prepared to. Clinton and Trump are both of that era.
What's a mesmerized yet terrified outsider to do in a situation like this U.S. election spectacle? Maybe fight awe with awe.
Though my own religious observance lapsed eons ago, I still try in a fitful way to mark moments like Yom Kippur. It helps pull you out of whatever you're mired in and see with clearer eyes. Back then I found the Jewish Sabbath had the same clarifying effect, weekly: distance and perspective. Ramadan is an extended version of the technique. It needn't be explicitly religious. I think it's what people seek in mindfulness -- on a retreat, in the office or on the subway.
People like me, who've been through the religious mill, often emerge clutching the ethical or social justice elements -- "Justice, justice thou shalt pursue" -- as a way to retain a connection.
But that route also has challenges. It's worth hanging onto the other side, the transcendent piece, if you can: Looking up like Zhivago (in the film) as he rides across a frozen lake during the chaos of the Russian Revolution, suddenly seeing the serene moon and being transported to another, stiller realm -- from which, refreshed and renewed, he'll return.
This column was first published in the Toronto Star.
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