Home /  Rising Populism or Merely Growing Frustration?
2017 October 9 - 09:21 am

Rising Populism or Merely Growing Frustration?

I am always seeking—indeed, seeing—connections. 

Today, early in October, as I peruse the news from nearby and far away, I wonder who and what might be linked to whom and what else.

I teach French language and culture at numerous institutions in a number of ways, including online and in class, in intimate home settings and in large lecture halls. In all cases, I urge students to become learners who would love not just the architecture or the songs or even the painting and film that have made France famous but also thinkers who would begin to feel what it is like to see the world from a mindset at once Romantic and impressionistic, Cartesian and deconstructed. 

And headlines from everywhere can help, I feel, to encourage the mixing of the multiple facets of facts into a new and nuanced view that might refresh the mid-semester tired-out student's slog into the second half of his fall term.

And so, I will share a few of the bits of news that I have received this week-end, and I will trust that community college partisans, who by necessity have their minds in multiple places at once, will find some connections among them and then use our era's surreal connectivity to make them real for students. In no particular order of importance or of impact:

1. France—and Paris, in particular— is celebrating this week-end its annual “Nuits Blanches.” It is a time when museums and arts venues of all sorts remain open all night, typically from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m., allowing access free of cost, to celebrate the arts, to dance in the streets, in the Métro, and on the sidewalks, to read poetry and plays aloud in public places, to peruse bookshops, to sit at terrace cafés and converse, to sing out loud. Begun by a forward-thinking Parisian mayor at the dawn of the 21st Century, the idea was not accepted as viable at first, but it has become a wild success. As I look around me in southern California, where things that were once open all night are closing early ever more often in honor of so-called improved safety and security, I wonder how just one Nuit Blanche (literally “white night,” from the French expression that means an “all-nighter”) would go over.

2. In England, another automobile has driven over city curbs and scared people from sidewalks. I read this in “24 UK” as I see that “self-driving cars” are being discussed once again here in a local newspaper in southern California. And then I watch an old episode of the BBC Masterpiece mystery “Inspector Lewis,” in which it is revealed that the program's eponymous main character's wife was killed by a curb-climbing car racing through Oxford. In the meantime, on the street just outside my door, a car race is slipping by. Men and machines, I suppose... and why?

3. In St. Louis, a new hockey arena is replacing the old, and fans are at once wistful and excited. Here in southern California, our local baseball and hockey franchises have a continuing love-hate relationship with the City of Anaheim that houses them. The hockey team has won its first game, the baseball team has undergone a losing season, and real estate magnates are hungry for more condominiums. Men and money in Mickey Mouse's town... and why?

4. In at least 80 cities in Russia, thousands of “manifestants,” as they are called in French, have gathered in the streets this weekend to demand free and fair elections and to claim their opposition to the leadership of Vladimir Putin. In Spain's Catalonia, manifestants are continuing to press for the acceptance of referendum results from a week ago that would allow them to be a free country. Liberté without much fraternité, it seems... and why?

5. Along the Gulf Coast of the United States, yet another hurricane is touching the shore, and Louisianians are battening down their hatches once again. In the meantime, Melania Trump is advertising Timberland boots and Manolo Blahnik heels, a Ralph Lauren shirt dress costing more than one and a half thousand dollars, and “aspirational luxury,” as Business Insider has called it. A Puerto Rican friend of mine says that his family there is paying very little attention to the Trumps; “they just want to have food and shelter,” my friend says. They have not had access to a regular food or water supply, not to mention shoes or shirts or dresses, for some weeks now. Aspiration or just frustration? Why?

6. In Washington, DC, the American President has his thumb on Twitter, posting the word that Secretary of State Tillerson should be “a little tougher” and that “only one thing will work” to make North Korea listen to United States reasoning. The world watches as President 45 thumbs his social medium, and I wonder how and why?

7. And then, in the world of academics, a Jacobin Mag report in Chicago states that a vote is already in jeopardy a couple of weeks before University of Chicago graduate student workers ballot themselves in the question of whether or not to unionize. “A looming threat by the Trump administration” hangs like a Damoclesian sword to take away the right to organize under the National Labor Relations Act, the magazine reports. “Unions are under unprecedented attack under Trump,” the magazine reports. Why? 

Perhaps the University of Chicago is seeing on campus writ small what is going on everywhere writ large, and that is why?

In France, where politics and argument are everyone's sport, once-powerful unions have become “more divided,” as  Bloomberg View  points out. Instead of standing together, people are manifesting their individual desires individually. In France and in the United Kingdom, in Spain and in Russia, factionalism has become an ever more evident fact. And at the University of Chicago, lines are being drawn to separate one group from another, and each group is seeking to develop solidarity against the other. At the community college, too, this is occurring: A lawyer friend of mine who is active in our part-timers' union has reported that “more cases and more complaints, more protests and calls to action” have been filed during this fall semester of 2017 than had been filed “during at least a decade, or even more.” 

The New York Times has called all these moves “a rise in populism,” but I believe that they comprise frustrated lashings-out. A psychiatrist who is a student in one of my French conversation classes told me this past week that she is seeing “more and more people who are afraid of what tomorrow will bring.” An immigration attorney in another class of mine has said that he “cannot keep up with all the questions that people have.” These people are glad, they say, that their expertise and calm might be sought out, but they feel their clients' pain.

Why is all this occurring here and now? Well, for one thing, communication is faster and simpler to perform than it ever used to be, and the lure of messaging one's friends or enemies through techniques as fast as light is an exciting one. Too, of course, there is change, and change can and will always be our respite. An old man from Vietnam who is trying to make our community college’s computers work for him wrote to me the other day that it will probably be the case that things will have changed completely by the time he figures them out. He said this with a knowing sigh. “Things always change,” he said. “I have been living for more than 80 years through things and change, and I am still here.” I asked him if he is more frustrated now than he once was, since we were discussing some of the matters that I mention just above herein. He answered: “Frustration is short, you know. Life will be longer.”

I hope that he is right.

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