June 29, 2016.
My dear fellow citizen:
I write to you today, to you who have lost in this era. At this moment in our common life, when the world is full of breaking and spite and fear,
I address this letter simply to you, even though we both know there are many of you behind this "you," and many of me behind this "I."
I write to you because at present, this quaking world we share scares me. I gather it scares you, too. Some of what we fear, I suspect, we fear in common. But much of what we fear seems to be each other. You fear the world I want to live in, and I fear your visions in turn.
Do you know that feeling you get when you know it's going to storm before it storms? Do you also feel that now, fellow citizen? That malaise and worry that some who know feel reminds them of the 1930s?
Perhaps you don't, because our fears of each other are not in sync. In this round, I sense that your fears of me, of the world that I have insisted is right for us both, has gathered over a generation. It took time for your fears to trigger my fears, not least because at first, I never thought I needed to fear you.
I heard you but did not listen, all these years when you said that this amazing new world wasn't amazing for you, for many of you, across the industrialized world; that the open, liquid world I relished, of people and goods and technologies flowing freely, going where they pleased, globally, was not, for you, an emancipation.
I have walked through your towns and, while looking, failed to see. I did notice in Stephenville, Texas, that the town square was dominated by one lawyer's office after another, because of all the people rotating in and out of the prison. I did notice the barren shops in Wagner, South Dakota, and the VFW gathering hall that stood in mockery of a community's dream to endure. I did notice at the Lancaster, Pennsylvania Wal-Mart, that far too many people in their 20s and 30s looked a decade or two from death, with patchy, flared-up skin and thinning, stringy hair and browning, ground-down teeth and a lostness in their eyes.
I did notice that the young people I encountered in Paris, in Florence, in Barcelona, had degrees but no place to take them, living on internships well into their 30s, their lives prevented from launching, because of an economy that creates wealth—just not jobs. I did notice the news about those parts of London becoming ghost quarters, where the global super-rich turn fishy money into empty apartments and price lifelong residents of a city, young couples starting out, out of their own home.
And I heard that the fabric of your life was tearing. You used to be able to count on work, and now you couldn't. You used to be able to nourish your children, and guarantee that they would climb a little bit further in life than you had, and now you couldn't. You used to be made to feel dignity in your work, and now you didn't. It used to be normal for people like you to own a home, and now it wasn't.
I cannot say I didn't know these things, but I was distracted creating a future in which we could live on Mars, even as you struggled down here on Earth. I was distracted innovating immortality, even as many of you began to live shorter lives than your parents had.
I heard all of these things, but I didn't listen. I looked but didn't see. I read, didn't understand.
I paid attention only when you began to vote and shout, and when your voting and shouting, when the substance of it, began to threaten me.
I listened only when you moved toward shattering continental unions and electing vulgar demagogues.
Only then did your pain become of interest to me.
I know that feeling hurt is often prologue to dealing hurt. I wonder now if you would be less eager to deal it if I had stood with you when you merely felt it.
I ask myself why I didn't stand with you then.
One reason is that I became entranced by the gurus of change, became a worshiper of the religion of the new for novelty's sake, and of globalization and open borders and kaleidoscopic diversity.
Once change became my totalizing faith, I could be blind. I could fail to see change's consequences. I could overlook the importance of roots, traditions, rituals, stability—and belonging.
And the more fundamentalist I became in my worship of change and openness, the more I drove you towards the other polarity, to cling, to freeze, to close, to belong.
I now see as I didn't before that not having the right skin or right organ is not the only varietal of disadvantage. There is a subtler, quieter disadvantage in having those privileged traits and yet feeling history to be moving away from you; that while the past was hospitable to people like you, the future will be more hospitable to others; that the world is growing less familiar, less yours day by day.
I will not concede for a moment that old privileges should not dwindle. They cannot dwindle fast enough. It is for you to learn to live in a new century in which there are no bonuses for showing up with the right skin and right organs. If and when your anger turns to hate, please know that there is no space for that in our shared home. But I will admit, fellow citizen, that I have discounted the burden of coping with the loss of status. I have forgotten that what is socially necessary can also be personally gruelling.
A similar thing happened with the economy that you and I share. Just as I cannot and don't wish to turn back to the clock on equality and diversity, and yet must understand the sense of loss they can inspire, so, too, I refuse and could not if I wished turn back the clock on an ever more closely knit, interdependent world, and on inventions that won't stop being invented. And yet I must understand your experience of these things.
You have for years been telling me that your experience of these things is not as good as my theories forecast.
Yet before you could finish a complaining sentence about the difficulty of living with erratic hours, volatile pay, vanishing opportunities, about the pain of dropping your children off at 24-hour day care to make your 3am shift, I shot back at you—before you could finish your sentence—my dogma, about how what you are actually experiencing was flexibility and freedom.
Language is one of the only things that we truly share, and I sometimes used this joint inheritance to obfuscate and deflect and justify myself; to re-brand what was good for me as something appearing good for us both, when I threw around terms like "the sharing economy," and "disruption" and "global resourcing."
I see now that what I was really doing, at times, was buying your pain on the cheap, sprucing it up and trying to sell it back to you as freedom.
I have wanted to believe and wanted you to believe that the system that has been good to me, that has made my life ever more seamless, is also the best system for you.
I have condescended to you with the idea that you are voting against your economic interests—voting against your interests, as if I know your interests. That is just my dogmatic economism talking. I have a weakness for treating people's economic interests as their only interest, ignoring things like belonging and pride and the desire to send a message to those who ignore you.
So here we are, in a scary but not inexplicable moment of demagoguery, fracture, xenophobia, resentment and fear.
And I worry for us both if we continue down this road, me not listening, you feeling unheard, you shouting to get me to listen.
I worry when each of us is seduced by visions of the future that have no place for the other.
If this goes on, if this goes on, there may be blood. There are already hints of this blood in newspapers every day. There may be roundups, raids, deportations, camps, secessions. And no, I do not think that I exaggerate. There may be even talk of war in places that were certain they were done with it.
There is always the hope of redemption. But it will not be a cheap, shallow redemption that comes through blather about us all being in it together. This will take more.
It will take accepting that we both made choices to be here.
We create our "others." As parents, as neighbors, as citizens, we witness and sometimes ignore each other into being.
You were not born vengeful. I have some role in whatever thirst you now feel for revenge, and that thirst now tempts me to plot ever more elaborate escapes from our common life, from the schools and neighborhoods and airports and amusement parks that we used to share.
We face, then, a problem not of these large, impersonal forces. We face a problem of your and my relations. We chose ways of relating to each other that got us here. We can choose ways of relating that get us out.
But there are things we might have to let go of, fellow citizen, starting with our own cherished versions of reality.
Imagine if you let go of fantasies of a society purged of these or those people. Imagine if I let go of my habit of saving the world behind your back, of deliberating on the future of your work, your food, your schools, in places where you couldn't get past security.
We can do this only if we first accept that we have neglected each other. If there is hope to summon in this ominous hour, it is this. We have, for too long, chased various shimmering dreams at the cost of attention to the foundational dream of each other, the dream of tending to each other, of unleashing each other's wonders, of moving through history together. We could dare to commit to the dream of each other as the thing that matters before every neon thing.
Let us dare.
a fellow citizen.