For the coming year, rather than short-term resolutions, I’m issuing an ongoing challenge that is at once both personal and political. Despite much evidence to the contrary, and notwithstanding the relentless news cycle that we frequent, I believe that 2011 will be the year that the majority of people in the world demonstrably turn away from the brink of destruction and embrace a spirit of positive innovation and creative intervention in their communities. This may seem like a preposterous conclusion, but then again if someone told you in early 2001 that we would be living in a perpetual state of terror/war and that our rights would be wholly eviscerated in short order, you might have said the same thing.
Watershed changes happen, and they needn’t always be to the bad side of things. I won’t attempt a predictive litany here, but any number of significant events could transpire this year that would forever remake the map of the world. One of the most troubling aspects of the present moment is that we’ve fostered a sensibility in which crises, conflicts, and cataclysms eclipse any comprehension of positive information in our midst. While bad news is trumpeted on every billboard and dutifully reprinted in a preponderance of blogs, the prospects of anything good happening recede farther into the nether regions of our neural and informational networks alike. At this point, it’s a fair question: if something monumentally positive were to occur, would anyone be inclined actually to notice and/or report it?
By most accounts, it looks and feels very much as if the fate of the world is approaching a fundamental crossroads, and for most prognosticators the future is grim. But that’s as much a matter of our willing perception as it is a venal construct of the mass media. While undoubtedly many of the major issues of the day – from politics and culture to economics and climate – are seemingly in a downward spiral, it’s also true that this is a time of great innovation, community-building, and creative visioning. For every corporate crony there’s a neighborhood activist; for every warmonger a peacemaker; for every usurer a micro-lender; for every profiteer a volunteer; and for every agribusiness an urban garden. In each case, we can expound upon the poverty of the former while also highlighting the power of the latter.
Hence, I make this call for a refocusing of our collective energies and a retuning of our antennae to the light side. In this, we need not abandon critical thought, and of course we must continue to “speak truth to power” and expose the disconcerting machinations of politicking and profligacy. Can we do this yet still actively strive to project a positive visage back to the larger world? Indeed, the real challenge would be to become both critical and optimistic at the same time, and likewise to be thoroughly steeped in the simultaneous virtues of deconstruction and being constructive in the same breath. I make no pretense that this will be a small task, given the stark realities and incessant crises of the world as it now stands. And yet there is a lingering sense that we are somehow missing the verdant forest for the bare trees.
Undoubtedly, we will have to suspend our disbelief to some extent. But once again, aren’t we asked to do this on a daily basis with everything from manufactured wars and prefabricated terrorist plots to “too big to fail” scams and celebrity gossip passing as news? The version of “reality” that we consume, and are equally consumed by, begs our constant acceptance of its inherent solidity. Thus raised on morsels of subsidized empty calories, we crave even more to fill the void, only to find that the hunger is never quite sated. This is the trap of the bad-news cycle – and much like the violence-begets-violence cycle plied by “realists” both among the elites and in the streets, it will take fortitude and vision to break it.
Consider how much of our energy is expended in reactive pursuits, rather than proactive measures. As the sense of real-time apocalypse becomes increasingly palpable, the most obvious responses are deepening despair and intentional avoidance. Yet in both cases, we are constrained to chart our course in response to the narrative being constructed by the purveyors of ostensible hegemony, and in this we are denied the rightful opportunity to develop our own stories, visions, and practices in this world freed from the shackles of inculcated negativism. Again, this doesn’t mean that we have to yield our critical thinking capacities, but rather it is to propose that we can use them to guide ourselves and each other away from lives steeped in the faux news that we have confused for real intelligence.
To be sure, I’m not suggesting that this will entail waking up and seeing only sunshine and rainbows everywhere, but more so that we try at least to balance our impressions of and ruminations on current events. Some of the most cogent and persuasive items I’ve recently read (and perhaps written, if I may) that analyze the moment in which we find ourselves tend to the mercilessly despair-laden side of the coin. One of the obligations attendant to being an educator – and punditry is a sort of public educative function, after all – is to take care not to further increase immiseration by highlighting merely that which has gone horribly wrong. In this sense, if we overemphasize the critical to the exclusion of the constructive, we will likely foster greater disempowerment despite our best intentions to the contrary.
In short, we can respect the critical perspective that aims to deconstruct the challenges before us, yet also acknowledge that without an equal emphasis on the productive potentials in our midst, pure critique can foster profound pessimism and lead to further entrenchment in the despair-denial cycle. My challenge for 2011 thus is simply to seek a balance and nurture a perspective that remains open to the possibility that good still exists despite the overseers’ attempts to abolish it altogether. Indeed, I believe that it never really went anywhere, and that we merely need to adjust our collective vision to see it again. Once we do, we might even be surprised at how pervasive it is, and that the task of unearthing the positive news in our midst is truly a great challenge that will thoroughly engage our searching minds.
In that spirit, I sincerely wish you all a very happy new year – and I look forward to creating it together.