The first thing that’s been normalized for me since November 8: how much the words “normalized” and “normalization” are being used. Here are a few links, with key quotes from each, that struck me as worth pointing out, worth remembering, worth coming back to in the months and years to come.
First, from Liel Leibovitz in Tablet Magazine: What to Do About Trump? The Same Thing My Grandfather Did in 1930s Vienna.
Refuse to accept what’s going on as the new normal. Not now, not ever. In the months and years to come, decisions will be made that may strike you as perfectly sound, appointments announced that are inspired, and policies enacted you may even like. Friends and pundits will reach out to you and, invoking nuance, urge you to admit that there’s really nothing to fear, that things are more complex, that nothing is ever black or white. It’s a perfectly sound argument, of course, but it’s also dead wrong: This isn’t about policy or appointments or even about outcomes.
This isn’t a political contest—it’s a moral crisis. When an inexperienced, thin-skinned demagogue rides into office by explaining away immensely complex problems while arguing that our national glory demands we strip millions of their dignity or their rights, our only duty is to resist by whatever means permitted us by law. The demagogue may boost the economy, sign beneficial treaties, and mend our ailing institutions, but his success can never be ours. Our greatness, to use a tired but true phrase, depends on our goodness, and to succeed, we must demand that our commander in chief come as close as is possible to reflecting the light of that goodness.
Next, from a series of nine tweets by Iranian-American Roja Bandari that was Storified with the title: What It’s Like To Live Under a Religious Dictatorship:
Some things about what it was like to live in Iran under a religious dictatorship: 1) It felt normal. People had jobs, friends, school, etc
2) A minority bears most of the pain: most vulnerable and those who defend them, plus any journalists and intellectuals who are out of line.
6) Everyone else moves on with their lives, jobs, families, problems, vacations, etc. Humans adapt quickly.
7) There is no ominous music playing in background in dictatorships. So if you in the US are waiting for a sign, there will be none.
8) It becomes harder and the risk gets higher the longer one waits before realizing something is not right. Because more people adapt.
Following that, the rousing final episode of 2016 from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, President-Elect Trump. It’s the fun mix of outrage and hilarity you’ll expect if you’ve watched Oliver before, a little heavier on the outrage this time. Worth watching in full, if you haven’t yet (and maybe if you have).
The point is, if we don’t get actively involved to at least mitigate Trump’s damage, things will not be okay.
And yes, the sun will rise each day. But the continuing rotation of the earth should not be your baseline expectation of American society. And I just need to ask you one more thing. It is going to be too easy for things to start feeling normal, especially if you are someone who is not directly impacted by his actions. So keep reminding yourself: this is not normal. Write it on a post-it note and stick it on your refrigerator. Hire a skywriter once a month. Tattoo it on your ass. Because a Klan-backed misogynist internet troll is going to be delivering the next State of the Union address. And that is not normal, it is fucked up.
In lieu of a post-it or skywriting or a tattoo, I made: a GIF. You may see this from time to time, if you follow me on Twitter.
Lastly, a thing I heard some time ago on the excellent 99% Invisible podcast. It’s an unusual episode, “Wild Ones Live”, featuring a live performance of a music-backed book reading about animals and wildlife by Jon Mooallem, author of Wild Ones. The whole thing is great, and worth listening to, but this part is what came to mind with respect to talk about “normalization”:
It happens every summer. Small turtles, called diamondback terrapins, skitter out of the water around JFK airport in New York, and they start moving west. They’re heading for a patch of sand, where they like to lay their eggs, and they have to cross over one of the airport’s runways to get there, runway 4-L. Sometimes, there’s so many turtles on the move at once, that the control tower has to delay flights. Now the press loves doing stories about how funny this is, how a fleet of giant airplanes can be held up by just a few tiny turtles.
But hold that picture in your mind, and think about the Caribbean Sea in 1492. There were almost a billion sea turtles living in it back then. Columbus’ men, anchored in the Caribbean, wrote about being kept awake at night by the thwacking of so many turtle shells against the sides of their ship. Notice how that scene is the exact opposite of the scene at JFK: it’s not a fleet of giant airplanes being held up by a few tiny turtles, it’s a giant fleet of turtles, bombarding just a few, relatively tiny ships.
So, I wrote this book about people and wild animals in America, and it only really started because I wanted to show my daughter endangered species in the wild before they disappeared. Like a lot of people, I think, I felt this pang. I knew that all around us, beautiful parts of the world are expiring, and I also knew that people in the future, they might not even notice. For them, a world without whales, or wilderness, might feel normal. I wanted to counteract that forgetting that’s bound to take hold over time.
This forgetting has a name. Scientists call it “shifting baseline syndrome”. It means that all of us accept the version of the world we inherit as “normal”. Over the years we watch forests get logged, or animals disappear, but when the next generation comes along, they accept that depleted version of nature as their normal. It’s hard to “zoom out”, really feel the changes that are stacking up across the generations. I can’t even imagine what an ocean filled with a billion sea turtles must feel like. Last winter, I was in Hawaii, and I saw three sea turtles, and I flipped the f**k out. I felt like I was in Eden.
From the perspective of human impact on the natural world, as he’s talking about, shifting baselines are often moving in a bad, destructive direction. In societal terms, those shifting baselines can more often be good. It used to be the normal baseline that people could own other people, and that people of one gender couldn’t vote, and that people of one ancestry had to go to different schools and drink from different water fountains. But what Trump’s campaign has done, and what his presidency seems on track to continue doing, is throw our modern norms and baselines around like a leaf in the wind, causing a lot of damage and hurting a lot of people along the way.
Another parallel I see between the current political reality and the baselines of the natural world that Mooallem is talking about above, are with the sheer speed that things are happening. People that argue against environmental issues sometimes say things like, “well extinction isn’t new, species have always gone extinct, where are the dinosaurs and wooly mammoths?”, or “oh the global temperature always varies up and down, the Ice Age, ever heard of it?”. But a huge difference is in how fast those things happen; extinctions and global climate changes in the modern era are happening wildly faster than they ever have before (see this xkcd comic for a good visualization of this).
Similarly, the norms of how the U.S. government is run have indeed changed over time. But never this much, this violently, or in a way that concentrates power this much. Keeping track of the previous baseline – and the one before that, and so on – was already proving to be a problem before Nov. 8, and it’s going to be a challenge, probably on a daily basis, for the next four years. Hang in there, and don’t forget. And apologies again for how often I’m going to use that GIF.
Leave a Reply