The narrative of the powerful older woman in our society is a dangerous and poisoned one. She is the evil stepmother, the wicked witch. Past her breeding prime and she knows too much. So if she survives dunking and burning, this must be proof of her ‘pure evil.’
Meanwhile, the macho demagogues, some of whom have been women. For a long time I have been understanding their appeal as a longing for certainty in perilous times. In our heart and in our gut each of us knows we are in trouble. Climate chaos, mega fires, top soil stripping to the bones of our sea-eaten land. Sea levels rising to drown whole Pacific nations. Population explosion, terrorism, and refugee crisis. Our drinking water is at risk and the world seems everywhere at war.
How to deal with this? The honest way doesn’t soundbite well. As the banner says, if your beliefs fit on a poster — think again. Any honest leader in these times is saying something like: This is unprecedented. I’m not sure how we best handle these pressing disastrous issues. All these massive interlocking crises are unbalancing each other, making our difficulties more complicated. Let’s all pull together and pool our wisdom; we need all hands on deck; all aboard, and it’s going to be a long night.
How comforting, then, to take refuge and fall in behind the skirts of a raised-fisted demagogue who claims he knows the way out of this place. “Follow me! I have the solution!”
Such simple mindedness has always had its appeal, hence the abiding popularity of sentimentality, cults, and religions: but the fact is no one on earth knows for sure how we are going to get ourselves out of trouble. From terrorism to water wars, we are facing new perils. The solutions are complex and require much sacrifice. What a relief to imagine we can evolve some magic pill that finds a scapegoat for our fears and renders us immune.
In 2006 I attended a public meeting at the edge of the desert in South Australia, Australia’s driest state. Its purpose was to discuss the state government’s plan to build a water desalination plant. The idea was they would reef in sea water and desalt it, then pour the waste salt back into the bay in a deadly, suffocating spume.
This stretch of South Australian coastline is barely tidal and is home to an enormous proportion of the world’s most exotic and rare sea animals. There lives in these waters a creature called the Leafy Sea Dragon, resembling a seahorse who’s gotten tangled in seaweed. These majestic and bizarre fellow beings would have smothered in large numbers, taking with them — as a side effect — chunks of lucrative tourism.
Meanwhile the crudity of the proposed solution seemed to ignore even its own best financial interests. A man in the crowd was wearing a red t-shirt which said: Well, At Least Sell the Salt.
A councillor spoke from a neighbouring region twenty kilometres north. Same low rainfall, same climate, same parching, blaring heat. He told us how their council had been harvesting rainwater and driving it down to store in the groundwater aquifer. They resell this water, which virtually everywhere else in Australia is wasted, to households, football clubs, schools. He told us how they had more business than they can keep up with.
Call me stupid, he said, but maybe what is working for us might also work for you.
We don’t have a manual for dealing with mass species loss and the human loneliness it leaves in us. No one knows how we’ll cope with a three-degree global temperature rise because no one has ever been through it. “The government better do something!” becomes “We Are Currently Constructing a 16 Billion Dollar Desalination Plant!” and drowns out the more realistic response of perhaps, “See, it’s like a patchwork. We all need to conserve more water, stop washing our concrete driveways and sweep, take shorter showers; and you should install a rainwater tank if you can; and let’s look at industrial waste and stormwater catchment.”
The man who says I Have a Magic Silver Bullet can sound so persuasive to a population desperate with suppressed fear. For one thing, these seemingly easy solutions do not demand that we think any further about such terrifyingly complex and new issues. To face the looming disasters of modernity takes so much courage, and it hurts. Energy crisis? “Nuclear power plant!” Or: “Well, see we’ll need to maximise our use of the sun’s energy, and use the wind; and coastal areas can harness the waves and let’s redesign our appliances so they don’t waste passive energy all night and all day, for starters.”
The delusion in our disaffected and bored suburban lives that one Good Guy with a Gun can be a hero again, as his bear-shooting ancestors were; that a single man can bring us back from the brink of disaster by banishing one group of people or persecuting another; that job loss can be blamed on something visible — migration — rather than something seemingly irreversible — automation: all of these delusions in their shoebox have brought us this week to a potentially ruinous election result in the US. It’s happening elsewhere: Egypt, Turkey, Denmark. I fear the toxic masculinity and Hollywood hero narrative that have enabled this disaster. At this instant I am watching Trump and his Trumphalist family taking the stage in New York City — he is applauding himself, like the class act that he is — and all I can see in his expression is the fearful wryness that confesses: he cannot deliver the fantasy he has promised. No one can.
Maybe it would be wonderful to be rescued, rather than having to knuckle down, ourselves. Maybe the fight against prejudice and privilege would be easier if it didn’t entail anyone making sacrifices of their own. But as Trump with his thin-skinned narcissism eloquently demonstrates, pseudo heroes and demagogues seem protective because they’re so defensive. Trump seems strong, because he is weak. It takes far more courage to face the unknown and the uncertain, to open our hearts and tune our ears to one another — even people we dislike, even people who challenge us — and to embrace the crucial issue of our time: how our fear is driving us deeper into the behaviours, such as expansionist, exploitative industrialisation, that have brought about these emergencies in the first place. You can’t fight fear with fear. The only way to fight fear is using our courage, and courage is love.