Earlier this year, I got my head above water long enough to fly out for San Francisco for a three-day conference on global transformation. It wasn’t the feely-touchy version. Rather it was the sort of transformation that Mahatma Ghandi was talking about when he said that, as human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – “that is the myth of the atomic age” – as in being able to remake ourselves.
It was a life-changing three days of intensive seminar and coursework with 900 people from every quarter of the globe. Speakers included big names at the interface between Ivy League academia and global structures working in Africa, but perhaps the most inspiring moment was the young woman I talked to over breakfast.
Her personal commitment was to having “every brain a healthy brain” by 2030. She was a brain surgeon, and I got that she was up for health in its widest sense of the word – and that she saw it for every one, everywhere.
As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – “that is the myth of the atomic age” – as in being able to remake ourselves.
The conference was in May and the year on the global stage had already shaken the box.
The EU’s agenda on the Greek financial crisis had revealed far more than was good for certainties of unity and the Britain had wobbled through a re-election of David Cameron, won on the iron-fist coaching of Australian political strategist Sir Lynton Crosby despite dire predictions for the country’s health services.
In the regrettable world that was the rest of 2016, we had to learn a whole new language for political discourse (and life) and then go on to make sense of first the post-truth bloodbath that was Brexit and the rise and rise of Donald Trump.
The western world was peeling apart between those doing well and those left behind. Or was it?
Having buried ourselves in non-stop news, we had to come to terms with the realization that we had just moved into a post-truth era that had no certainties and where the old structure was being relentlessly torn down to suit the polarizing agendas of populist leaders.
As a word, ‘populist’ is a ubiquitous epithet but currently, it is settled on right and alt-right wing demagogues.
As a strategy, it has been described as a ‘thin ideology’ that sets up a framework of ‘pure people versus a corrupt elite’, attaching itself to the whole spectrum of more substantial ‘thick’ ideologies, from socialism to pacifism.
As we’ve seen with the US president-elect, the charismatic leader makes provocative statements to justify any or every agenda, unfettered by fact or experience.
Either way, the demagogue – even if he’s riding in his own gold elevator in Manhattan – has no hesitation in stigmatizing institutions, science or figures that would weaken his narrative about the reviled ‘elites’ of the North Atlantic nations.
“Never has a revolution been advocated with such carelessness”, Observer columnist Nick Cohen said in July as Britain stared down the barrel of national dissolution wrought by Ukip leader Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, whose sloganeering and finger-pointing were based on monstrous untruths or no information at all.
A few months later in the hectic trans-Atlantic mix, with Farage rising to the surface at some pivotal moments, we went on to deplore the mind-bending sight of America uncoupled from its all-inclusive constitution while the wolves of Wall Street were suspiciously quiet.
Ghandi said, in explanation of his proposition: “If you change yourself you will change your world. If you change how you think then you will change how you feel and what actions you take. And so the world around you will change.
“Not only because you are now viewing your environment through new lenses of thoughts and emotions but also because the change within can allow you to take action in ways you wouldn’t have – or maybe even have thought about – while stuck in your old thought patterns.
You will still be you.”
I returned from San Francisco reassured in some way that I’ve found impossible to describe.
There are 7.4 billion of us, and everywhere there are effective, generous, intelligent, inclusive human beings living meaningful, useful lives in a time of unprecedented opportunity and abundance.
Gandhi concluded “you must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
May the coming year be a powerful and rewarding one for all our readers and advertisers. – Liz Waters