Politics and powerlessness

Lately, I’ve been struggling with feelings of powerlessness and restlessness.

In the wake of the US election, my corner of the internet has been an agitated anthill filled with panic and rage and calls for action and solidarity and people trying to comfort each other and/or themselves with anything from standard inspirational stuff to summaries of the more comforting facts around various aspects of the presidency and various policies (particularly, the legality of same-sex marriage).

I (fortunately) don’t live in the USA, but many of the sentiments and topics that have come up during and after the US elections are just as relevant over here. Austria’s own presidential elections are not far: on the 4th of December, those of us who care enough  and believe our voices matter will cast our votes to choose between two candidates.

One of the eligible candidates, Norbert Hofer, has shown up to official events wearing a Nazi symbol, is a member of a Burschenschaft that doesn’t recognize the Austrian nation (viewing it instead as a part of Germany, as it was during WWII) and defines the German people in a way that excludes people of color and Jews. His party runs on xeno- and islamophobia, with sexism, homophobia and equally nice sentiments as icing on the shitcake, and he believes Islam has no place in Austria. He has advertisements and at least one interview in a magazine that has described concentration camp survivors as “Landplage” (literally “plague of the land”), and he has publicly endorsed said magazine. His circle of friends includes a roster of people known and in some cases sentenced in courts of law for their Nazi activity.

His opponent, Alexander van der Bellen, is an economics professor running for a party known for environmentalism and a very special brand of patronizing elitism.

Both of them run ads making empty, vague statements about protecting and loving their home country (somewhat ironic in Hofer’s case, given his membership in an organization that does not even recognize said country), with an extra dose of “so help me God” for Hofer.

And I don’t know what to do. I mean, I know who to vote for, that hasn’t exactly been a difficult decision, but I don’t know what else to do.

I’m a rather apathetic person regarding whether or how much I panic about political developments. I don’t think Trump is going to start WW3, and while I’d really rather not have Hofer as president, I’m somewhat skeptical about his ability to fuck too much stuff up, considering that Austria is a tiny country without too much influence on the world and rather limited presidential powers.

Some people, of course, will die, particularly refugees, and some people will fall victim to hate crimes that might not have happened otherwise, and many people’s rights and options in their lives will take a hit. But so what, says my apathy. People already die, drowning in the Mediterranean Sea by the hundreds and thousands trying to reach Europe, people already get beaten up for the color of their skin or their language or their religion or their (actual or presumed) sexual orientation or their gender or other things, many people already suffer discrimination. Death tolls rise steadily and, for the most part, completely unnoticed.

I fucking hate everything in the above paragraph. I hate the constant background hum of bigotry, dehumanization and hate speech that I’ve become used to. I hate the little brown box in the back of my mind that I put all the horrors of everyday life into, big and small: the picture of a drowned five-year-old’s body washed up at a beach, undercover footage from slaughterhouses, beggars kneeling on sidewalks, a serial killer of gay people talking about how he thinks he’s doing the right thing, a Jamaican trans woman showing the wound in her belly where she got shot on Monday, it all goes into the box and out of the rest of my mind, and then I keep going about my day as usual, happy about my small personal successes, proud of my tiny accomplishments, sad about insignificant details and frustrated by mundane tasks.

Sometimes, and lately more often, the box rattles, and a bit of the horribleness bleeds through, and suddenly the mundane feels surreal. It seems so absurd to care about a paper or what to make for lunch while so much violence and pain and death happens every second of every day.

But I don’t know what else to do. Crying about the state of the world instead of thinking about lunch would benefit noone; if I’m not going to do anything useful anyway, I might as well do something that benefits my own mental health, or at least doesn’t impact it negatively, and if I don’t know what I could do to help, well, option two it is.

Calls to action that go beyond voting are often hopelessly vague (“fight [x]phobia! fight [x]ism!“), not possible for me personally (“donate! call out people in your environment who [do x]!“), or both (“organize!“). I get anxious about completely innocuous social situations every day, hell, I get anxious about perfectly civilized online discussions – anything that involves interacting with people, let alone confront them about something, is something I’m absolutely useless at.

So I do nothing. I go about my life, I keep my head down, and I help noone. And I live with the knowledge that if I had been alive during the years leading up to WWII and WWII itself, I would have done absolutely nothing as well, even if I had escaped enough of the propaganda to silently think that what was happening was wrong.

I wish I sucked less. I wish I could do more.

Sometimes I think that I just think too big, that maybe I should focus more on small-scale, manageable opportunities in my normal day-to-day life to make maybe a single person’s day a tiny little bit better instead of wanting to make everything better right now and then get depressed about the fact that I can’t.

I had a teacher once who told us about how the Ancient Greek Stoics believed in logos, a kind of universal reason or fate in which even the most insignificant person could be living their perfect destiny, simply by fulfilling their role in the best possible way. The example she used was a cashier at a grocery store who could make many people’s lives better in small ways just by being good at and happy with their job and thereby fulfilling their destiny.

Sometimes I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that way of thinking. At other times, I think it just serves as an excuse not to do more, a way to soothe one’s conscience and feel good about oneself without putting in any actual work.

A good, friendly, kind cashier in Nazi Germany would not have saved anyone. But neither would a mediocre, depressed one despairing about how they didn’t know what else to do. If they couldn’t be a second Sophie Scholl or Schindler or Corrie ten Boom, then maybe being a friendly and kind cashier would have been their best course of action.

I made myself a Trans Pride wristband with crayons and duct tape today.

That sentence might sound like the weirdest non sequitur ever. Here’s why it isn’t:

  • Because Austria got some gay traffic lights installed for the Eurovision Song Contest 2015, and sometimes when I run across one of them, I’ll blink and smile and get warm fuzzy feelings for a second, especially if I’ve recently heard or read anti-LGB sentiments, because they remind me not everyone thinks like that.
  • Because sometimes I see someone buy soy milk and vegan “chicken” nuggets and not a single item containing animal products, and I will feel happy and relieved because it will remind me I’m not the only vegan in the world, that actually, there are many of us, and we do make a difference.
  • Because when I saw a graffiti reading “gay is okay :)”, I twisted my head to read and re-read the line while my bus went by, and it made me happy for a moment.
  • Because recently I sat in the waiting room of a hospital’s plastic surgery ward, filled with so many people not everyone could sit, and someone in the last row asked who else was waiting for a certain surgeon known to do trans-related surgeries, and a guy from the same row answered “I think everyone in this row, just from looking”, and people laughed and I felt a warm sense of kinship and belonging, despite never having met them before.

Being reminded that I am not alone is a powerful feeling for me. If it’s the same for other people – if there are people like me out there, usually fairly isolated and keeping to themselves and their small social circle – , my new wristband might provide some of them with such a reminder and give them joy for a moment or two.

It won’t save a single refugee from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, or do anything against anti-Muslim sentiments dropping from the mouths of politicians like bricks, or prevent a single hate crime. It won’t save the world. It’s not nearly enough. (And, given that it’s paper and duct tape, it might not even last all that long.)

It’s a tiny, insignificant thing, but it’s a tiny little bit more than nothing, and unlike saving the world, it’s a thing I can do.

(Due to my privilege as a trans man, that is: unlike many other trans people, particularly trans women of color, I am highly unlikely to be beaten up even when I’m visibly trans, and not even my access to bathrooms will be restricted.)


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