Institutions and Trump

I’ve seen pages of digital ink spilled about whether or not our institutions are strong enough to stop the worst of Trump, and just the other day had a conversation where I was told that he was President now, and that we had to trust the system.  Obviously, putting any trust in the “institutions” or “systems” that have already allowed Trump to take power is wrongheaded in the extreme.  But here’s the other thing that anyone who suggests that we calm down, stop over reacting, and trust in our institutions gets wrong.

Institutions are made of people.  They are not living, breathing, sentient beings in and of themselves.  Institutions are created by and sustained by people, and the decisions we make everyday.  Courts can’t stop Donald Trump without people freaking out and filing lawsuits, the free press doesn’t work without people aggressively seeking and reporting the truth, elected officials will too often take the easiest path and so Congress won’t hold anyone accountable without people protesting, marching, and attending townhalls.  Democracy does not just happen on its own through “institutions” chugging along.  Civil rights, extension of voting rights, exposure of corruption, the continuation of democracy, the all happen because people make the institutions work, force them to if necessary.

The protests you see are the institutions working.  Every massive social change and progress in the United States or elsewhere in the world that has been accomplished peacefully is because people trust the systems that are in place, but know that they must be prodded, shored up, protected, or forced to act.  Civil disobedience, protests, and lawsuits show trust in institutions, and that society will do the right thing.  Without that trust you get violent revolution or terrorism, depending on what side you support.  But trust doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility.  It means working through the institutions.  That’s what civil rights heroes, suffragettes, muckrakers, and early unions did.

As the saying goes, democracy is not a spectator sport.  And it should not just happen every four years.  If you don’t like what’s happening, but think things will work out because we’re America, you are wrong.  America works because Americans make it work-and because we are lucky enough to have the tools to make change.  Don’t just trust the institutions, use them.

The Road to Little Dribbling

road-to-little-dribblingThe Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson

I believe I have mentioned once or twice that I will read anything Bill Bryson writes.  So when I saw Road to Little Dribbling on a “Buy 2 get the 3rd free table” only a few weeks before going on a family vacation, well, how could I resist?

One of Bryson’s earlier books is Notes from a Small Island, about his time as an American expat living in Britain.  Oddly enough, I have never read that particular book.  This is probably because once my to-be-read collection exceeded two shelves, the only new books I acquire are from the library book sale, gift-receiving and gift-giving* occasions, and the two for three table at a bookstore.  That’s a shame, as Little Dribbling is a successor to Notes and references it on several occasions.  It wasn’t at all difficult to follow the newer book, mind you.  I just wish that I could have caught all of the call backs.

Notes from a Small Island was written after Bryson, originally from Des Moines, IA, had been living in Britain for a few years.  He’s ended up marrying an English girl and living and working in Britain for over 20 years, with occasional breaks to live in the US.  In Little Dribbling he is preparing to officially become a British citizen, and so decides to travel from one end of the island to the other.  His rules in the beginning of the book were that he would go to new places rather than just recapping his travels in Notes, but he seemed to also spend an awful lot of time recapping his travels from Notes.

I always enjoy Bryson’s writings, and when he is good he is very, very good.  He has a dry wit, an eye for details that others would miss, obvious delight in the things he enjoys, and a liberal dosing of random information and trivia that I always find fascinating.  A reviewer once criticized one of my favorites, One Summer, America 1927, as a “unusually slight…highly amusing encyclopedia” and its hard to disagree, but that’s what I buy the books for.  In this book alone I learned about the odd British craze of holiday camps, the oldest hominid in Britain, how the green belt system works, the arrangement of municipalities in the country, and loads about railroad history.  Who doesn’t want that in their vacation reading?

For all that, though, this wasn’t my favorite of Bryson’s books.  For one thing, while I do enjoy reading about the parts of Britain that he loves-and a walking tour there does sound absolutely lovely, now I want to go on one-it did start to get a bit redundant.  I lost track of exactly how many places there are the loveliest scene he’s ever beheld.  I know how he feels, though.  Every bend in the drive around the California coast will take you to the most breathtakingly beautiful sight you’ve ever seen in your life.  A wonder to drive, but if I’m describing it at some point I would run out of adjectives for “gorgeous” and “spectacular” and start to bore you.

And sometimes the book swings too far in quite the opposite direction.  I regret to note that in his old age Bryson has turned into a bit of a curmudgeon.  He’s always been a bit of a curmudgeon, and sarcastic complaints about society turn up always.  They’ve moved away from creative and humorous and more towards “get off my lawn!” space.  There is actually a complaint about what kids today wear in this book, as well as the rather unoriginal observation that pop culture is vapid.  I feel that he could do better.

Lastly, it was a bit odd reading this book now, one month into the Trump administration, a year after Brexit, and realizing it was written in 2015 as these things are beginning to get started but we still thought they wouldn’t happen.  Bryson is never really political, other than in the commonsensical way people in the midwest used to be-a belief that things should work properly, that they require a bit of involvement and money in order to do so, that people should treat each other decently, and more or less mind their own business unless there’s a reason not to.  But these are all controversial statements now, and his irritation with shortsighted austerity programs, and extremely gentle defense of immigrants-after all, he is one-are impossible to read without thinking of where they in context of a society that will continue down that road.  At least for me.

For all that, though, this book was still an enjoyable distraction.  I read it while on vacation and watching three small children, and it was good for that.  Not so taxing that I couldn’t read it while my attention was divided, and not so light that I forgot to pick it back up.  Perhaps not Bryson’s best, but all in all worth the purchase price.

 

*I often buy my husband books that I’d like to read.  Usually I also think he’ll like them.