On Trump, “Elitism”, and “Living in a Bubble”

25 Nov

Donald Trump’s victory in the US election was an event that shattered our perceptions of political reality. In addition, it has led to a lot of unfriending on facebook, debates about how progressives should move forward, and a lot of articles about the concept of “living in a bubble”. I wrote this post about how “cosmopolitan” liberals (including myself many times in the past) can often hypocritically criticize those who “live in a bubble”, and how we must try to move forward.

Some time ago, I traveled in Southeast Asia, and one of the places I went was Chiang Rai, Thailand. While in Chiang Rai, I went on a tour to some of the hill-tribe villages that was run by a member of the community who had grown up in one of the villages. This man was great at what he did, and he posts many pictures from his farming life on facebook. He spends a good amount of time in the year farming, and another time in the year running tours so he can make money from an exchange with tourists, and use the money to benefit his community. He was always curious to get to know his customers, and the countries they were from. Because he was poor, he had never been outside of Northern Thailand. He had spent most of his life surrounded by people who lived like him and looked like him. By any standard of any so-called cosmopolitan liberal, he would have been seen as “living in a bubble”. Even so, tourists were curious about his life. They loved learning about his culture and seeing how he lived, and knew he made a good living from this.

Now, imagine that this man is a white man who lives in a farmland area in Indiana, and has never been outside of Indiana. He makes a living farming, and sells corn-maze tickets at a county fair some times in the year to make money. He exchanges friendly chit-chat with his customers, some of whom are “cosmopolitan elitists” from Chicago, but for the most part, unlike the man from Northern Thailand, his customers are people who live like him and look like him. He knows and resents that the big city types don’t want to connect with people in rural Northern Indiana. That part of America, they say, is full of backwards, racist Trump supporters who want to go back to the 1950s and hate black people. They want to travel to someplace more “exotic”, and “get out of their bubble!” Never mind that hill tribes in Thailand can also have some traditions that are backwards by western liberal standards! It’s okay to learn from these “noble savages”, they are more “exotic” and “different”.

Meanwhile, at a tech startup in Boston, a savvy young programmer who had a 3-week trip to Thailand shares photos of his tour run by the man in Northern Thailand. The same day, he buries his mind in disbelief that the same country running his startup could possibly elect someone like Donald Trump for president, and then goes on to sneer at those backwards farm people who live in “rural America”.

This brings me to my point. Many wealthy world travelers who criticize people for “living in a bubble” are perfectly happy living in a bubble themselves, as well as learning from people abroad whose lives, if in America, would be seen as leading them to “living in a bubble”.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t go abroad and learn about cultures in places like Thailand. But my point is that we can’t apply double standards. I’m also not saying that marginalized people who feel unsafe after Trump’s victory should go backpacking in Northern Indiana. I’m aiming this at the coastal class of people who are white, liberal, and can afford to visit lots of places. Too often, world-travelers treat their “going out of their bubble” as if it is a contest, to see who can be most different from those “redneck” folks in rural Indiana. We cannot escape the circumstances we grew up in and worldviews we shaped, but we can attempt to connect better with those who are different than us, especially those close to us, where it matters to us most.

We shouldn’t overtly sympathize with Trump supporters. What they have done is racist, despicable, and normalizes hatred. We shouldn’t let them dictate our nation’s future. But we also shoudn’t unfriend them on social media, or block them out of our lives. Many times, trying to persuade people who have different views than us will fail. But it definitely can’t succeed unless we try. And try. And try. And keep trying.

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