A few weeks ago I heard a man speaking about aid work. At one point, in the middle of a litany of problems in the world, he spoke of “countries where the winds of political change are blowing.”
I don’t know whether anyone else noticed what was happening through the plate glass windows behind him as he spoke, though: just as he dropped the tempest-as-politics metaphor a man walked into view in the background carrying a leaf blower, cleaning up outside while we sat inside listening. And there they were: the winds of change.
The contrast couldn’t have been much more stark: an older white man in an air-conditioned room talking about how we respond when the winds of change blow, discussing our reaction to the uncontrollable and unpredictable forces of political nature; and outside, a sweaty, dark-skinned man in his thirties making the wind blow, harnessing it to get the job done.
Maybe I should go on record here and say that I don’t actually think very highly of leaf blowers. Good old fashioned raking is good for me, doesn’t pollute the air and can actually get wet leaves as well as dry ones. And while I’m qualifying, I don’t want to pick on older white men or play into tired stereotypes. Actually, I’m seeing some particular older white men do amazing and visionary work these days. My point has more to do with the winds of political change. I think it’s important to realize that they don’t just blow, people make them blow.
The consequences of the distinction are notable, and significant in at least two ways. First, if we perceive the world as something that happens to us, then the best we can hope for is to react well. If we perceive the world as a space in which we move, however, our choices are much broader, and our sense of possibility much richer. We don’t just react, we act.
Perhaps more importantly, if we put the agency back into politics, i.e. we remember that movements and events don’t ‘just happen,’ but are chosen by individuals, then we are more likely to perceive not only the possibility of different choices, but also the humanity of the people involved in making them. That last part is particularly important, I think, and in a social context that so often tries to force complex reality into dichotomies— Democrat/Republican, Israeli/Palestinian, rich/poor, Christian/Muslim, us/them— it takes conscious intention to maintain a nuanced and human perspective.
When that ironic moment presented itself I almost chuckled out loud, but I caught myself, and I spent the rest of the day thinking about what it meant.
And what does it mean? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.