The Art of Resilience

 

 

 

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We live in an age where we are confronted by so much information. There is so much coming at us all day long.  Every few minutes there is another story, headline or tragedy popping up on our screens for us to digest. It seems impossible to put that particular genie back in the bottle at this stage so what do we do?  How do we handle this information overload that doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon? Many of us do still want to keep up with what’s going on in the world but the amount of tragedy we hear about has most definitely increased.

Many people view 2016 as the worst year so far in terms of bad news. There was of course the infamous 2016 election, Brexit, copious amounts of terrorist attacks and the loss of so many beloved icons. Again and again people seemed to turn to art as a way of coping with the awful events that were going on in the world. Every day in spite of the horror people continued making or posting art in its many forms as a way to survive all the tragedy.

One such piece of art was a poem by Maggie Smith (no sorry Downton Abbey fans, not that one) called Good Bones. The poems popularity was sparked by two tragic events that took place last year. One was the Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 49 people and wounded 53 more last June and the other was the death of British Labour MP Jo Cox in November. These two tragic events led to a surge in the poems popularity. In the following days it was shared online thousands of times. Dozens of famous people like Charlotte Church and Caitlin Moran also posted it to their social media accounts which only served to increase its reach. Finally after the results of the American election it began popping up again. It seemed to be capturing the mood of more than one nation.

As it stands the poem is estimated to have been viewed online an astonishing one million times. It has also been interpreted by a dance troupe in India, turned into a musical score and been translated into Spanish, Italian, French, Korean, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Just incase like me, there are any late comers to this particular party it goes like this…

Good Bones 

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.

By Maggie Smith

Personally I think the poem is achingly beautiful and describes the mood of the world so accurately. But I was also curious as to how the poet herself felt about the way in which her words gained their popularity.

Maggie Smith is a poet from Ohio who has written works like The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison and Lamp of the Body. She is also a mother of two and strangely enough that is how the poem came to be. A poem that has since been described as the official poem of 2016 was in fact written in a Starbucks in the summer of 2015. Smith was troubled about how she should talk to her children, who were four and eight about all the horrible things that were happening in the world while still providing them with hope. She explains that she wanted them to feel like the world is a good place but she also didn’t want to lie to them. Even if you’re not a parent I think you can relate to this feeling. We all want to give young people and ourselves, a reason to believe in the good even when we are in the face of so much darkness.

The fact that her words have now become synonymous with such terrible tragedies has left her feeling somewhat conflicted about the poem. It often resurfaces online after a tragic event has taken place. She admits that she would prefer if it was shared at a time of joy but she also hopes that her words can give hope to those who read them. She rejects the notion that it is a pessimistic poem and even though it describes the world as “half-terrible” so do I. Poetry, art and even comedy has always provided more comfort to people during difficult times than good.

Over the past few weeks we have once again seen the worst of humanity in Syria, London and Stockholm but perhaps if we allow ourselves to be inspired by art it will encourage us to create more and despair less. It might also force us to look harder in order to find the beauty in our own lives. I believe that art can help us to build resilience during these tumultuous times. Perhaps that’s why I’m trying to do my bit here, however small it may be. It might appear futile to some when they see people sharing poetry or a picture of a flower on their social media accounts but maybe it’s their own small way of fighting against all the hate. OK so the world does have a lot of problems but perhaps if we all do our part we could make this place beautiful!

 

“Gloria”

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There are some days you know you will remember forever. I recently had one of those when I got the opportunity to hear Gloria Steinem speak at the West Cork Literary Festival. It was one of the highlights of the year for me. Everyone knows Gloria Steinem as a feminist icon. However she is also a prolific writer, editor and a keen social and political activist. From a very young age I thought of myself as a feminist. I grew up with strong female role models like my mother, sisters, aunts and friends who taught me that men and women had as much value as each other. In spite of identifying as a feminist I was often made to feel as though I shouldn’t call myself one. There seemed to be a kind of stigma attached to the word, as if it somehow meant you were angry or anti-men. I was influenced by this attitude at first but then I was introduced to Gloria Steinem. Gloria made me feel proud to call myself a feminist and now I wear it as a badge of honour. I am a feminist hear me roar and so on. In truth all it really means is that you believe in equality for everyone. Because the older I get the more I realise that if we hold one group in society down it holds us all down. Gloria is 82 years old, now I don’t mention that figure so we can put it next to a picture of her in order to dissect her image like they do in the magazines. I say it because Gloria has spent over five decades fighting for women’s rights and there is no sign that she is slowing down. Her career has spanned nearly 60 years. She is also the furthest thing from anti-men or angry either.

She was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1934 but never really settled there as her father’s career involved a lot of traveling around. Steinem attributes her attitude to women’s rights to the fact that she had no formal schooling until she was thirteen. So she missed much of the “indoctrination” as she puts it, that occurs at such a young age. At that time girls learned that their role in society was to be a wife and mother. There seemed to be no other path on offer. Steinem always had an interest in social justice. She went to Smith college and studied government. She began her career as a journalist in New York City. At first she struggled to get any serious pieces published. Her editor didn’t think women should write articles about politics and other important issues. In 1963 Steinem went under cover as a Playboy Bunny and wrote an expose on the New York City Playboy Club. This piece won her a lot of attention. She helped to start New York Magazine and is also the Co-Founder of Ms. Magazine, an American liberal feminist magazine. Her experiences as a freelance journalist allowed her to see the inequality and injustices women were facing everyday. This encouraged her to get more involved in the women’s movement. She has campaigned for a women’s right to vote and reproductive rights. She has also fought against domestic violence and sexual harassment.

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Steinem has always been very vocal about the issues facing women. She talks about these topics and many more at her various speaking events around the world. While traveling in a cab in Boston in the late 1970’s an Irish taxi driver turned to her and said “Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” These words became a regular feature of Steinem’s speeches. They even made it into her latest book “My life on the Road“. Yet in spite of that it still took her all these years to travel to Ireland. The talk at the West Cork Literary Festival marked her very first visit. I must admit that waking up that day felt a little bit like Christmas morning. I was nervous and excited at the prospect of coming face to face with one of my idols. After all they say never meet your heroes. We set off from home early that morning and traveled the 57 miles to Bantry in West Cork. It seemed very fitting that I was making the trip with one of the women that has inspired me and thought me the most about what it means to be a women, my mom. I was thrilled that we could do this together.

When we reached the hotel it was still early so we sat having coffee and watching the people milling in and out. It was easy to spot the ones who were there to see Gloria. Some of them even had her book tucked under their arm. They looked armed and ready to drink it all in. As we took our seats in the hall a little while later I looked around at the crowd. There were a lot of women and about a dozen men from all walks of life in attendance. I wondered what it was about this women that had brought them all together . There was a lot of energy and expectancy in the room as we waited for her to arrive. The chatter began to die down as she entered the room and took to the stage. She was elegant and unassuming in her usual black clothing. She smiled graciously at the audience and instantly put everyone at ease. The interviewee chatted to Gloria about her memoir for about ten minutes before opening it up to the floor. Steinem believes that these events should be an exchange and so she told the audience “I don’t learn when I’m talking, I learn when you’re talking.” She prefers talking circles instead of the usual one on one interview format. She learned about them in India. In a funny way she is an unusual candidate for public speaking. On the one hand she seems quite and shy and on the other she comes across as a rebel who is urging everyone to go out and cause more trouble. No matter which way you look at it her passion for women’s rights is plain to see.

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People began to stand up and share their own personal stories one by one. Many of them spoke about how much her work had meant to them. It turned out she was right everyone does learn more by listening. The combination of the dedication in her latest book to the doctor who performed her illegal abortion in 1957 and the interviewee wearing a Repeal the Eight jumper meant that talk quickly turned to the issue of abortion in Ireland. In her touching tribute Gloria writes,

“he said, “You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.”

Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life.
This book is for you.  Gloria Steinem, My Life on the Road

Of course this is a sensitive issue that illicit’s a strong emotional reaction from people. Women began to share their stories. In spite of high emotions Steinem kept her composure at all times. Her responses were kind and thoughtful in the face of opposing opinions. She was asked for her views and so she gave them in a very clear and calm manner. She told the audience “We all have a right to control our own physical bodies. The government does not control from the skin in” When challenged by a member of the audience who discounted her opinion because she wasn’t a mother herself she simply said, “The principle of reproductive freedom protects your right to have children just as it protects other women’s right not to. I respect your power and I hope you respect mine.” The crowds disapproval of this women’s comments was palpable. They erupted into applause upon hearing Gloria’s response but instead of revelling in it she remained calm and dignified. She was very still. It I was asked Power is the word I would associate most with Gloria. She radiates power but in an embodied, urbane way that is neither angry nor hostile.

It is clear that Steinem believes in the idea of strength in numbers. She continues to be optimistic about the future of women’s rights but says there is still much to do. She reminded the audience that together we have real power to affect change. We do not have to accept the status quo. After all she would know. She has watched women’s lives transform radically over the years. In fact not only has she seen it, she has participated in much of it. However she did assure us that you don’t always recognise change when it’s happening. It is often much later that you finally realise it has actually occurred.

The stories that were told about abortion, sexual harassment and domestic violence were both terrible and beautiful at the same time. I was continually moved by people’s strength and tenacity. Their ability to survive in the face of such struggle was startling to me. Gloria implored us all to support one another in spite of our different opinions. I know that there are those who don’t agree with Gloria or myself on the issue of abortion but the fact that we are both Pro-Choice shouldn’t mean that we cannot talk or listen to stories with those who don’t share our views. There is always value in hearing both sides. Everyone deserves a chance to share their story as long as its done in a respectful way.

“We are communal. We only empathise with each other when we are together. The internet is great and, much as I love books, you don’t create the oxytocin that is the ‘tend and befriend’ hormone unless you’re together with all five senses.”

Gloria also told some of her own personal stories to the audience. When asked about her views on the upcoming election she said, “Donald Trump should not be elected he should be hospitalised.” Of course she is an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter and has been campaigning on her behalf for years. She assured the audience that she was working hard to make sure she would be elected in November, not because of her gender but because of her ability and experience. One audience member asked Steinem how she remains so calm through it all. At first she joked that it might be low blood pressure or her mid-western genes but then her expression suddenly changed and she explained that when she hears people’s stories she knows she isn’t crazy, it’s the system that’s crazy. This she remarked, makes her feel less alone. She also said getting to do what she dearly loves to do with her life gives her strength and gratitude. Women of her mother’s generation were not so fortunate.

Steinem’s mother suffered from mental illness which her daughter insists was caused by her lack of choice and opportunity in life. She too had been a journalist but could not pursue her dream due to her gender. Gloria often had to care for her mother. This helped her to see that motherhood wasn’t for her. She had already had someone be completely dependent on her and she knew she didn’t want to do it again. Society did not support this view. She was made to feel like something was wrong with her for not wanting to be a mother. Her involvement with the women’s movement made her realise the power of choice. No matter what our gender we should all have the right to choose.

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Over the years I have continued to be inspired by Steinem’s message of equality and this event only strengthened my admiration for her. She reminded the women in the room that their bodies were instruments not objects for people to look at. Her message was one of inclusion. She believes that if it doesn’t include everyone then it isn’t really feminism. In truth we are all more similar then we are different. Yet we must be able to choose our own path and not feel as though we have to subscribe to a certain way of life just because of our gender. Gender is really just a construct invented by society anyway. As Gloria puts it “we are linked not ranked.” Earlier this week president Obama wrote a wonderful essay for Glamour magazine on the topic of feminism. In it he writes it was important that he be a feminist, because now that’s what his daughters expect of all men. We must all fight for gender equality because in the end it affect us all.

As a female and a person with a disability my body is regularly the subject of public opinion and discussion. Gloria showed me how important it is to claim ownership of it no matter what its shape or size. I left the event feeling energised and hopeful. My mother and I spent the rest of that beautiful sunny day looking out over Bantry bay laughing and discussing the event for hours and hours.  We were both so inspired and delighted by Gloria’s intelligence and humour. It gave us the opportunity to talk about how we felt towards the issues that were raised in that room. That is really what Gloria does, she opens up the channel and allows people to have these important, sometimes difficult conversations.

In the days after the event I thought about how this is a pretty good time in history to be a women. We have more freedom than ever before. Sure we still have our problems but we mustn’t forget that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to women like Gloria Steinem who fought for all of us. It’s because of them we get to live out these expansive lives. I realise now that it is possible to be both grateful and mad as hell. Perhaps that is what will keep us moving forward.

During the event I found myself raising my hand not really knowing what I would say if they called on me to speak. Luckily time ran out before I could but all these weeks later I realise why I put my hand up. I would have just liked to thank Gloria for all she has done for me. Maybe next time I will get the opportunity. I sincerely hope that her first visit to Ireland won’t be her last!

A Political Circus

 

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If you’ve been following the world of politics lately it might seem as though we are living in some sort of alternate universe. It is starting to look like the inmates are taking over the asylum. It would appear that on both sides of the pond things have gotten a little crazy. First the UK shocked the world by deciding to leave the EU back in June. To be honest even the politicians who were campaigning to leave seemed surprised by the outcome. The result of the Brexit referendum showed that the leave side received 52.5% of the overall vote whereas the remain side only managed to acquire 47.5%.

Usually when a party secures the result they set out to achieve celebrations follow but not in this case. This time they all began to disappear from both sides. First David Cameron resigned. Then as if reeling from the shock of a surprise victory Boris Johnson decided not to run for Prime Minister after all. Nigel Farage stood down claiming he wanted his life back. Now I’m sure there were a number of people who wanted their country back or just to go back in time to before the election but thanks to Nigel and friends this wasn’t possible. The Austrian actor Christoph Waltz put it best saying, “of course, the head rat would leave the sinking ship.” No one seems to know what’s next for Britain in the wake of this result. They can’t just leave the EU over night. It’s much more complex then that. There is also the worry that other countries will follow suit. There is a lot of uncertainty in the air as the new Prime Minister tries to wade through unchartered water. It will take a number of years for this messy divorce to be resolved but you can bet the children, that is the younger generation will be the ones to suffer the consequences of this decision. A decision that was largely made by older people who have considerably less to lose.

Since then America has officially named Donald Trump the Republican nominee, off the back of one of the most bizarre events I’ve ever seen, the Republican Convention. It’s hard to pick which part was the weirdest really, could it be Ted Cruz refusing to endorse Trump and getting booed off the stage,  Malania Trump clearly plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s speech or Rudy Giuliani looking like he was in a drug induced state and scaring the crap out of everyone with mis-information. It was truly one of the oddest, most disturbing things I have ever had the displeasure of watching on television and in the age of reality TV that is really saying something. After all we are used to seeing “celebrities” venture into the jungle for no reason whatsoever but to ingest discarded animal parts as a means of entertainment.

Nevertheless I was continuously shocked by the way the speakers riled up the crowd and encouraged them to spew vile chants, mostly about Hilary Clinton without an ounce of concern for their actions or dare I say it the truth. If you were to believe the Republican Party Clinton is responsible for world hunger and war. According to them she deserves to be locked up for her many crimes against humanity. These statements aren’t actually based on anything or grounded in any facts. Despite reporters telling the crowds countless times that the information they were receiving was wrong this didn’t seem to matter. The mob grew ever more vicious as the days rolled on. I felt as though I was watching a cult rising up and declaring war on their enemy.

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Of course political conventions are by their very nature designed to put the other side down. They aim to rally the base and get people pumped and ready to vote in November. I doubt very much the Democratic Convention which started today, will involve sitting around holding hands talking about how misunderstood Donald Trump is and how underneath it all he’s really a nice guy who just happens to have misguided opinions about how best to run the country. They too will slag off their opponent in the hope that they can convince those who are undecided to get on board the Clinton love train. The Democrats are off to a rocky start with the resignation of their chairperson due to, yes you’ve guessed it, more leaked E-mails and a bunch of uncooperative Bernie Sanders supporters who won’t be so easily persuaded to join the Hillary camp now that their man has left the race.

I don’t think its possible however to top the Republicans in terms of fear mongering. The whole thing was more like an advert for the impending apocalypse then a political convention. Trump made sure, in his historically long speech, that he never missed an opportunity to warn the crowd about rising crime levels and how much danger they’re all in on a daily basis. This of course isn’t true, crime rates have steadily declined since Obama took office. The truth however is not really something that concerns Trump supporters very much. Trump needs very little, if any facts or real information in any of his speeches. He relies on fear and anger to win over the voters and they lap it up. All that matters is that they feel as though things are getting worse even if there is no evidence to back that up. The truth is completely irrelevant. When it comes to the Republicans this year is all about, as the comedian John Oliver describes it feeling over fact. The song Can’t Fight This Feeling by REO Speedwagon comes to mind. They have totally forgotten why the hell they are fighting. They just can’t help it anymore nor do they want to.

Trump’s big entrance made him look more like an X Factor judge then it did a serious political candidate. He emerged from a cloud of smoke to the Queen song “We are the Champions” playing in the background. And yes that thundering noise you’re hearing is the sound of Freddie Mercury rolling over in his grave. The other members of the band were quick to respond saying that they had not given Trump any permission to use their music at this event. In an age where entertainment is God perhaps Trump is striking the right chord in order to get elected. Maybe he is right and there really is no such thing as bad press anymore. At least that was his response during the recent embarrassing incident regarding his wife’s speech. Could it be the more coverage he gets the more likely it is that he will be elected president? Maybe we do hold entertainment over substance. After all the one thing that is repeatedly said about both VP picks in the media is that they are boring. Trump on the other hand provides ample entertainment and news cycles and therefore he is ahead in the poles. We now live in a culture where being boring is far worse than being dangerous.

Now if all that hasn’t made you want to lie down and go to sleep for the next four years, perhaps we should be asking ourselves what other reasons have attributed to these events. There seems to be an overwhelming urge among the public to push back against the establishment. People are sick of the status quo and a few irresponsible politicians have convinced them that they have the answers. The problem is they don’t. The Labour Party and UKIP in the UK and the Republican party and Donald Trump in the US have proven that over and over again. Donald Trump despite what he might say is part of that establishment that people hate so much and he is certainly part of the elite. The truth is there isn’t a better alternative on offer. We have to engage with the system we have, get informed and use our vote responsibly. We need to try to make it work for everyone and stop blaming it on the other guy. Voting isn’t the most we can do its the very least. We are all here and we have to learn to live with each other and welcome others in. Politics is supposed to be about discourse and in order for that to happen we have to stop all the yelling and listen to each other. The only other option is uncertainty, fear and a hell of a lot of hatred. I personally don’t want to choose fear. I believe that we deserve better.

 

 

The Donald Trump Effect

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I have always found American politics fascinating. It’s like theatre on a giant stage. This time around though the world has watched in wonder as the American election has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Perhaps the best way to describe it is like a Shakespearean tragic comedy. It can be classed as neither because it has huge elements of both. In the beginning I think we all viewed Donald Trump as an amusing caricature with bad hair who would be entertaining to watch for a while. After all the election process goes on for so long why not get some amusement out of it. No one really believed that he would still be in the race at this point, let alone be in with a real chance of winning the Republican nomination but alas it really is happening.

As the weeks rolled on the jokes got less funny and the threats got more real. In the course of his candidacy Trump has managed to offend Women, Mexicans, People with disabilities and Muslims to name a few. Everyday the list seems to get longer. His rallies have become a breeding ground for violent and racist behavior.  This has of course brought him more attention in the media and has in turn made him very popular. It also helps that the other Republican nominees aren’t very credible. There is no doubt that it’s a fascinating circus and people seem to be enjoying the show but at what point do we all have to get serious about the business of electing a real president?

Perhaps the reason for Trump’s popularity is the fact that he doesn’t seem to play by the same rules as the other candidates. In a world where everyone is getting more and more anti-establishment perhaps Trump is an attractive prospect. His campaign is like no other we have seen before. His team appear to have very little political experience between them. The campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski ran and lost Bob Smith’s Senate campaign in 2002, bringing to an end his short time within the GOP establishment. When asked about Lewandowski those closest to the Trump campaign say that what he lacks in credentials he makes up for in ambition and ruthlessness. Katrina Pierson, Trumps spokeswoman used to support Obama but she is now a tea party activist. Other members of the team have never even been involved in politics before now. Although most of them have worked with Trump on his various business ventures over the years.

Trump has a core team of about a dozen members. According to the Federal Election Commission he has a total of 94 people on his payroll nationwide, as opposed to Hillary Clinton who has a staggering 765 members on her team. It might not surprise anyone to hear that Trump employs no media coaches or speech writers. He writes all his own speeches (and Tweets) by himself. Other than the slogan “Make America Great Again” which he borrowed from Ronald Reagan, he has spent very little money on advertising. The whole thing seems to operate like a business rather than a political campaign. He says and does whatever is necessary to win. He is certainly not concerned with diplomacy or political correctness. Many believe that is the key to Trump’s success. Nowadays everyone is encouraged to mind their P’s and Q’s but Donald Trump ignores these rules and many find it to be a breath of fresh air. They say he speaks his mind but his mind, does seem to change quite a bit. So much so that he appears to be making it up as he goes along. It is estimated that on certain issues such as foreign policy the Trump campaign has changed their stance not once, not twice but more than half a dozen times over the course of the campaign. The only thing he is clear on it seems is that he wants to build a wall to keep foreigners out of the U.S. Strangely enough Trump says this makes him a unifier but how that works is again unclear.

Violent scenes have become more and more frequent at Trump rallies. He riles up the audience by promising them he is going to build a wall to keep out Mexicans and he is going to ban Muslims. He even offered to pay the legal fees for one voter who punched a black man in the face. He never talks about policy much less how he is going to, as he puts it make America great again but they don’t seem to mind. His aggressive approach keeps them coming back time and time again. His speeches read like slogans on a bumper sticker and the crowd loves it. He has unearthed a racism that lurked in the dark corners of American culture. Figures show that Trump appeals to a very poor, uneducated and mostly male demographic. They see him as a “self-made” billionaire and they admire him for it but in truth Trump isn’t self made at all. He grew up very wealthy and his father even gave him what he calls “a small business loan” of one million dollars when he was starting out. He has also declared bankruptcy a number of times over the years. In fact it is unclear just how much Donald Trump is actually worth because he keeps changing his mind on that also. It seems he is a far cry from the “every man” that his fans believe him to be.

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It is fair to say however that not everyone loves Donald Trump. Like I said he has managed to offend a lot of the electorate since his unconventional journey to the White House began. He has defiantly lost the Latino vote due to his offensive comments calling them rapists and murderers and then there was his recent remarks on abortion have done him no favors either. The Republican party are in full panic mode and they claim that they will not accept Trump as their parties nominee. Experts say that even if Trump does win the nomination he cannot win the election without the support of Latinos, Women and the Republican party. Of course Trump is fighting this notion by rounding up his legion of fans and encouraging them to revolt if he doesn’t win. This suggests there will be more violence in the weeks to come.

Many famous people have come out against the Donald trying to convince voters that he is not the right choice for president. Founder of the popular blog Humans of New York Brandon Stanton, who usually avoids turning the spotlight on himself was one of those people. He went so far as to post an open letter to Donald Trump online listing his crimes against humanity and calling him hateful. In just eight hours it became the most shared post in the history of Facebook so apparently there are those who agree with this sentiment.

I find it interesting that two of the most popular candidates are Donald Trump, who is now on the far right and Bernie Sanders who couldn’t be more left if he wore a t-shirt with a giant cannabis leaf on it. They are as different as the two political symbols of the donkey and the elephant and yet they are equally popular with voters. The political landscape in my own country isn’t all that awe inspiring at the moment either I assure you but I do wonder how Americans have ended up on such opposite sides and who will be able to bridge the enormous gap. Whatever the result it’s clear that this election will not only be historic it will be truly memorable. Lets hope its for the right reasons.