New Strange Things, Part 3 (further notes, ramblings & ruminations)

“For there are strange objects in the great abyss, and the seeker of dreams must take care not to stir up tor meet the wrong ones.” 

“And then to the sound of obscure harmonies there floated into that room from the deep all the dreams and memories of earth’s sunken Mighty Ones.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Strange High House in the Mist”

“They are warming up the old horrors,” wrote the poet Robinson Jeffers on the eve of WWII, “and all that they say is echoes of echoes.” Those words came from a time when the world was, as now, seemed on the verge of vast transformations, when strange old ideas and urges seemed to well up from unexplainable depths, and when at the same time the long-trusted sources of stability and rationality were becoming depleted and powerless.

Yet although our present situation bears certain warning echoes of the 1930s, it also of course is its own unique circumstance. So instead of drawing misleadingly exact historical parallels, it may be best to consider the general features that suggest the Old Gods, the archetypes, these repressed Dionysian and collective urges. What are the forces at hand this time around? What shapes do they take? What are the best ways to name them? What do we see right now?

The most obvious resonances of this at present are probably, of course, the tide of conservative nationalist populism, the rise of tribal umbrage in the face of the globalist and multiculturalist project of human interchangeability. We already see Brexit, the ascension of right-wing parties in Europe such as the Front National and Alternative For Germany (AfD), and of course the rise of Trump, as well as the recent elevation of Erdogan to near-dictatorial status in the recent constitutional referendum in Turkey, along with a host of other illiberal trends around the world. More and more we see the nation not through the liberal conception of a rational, enlightened organization of human beings for just ends, but in the much older and perhaps more honest garb of blood and soil, of Volk versus Volk, of ressentiment writ large.

Returning again to Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious and the strange mass madness whereby it can well up within a people—unbeknownst to the blandly unsuspecting individuals that make it up—and also to Ernest Becker’s contention that human beings require, in order to avoid the extreme discomfort of contemplating their own death, a form of symbolic, socially-mediated immortality project, whereby that discomfort is transmuted or, more likely, submerged into unconsciousness: these two go together here not only because of that continuing unconscious presence of mortal anxiety, but because many of the scarier facets of the collective unconscious have to do with certain untidy facts of the human condition, of which the challenge of living with the foreknowledge of death, in turn, is one of the most powerful. Therefore, if the slow implosion of the Faustian-Progress immortality-myth and the ebb of its diversionary post-WWII rain of plenitude both continue as they have, more and more societies will face an upwelling of unconscious existential terror into conscious life, with a simultaneous thirst for any and all possible remedies—from magic to megalomaniacs.

There are already strong indications that such an upwelling of mortality-angst (and other unassuaged unconscious contents) tends to give momentum to classically authoritarian measures and to the exclusion of outsiders. Even the most resolute bleeding-heart progressives become measurably more authoritarian when so much as contemplating a deadly threat. Hence we might say that one of those archetypal figures bound to wake up is The Father, or The Leader, who in such cases functions like the carrier of authoritarianism: the one who shepherds and protects the tribe, the one who sternly wields and guards its laws and customs. This is a singular figure, if not heroic then at least supremely unintimidated, onto whom we can project the Everyman from the threat of existential peril, whom we can all admire however grudgingly, and whose influence almost supernatually reduces our anxiety. (Most of these retro-converted societies will then try to re-inflate models that cannot be sustained under today’s conditions of ecological and resource strain, which will feed further into crisis and delusion.)

Yet what is striking is that even on the other side—among the people who would stand against the uprising of the father-tribal-leader, those who beseech unification and equality of all humanity and so forth, there has been a peculiar change in register. Here, there is a feeling that the project of liberalism has somehow re-incarnated itself outside of the individual, and relocated itself in the guise of a kind of supra-personal entity, a global thrust towards organization for organization’s sake, to which ideological trappings and personal identities are only a local signature or a mere commodity, but certainly not the essential thing. In short, by running from one super-entity of the mind-world, we seem to inadvertently wind up in the arms of another.

* * *

This other essential thing, the concept of which has lately been approximated by a host of such colorful names as “the Human Colossus”, the “Technosphere”, and of course, “the Singularity”, has without much remark accreted around itself a distinct flavor of the mystical. There is increasing, and startlingly irony-free, talk about an AI takeover, or a literal fusion of man and machine, possibly as a new paradise or even as a dire necessity. One might not even exaggerate in suggesting that this urge represents another collective “God” or archetype-like force, and that although it garlands itself today in the sparkling luminosities and the eerie, hereafter-redolent whiteness that is the trope of a thousand Internet commercials and Apple stores, we would be wise to question the much-assumed novelty of it. (In this last article, it is said of Kurzweil, the original exponent of the Singularity mythos, that “…He has such an urge to merge that he sometimes uses the word ‘we’ when talking about super-intelligent future beings”.)

Indeed, that this talk of a new digital or AI universe is undertaken in such a millennarian earnestness, or that it wraps itself in the magic cloth of the (not-so-)latest technology (“With the era of mass communication upon us, the collective human organism—the Human Colossus—rose into existence”), does not mean it is not drenched in subconscious god-yearning, with all its hallmarks. There is the dissolving of the self in a being infinitely greater; the transcending of mortal limitations and perhaps mortality itself; the satisfactions of certainty and shared sentiment. In concert with this, the image of human beings as but components in this vast supra-entity—not something so parochial as a country, or a religion, or even necessarily “humanity”, but a world information economy—has taken on increasing power in policy and common parlance, so that even the remarkable forces of reaction unleashed across the world of late seem almost to come to heel when faced off against it.

With its corollary of the supra-personal emergence born of human interchangeabilty, the purification of data and light, then, we seem to be confronted, in the very heart of the rationalists’ playground, with another Lovecraftian Old God of sorts. This being stands in opposition to e.g. the traditional god of Western religion, the overbearing Yahweh or Allah, which one might call “God of conservatism”; for that god is conceived as something hard and essential and integral, like a singular individual, a lone Father or a Godhead which might inflame the world of nature and the human heart but could never be dissolved within it. By contrast in this strange data-cloaked figure we seem to have a god of solubility, a self-organizing yearning for the erosion of individuality forms into a great, ecstatic mass of quickening thought—into a truly collective form of consciousness.

One is tempted to say that in the rise of this oceanic quality of digital communion and futurism or “singularity” we witness the “Ancient One of Liberalism”, a kind of Dionysian immersion, a melting of boundaries and categories. It is limitlessly inclusive, concerned purely with abstract forms of increasing organization flowing out of their own unquestioned justifications; it sanctifies progression above all else, that is until such time as its own mysticised apotheosis is reached; and on the other hand it is relentless in its dismissal of the parochial, the individual, the idiosyncratic, and in general those non-systematizable natural and human barbarisms that stand against its absolute and unquestioned development. All this takes shape under the auspices of rationality, of supreme objectivity, of algorithms and the driest utilitarian humanism. The often-cited contradiction between the economic and the cultural arms of the liberal is illusory, for in fact converge on the same point: whether in the economic dream of globalization and consolidation through competitive individualism, or in the cultural dream of an absolute equivocation and interpenetration of beliefs and histories, the goal of this god is always homogeneity in the name of heterogeneity.

Psychologically, akin to such contradictions in the liberal-progressive advance itself, this god promises the ecstasy of a great communion at some unspecified but impending future time, a shared purpose that is so great that it would grow to embrace the universe. Yet it becomes simultaneously somehow horrible in its anonymizing reduction of the individual to data—or, in its more glowingly humanistic mode, to an “asset” that must be grown exponentially to increase “human capital”. To those hearing it from the ideological inside, such language is the promise of certitude, communion and redemption, the brass ring to immortal heroism-through-consumption-production. To those hearing from the outside, in a world with over 7.5 billion people and rising, dogged by snowballing inequality and environmental depletion, such language could hardly fail to be seen as a sign of neurosis and fixation, of a profound irrationality concealed in rational trappings. The conversion of the individual to “asset” is one tentacle of an idea that spreads itself over all nature and thought, delivering it over to that vast and tragic homogeneity that Heidegger called “standing-reserve”—into resources for measurement, standardization and exploitation for the sake of a single unexamined drive to expansion.

* * *

Yet if nothing else, the path of the Ancient One of Liberality seemed to bring great plenitude and opportunity to whosoever followed it—a stability and a confidence of living, as embodied in the pervasive, emergent imperative of growth. Its boons and novelties were many, and appeared almost as if on schedule—dramatic new medicines, unheard-of computational powers, stupendous entertainments, ever-accelerating rates of travel (for a time), terrifying new kinds of energy and force. It was an acceleration of the kind that seemingly could dispel the primal darkness of man’s condition, perhaps indefinitely. The hoary old promises of religion, the “vast moth-eaten musical brocade” in Larkin’s poem, would be replaced by a sleek and exhilarating expansion into a veritable immortality.

Now, as a succession of bubbles and faddish false-progress gradually replaces this feeling of acceleration with the strangely sickening calm of forcelessness, of the zero-gravity unreality of our Trumpian moment, what ought we to expect in the future, given this disintegration of the faith in progress and the awakening of the primal unconscious powers embodied by the Ancient Ones, in such strangely antithetical forms, all while bandying the still-dear if faded watchwords of “reason” and “progress”? And moreover, how might we head it off or moderate the development? Returning to “Psychology and Religion”, Jung writes:

“The change of character that is brought about by the uprush of collective forces is amazing. A gentle and reasonable being can be transformed into a maniac or a savage beast […] As a matter of fact, we are always living upon a volcano and there is, as far as we know, no human means of protection against a possible outburst which will destroy everybody within its reach” (16).

So we see that our metaphors must grow in intensity and ominousness. The dissolved psychic pressure now becomes a volcano, its lava laced with hydrogen. The barrier between the inner world and outside reality blurs and percolates, creating a kind of demonic possession, and out of this murk the archetypal Ancient Ones arise and assume power within human psyches to wreak great changes, and more often than not, havoc. The god-drunkenness of the conservative becomes a madness for conquest, persecution and purity of the kind that history knows all too well already and that figures in many a humanist tirade; the god-drunkenness of the progressive reveals itself as an anonymizing, nihilistic drive to mass dissolution that pleads its own objective inevitability even as it sends out its tentacles for still more to consume.

In the mass entertainments, too, there is an unmistakably growing fascination with horrific battles, with new levels of gore and depersonalization, an obsession with rendering the end of the world in not just greater detail, but violence and grotesquerie. Most of all, there is a return to the past, a looking-backwards that almost proposes to become a looking-homewards—not just Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the gleefully murderous verisimilitude of Game of Thrones. On the other hand, our “futuristic” mass visions, though seldom less grotesque than these, have ironically come to consist entirely sentimental comfort food, almost wholly dominated by re-boots of re-boots of superhero and sci-fi creations—Spiderman, Superman, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars—that often date back 50 years or more. The very vitality of our ability to project into the future some kind of novelty or renewal seems to have ebbed.

The paradox of this is that the attempt to recover genuine feeling through these methods in itself ends up deepening the numbness and anomie, as well as the yearnings for the Old Gods. To take an extreme case of this, arguably itself an especially drastic form of “entertainment”, consider the US opiates crisis, which has surpassed automotive accidents to become the largest cause of death among the under-50 (NYT); here, too appears another example of this numbing inability to feel, this yearning for extreme measures simply to make life endurable.

Yet these visions and obsessions, too, all suggest strange collective longings and resurgent passions, which the moving image or the drug tries to supplicate and then charm back to its unconscious prison before the resurgence becomes a Jungian eruption. The great heroes and terrible warriors are inexplicably satisfying to watch, but of course we should never aspire to be like them; the magic and wonders of other worlds, the potency of the spoken word to open up new realities and make contact with new beings certainly are fun, but of course we would never pretend such things have power in the real world. The lights come up; the trip ends; and the machine is still in place. The questions and torments of humanity when faced to death or purpose are not to be quelled.

And so this attempt at supplication itself becomes must more and more demanding, more and more violent, so long as the deeper issues it is meant to placate go on unaddressed, until the entertainments merge seamlessly with a great civic chaos and a state of dangerous unfocused potentials. This, surely, is a development that has became all too evident of late, with the rise of a television reality star with no detectable qualifications to the leadership of (what remains of) the free world, by way of a campaign cycle that broke all previous bounds of made-for-TV, adrenaline-milking sordidness.

Yet if Trump really was the first major monster birthed by the rousing Ancient Ones out of the global unconscious, he is likely yet to be far surpassed—although good arguments can be made that his resolute denial of global warming imperils the world more than any prior leader has managed to do, he does not yet match the great human capacity for symbol-drunken madness and savagery by a long shot. This capacity has manifested in countless ways through history, too many to count—from the singular monstrosities of the world wars, Taiping, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Stalinism, ISIS (another new monster), to countless more local travails of cults, group suicides, pogroms and witch-hunts—and its manifestations will surely grow extremely complex; the aforementioned emergence of racial bullying and alt-right white supremacy in the US, and the chaos produced by Islamist attacks and right-wing rage in Europe, augur to be but the tip of the iceberg.

• • •

Alongside all of this are the reverberations of the global financial crisis, which though now a decade past surely has its part to play in the collective unease. The deeper question surrounding the events of 2007-2008 has been scrupulously avoided by the mainstream, but its reflections that stretch forward and backward through time like a financial Big Bang. Why did our economy come to the point where it had to depend on something so flagrantly ridiculous as people buying houses with money that didn’t exist? Or, more abstractly and fundamentally: how it is that a civilization that so defined itself by enlightened progress and by its triumphant march on infinity and immortality would come to depend so desperately on sheer graft and illusion?

The answer to the first, more innocuous part of the question is sometimes packaged in bland terms such as “secular stagnation”, but these all amount to the basic notion that mechanisms of normal growth had already checked out, leaving the economy to search for an ever more absurd and precarious sequence of substitutes. The answer to the second aspect is in turn that, by 2007, the arch-narrative of progress and the march on immortality had already become largely illusory.

Now, economically, the questions of 2017 seem even more insistent. Ten years on, our economy is still fueled on the illusion of progress, on the immortality-substitute of limitless growth—yet with growth and profits sputtering, inequality still increasing, life expectancies flattening or falling. The separation between the markets’ unlimited buoyancy and the actual conditions of life have only deepened the consternation and cognitive dissonance in the collective imagination. The vast majority of the stock market’s rise, meanwhile, seems to owe to two dubious expedients: one, the election of a corrupt oligarchic TV star to the presidency, which fills the investor class with hopes of abject plunder free of any remnant of regulation; two, corporations’ practice of inflating stock values by borrowing immense sums at low interest rates to bid up their own shares.

Similarly to how one cannot really address our current world problems without considering the underlying motives of growth, energy use, and population—including the Faustian “march on infinity” so penetratingly described by Spengler—we will not be able to understand, much less contain, the wild paranoiac tendencies embodied by Trumpism and its offspring until we look at it with a recognition of a) the unconscious archaic powers, resentments and even gods that we have lost touch with, and which the fruits of our folly have begun to nudge awake and b) the need for new ways of acknowledging and mediating such forces to steer them away from further destructive “outbursts”. There is hardly room to accomplish all this properly here, and the process itself is still in embryo; but one can at least set out to sketch it in very broad strokes.

• • •

In brief, here are a few other “creatures of the deep” that have been suppressed, ostensibly for ever and ever, by the combined progressivism of the Enlightenment and post-WWII technocracy, but that seem likely to resurface as that progressivism comes up more and more empty-handed. Ranked approximately from the most local and personal to the most universal and fundamental, they include:

Basic discomfort as an inevitable aspect of human existence, to be eluded only temporarily, through luck or at the expense of others. In the age of postwar globalization, these “others” could very often be sequestered away in third-world nations oceans away, and to this was owed a tremendous expansion of comforts and luxuries in the daily life of first-world citizenry. But this comfort, too s nicely expressed here:

“The affirmation of basic human freedoms could become widespread moral concerns only because modern humans were increasingly comfortable at a material level – in large part thanks to the economic benefits afforded by the conquest, colonisation and enslavement of others”; and “the thing calling itself ‘humanity’ is better seen as a hiatus and an intensification of an essential and transcendental fragility.” This fragility, this discomfort, goes hand and hand with mortality, while in complement to this transcendental fragility stands the transcendental and frightening power of the Old Ones. For the powerlessness man feels he soon accrues to the power of his gods.

Increasing tribalism. Sebastian Junger wrote in his “Of Homecoming and Belonging” of a deep lack of belonging and good old-fashioned tribal identity in today’s society. Now there is talk about the dangers of a single national (or any other kind of) identity, with David Brooks admitting that “Rebinding the nation means finding shared identities, not just contrasting ones. ” On the other wing of the growing cultural divide, in a recent interview, Jon Stewart, describing what makes America special, explained that America is “not normal”, because “what’s normal… is tribal”.

We are now deep in self-examination about the overreach of identity politics, the coddling atmosphere which has slowly grown from assuring personal safety and legal protections for minorities to encouraging nearly everyone to cultivate their their own fashionable minority status, with an accompanying sense of grievance at others’ exercise of free speech. Yet, our retreat into what the National Review perfectly characterized as “extraordinarily precise and insulated subcultures” has continued apace. It is not enough to embrace, as David Brooks says, a “conglomeration of identities”, for this leads to no identity at all. Identity is meaningless without some kind of touchstone outside of the self.

Tribalism is already oozing out in the very places and forms that claim most loudly to reject it, for instance in the strange, inchoate self-segregation of universities under the very banners of “inclusion, safety and diversity”. Accusations of “cultural appropriation” that fly when outsiders wear the wrong articles of clothing or costumes or write about subjects too far outside their own tribal experiences, too, suggest an emergent yearning for exclusivity and the belonging it can engender. Much as the project of interchangeability may engender anomie and resentment, this “Old One” of tribal yearning can be no less appalling.

Increased class-based division, and at its extreme, caste systems and peonage. This is related to tribalism but concerned with more abstract flows of material and labor. Emergence of a new system reminiscent of feudalism as automation along with the hollow men who become the courtiers. Money is the symbol of an billionaire’s power, not the source of it. They will not be destroyed by a collapse in the economic system, nor even by faith in money; rather, the affairs are increasingly contrived in such a way that they will be the only ones standing, likely with new, startling powers.

Religious reawakenings. Standing on the crux between the personal and the collective scales. A return to religious fervor as a force in everyday politics and life with a form and intensity difficult to conceive Essentially, this would be the “Second Religiosity” described by Spengler. A rush back into old “Judeo-Christian values” as the proper glue of the nation, as espoused by Bannon and others such as Michael Flynn.

• Increased legitimacy of political positions once considered extreme; the right wing becoming admissible, quietly legitimated or too large to ignore, and also in some cases the far left. Recent examples include Bannon’s referencing of Fascist thinkers such as Julius Evola, or Trump’s alleged readings of “Mein Kampf” and the emergence of the once-unthinkable Marine Le Pen to the last round of the French presidential election.

Autocracy as vitality, with democracy coming to be seen as decadent (with attendant revolts against decadence which, in keeping with the principle of inverse reform, only worsen it), increasingly unpopular, and even passé. Democracy seen not an eternal apotheosis for human affairs, but subject to change and decline, dependent on biophysical bounties and limitations like any other historical phase, and now entering its autumn. In its place, the ancient, archetypal longing for monarchs and strongmen—the perceived simplicity and clarity of mass submission (and transference) before a single, pseudo-heroic champion. This longing is of a piece with tribalism; for this single leader, to be successful, must strive to personify the tribe itself.

The failure of Data, on an epic scale: resoundingly a refutation of the new data-rich approach to polling and campaigning, as recently in the cases of Trump, Sanders, Brexit, and Jeremy Corbyn, but also everywhere else. People are more inscrutable than the modelers, with their abundance of clock-cycles and terabytes of stored minutia, had assumed. We see the world deviating more and more from the Enlightenment ideal of a clockwork mechanism, or a statistically tame-able manifold of information, even as this idea is hawked more and more obsessively by the luminaries of our time. The notion of the world as computation, of reality as simulation, and ultimately as information in sufficiently vast quantities as interchangeable with vision or thought was an Enlightenment-style project, but the world, it turns out, is as opaque and spirit-laden as ever.

We are submerged in data, and our lives increasingly managed by it in minute details, with or without our approval. Yet they fail to convince; for all that they catalogue our wants, they are blind to our yearnings.

In this way, technology seems detached from what’s happening, not integral or in the driver’s seat, as is commonly claimed. The retreat from reality into Data has, unsurprisingly, done little to change reality. While computation and data will continue in great abundance, they will more and more take on the quality of a lovable shibboleth, or an ironic pastime.

* * *

But probably the greatest change of all, in both scale and scope, is the gradual loosening if not overthrow of objective truth. The Greco-Enlightenment conviction in of some knowable “objective” reality, as a manifold completely outside of and indifferent to our personal wishes and needs, had the effect of compelling upon man a kind of puritanism of the mind, a stern abjuring of the juiciest of beliefs and experiences and indeed of the Old Ones themselves. And just as with puritanism, the vow of objectivity that binds too tightly would eventually snap itself, or else gradually loosen into its opposite, much as tribalism now sneaks into our civic life under the guise of inclusion. So, too, the devotion of truth is wont to be sidestepped by even the well-meaning, in their quest for more colorful, comfortable, fun, or easy-to-grasp habits of thought, or to sustain the appurtenances that mark out objectivity as a source of prestige and praise.

It is not only everyday citizens who are abandoning Truth, or politicians who have always treated it gingerly like a beaker of acid, nor think-tankers who have learned the old sophistic art of tailoring arguments to the measure of their patrons; it is also scientists and journalists, the erstwhile guardians of Ideas. For the downfall of truth (or its diminution into a value which must be be “defended”, which is much the same thing save with special pleading) is not accomplished simply in the name of laziness or tendentiousness, but out of a gathering frustration with the limitations that go along with an objective reality that is, by its very nature, finite and bound by unflinching laws.

Both the enabler and the sign of all the rest is the declining clout of that supreme Enlightenment usufruct, science. Over recent years, the scientific enterprise has brandished its catalogue of past discoveries and revolutions, or repackaged them to seem new, like talismans, all to keep its authority and prestige intact, and to drive the Ancient Ones back into their subconscious lairs. These talismans now encompass hundreds of billions a year in national budgets, and tens of thousands of massive institutes filled with complex instrumentation. Yet in fact systemic setbacks have become more and more evident to those who look closely or are familiar with scientific culture. Entire fields have increasingly become entranced by bizarre speculations, untethered by actual empirical evidence or accountability, yet which are expressed with an expectation of semi-religious amazement (roughly, what I have elsewhere called “nihilistic awe”).

In physics, palpable tension has built as notions such as multiverses, string theory, the world-as-simulation, and black hole information have failed to find a whit of experimental confirmation, increasingly bringing up discussions not of objective physical reality but of social dynamics among scientists themselves, a much more uncomfortable subject. The enormous LHC, at a cost of $15 billion or so, has so far failed to discover any exciting new physics beyond the Higgs boson, which was postulated in the early 1960s, while the BICEP2 debacle is well-known by now. Most recent developmens, such as the much-trumpeted results of the multi-billion dollar LIGO experiment regarding gravitational waves, remain unsettlingly unconvincing compared to the expansive claims made long after victory was declared and one and only one interpretation deemed possible. (We are now hearing that there are strange correlations in the noise in the LIGO data that “should not be there”, and call into question the whole assumption that the two multi-billion dollar LIGO detectors truly were gathering data independently of each other.)

In the biomedical, neuroscience, and psychology fields, too, there has been quiet panic as the investigations of John Ioannidis and others has implied that vast sections of the scientific literature in these fields are simply false or non-reproducible, products of an ethic of publication for its own sake. Choked with the incalculable complexity and heterogeneity of human health and of living things in general, the gears of Progress have slowed to a craw.

In medicine, the appearance of solid progress and rational development of treatments seems to be hastily dissolving, as drugs that win FDA approval with heavy backing by flush pharmaceutical companies and even become widely popular, often stop working or must be withdrawn after the placebo effect offered by novelty wears out. Even on the innocuous question of what is healthy, the appearance of a scientific consensus has faced growing fatigue and skepticism from the public as scientific studies have turned fat from good to bad to good again, to name just one example.

* * *

Nicolas Taleb recently encapsulated the growing mood of contempt and mistrust on the part of the general population at the increasing unreliability and brittleness of the scientific, economic and technocratic clerisy:

“With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.”

To sum up his contempt, Taleb proposes the humorous shorthand “IYI” (“Intellectual Yet Idiot”) to describe this layer of hapless intelligentsia. Yet the problem is hardly confined to the IYIs. For the IYIs once were not IYIs at all, but truly powerful figures, the initiates and oracles of the scientific and technological mysteries—acolytes of Truth, in a non-ironic sense that is hard to grasp today.

In their place, we see personality and will supplanting truth. The condition of truth ceases to be the intrinsic and inviolable state of some observer-independent Reality, but instead becomes a measure of one’s force of belief and dynamism of personality. Conversely, lying becomes what Trump has called “truthful hyperbole”; one does not “tell a lie”, but instead uses speech to express and rejoice in one’s sheer will—yet another of the satisfactions of the authoritarian.

The IYI may yet serve as Master of Ceremonies, the perfect useful idiot, helping to conjure forth the Ancient Ones in the name of a forgotten truth, just as the Jungian volcano prepares to erupt.

Reading List Roundup: “Man, Beast, and Zombie”

Our age has seen the Enlightenment fascination with mechanism come seemingly closer than ever to outright triumph over the human sphere. The 21st century citizen is more closely analyzed, more surveilled, more transposable, more meticulously quantified and modeled, than even in the most dehumanizing depths of the Industrial Revolution or the dreams of behaviorism.

Legions of algorithms and psychological studies now seek to pry into our behavior and reduce it to feedbacks and natural laws; economics aspires to, and has nearly achieved in some places, the total reduction of individuals to interchangeable tokens in a vast, global, labor-vending market; while neuroscience, behavioral genetics and philosophy of mind now commonly claim to have “disproved” such old humanistic concepts as free will altogether, reducing them to genetic interactions, evolutionary imperatives or fleeting patterns of cortical activation.

Is the most just and enlightened possible future for humanity really one in which reduction and mechanism have drilled their way clear into our most personal deeds and our innermost thoughts, reducing us to evolutionarily-determined “moist robots”? If not, how do we find an escape from the present mania for mechanism?

Kenan Malik, in his hefty 2000 opus Man, Beast, and Zombie (“MBZ”, for brevity) proposes to get at the roots of these questions, and just maybe manage such an escape. The current conception of human beings as mechanisms, in an unholy alliance with postmodernism’s rejection of objective truths, has led to an insidious passivity and pessimism in civilization, says Malik. The way forward must involve a realignment towards a more active, affirmative conception of human nature.

No doubt this is an incredibly ambitious project, one in which even partial success could offer important contributions to our understanding. Unfortunately, even so, MBZ is weighed down by major flaws of both conception and execution, which make reading it far more frustrating than enlightening.

A lot of the problem has to do with the book’s greatest area of strength, which is in scientific exposition and history. In this mode, Malik offers some fascinating, detailed excursions, particularly where he outlines the way that social-scientific schools of thought have changed places over time.

For example, in the first half MBZ delves into the intellectual roots of scientific racism and biological determinism, making for engrossing reading that would stand well as its own book. Malik skillfully describes how the pendulum of scientific opinion slowly swung first towards the widespread acceptance of scientific racism, then in the post-Holocaust era back to total rejection of any biologically determined behaviors at all (“Unesco Man”), and once again forward to the adoption of determinism in the present day under the guise of genetics and Darwinism.

I was also surprised to learn that the now-ubiquitous “Out of Africa” theory of human origins has been on top only a rather short time, edging out the competing “multiregional” idea that humanity rather mysteriously emerged from many separate locales at once. (Multiregionalism, despite possible unappealing racial implications, still has legs to this day.)

Still, even these strong points are spread unevenly, and gradually succumb to an irritating tendency towards stenography and rehash. (A long section monotonously recounting the ideas of Herbert Spencer makes for especially awful reading.) Put more simply, Mr. Malik is desperately in need of a good editor, as his flair for exposition tends to get in the way of his actual points. Hence, while it might have come off decently as a history of anthropology and racism, as either a scientific polemic or philosophical discussion MBZ is downright infuriating.

Firstly, even though domination and mechanism are the very things Malik sees so sapping the human spirit, his goal seems to be just to replace one kind of materialistic domination with another slightly modified one, where materialism and domination are perfectly good as long as they’re not applied towards humans. The real problem with today’s dehumanizing determinist science, we are told, is that it has given up on the idea that humans are special, limitless, and destined to ascend to complete dominion over nature.

As one might guess then, Malik’s general outlook is incredibly speciesist, with the last 90 pages especially revealing a startling contempt towards nature and non-human life. Lacking language and particularly Reason, non-human living things are self-evidently “objects”, the “B” in MBZ. Only humans, “alone among terrestrial matter”, and for reasons that Malik never goes into, are “both subject and object” (339). He is such a purist in his dualism, with such total certitude about the phenomenology of other living things, that he even describes an infant as “simply an object” (366)—not to mention his cat (363)!

Even granting that human beings have a distinctive linguistic and cultural faculty, and without taking any unusual position on animal rights and suffering, it’s hard to look at Malik’s certainties about both non-human nullity and human perfectibility/supremacy as misplaced, if not potentially monstrous. There is, after all, a reason that the sciences have come to acknowledge certain kinds of human limitation and fallibility: the evidence, and history itself, often points that way. We are not angels, as Chomsky sometimes says.

All in all, Malik is just calling for a return to Cartesianism, with its stark division between thinking subject and extended object, plus an extra dose of contempt for and dominion over nature and animals. This is strange, since for all that he seems to worry about our reducing human beings to mere objects, machinery or data for manipulation—a stance Heidegger called “over-againstness”—he seems to have chosen to deal with it by calling for even more of it… just so long as it’s over-against anything but us. Surely, that could never backfire(?).

Also, despite the vast importance he assigns to “Reason” as the defining characteristic of Man’s specialness, there are a lot of irrational habits in Malik’s style. You’ll look mostly in vain for actual arguments, for instance. In their place you often find, at the end of some dreary chain of stenographic quotations, a pronouncement with no justification given, of the form “X is right” (p. 336, 345, 348, 364, etc.). Issuing edicts like this is an obnoxious authorial tic, but it also does nothing to answer the important questions he has set himself. There are also many contradictions, sometimes in the very same sentence or page, like “determinism is necessary for freedom” (364); these, too, are stated in the same dogmatic/oracular manner.

Most disappointing, however, is Malik’s obliviousness to the striking tension in his own positions: on the one side, we have his full-throttle admiration of the Enlightenment project of rational, reductionist, mechanistic inquiry, which forms the core of all science. Science, in turn, is “the crowning achievement of humanism” (388). On the other side, we have his deep misgivings about the dehumanizing, “pessimistic” vision of human nature that actual scientific fields such as behavioral genetics have adopted and now champion. So, if the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment project ends up undermining the original project, doesn’t this imply that there is a flaw in the project itself, possibly something that seeks to objectify, to render passive and mechanistic?

Astonishingly, this issue never seems to cross Malik’s mind until the second-to-last page, where he pretty much just waves it away, intoning that science only does bad things when it’s not working in service to humanity. Never mind that there have been plenty of “enlightened and humanistic” individuals who ended up doing horrible dehumanizing things, like Robespierre or Fritz Haber—these are cases which Malik, like any faithful dogmatist, conveniently ignores.

All in all then, MBZ is really neither a piercing critical examination of timely issues nor a daring vision of a way forward, but an assertion of Malik’s personal (and kind of poorly thought-out) humanist faith. If you must crack open this meandering, high-handed tome, stick to the first half with the interesting exposition writing and skip the rest.


Postscript— I just came across this article on the Frankfurt School of philosophy. It’s highly apropos to the points above, especially when it comes to Malik’s strangely unquestioning and objectifying embrace of “reason” as cure-all for our mechanistic malaise. Here’s an excerpt:

The Frankfurt School theorists argued that universal rationality had been raised to the status of an idol. At the heart of this was what they called ‘instrumental reason’, the mechanism by which everything in human affairs was ground up.

“When reason enabled human beings to interpret the natural world around them in ways that ceased to frighten them, it was a liberating faculty of the mind. However, in the Frankfurt account, its fatal flaw was that it depended on domination” (emphasis mine).

New Strange Things—and Some Very Same, Part 2

Note: I know this was supposed to follow promptly after Part 1, but a ton of other matters have kept me from posting again—matters that, at the time, seemed to have precious little to do with the theme of “New Strange Things”, though I now think there is much newness and strangeness in what I have experienced. And lo, seven weeks slid by. But that will be fodder for another discussion.

To recap, Part 1 proposed that the strangeness of our times is no fluke: that we are experiencing the beginning stages of a re-emergence of unconscious forces and characteristics of humanity, many very ancient, that have been largely suppressed since the end of that last global psychotic episode known as the Second World War. Thanks to a never before seen cornucopia of material abundance, diversionary entertainments, and the overwhelming and expanding influence and prestige of scientific thinking—which above all else seeks the mechanization, codification, and hence disenchantment of all aspects of reality—the postwar period brought an extraordinary political stability, if also a subterranean growth of what Nietzsche called “ressentiment”.

Yet the aspects of reality that science once confidently proclaimed would be settled in short order have proven resilient in their unruliness, reappearing in whack-a-mole fashion after each attempt at rationalist dismantlement, and the dreams that lurk in the human soul, from which even Science itself once emerged, are probably the most unruly of all. Only now, as the idea of Progress perceptibly falters and the huge global systems of both trade and unexamined belief that implicitly depend on it grow uncertain about their next steps, seem to stutter and repeat strategies that have long since demonstrated their folly—witness the blithe re-financialization of the economy since 2008, or the recent return to a policy of military interventions in the Middle East—do we sense these unconscious dreams and forces, these “Old Gods”, again rousing and seeking outlets and mischief.

The process of this emergence is vast and complex, and can only be adumbrated here. But one key is that as Malthusian aspects of overpopulation, decreasing quality of natural resources, and diminishing returns on technology and complexity become more difficult to ignore in many spheres of life, they expose the crisis of our civilization’s underlying myth, what Spengler called the “Faustian world-feeling” of limitless space, of “ever onwards and upwards” Abetted by the dogma of scientific mechanism, this myth has long helped shield us from the darker and less rational side of ourselves and our fellow man, in part by selectively blinding us to all that is non-rational, in part by distracting us from it with seemingly endless novelties and amusements, and in part by bribing away .

Now we see this awakening, out the dying body of the old myth as it were, of something new and strange and we do not yet know where it will lead. As befits our centuries-long sojourn in the intellectual realm of mechanism, the terms and tools we have to describe what is happening, such as psychoanalysis or neuroscience, are themselves materialistic in character, and so are not quite up to the task. We have lost our outlets for these other forces, their proper language; in our haste to embrace rationality and modernity, and in the hopes of dismantling the ability of any forces outside rationality and modernity to harm us, we have cut adrift all ways of intermediating between these “Old Gods” and the daily life of the individual and the conscious self.

All of this is still quite a jumble, as I have been trying to take in an enormous amount of raw impressions and speculations and put it in some kind of readable form, but at least it is a beginning of sorts. Anyhow…

*  *  *

An interesting clue to the deeper illness spreading across the collective psyche can be spotted in some of President Obama’s own comments at a meeting with Angela Merkel very shortly after the election result that astonishingly elevated Trump. Standing alongside the German chancellor, the president struggled to put his usual tranquilizingly optimistic gloss on the prospects of the incoming administration; what came out instead was (for him) an uncommonly stark admonishment.

“Do not take for granted our systems of government and our way of life”, he warned. “There is a tendency because we have lived in an era that has been largely stable and peaceful, at least in advanced countries, where living standards have generally gone up… there is a tendency to assume that that is always the case. And it’s not.”

It takes a moment of reflection to realize, particularly given the President’s characteristically detached, indeed hyper-rationalistic way of framing even the most glaring and visceral truths, how extraordinary this admission really was, and how deep must be the doubt that provoked it. For here, we have the leader of the USA—supposed modern-progressive vanguard of all nations, the ideals of the Enlightenment inscribed in its very founding documents, the self-styled epitome of scientific, technological, economic and social advancement, the guarantor of world stability and the prime mover behind neoliberalism—admitting to the world that the narrative of human progress which had animated us for so very long was, after all, far from an absolute rule of history.

It was of a piece with the tacit negativity at the core of Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!”—i.e., that America is a declining power—yet in Obama’s case, the pessimism now extended not just to American decline but to the entire world order. In this moment, the notion of progress among nations, of human perfectibility, whether in terms of living standards or foreign relations, was suddenly transmuted from the indestructible jewel on which all futurity would assuredly converge, to something contingent, clouded, perhaps even burdensome.

This negativity, however, taps into something more pervasive than even a single country’s sense of its own sliding fortunes—not least because so many other countries seem to be experiencing such a slide themselves. The growth-fired engines of the world have stalled; the machinery of Progress, if not its outward auspices of self-promotion, has hesitated.

Indeed, it has been pointed out by a number of observers that Trump’s language implies a profound change of perspective towards “zero-sum” thinking—the world is made of “winners” and “losers”, and everything is about making sure you’re the former, not the latter. This is significant enough; so far only Erik Lindberg, however, draws a subtle connection between the rise of such thinking and our present global circumstances:

“…liberals and conservatives have thus shared the belief that our common good resides in an expanding and growing world of material improvements, a broadening of horizons, increasing mobility, choice, possibility. They have shared the keywords of limitless and infinite, arguing only over differences in how to map our progress and chart our course “forward” towards this ever-receding horizon of limitless possibility.

“This has come to an end with Donald Trump’s new metaphorics of economics. To the question, “What is wrong with the economy?” Trump answers: we have made bad deals.”

“[but] something much larger is afoot, and is embedded in this new way of answering our inescapable political question.  For implied in his focus on the deal and the bargaining-table are a number of unique assumptions. Chief among these, I think, is that the total amount of goods and services available are, at some level, fixed.

“Trump doesn’t say this outright, but his words carry weight only if this is true.  His is a new mercantilism, a return to values that have been on the ropes for the past five-hundred years.  The deal-maker truly thrives in a world without the “win-wins” we have come to accept as a part of the normalized, but mythical, arc of a progressive history.”

Furthermore, notes Lindberg,

“Trump’s economic vision operates independently of growth and his appeal is fueled by its waning. In a fast-growing economy, Trump would be irrelevant and his focus on deal-making would appear trite and meaningless, a side-show to the primary business of expansion.”

This collapse in the expectations of progress—not just whether it is happening, but whether it is worthwhile—is the true foreshock to the coming eruption; economic inequality, sluggish growth and relentlessly growing debt all flow out of it.To put it simply, the world that our rational selves have been trained to think of as the world is exhausting itself, being unmasked as a mythology, a concoction of centuries of scientifically-styled searching for “definite forms and laws” in the realm of human nature and human affairs. Call it the revenge of the unconscious.

* * *

Yet it goes even deeper than this: for Progress has not just served as our source of purpose and as a continual fount of goods that, through the promise of growth, turns (or bribes) our attention away from the dissatisfactions of the present in favor of an ever-golden future. Rather Progress, as the prime manifestation of Western culture’s Faustian yearning for infinity and transcendence, has become what the American anthropologist Ernest Becker referred to as an immortality project. It has served, much in the manner that traditional religion used to, and still does in some places and cultures (to the chagrin of the modern acolytes of Faustian culture), as a way for human beings to dissolve the primordial terror of their mortality.

In his poem “Aubade”, an unvarnished rumination on this terror, Philip Larkin wrote,

“Most things may never happen: this one will,

And realisation of it rages out

In furnace-fear when we are caught without

People or drink […]”

Here is the cold existential ground of mortality, bereft of all transcendence, all belief, all hope: total and meaningless disappearance, the “total emptiness for ever”, as Larkin also puts it. This is the very state of mind that the immortality project of Progress has allowed so many moderns, who in their systematic disenchantment have become dangerously familiar with the existential, to escape—even if, ironically, it was the products of Progress that helped dismantle the religious immortality projects of old, and the materialistic roots of the faith quietly implied that such escape was nonsense. .

Instead of being at the mercy of a cold, indifferent, relentlessly causal and incomprehensibly vast universe in which all traces of the spiritual are mere wishful thinking, Becker believed the belief in God, or an afterlife, or salvation, had once sufficed to immerse the individual into a symbolic system of immortality and meaning that perpetuates and surpasses the self and so brings relief from this existential aridity of physical death. Similarly, this faith in all-conquering ascent and improvement, whether through technology or through social change, afforded modern “progressive” man a kind of ready-made means of symbolically transcending the perishing of her personal self.

Yet now, by the admission of two consecutive Presidents of the most technocratic and technologically powerful country in the world—hence arguably the very men most charged with sustaining the world’s confidence in Progress—that very project is flagging. When it collapses, we may well see the collective death-angst that had been dissolved therein to rise again, like a mischievous djinn, and to search frantically for a new resting-place.

*  *  *

Obama rode to power owing in great measure to his ability to channel the enthusiasm of huge movements and to electrify gigantic crowds. His ascent into the heart of American politics, beginning with his speech to the DNC in 2004 before he had even been elected to the U.S. Senate, revealed a man of prodigious, instinctive oratorical gifts, and his status as the first African-American president of a nation that had long been marred by slavery and discrimination seemed like an apotheosis of Enlightenment ideals. But what he achieved with those gifts and that unique status was not to be found in the words he said or in his later deeds, but in the resonance of his voice, the energy of his presence, the vague but magical halo of “hope” and “change” that he commanded and projected across so many minds. So to say, his appeal and success derived from unconscious powers no less remarkable and inscrutable than those responsible for Trump’s victory. Already, we see the Old Gods at work in these victories: a slide into ever more ##

But Obama was at heart a technocrat, a dry rationalist; though in campaigning he spoke in a language of archetypal heroism and overcoming that promised, from a place beyond words, to heal the sickness in the collective unconscious, in governing he turned out to be first and foremost an individualist, a man who grasped little beyond the tools of his own consciousness. He therefore could not provide catharsis for the great despair at the death of progress in the nation’s heartland; he seemed to ignore it, or even view it with a snooty professorial detachment. Like an overactive consciousness trained to view the intellect as the only real part of the self, he could only try to force it back down, to deny its reality. In the New Yorker’s recent piece on Obama’s reactions to the 2016 election outcome, David Remnick tellingly noted that “Even in the midst of what he can only see as a disastrous turn of history, Obama retained the uncanny capacity to view his quandaries as if he were drafting a research paper”. 

In the appearance of his vitality was concealed the deadly sameness of numbers, of mechanism. The Enlightenment, shopworn, repackaged as revolution, only later revealing its same paling colors.

Trump appealed instead to passions, tribalism and radicalism, and a kind of non-verbal aura of boisterousness and unapologetic aggression. He still does so for many, even as in recent weeks his defeats against the entrenched powers in Congress, the courts, and the “deep state” have obliged him to seek new means of getting the approval, foment, and attention he craves.

Yet even if he leaves aside for a time the racist dog-whistles, the open calls for violence and revenge, the overt attacks on the free press, the energies that have been called up by his campaign and his victory, however opportunistic it was, will not be put to rest so easily. These energies are now rabid on both sides, mixed with a sense of hopelessness whose ultimate cause few can name, and they are feeding on each other, creating startling clashes on the streets of the country whose ferocity and chaos increasingly resembles those often broadcast from the overcrowded, fundamentalism-laden, politically unstable states of the Middle East. Behavior and thought that we once smugly saw as a throwback confined to a few distant barbaric lands seems more and more to have awakened under our own noses—often in the name of order and justice, no less.

(to be continued…)

New Strange Things

For all the hype that circled round the U.S. elections of 2016, for all the drastic failings of the media and of both candidates, as the outcome has settled in and Trump has begun his presidency with a vision of governing by dictat, most observers have realized that there is an underlying sea-change in the way the world operates, part of a great and fateful turning of history. Trump, whatever he may do, momentous and disturbing as he already is, is an effect first, and cause second.

Paired with this deep sea-change, however, there has been a subtle shift in mood across the country, a kind of false calm of equal parts lassitude and polarized rage that could if not nurture and accelerate a decline into fascism, then at least fail to stand in its way. Nothing that has happened so far since the 8th of November or the 20th of January, including Trump’s shockingly pro-corporate nominations and his usual, disorienting (calculatedly so?) ink-cloud of contradictory statements, challenges that impression.

Also, as the media hurried to point out, the election was followed abruptly by a nationwide increase of attacks and bullying of minorities, of hateful slogans and graffiti appearing on campus and school buildings, particularly swastikas. White-supremacist demonstrations with startling chants and rhetoric such has “heil victory” have emerged into plain view with brazen demonstrations at venues on the National Mall, while Confederate flags have suddenly acquired a much greater visibility and even a sort of legitimacy (aside from still being on the state flag of Mississippi). Anti-Semitic incidents, as well, have notched a significant increase, though the causes of these remain unclear.

On the other hand, the size of the increase in these “hate crimes” and other extremist activities has been hard to verify, and a large number of the alleged instances have turned out to be false reports: for instance, there’s the case of the Muslim woman whose report of having her burkha torn off by Trump supporters turned out to be her own fabrication, or the case of a black church that was spray painted with “Vote Trump” and then set ablaze turns out not to have been the work of white supremacists, but of one of the church’s own parishioners. On the other hand, anti-Trump protesters have not always distinguished themselves by classy conduct either.

But while one can debate the absolute size of the effect, it’s hard not to feel that before the Trump campaign, many such acts–both crazed hoaxes and true acts of hate alike–would have been kept down by an overwhelming force of collective shame, by which the rage and disillusionment of the nation was pressurized into solution. Many things can provide a mass-psychological “back-pressure” of this kind—the kind that holds society together and maintains basic civility against our ghastlier impulses—but lately perhaps the best remaining symbol of it was the outgoing president, whose preternatural calm and scrupulous attention to normality, combined with the high authority of the office he held, was able to keep dissolved many of the more unappealing by-products of the country’s slow fermentation.

But if this power of normalization was characteristic of the presidency in general and of Barack Obama’s style in particular, it was also the tragedy of Obama and his predecessors to have contained and compressed rather than ameliorated, allowing the seething body politic to putrefy further, to reach still greater pressures and toxicity, first through the 2008 crisis and then eight years of ersatz recovery—a time that saw an explosion in the wealth of billionaires and a surging stock market, but extremely disappointing overall economic growth and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor abetted, among other things, by ballooning personal indebtedness.

With the Trumpist takeover now a fact of life, one might have hoped that with a few red-meat populist measures, the bottle could begin to be uncorked and some sort of relief was at hand. Instead, it seems increasingly likely that nothing of the sort will happen under Trump, at least not intentionally; instead, he seems to plan on using the psychological pressure that has built up in the masses as a source of narcissistic political energy—to stretch the analogy further, we have gone from an administration that was intently focused on keeping the bottle elegantly corked, regardless what nastiness was brewing inside it, to one that seems intent on shaking it as hard as possible and capitalizing on the mess that follows.

But just as Trumpism itself is at least as much an effect as a cause, the facts of economic disappointment, growing inequality, and a more and more disconnected political class only seem to scratch the surface in explaining the massive changes underway in the United States and around the world. The pressure that is building, the malaise that is felt, the irritation and intolerance that increasingly divides peoples and threatens to spill out on the streets in a spectacle of dueling self-righteousness, does not neatly fit within the economic or materialistic categories that have become the vade mecum of our mainstream writers, thinkers and decision-makers.

* * *

These are more than strange times: indeed, as Trump’s authoritarian measures issue forth by the dozen, and liberal ideas seem discredited or unpalatable over more and more of the globe, it seems that an entirely different kind of world to the one we are used to is appearing before us—yet perhaps it is a world that was always lying latent, but was kept safely in the realm of otherness. As Pankaj Mishra wrote in a penetrating essay shortly after Trump’s victory, “…we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual concepts and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces.” He goes on to describe a broad-based “irruption of the irrational” that belies the Enlightenment liberal ideas of the rational “Homo Economicus”.

This observation seems dead-on, and serves as a useful point of departure as one tries to come to grip with events and their meaning. Yet it is only a point of departure; for what are these forces, exactly? What are they like? Where do they come from? And most importantly, what do they want? In search of these answers and a wider motivation for what is happening, many contemporary commentators have found themselves grasping at straws.

Mishra himself finds a possible answer in “ressentiment”—a potent and poisonous mixture of existential loathing of one’s perceived superiors, and the unconscious laying of blame on others for personal failures or, in Neitzsche’s words, “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge”. This build-up of corrosive “subterranean” emotion is the side-effect of a systematic over-application of both the doctrine of rational self-interest and, more generally, “…the rigid contemporary belief that what counts is only what can be counted and that what cannot be counted – subjective emotions – therefore does not.”

Elsewhere in his essay, however, while trying to view current world politics and the ascendance of proto-authoritarian attitudes through this prism of “ressentiment”, Mishra seems to concede that this framework is somehow insufficient, as he toys increasingly with psychoanalytic and even religious ideas. This is, he says, “…a moment for thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, who warned in 1915 that the ‘primitive, savage and evil impulses of mankind have not vanished in any individual’, but are simply waiting for the opportunity to show themselves again.”

The choice to repair to Freudian theory is telling here, and goes a good part of the way in at least opening the field to the existence of far broader unacknowledged forces within the modern psyche than mere resentment. For while ressentiment may be powerful indeed, it leaves much unexplored, unanswered. Where does the resentment itself stem from, after all? Why should there be a backlash against dogmatic reason and rational self interest if these things are not holding back something much more varied and strange—if, indeed, these things are themselves not as rational as they seem? Further ressentiment suffers from being too simple and singluar an explanation; as a single flavor of emotion, it fails to account for the ramifying baroqueness, the varied perversity of what we are seeing.

It appears Mishra is well aware of these limitations, and seems to ruminate on them, without quite naming them, throughout his essay. Yet with his parting thought—that we need, above all, “a more sophisticated analysis of how today’s landscape of hyperrational power has coerced a new and increasingly potent irrationalism into existence” and “…a greater precision in matters of the soul”, the effort turns awry at the moment of its highest promise. We have edged our way into both new—and very old—shores, by conjuring notions of deep unconscious processes, of an innate and ancient human need for irrationality, of strange “subjective” things such as “psychic damage”. We have even mentioned the soul as a subject of some real importance, rather than as a wasteful or non-existent anachronism of an irrational age long since superseded. Yet faced with this panorama of ideas, Mishra’s answer, it seems, is just to turn back round to embrace the very rationalism whose festering inadequacies he diagnoses so well. For all that, the only hope is to turn back to seek salvation in a “greater precision”, a “more sophisticated analysis”.

Not only does this call for “greater precision” sound absurd—as though all a wounded soul (or psyche) requires to restore a healthy democratic culture is a finer pair of forceps with which to examine itself—but it leads to an under-powered assessment of ressentiment as well. After several pages of decrying the emotional barrenness imposed by exclusive deference to the utilitarian, purely material-incentive-focused conception of man, Mishra in the end must fall back on a conception of ressentiment as somehow originating out of a lack of certain material, indeed rational rewards, in this case resulting perhaps from the global inequalities produced by the market system. He thus seems to scuttle his own point, and to embody the very confusion that he set out to disentangle: he has found his way to the threshold where the Enlightenment ends, but dares not take the step into the furious waters at his feet.

This kind of anticlimax is emblematic of the problem we find ourselves in today. We are increasingly aware of an emotional barrenness imposed by modern conceptions of the rational self and the pursuit of efficiency and material reward as ends-in-themselves, and we are increasingly faced with signs that entire dimensions of the collective and individual being—long pushed aside by runaway rationalism and stale self-fulfilling narratives like Homo economicus—are now stirring and pressurizing ominously. We suspect psychological or even other more unsettling forces are in play, and there is a not-imperceptible whiff of something sulfurous or even infernal in the air. Yet we are still so immersed in an incomplete, toy-model form of rationality that we find ourselves even lacking the language to express what is amiss without falling right back into well-worn habits.

* * *

Offbeat as it may seem, whenever considering these questions, I find my thoughts turning towards an odd little movie from 2012, “The Cabin in the Woods”, in which ancient monsters and objects of superstition are kept in a kind of stasis under the earth only by regular sacrifice rituals orchestrated by a sprawling, spotless, technologically-advanced apparatus. (The idea of a movie or other work of art serving as a blueprint or allegory of the layered and ambiguous nature of humanity is a persistent theme, of course. Another film that brilliantly suggests the omnipresence of such forces beneath the veneer of modern and well-normalized life is Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”, but here the dark repressed entities are perceived only indirectly, through glimpses of a sadistic sexual underworld punctuated with occult rites; there is no sparkling technologic intermediary between the two worlds, only good old-fashioned initiation and secrecy-on-pain-of-death.)

According to the “Cabin” blueprint, the cascading events in the US and around the world are not merely due to “political and economic developments” or even the “resentments” described by Mishra, but are indicators of something much deeper: a massive reawakening of deep, primordial and long-repressed psychological forces, which we might call, at most half-jokingly, the “Ancient Ones” or maybe the “Old Gods”. This reawakening, in turn, is not due to the obvious, proximate problems like jobs being outsourced, national and personal indebtedness, but to the gradual failure of a whole suite of “technological” and progress-based assumptions that had previously sufficed—essentially through the bribery of economic growth and the “ritual sacrifice” of the Third World and the planetary environment—to keep the dark chthonic psychological forces in check.

To say “the Old Gods are awakening” may seem overripe or fanciful given the imagery it conjures up, on the one hand suggestive of a panel of Greek monstrosities and on the other a wild Lovecraftian fresco of Others—but there are many ways of expressing the same state of affairs, some more high-flown than others. Even the writings of Lovecraft, over-the-top as they often are, contain a philosophically perceptive survey of the existential problem of Otherness, no less so when that Other is in fact located within our very selves (for instance, in the close of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”). Moreover, given the increasingly fanciful and even ghoulish turn that world events seem to be taking, even the most gothic of descriptions stands a strong chance of being rendered passé by actual developments.

At any rate, if we regard gods as potentialities within some collective human mental landscape (leaving aside issues about their “objective” or exterior existence), then we may restate all this by saying that there are immensely powerful, archaic and often extremely dangerous entities that abide deep within the human psyche, whose workings are evident in human history, and which have long been suppressed out of quite justified fears—critically, during the several decades since the Second World War—but which are now making a comeback.

* * *

Humanity has, for most of its existence on this planet, been enthralled by a miasma of religious ideas, fevered visions, mythic narratives and unconscious urges, locking it into a cycle of delusion, cruelty, and disaster followed by periods of relative calm and order. The modern mind, partly in its supreme pride but also as the hard-won result of centuries of philosophical development, has claimed not only to make do without these urges, but to dismiss them and even forget them wholesale—like some superstitious chaff, thrown harmlessly to the winds by the combine of Progress.

Perhaps of all modern thinkers, none felt the contradictions and ambiguities of this widely-presumed, yet far-from-cemented victory than the Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung. Most critical to his ongoing relevance, I feel, is his emphatic refusal to conceive of these issues simply on the level of mechanistic or individualistic drives, as thinkers like Mishra and Freud (and most of the rest of the “enlightened” West) are wont to do. To the contrary, Jung saw human existence as playing out on a far broader scope, on a variety of levels where categories such as the psychological and spiritual, the conscious and the unconscious, and especially the individual and the collective, inevitably blur. Indeed, he conceived of a vast collective unconscious, populated with archetypes—timeless figures and themes integral to the human condition and echoed, often in a cryptic form, through the deep history of human cultures and ultimately, through the entire species.

In Jung’s vision, the excessive “exaltation of the individual” and of rationality which Mishra bemoans is not some singular effect, but part and parcel of a wider pathology; the “psychic damage” it causes goes along with a resurgence of countless suppressed themes and meanings, rather than a mere upwelling of materialist or egalitarian-minded ressentiment. The crucial datum, then, is not one of individual neurosis—though of course at one level of focus there is plenty of that as well—but of a vast connection between the individual cases, reflecting a change in collective thought and mood around the world, tied to deep turnings in the collective unconscious. It is not simply that the Enlightenment is declining, but that the power of the unconscious and the attendant power of the Old Ones is rising.

Jung felt far more keenly than many others of his time and since that the promise of a lasting victory for the rational self (almost like Faustian Man’s proposed final supremacy over Nature itself) was destined to end in a tragic sequence of overreach, followed upon by ever more wild forms self-delusion, and ultimately mass insanity as the unconscious forces, often personified as divinities, erupted into popular consciousness. Even in the calmer interludes—the times when Reason seems to rule—Jung proposes that these unspoken powers do not really go away; they constitute our humanity just as much as do the triumphs of science, high culture, or ethics, and so can only be repressed. In the course of that repression they become more tense, alien, and menacing, and yet the individual’s secret longing for them grows more acute.

The result is an endless chess-game of sorts between humanity’s rational and systematizing qualities (and the protective structures and institutions they tend to build), and its impulsive, nonverbal, and magic-strewn inner life (the realm of the Old Gods, which continually strike out against these structures).

In Psychology and Religion—penned in 1937, just as history’s most shocking outburst of world-madness was well underway—Jung wrote of this contest with great clarity:

“Since the dawn of mankind, there has been a marked tendency to delimit the unruly and arbitrary ’supernatural’ influence by definite forms and laws” (21).

We strive to believe that we have understanding, control and mastery, and to see the world and people as behaving rationally. Yet this delimitation of a comfortingly narrowed and ordered viewpoint only leads us to neglect dangerous other powers accumulating in the psyche; it is equivalent to making the conscious part of the self more keen and self-absorbed at the expense of ignoring what is going on with the unconscious and collective realms. The result of this runaway rationalization is at first an atomized and strangely impotent kind of individual, something akin to Nietzsche’s “Last Man”, who focuses wholly on the realm of his isolated and urbane consciousness—his own personal comforts and entertainment—and not the system in which he participates or the urges that underpin it. As Jung describes this stage,

“…since every person is blindly convinced that he is nothing but his very modest and unimportant consciousness, which neatly fulfills duties and earns a moderate living, nobody is aware that this whole rationally organized crowd, called a state or a nation, is run by a seemingly impersonal, imperceptible but terrific power, checked by nobody and nothing” (60).

In much the same way, we have taken it for granted that our nation (and increasingly the world) must be essentially rational and individually accountable, and that our politics and its institutions are surely constrained and sustained by eternal or Platonic principles of liberal governance, or even a kindly and just “soul” comprising these things. In America we are a “city on a hill”, the “exceptional nation”—and always will be; the same applies to other nations and groups. This assurance, like the assurances of eternal progress, has led us to tune out the “terrific power” that could dismantle these institutions and principles, from within, in a whirlwind of ancestral passion.

It is our obsession with the individual—epitomized of late with the exhaustive attention devoted to the tiniest identity-political grievances of even the tiniest and most esoteric of identity groups—that has allowed our deafness to the collective unconscious, and the Ancient Ones that dwell within it, has grown dangerous. It has become, at once, both the Trumpist-protofascist’s rage and the intellectual lassitude that crucially enables it; it gives rise to the self-conscious despair of the liberal-minded classes and to the increasing violence and volatility of their demonstrations. In short we suddenly find ourselves facing absurdity rearing up from all sides, and we wonder where it all could have come from.

For Jung, this sudden “rearing up” owes to the precarious balance of normality that exists in individuality- and rationality-focused societies; while the seal of acculturation remains intact, all may seem stable and predictable, but Jung warns that if “…some slight trouble occurs, perhaps in the form of an unforeseen and somewhat extraordinary event”, then instantly unconscious and instinctive forces will be called up through the chaos, “…which appear to be wholly unexpected, new, and even strange” (16).

Surely the rise of reactionary-populist-nationalist program all around the world features all of these things, while the past 20 years or so has brought the US far more, in retrospect, than the “slight trouble” Jung requires to conjure up the restive Old Gods of the collective unconscious—“a seemingly endless series of crises”, in fact. But for all that, an even greater issue has begun to rumble in the depths, though it remains largely unspeakable. That is none other than our civilizational encounter with finitude, and hence with our own human limitation, frailty, and of course, mortality.

*   *   *

(To be continued…)

Squeezing the Press

Not that you expect political memes in an age of social media to keep their original meanings or expressive usefulness for very long, but “fake news” must have had about the shortest half-life of any meme in history, before radioactively decaying into its exact opposite. It began as a lament and a warning against conspiratorial, fact-immune wack-jobs happily megaphoning their own beliefs against the inside of their own thought-bubbles but, lo and behold, it already has been co-opted to mean “any account of anything that Trump doesn’t like hearing”.

The damage to language is perhaps already more serious and Orwellian than this, though. The concept of a “lie”—a good strong old Anglo-Saxon word, of the kind Orwell himself preferred—is under special attack. For, with the fall of “fake news”, the conquest of “lie” turned out to be a fait (or faux?) accompli. Much as “racism” and “sexism” seem increasingly to risk meaning anything that stands between a campus liberal and his/her/hir unquestioning self-esteem, so a “lie” is rapidly becoming anything that reveals something that The Leader doesn’t want people to know, or particularly, that reflects poorly on him.

That latest presser with the President, though, took this already worrying trend into true what-the-hell territory. The more time passes from first viewing, the more the thing seems to unfurl new avenues of crazy. Most notoriously, it features our President simultaneously admitting the leaks about his administration are “real”, while also berating all news stories based these true leaks as “lies”. (Maybe the crowds of people lately lining up to buy “1984” have got the right idea after all.)

But one especially unsettling theme buried in this already-discombobulating display, little noted compared to the President’s narcissistic outrage at the press and his strange need to continue re-living the campaign—he was soon headed out to have some rallies in Florida, explaining, en route, that “life is a campaign”—is how he was already working the carrot-and-stick. After all, why just intimidate the press when you can also hint how much greener the grass is for those who aren’t a thorn in the Leader’s ego, or those who ask, as he put it, “good questions”?

“If you were straight, I would be your biggest booster. I would be your biggest fan in the world, including bad stories about me”, he told the assembled group of relatively tame, lame, conglomerate-media journalists, who suddenly began to seem like Edward R. Murrow by dint of their mere reluctance to swallow contradictions that would be mocked by your average five-year-old.

The Leader demanded only good questions therewith, and tried to offer a couple of examples that turned awkward—such as telling a Jewish reporter to be quiet after asking about a rise in anti-Semitic incidents, and assuming that another reporter, being black, must be on personal terms with the Congressional Black Caucus.

Perhaps the model student, a future star of the nation’s propaganda organ, was a tremulous young reporter who summoned all his probity to ask the Leader to confirm Melania Trump’s wondrous wonderfulness in gracing the White House Visitor’s Office re-opening ceremony.

“Now, that’s what I call a nice question”, said Trump, gesturing approvingly to the Future of Journalism. (Expect great things from that young fellow!)

Apparently unsated by 77 minutes of neurotic whinging, the President next awayed to his trusty Twitter, to declaim the press as the “enemy of the American people” (a label to be repeated, proudly, at CPAC). Then, perhaps to reward himself for crafting such a finely Stalinist turn of phrase, he absconded for those Florida rallies and a dose of Mar-a-Lago, marking his third consecutive weekend away from D.C.

Of course, in Trumpspeak, “enemy of the American people”, much like “lie”, simply means anything that rankles The Donald, or is unpleasant for him to consider.

They were not empty words, for they were soon followed by the deliberate exclusion from White House press meetings of the New York Times, CNN, and Politico—media that, in stubbornly reporting “fake” (aka unflatteringly correct) news, placed themselves in the crosshairs. (To their credit, the AP and Time Magazine, though allowed in, refused to attend out of solidarity with their banned colleagues.) We also now hear that the White House has been trying, if ham-handedly, to deploy hand-picked officials to ply media outlets with more favorable storylines and sow false doubt about the lingering issue of Trump’s Russian ties.

The moral here? Fake news is awful if you didn’t cook it yourself… and policy if you did.

Anyway, those rallies in Florida, aside from being the predictable recourse of an exponentially-deepening narcissist faced with tanking public support and threatened ego-supply, come right from the playbook of populist authoritarianism. Rulers and demagogues throughout history have appreciated that an energized, visible minority beats a quiet, confused, passive majority every time. If you can’t get reporters to stenograph your storytimes from above, the natural tack is to try and whip up a throng to terrify said reporters (and others) from below as well.

This could get very dark(er) very quickly—or, it could all pancake under the weight of sheer incompetence, trading tragedy for bathos. The Ninth Circuit’s stay on the travel ban and the inglorious exit of both Mike Flynn and Andy Puzder has given Trump’s critics a sense of reprieve, but the game isn’t even through the first inning. New orders are on the way, including an imminent re-issuing of the travel ban and a push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even if the votes (and a plan for a replacement) aren’t there. Why take no for an answer from a so-called “coequal branch of government”? Repetition is the key to learning, after all—as long as it’s anyone but the Leader doing the learning.

The relationship between the human-created cultural-mental world and the objective, outside world has always been fraught—to put it mildly. But we now seem to be in the hands of a man who is vengefully incapable of distinguishing his own emotions from outside reality. As his fears and inadequacies grow more insatiable and aggravated, expect these distortions to grow more epic and hyperbolic.

But, unpopular or not, the man mirrors the disease of the body politic—the key reason this historical moment elevated him. In our age of disappointing progress, cost disease, cartoonish inequality, and glum prospects, there doesn’t seem to be much percentage in seeking truth—for any side.

Post-Inaugural Thoughts: Day 12

As Masha Gessen sagely noted just after the election, “humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable”. In a way this is a truism, as the unthinkable becomes the unthinkable precisely because we systematically put it out of our minds. Yet, so far, despite the shrillness of the media coverage since the inauguration, the vast majority of the chattering classes and working classes alike remain unable to contemplate the scope of what is happening in the country. The unthinkable is still not being thought by those most capable of stopping it.

What is this unthinkable event? That there is a kind of slow-motion coup unfolding in the United States, far exceeding the usual transfers and shake-ups of a presidential transition.

At least until the media is brought into compliance, many of the moves are clearly visible, at least for those willing to see it. Examples abound, and include Trump’s recent tweet about “sending in the Feds” just because Chicago’s crime rate is too high; his decision to elevate “Darkness is Good” politico Steve Bannon to the Security Council while kicking out military and CIA, and the general purging or resignation of lifelong nonpartisan officials in the Executive branch.

Then there is the Mexican border wall. But after all, a wall is just the beginning. By the admission of Trump’s own secretary of homeland security, the wall will have to be militarized, in order to keep people from just climbing over or tunneling under. Like “sending in the Feds”, such militarization would be another wedge that accumulates unchecked home-soil military powers in the President’s corner, carving out an ample grey zone for maneuvering around the Posse Comitatus Act. (If Trumpist policies backfire badly enough, it may yet transpire that the wall serves as much to keep Americans in as Mexicans out.)

What happens if the courts start trying to overturn or stay these wild orders? How will The Leader react to the prospect of losing face like that? Based on the already abundant precedents, it doesn’t take a doctorate in political science to hazard a guess: he will try to fire the judges, accusing them of disloyalty, and if that fails, will simply carry on as before. A court commands no army. At bottom, its authority depends on tacit agreements and good faith. Simply disregarding and minimizing them could convince enough people, and confuse enough others, for it to work.

Through all of this, the common denominator, besides Trumpism itself, is chaos; and chaos is the very mother’s milk of totalitarianism. With each disorienting, sweeping, ill-considered order from the presidential pen, the institutions of the government—which were already softened, like the steel of the Twin Towers, by a decades-long inferno of corruption and stagnation—become more confounded; the vaunted checks and balances get spun helter-skelter, and the opposition becomes fragmented or reduced to shrill and silly piecemeal demonstrations rather than effective thoughtful response.

Under such conditions it is almost easy for the one remaining united power—the Leader, the Executive—to swoop in over the wreckage, mop up the so-called “opposition” and offer the sweet soporific of order and unity to the applause of millions.

For all that Trump’s moves may seem drastic now, just wait until he has put all his pieces on the board. The executive orders and the sudden gag restrictions on certain federal agencies that are now issuing forth are just the beginning stages, the things he can do without any additional setup. Once those are out of the way, the path will become steadily easier and faster for him to remove others, in a kind of snowballing effect. Minions will be put in place at key positions; those who speak out or resist the changes will be dismissed or demoted, and the hangers-on will learn to exist in fear and deference. We are witnessing the rise of a new cabal of Hollow Men, a Courtier Class loyal only to The Leader.

Look for the outright or de facto abolition of the Education, EPA, Labor Departments, and anything to do with support for arts or culture. Look to a strengthening of military and police presences at home, an explosion of legal excuses for their use, and a concurrent weakening of the standards of conduct restraining them. Look also for a rapidly losing internal war fought by the sprawling and lavishly-funded but also dysfunctional and deadwood-laden intelligence community, as Trump hacks away at them in a kind of sweet revenge for their assertions about his Russian connections (about which, most likely, the real truth will never be known).

The psychology behind this merits consideration as much as the Machiavellian stratagems being deployed. For one thing, Donald J. Trump is not simply out to Make America Great Again; he’s out to settle scores. A lifetime of hate and resentment is now combined with almost unchecked power and the results cannot be pretty. But the man isn’t simply ambitious or vengeful; something is eating at him, and it isn’t really Islamic extremism, bad trade policies, or China. Those are just proxies for some hidden impotence or inadequacy: “we don’t win anymore”. That is what drives him.

Partly due to this chip on the shoulder, these unquenchable resentments, this devouring frustration, I submit that Trump is best understood less as a “man of ambition” than as a kind of edacious expansionary spirit, a sort of “No-Face” which, until his ascent to the presidency, was confined, caged—in vast and gilded cage, but a cage still. Hemmed in by powerful enemies and rivals, ones with far more billions than he and far more political clout, he continually met his match and was thrown back from the bars, jostled to stalemate, or worse (hence the four bankruptcies and, just possibly, the still-gnawing inadequacies).

Now, having sprung himself into the new fertile ground of our rapidly composting political system, and surrounded by people and institutions that lack any “natural immunity” to his tactics, his character, or the peculiar emotional cunning whereby he lulls, deceives or confuses just enough to win through, he will devour all he can find, and amplify himself at a nearly explosive rate—without check, without reason, without self-understanding.

After a certain point, nothing will be able to stop him, not even the Republican Party majorities in Congress or the States. That is assuming the GOP even somehow snapped out of its pitiful authoritarian-servility trance and opted to oppose him decisively—perhaps in embarrassment at having to cover for his bald-faced distortions one time too many, or perhaps once Roe is overturned, the ACA lies in ashes and Trump’s and the Party’s goals finally diverge for good.

Even in that event, I would not even rule out Trump’s attempting to deploy the military against the other branches of the government, as by locking down the Capitol and preventing its members from assembling, should the tensions rise to a point where the Commander-in-Chief feels it his sad duty to protect the Republic from political “disunion”—his most hated word, the crux of his inner weakness.

What happens then is anyone’s guess, but it is simply shocking that we are now in a territory where it is genuinely imaginable that these kinds of ugly events, that we normally ascribe only to poor African countries or perhaps shady former Soviet republics, could make their way to our self-declared “exceptional nation”, the “Land of Liberty”. And yet the complacency and arrogance implicit in that shock gives part of the answer to the riddle of how it all happened. The sooner we start thinking about that nigh-unthinkable answer, the sooner we stop being “taken in by small signs of normality”, as Gessen says, the sooner a serious opposition movement can form.

* * *

Such a movement needed, of course, to happen long, long ago. “Unhappy the nation that needs heroes”, said Berthold Brecht, and it applies to our country. And indeed, what Americans needed even before 2008 was heroes—people of both good will and wisdom, coupled with good old-fashioned backbone who were willing to stand up for something at the risk of total exile and opprobrium, because it was what they believed in and the logical consequence of all that they preached. The nation was prepared to fall on its knees for such a champion, to pour out its love and its hopes for his (or her) success.

Barack Obama ran in the shape of such a hero, but when the time came, he had little to say that had not been put there by the bankers, or carefully sieved of any rash words or deeds that might actually have lived up to his promise of “hope”.

Bernie Sanders was much more daring, by actually speaking truths that touched on a huge majority of peoples’ experiences and that had been woefully absent from the political dialogue. He was on the threshold of being such a champion when, under effective sabotage at the hands of corrupt DNC elites, he backed down to throw his support the very epitome of the establishment he had so powerfully raged against, who then duly lost. He scuttled his own movement and his support to HRC, predictably, became like confetti on the winds.

Instead, the nation elevated a Machiavellian wild-card. Our stooping anti-hero president is in many ways a kind of collective Freudian slip, the ultimate in inverse reform: just as our own economy has become dedicated to extreme inequality, to the invention of money out of nowhere, to catastrophic debts, casual violence, to sensationalism and narcissism, to economic collapses and corruption, we have chosen a Leader who embodies all of these things to be our champion.

Trump was chosen perhaps not because he will fix America in any way (except maybe in the sense of ‘fixing’ a blackjack table), but because he represents with an oddly refreshing clarity what the country is really about now.

Now, our need for heroes is greater than ever, but in the noise of the months ahead even that aspiration may be drowned out. Our generation, it seems, deals only in anti-heroes; redoubtable characters with the resonance and endurance of a Sanders, a Nader, or a Chomsky are strangely lacking, or strangely silent. Even the boldest would-be villains were born long, long ago (Trump is 70). Some vital fortitude, it seems, has ebbed out of our experience, and so it seems that, tempting as it is to dismiss as sentimental or propagandistic pap, the idea of “the Greatest Generation” may have some grain of truth to it after all.

One crucial question is the vast numbers of federal employees that are likely to be judged “redundant” by the Leader as his slashing of the government continues. Will they be kept on for good appearances, or could we be facing massive federal layoffs around the corner? Our “greatest jobs president ever” will surely have no trouble convincing himself (for convincing himself is his greatest talent, the key by which he convinces others) that those he does fire will soon be back to work in the booming economy, doing better than ever, and all thanks to him. Naturally it is very unlikely that it will turn out that way, and so it is imaginable that these discarded employees will form the nucleus of a movement of sorts. Maybe the heroes we need will come from among them.

* * *

It is part of the nature of human structures that the combination of long-term stability and privilege often breeds stagnation and narrow-mindedness. In those conditions, the Establishment—whatever or wherever it may be—tends to have an incentive to reward cowardice and un-thinking, and to push away any who might stand up or make waves. For such free-minded people, however minor their position, may thereby greatly endanger the stability and privilege of the wider organization, not only by their actions themselves but by the precedent they set.

Yet this selection effect also makes the organization even more unstable and fragile, more insulated; and so when some unapologetic pugilist finally does come along, someone who is, if not evil, at least willing to bulldoze his way to what he wants, to bend the rules at will, there are none left with the guts or even the wits to oppose him—for the culture has by then discarded all but the most servile and broken personalities, those who know only procedures. The organization that thought itself quite clever, a self-perpetuating ne plus ultra, realizes only belatedly that it was shaping itself all along into a throne.

This does not only apply to the overgrown coral-reefs of bureaucracy that characterize so much of American government and businesses (despite the latter’s cherished maverick self-image); it also goes for the “progressives”, the sometime (but note, not all-time) guarantors of equality, rights and what Popper called the “open society”. They too have quietly became decadent, victims of their own procedure, immobilized by a contradictory mixture of self-pity and self-reproach, all while quietly shoring up their privilege under a petulant kind of self-righteousness built mostly out of genital– and identity-obsessions. They too fell, benumbed, into the trance of political lip-service, material comfort, and digitized entertainment that is the most ubiquitous opiate here in early 21st-century America. They found their own already-confused consciences were easily virtualized into empty symbols and networks, and in this way, just like the Establishment they claim to abhor and the conformist power-brokers they claim to antithesize, they unwittingly laid themselves prone for their own domination.

Virtualization, and the atomization that comes with total focus on the Self, wrought the world we are now witnessing, as much as the increasingly undeniable faltering of growth. The result is that nearly everyone on the progressive side wants to chide and complain, or re-live a romanticized memory of the 1960s—but almost no one wants to deal with heavy scary words like Consequence, Sacrifice, or Organization, for these words cannot be comfortably virtualized, detached from the terrifying world of actions. Until that inner limitation is overcome, there will be little effective resistance from the progressive part of the spectrum.

This has been happening for some time, long before Trump, and while it was done softly or in the name of their “allies”, most progressives were comfortable with it or called it something more soothing and put it out of their minds. Now that the threat of it is in the open, there is an upwelling of mostly confused objections. There is passion. That there is any strong reaction at all is a good thing. But this passion, if it remains unchanneled, uncouth and self-indulgent, or obsesses on achieving a comprehensive ideological purity of its own, will do nothing but turn people against it or provide a pretext for crackdowns. The difference between mere tantrum-throwing and courageous, thoughtful, well-organized resistance is a dramatic one, yet it has been largely disposed of in the name of protecting (or indulging) peoples’ feelings; it must be remembered, and fast, if there is to be any major lasting victory.

In particular, nothing will get fixed until there is a trans-partisan realization and organization around this simple fact, with which few in the general population disagree: both sides of the party system in this country are useless, both sides are corrupt, and both sides are committed to driving the discarded 99% of the population into servitude and penury.

A third party is the most natural way forward: it will not Green nor libertarian, nor liberal nor conservative, for these categories are melting away and trading places, shedding their forms as they take on newer and newer expedients. The more the Democrats and Republicans both are made irrelevant by Trump’s radical policies the more plausible this often-derided possibility will seem in the years ahead (if the political freedoms necessary to construct such a party remain in effect). Those who continue to believe that the old rules (or parties) still guard the path to an answer to the deep problems exposed by Trumpism, or wait to see them bite back for justice or even normality, are either asking to be left behind by events, or are opening their arms to the new serfdom.

* * *

As for the executive order temporarily banning immigration from 7 majority-Muslim nations which has caused such tremendous uproar in the media, such umbrage among business figures, and of course a spate of ultra-visible protests around the airports, I agree considerably with James Howard Kunstler’s recent thoughts:

“I think borders matter and they need to be protected. […] I believe we are under no obligation to take in everybody and anybody who wants to move here. I believe we need an official time out from the high-volume immigration of recent decades. I believe we have good reasons to be picky about who we let in.”

Indeed, though it was carried out with incredible negligence and even cruelty—by failing to specify exemptions for visa and green-card holders from the get-go—and produced still more (useful?) chaos, in its basic aims I think this is one of the more rational of Trump’s executive orders so far.

The countries in question, by and large, have populations extremely hostile to the US (if sometimes understandably), or are known to contain large numbers of violent Islamist elements (ISIS and Al Qaeda), or are so chaotic and dysfunctional that no reasonable background check could be carried out, or all of the above. Why wouldn’t it be admissible to call a time-out on unrestricted travel from these areas, in order to assess and revamp the screening procedures?

Legally, the US has no obligation to take in anyone, from anywhere, at any time, simply because they want to be here, without consideration of the security risks that may pose–nor has that been the historical norm. Provided, again, that the USA upheld its obligations to those already holding green cards and visas, a reduction or temporary halt in immigration from these areas would be far from unreasonable or maniacal—an attitude, incidentally, that is shared by a wide majority of the US population.

Yet the traditional liberal players (both economic and social) seem to have chosen this particular executive order as the decisive battle, instead of the far more worrying plans to gut environmental protections, subject all science to high-level political review, intimidate and demonize journalists, nullify objective reality (or muddle it beyond recognition), destroy diplomatic relations with some of our closest allies and neighbors (and some of the most powerful nations), and dismantle a healthcare system that, flawed as it is, is now relied upon by tens of millions, etc. etc.

In short, there many other trends in the still-young Trump Administration that are far more irrational and far more blatantly power-grabbing… and yet somehow it is a 90-day ban on immigration from some of the world’s most dangerous and unstable areas that unleashes the choruses of outrage. As Kunstler notes,

“The furor seemed rather out of proportion to the people inconvenienced by Trump’s administrative blundering: about 300 green card holders out of 300,000 travelers admitted over the weekend — even after the White House walked back its green card miscue on Sunday. And it gives the impression even to someone who is allergic to conspiracy theory (yours truly) that some organizing principle is behind it.”

The motivation of these protests seems not to be the attacks on liberty or checks and balances, but rather a rage against any development that strikes at the thesis of human interchangeability. This thesis has become so overpowering in our day among both social and economic liberals that any perceived affront to it draws far more attention than other measures that may be far more objectively menacing, those that directly attack the civic freedoms and self-determination of American citizens themselves.

Any resistance or protest, provided it is peaceful, is to be lauded. But by choosing the issue with the weakest popular footing for the largest protest—both in terms of legality and popular support—it is just possible the protestors have chosen the wrong hill to defend

Inaugural Thoughts

“When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice”, said the newly inaugurated president, in a speech that seemed at times to have drawn a kind of clairvoyant inspiration from the dark stormy clouds that hunkered over the National Mall.

A distinctive language was being deployed, one that seemed old yet strangely new—new in that few if any new presidents in living memory had dared to use it so brazenly at such a time and place; old in that most anyone had to recognize it from some mental collage, however poorly-maintained, of the more venal and miserable events of human history. I am talking, of course, about the old bullwhips of populist nationalism.

“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first”, declared Donald John Trump. Only “America first”? I thought. Who decides what placing “America first” is and what it isn’t, and who decides who is getting in the way and what should be done to them? Answer: The Leader does.

“What truly matters is not which party controls our government,” he continued in this strangely fist-clenched evocation of national reconciliation and popular will, “but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

Later came the first executive orders, one preparing to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, another concerning a national day of patriotism. What are the 4th of July, Veteran’s Day, Labor Day, Pearl Harbor Day? We seem only to be lacking in patriotic holidays and days-of-remembrance that are explicitly named after patriotism. Problem solved. Why, it’s almost as important a priority as possibly eliminating the health care of 30 million people, or making sure EPA employees can’t tweet about CO2 levels.

Talk about abstract “unity” had apparently become a concern for Trump in the months since the win. “It’s time to for Americans to bind the wounds of division”, he’d said on the night of his victory; “I’m going to bring this country together” he’d told CBS in his first interview after that night, shuddering at the thought that his election might have emboldened hate crimes. “I hate to hear it”, he said.

Naturally such concern seems deeply strange, if not like crocodile tears, when held up to the unprecedentedly harsh and personal divisions he’d himself exploited and created in his campaigning.

It is one thing to love one’s country and customs and culture—and a certain amount of national or tribal pride can certainly be salutary. But talk that places such an emphasis on affection for an abstract, vague collectivity—as Trump is doing, with his repeated references to catch-alls like “the People” or “America First” or “unity”—is unsettling, not only because it can hide sloppy thinking but because it so easily turns to a justification for cruelty towards any individuals or out-groups that are judged (by The Leader) to be against the grain.

An abstraction owes nothing to anybody; it is like a love letter to an imaginary address. So while we can have no doubt Trump loves the idea “America”, and perhaps also some abstract idea of “the American worker”—and so much remains to be seen—still there’s a creeping sense that as he hugs those ideas ever more tightly, actual Americans will soon feel something more like the hug of a giant, steel tourniquet (which since 2008, they’ve had plenty of already).

Even Trump’s talk about acting on behalf of “the people” deserves a more than a grain of salt. It sounds good in theory, but in reality it’s been a standard hobbyhorse of demagogues and dictators the world over. In particular, once you believe that you have been uniquely and personally outfitted by destiny to be the champion for a desperate and declining nation (as in, “I alone can fix it”), it’s not a far jump to believing “l’État, c’est moi”, and hence that whatever you wanted to do anyway by definition must be “the will of the people”—and heaven help anyone who disagrees or stands against it.

That goes double if you happen to have a chip on your shoulder like our newly-minted, unusually thin-skinned “blue-collar billionaire” president seemingly has had all his life. (And that “National Day of Patriotic Devotion”? It’s meant to celebrate his own inauguration.)

So, make no mistake, there is threat woven in behind these faux-softhearted paeans to national unity and dreams coming true, and to these appeals to an unseen “will of the people” (which, for what it’s worth, appears to run curiously contrary to the actual popular vote and to the current approval ratings). When Trump talks of “binding wounds of division” or “no room for prejudice”, it’s hard not to suspect that he means for prejudice to be overcome not through increased understanding, olive branches or anything of the like, but for the simple reason that you ought to be too busy saluting the flag to do anything else–or else.

Naturally, the choice of a cabinet more oligarchic, and billionaire-rich than even the recent administrations—and the markets’ giddy response to his election—already shows that Trump’s “rebellion” against the status-quo of both parties will be distinguished mainly by an unusually naked power grab by the 1%, all under the umbrella of “patriotism” and in the name (rather than interests) of… you guessed it, “the people”.

So we have more inverse reform: faced with a government that does not listen to its people, the failing system ushers into power a man almost certain to pay lip service to its people while fueling their rage and completing their destruction.

How will that destruction come about? Let’s put it this way: woe to those who are judged to not love the country, or to love it insufficiently, or in the wrong way, or even in a way that takes too much explaining or time. Woe, also, to those who start to pipe up too loudly about the fact that their pocketbooks are no fatter, their daily lives no less harried.

Donald Trump has now become, in his mind and increasingly in political reality, the supreme judge of what “patriotism” means—and hence, of the American people themselves, since he seems to view patriotism as the skeleton key to “the people”. It may not be a long time, after all, until the Donald’s supporters realize that blustering allegiance won’t feed a family, and that his love letter to them got mailed to nowhere.

Two Humanities

Browsing the Washington Post recently, I got a telling glimpse of one of the more pivotal intellectual duels of our time. It pertains to the question of just what humanity is really like, and how we ought to approach and think about those who seem different from us. How much, after all, are we alike? Are the differences between us mere accidents that will be eventually overcome by a project of social integration and new forms of conditioning—or is the concept of “humanity”, despite its considerable biological and genetic validity, merely a vapid catch-all that banishes all the personal and cultural distinctions that give life meaning?

Especially with the sudden growth of right-wing governments and populist sentiments around the world, and the commensurate mistrust of transnational structures like the EU, it is fair to say these two viewpoints—roughly analogous to, or expansions upon, the old notions of “nature” and “nurture”—have been battling it out with a renewed intensity.

Before this, it was generally thought that the “nature and human similarity” hypothesis was sure to triumph, as economic integration and the spread of liberal and materialist values would be unstoppable, in keeping with the narrative of progress as a process of ever-increasing scale and integration.

Yet now, a glance at the Post shows them side-by-side, neck-and-neck, exemplary specimens of each on the very same day. Let us begin with Kathleen Parker’s “If Obama is a Muslim, is Trump a Russian Spy?”, in which she declares, concerning Barack Obama’s youth in Indonesia,

“…there is no logical basis for assuming that a young person briefly raised in a given country — say, Indonesia — necessarily would adopt the dominant religion of that country. He might, however, observe that though people worship in different ways, we’re all essentially the same.”

Leaving aside the ridiculous questions of birtherism or of whether the president is a “secret Muslim”, the piece is far more interesting in the way it defends against these charges, for they provide a particularly salient example of the sameness thesis: an intensification of the more basic idea that people united by a coherent thing called “common humanity”, this new thesis contends that they are, in Parker’s words, “essentially the same”.

While the idea of common humanity, vapid or not, has served a noble purpose at the very least as the grounding for a kind of  species-wide Golden Rule—reminding us that even our most despised adversaries are people like us who can suffer, who have families they love and homelands they care about—the intensification of this feeling into sameness marks the onset of absurdity.

Yet the sameness thesis offers a kind of feel-good utopianism and a simplicity that has made it very popular. It is, of course, that very simplicity that makes it also woefully and willfully ignorant of actual cultures, histories, and temperaments. Not only does it belittle these forces—usually without looking seriously at them, much like the guy I met at the bar a few weeks ago, who with a starry-eyed look swore to me that all human beings are the same and want exactly the same things, everywhere, no matter what their origins—but it simultaneously blinds itself to them, and so risks blundering into crises through its own unacknowledged cultural monism.

This monism, however tolerant and well-intending, necessarily carries its own assumptions of just how we are all “the same”; thus, unless the conceptions of sameness are made so crude that they again, like “common humanity”, risk vapidity, they carry their own seed of chauvinism and imperialism.

Moreover, it is a very small step from the sameness thesis to the interchangeability thesis: the assertion that human beings are not only alike, but interchangeable. Once this is accepted, both individual and cultural differences are rendered nugatory; what matters is only the systems in which human beings move. We then aspire, through application of reason, to understand the structural features of all human systems and once that is done, we can interchange human beings just like dollars within a single such system.

At that point, the monism is no longer implicit, but has shown itself as would-be master of everything. Human beings, and their cultural and religious traditions, are mere pendants, adornments to the system; if they are to be acknowledged at all—usually in a mood of self-congratulation for one’s own enlightened tolerance—they are to be rendered not just as part of a common idea, nor just as “essentially the same”, but fungible. Human beings passing through a large modern metropolis or economy are thus to be conceived of in the same manner as electrons passing through an integrated circuit. (Yet it is a keen irony that this fungibility, the enabling notion at the heart of globalization, actually seems to wildly enhance inequality wherever it is implemented.)

This is where economic and social liberalism show their shared origins: fungibility, systematization, and at their extreme, nihilism. Whether interchangeability is viewed as an overarching monist system of dollars or of human beings and beliefs (or both) is an almost immaterial distinction, for they go hand in hand.

They are also subject to similar inconsistencies. For instance, Parker continues by noting that: “Respecting others despite differences is, generally speaking, the hallmark of an enlightened soul”. This seems harmless enough, but in the context of the foregoing it seems strangely arbitrary: if we are all “essentially the same”, as she has said, why should we respect each others’ differences at all? We have already belittled the differences between people to the point of vapidity by invoking the sameness (or interchangeability) thesis; therefore, rather than “respecting differences”, the consistent follow-through would be to argue that, since our differences are really just superficial and unimportant, anyone who demands respect for them is making at most a silly or sentimental demand, which can be ignored as we wish.

The liberal “multicultural” view thus contains an irreconcilable tension, which must be papered over or couched in an implicit totalitarianism or chauvinism: your differences deserve respect as long as they don’t fundamentally change the operating assumptions of our System, or as long as they can be cleanly confined to a “private” sphere—e.g., one that does not impact the market. They are to be respected as adornments, having at most aesthetic but not functional importance—or if anything, they are to be reduced to a boutique, to grist for the monist marketplace.

Underneath it all is the implicit belief that what will prevail over such beliefs and differences is not one religion or another, but the liberal system of materialism, scientific authority, economic expansion, and human functional interchangeability. As long as one’s thoughts can be kept to oneself, or made into museum-pieces of a sort—harmless behind the glass, and long since removed from daily use—so that business as usual is not threatened, all is well, and we will praise your differentness.

The other view of humanity, the one that has surged to the fore and brought with it uneasy comparisons to the 1930s, is the view of human difference. Elsewhere in the Post, we find it solidly exemplified by George Will, who provides a near-perfect foil to Parker’s comments on human sameness. Here he is, on the same general subject of Obama’s legacy:

“The fact that the world is more disorderly and less lawful than when Obama became president is less his fault than the fault of something about which progressives are skeptical — powerful, unchanging human nature. Humans are, as Job knew, born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward: They are desirous and competitive, and hence are prone to conflict.”

“Human nature” is itself a difficult and dangerous concept, because of the very inconclusive information available and the risk of creating self-fulfilling prophecies. It is not exactly  antithetical to the sameness hypothesis—human nature is something we are all supposed to have in common, after all. But its use generally suggests a hypocrisy within the more liberal idea of “sameness”, specifically where the sameness subsists; the liberal, while denying or minimizing human difference, tacitly takes it as a starting-point and seeks to reform it into sameness under an overarching monist system, which is then held up as evidence that humanity was infinitely plastic all along and therefore might as well be the same. In particular, it suggests that human beings’ sameness consists in their conditioning to the system (nurture), rather than vice-versa (nature).

What Will is suggesting is that while we have in common that elusive thing called “human nature”, such nature may not be amenable to whatever overarching system we hope to yoke it to. If human nature, for all it is shared between us, happens to include “trouble as the sparks fly upward”, then it may well prove to be the opposite of a unifying force, the opposite of the interchangeability thesis. Our shared humanity could be the very thing that drives us to seek out tribal identity, to embrace our own distinct customs, laws and ways of life and look askance at others (that is to say, diversity of the inconvenient and intractable kind, the kind the does not submit to the boutique).

Will promptly dives into this:

Obama’s foreign policy presumed the existence of “the community of nations.” But that phrase is worse than hackneyed and sentimental, it is oxymoronic: Different nations affirm different notions of justice; a community consists of people made cohesive by a consensus about the nature of justice.

There is also the related ideal of Progress, the motor that is supposed to drive society towards ever greater justice and equality (and sameness). Will has no truck with it, skeptically writing:

Kerry’s reprimand of Putin expressed a progressive’s certitude about progress: The passage of time should ineluctably improve the comportment of nations.

“People want their own identity,” said Trump in a recent interview, a sign of the times if there ever was one. Even in the Democratic Party, this desire seems to have worked unintended consequences in the form of identity politics, dividing the organization from the inside into a kaleidoscope of overlapping but poorly coordinating sub-groups, united only in their frustration.

It is again the choosing of one extreme versus another, instead of seeing the blurry middle. Why is it so difficult to see that while indeed all members of Homo sapiens do share a great deal in common, they are not necessarily interchangeable? Going the other way, why is it such a challenge to consider that while many people do nasty things and have imperfect desires, they are not thereby doomed to pure rascality?

Yet the categories are fluid and often imperfect. At times, the conservative focus on human nature as the wellspring of faction, tribe and parochialism begins to sound almost like cultural relativism, just as the liberal focus on “diversity” shades into interchangeability and a domineering monism and inequality. The division between nature and nurture is the same way; for example, on the left, it is typical to argue that “race does not exist” because the genetic differences within a race are larger than those between races—hence race is nurture—while in the case of homosexuality, it is now acceptable to resort to rigid genetic determinism—hence sexual orientation is accepted as “nature”.

The human is a composite, neither all mind nor all matter, a comprehensive merging-together that defeats all attempts at absolutist modeling or description. Those who would ignore human goodness are as fallible as those who would ignore human cruelty, greed and error; and those who would insist on the absolute rigidity human nature (and their own certain understanding of it) will see as crookedly as those who insist that human beings are infinitely adaptable and plastic.

Thus, the monstrosities of the right wing involve charismatic authoritarianism and obsessions with purity of blood, soil, and religion and, like Will, mock the idea that these things could ever be eased; while the monstrosities of the left wing trend towards massive, soulless, impersonal structures governed by absolute and mechanistic rules that reduce the individual to a mere quantum. Either extreme is noxious, and rightfully terrifying.

Nuking Reality

Since the Campaign of ’16 came to its jarring conclusion, there has been much discussion of how the Internet, rather than functioning mainly as a great educational leveler–the Rosetta Stone that would allow everyone ready access to the most solid facts and research and usher in a global enlightenment–has instead become, for a huge section of the population left and right, an intellectual sewer, a self-curated echo chamber in which the most absurd brainwaves and toxic lies can be spun into seemingly indisputable truth.

Yes, it turns out spending several hours every day of your life staring at computer screens and engaging in completely virtual relationships and experiences has the potential to skew one’s grasp of reality in not-so-enlightening ways. (The only thing that should be surprising about this discovery is that many people actually do find it surprising.)

The ages-old human tendency (or superpower?) for believing weird things has never gone away, of course, but the digital realm does seem to have given abundant quarter to that tendency, with results so drastic that they have many fearing for the survival of democracy.

“Fake news” and “post-truth” have become touchstones of a new anxiety, as the empirical and skeptical-minded, the seekers of reality-however-unflattering, find themselves on what seems like a shrinking island of consensual reality, assailed by tides of digitally-fueled relativism.

I have had many encounters with post-truthism myself, but one I had just recently still hangs my mind and showcases a lot of what the seeker of reality-however-unflattering is up against.

I was traveling through a small town in the Rockies, and at a brewery I happened to strike up a conversation with a guy who owns a farm 45 miles south of town. It’s been in the family six generations, he said. He loves it out there. Loves farming, the hard work. Cattle and hay. A lot of people wanted to buy the land and he could make a small fortune if he went along, but he wouldn’t sell. He’s lived all over the world, he said, but nowhere compares with here.

All fair enough. Then it got into politics.

Everything, absolutely everything, he began, is a scam by the government to gin up money. It’s the 1%’s fault, he says. So was the Cold War. Both sides were really in on it. Everything, everything, is a scam, he repeated. It sounded kind of like an unusually hard-core binary version of Bernie Sanders’ invectives against income inequality.

At this point, I was willing to give him some credit. Maybe not everything is a scam, but an incredible amount of what’s going on in government these days seems unusually fraudulent and dysfunctional and unequal. But there was more to come.

Take Syria, he continued. If you just look on the internet, you’ll see there’s really no war there at all. Aleppo? Not a scratch. Completely unchanged. (He said he’d seen online a picture of a girl swimming in a nice swimming pool in Aleppo so that clinches it. Google it yourself, he suggested.) The whole “conflict”, he maintained, was fabricated by the evil 1%.

Oh, and nuclear weapons don’t exist, he said. The footage of explosions? The radiation at Chernobyl and Fukushima? All concocted by the 1%. Nuclear warheads and ICBMs are non-existent, the silos in North Dakota just clothing depots perhaps, all just another way for the 1% to funnel billions out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

My friend interwove all this with a kind of weirdly rigid pan-humanism that somehow managed to sound both neoliberal and socialist at once. All people, everywhere on earth, are the same as us, he said. We’re all the same. We all want the same things: to relax and feel safe. Nothing else. No one wants war except except the rich 1%. Ipso facto, it seems, there really is no war–as, for instance, in Syria.

We ended the conversation by half jokingly agreeing that it all boils down to class struggle–a random Marxist flourish to tie the whole bouquet of diseased memes together.

For a moment, walking away, I admit I had a hint of this awful rabbit-hole feeling: a grasping in a whirlwind. Truth, I couldn’t help but reflect, is a fragile chain indeed, dependent on countless links of inference, education, and trust. I have never seen a nuclear explosion with my own eyes. I can talk about protons and neutrons and U-235 and chain reactions, but what makes that more than any story? I can see movies of the explosions, but what makes them more than so much special effects?

It’s interesting too how remnants of random ideas accumulate in the mindset of people who don’t really know or care where they came from. We are all guilty of that, one way or another; we can’t screen or scrutinize everything. It is terribly easy to form a pastiche of second-hand thoughts that don’t really relate to each other, but create a kind of gratifying mosaic–like the adoption of something like Sanders’ “1%” message on income inequality, alongside something like the globalist’s mantra of human interchangeableness, “we’re all the same“, alongside, say, “nuclear weapons are a hoax“.

It turns out ideas “trickle down” in a way tax cuts never did: from think-tanks and other tastefully tendentious institutions perched atop the socioeconomic pyramid, the flow of thoughts plunges, ever thicker and cloudier, acquiring fresh errors and corruptions, until it ends up as half-biodegraded sewage sludge clinging to the effluent grates of our everyday discourse–there to be picked up, as likely as not, as the next online fake news story.

Yet these sources on the top, whether the Heritage Institute or the Chicago School of economics or any of hundreds of others, don’t get a free pass. They generally differ from the worst of the internet dredgers only in that they construct their alternate worlds out of the finest scholarly cloth instead of the conspiratorial bile of some dark listserv; long before the internet made it a do-it-yourself thing, think-tankers were the true pioneers of the reality bubble.

So this is much bigger than one eccentric conversation in a bar; it is chillingly emblematic, particularly the nuclear stuff. After all we don’t just live in a nation where farmers far out in the country think nukes are a hoax. We live in a nation that, already under Obama and Bush II, has been contemplating ways of “rethinking armageddon” so that nuclear weapons can become usable. We live in a nation whose president-elect openly wonders what we even have nukes for if we can’t put them to use, and is already gleefully provoking China–a nuclear-armed nation with four times our population and the world’s largest armed forces which sits on the doorstep of the world’s busiest trade routes. Should we just call all that a hoax, too, smile and go back to our sandboxes?

In a recent video, Noam Chomsky reflects on the social impact of information technology and declares, point-blank: “random exploration through the internet turns out to be a cult generator”. I wholly agree, yet the statement in its way sounds almost as incredible as denying nuclear weapons’ existence; again, there’s the feeling of the rabbit-hole, if just for an instant. What unholy place have we reached where even the most coolly rational minds must resort to such shockingly strange descriptions, where the truth is as bizarre as reality?

Artist and Determinist

The Artist always used to laugh at the Determinist, to the point that it drove the Determinist to distraction. In fact it got to the Determinist so badly that finally one day he tied the Artist down, put all sorts of electrodes and control devices into the Artist, probed and manipulated till he had gained mastery over every last synapse, and finally reduced the Artist to a zombie-slave by attaching all the electrodes to a powerful computer.

After that, the Determinist felt confident that he had reduced the Artist’s will entirely, and that there would be no more of this awful laughing business. He was, finally, at ease.

One day, though, there again came that unnerving chuckle from the Artist’s corner. The Determinist, startled, looked up in time to hear the Artist say:

“Ah, my hapless friend! You never controlled me; I control you. For instance, I have been making you think you controlled me this entire time, with your devices, your theories! You have done my bidding very well. And now, dear boy, I will control you once again!”

A few days later, the Determinist was found washed up on a beach, three thousand miles from home. He was covered in starfish and his skin had turned a brilliant green. The face bore a curious smile, that verged on the indecent. Some doubted whether the body was really him, but in any case, no cause of death was ever determined.