Welcome to the Wilderness

I feel bad at not having posted anything here in a while. It’s not for lack of thinking about things to say, but a collection of frustrations have sprung up in my life in the last few weeks, and I’ve been simply overwhelmed.

On the one hand, my body has been staging a mini-revolt, with episodes of intense fatigue and weird food sensitivities. On the other, I have been forced to come to grips with the fact that my professional life is basically done. Nearly two years of unsuccessfully looking for work in a field to which I gave 12 years of study has ground down my morale more than I thought anything could.

Without going into the sordid details of the experience, I will say that I have long been concerned that science was entering an era of diminishing returns, and that as more and more results turned out to be false, un-reproducible, or (even when true) of near-zero real-world significance, scientific institutions would face a credibility crisis that they might be more inclined to deal with by manipulation, opacity and institutional cronyism than by a head-on rethinking of hard questions. But I had never experienced that reality face-to-face. Now I find myself in the middle of a wilderness. I’m left trying to decide what to believe in, and what to do next (besides medicine, that is).

When not tugging at my hair, staring at tiny motes on the wall, and musing over life’s staggering incomprehensibility, I’ve mostly ended up thinking about politics–the favorite perch of the uneasy mind.

Then again, the campaign of 2016 offers so many unsettling precedents (no pun intended) it’s hard not to see in it a message about some very deep change underway in the American people’s very expectations of life, changes that are reflective in some cryptic way of what I have seen in my own sorry microcosm. We are all, it seems to me, on the brink of a wilderness, in the most un-John Muir sense of the term.

Besides the duly burdensome matters of physical complaint and career-related wipeout, another part of what has kept me from writing, I’ll admit, is the ever-expanding complexity of this political spectacle, as is most strikingly visible in Trump’s and his supporters’ actions but quite visible throughout the rest of the race as well. Nearly every day now the news brings some unprecedented new happening that adds to the vast, somber mural already before me, so that I postpone writing about it in the hope of finding new information for all the new questions. So as the monstrosity compounds, and the wilderness deepens, it seems a more and more overwhelming task to try to put all of the impressions together. But here are a few.

First, it’s increasingly hard to believe, even in the best case scenario, that the democratic credibility of this country will not emerge from 2016 lastingly damaged and discredited. I suspect Trump, for example, will ultimately be stopped-but at immense cost, in a manner that paves the way for someone similar or worse. Many of us are now haunted by John Adams’ remark that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide”, and other such fatalisms.

In particular, both Hillary Clinton’s and Donald J. Trump’s continuing rise in their nominating contests suggests to me yet another paragon of inverse reform–the paradoxical habit, typical to declining societies, of trying to fix their worst ills by giving more power to the very forces that created those ills.

Picture it: on this corner we have Trump, a combustible chip-on-shoulder billionaire who makes things up with Machiavellian flair and longs to revive bare-knuckled brawling as a form of political discourse. In the other corner, we have Hillary Clinton, the venal, ultra-neoliberal next-in-line of a political dynasty renowned for its slipperiness.

Who can seriously believe either one of these contenders stands any chance if elected of stemming the forces of decay, discord, and corruption that are steadily consuming this country? But they both stand an excellent chance of compounding these forces.

One of the remarkable features of Trumpism is its power of escalation. Like a great teratoma, no sooner does one think one has taken its measure than it sprouts anew, generating whole new oddities and outrages. Yet it also has held up an unflattering mirror to many of the would-be idealists opposing Trump.

In the recent events in Chicago, for instance, I see revealed neither pure bigotry on the Trump side, nor a sparklingly pure longing for justice and equality among the protestors. Instead I see again, spread equally around, the quality of a wilderness: the brute reality of thousands of mostly young people left without work, without purpose, jammed together on an overcrowding planet, clutching at any chance they can find to feel a part of something important and powerful.

I see the thumbprint of social chaos-a chaos that has been built, purposefully, over many years, by forces of private greed on the one hand and glib self-absorption on the other, all beneath the floating supervision of an objectifying, scientistic arrogance. Though sold to us as the signature of elevated intelligence and the path to a better world, this new form of society has so far offered little of either. Instead, millions have watched as a digitizing, commodifying, atomizing mania has sucked away relationships, customs, even whole categories of emotion.

With those degraded, I think it’s no real wonder that the people go looking for substitutes, sometimes from very dubious sources, and out in that wilderness find warmth in the company of groups that offer at least a semblance of camaraderie and kindred struggle.

Anyway, I promise I will pull together some of my ruminations/observations on the election into something a little more coherent and get them up here. However meantime suffice it to say: ugh.


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