Month: January 2017

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.


You see it in the Ode,

The prancing toddler at the park,

In flaxen hair caught floating in the sun,

In chattering oak-leaves stained to rusty brown,

In festivals arising, town by town:

Beer and drink, corrupting the affair,

Shouts that rise on prickly air.


And still

Some strangeness it is that needs to pull

A stranger beauty round itself, like a shawl,

And warm these moments already touched

With chill impermanence for all.


It is a singular note, not questioning

Some injustice or riddle,

Nor remembering born again,

This chord

Sounding sweet atop the orchestra

Of all life’s fadings;


But round and round distraction turns

Breathlessly to this: a most reserved bliss,

Notes through the din,

A calling or an answer, all in one.