I appreciate the need to feel optimism, to think this is all coming to an end soon, a good end secured by the remorseless force of law or by the rising of a core of American decency or by radical resistance. I rocket in circles, passing that same point of optimism in my own thoughts every circuit. But I pass other points, too.
One is a point of profound despair. That Trump and all that comes with him is not a momentary slip out of history but instead as much a culmination of the worst of American and global history over the last two centuries, the vengeful sequel to the seeming accomplishments of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This is why I get irritated with radical potshots at pessimistic writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates. To be unwilling to credit the possibility that there *is* no politics that can make permanent some kind of justice and change is to give way to a left-wing version of the Green Lantern Theory of Politics, that it’s only about will, that all we need to do is clap our hands and say that we do believe in progress, we do. Now maybe it’s not so. Maybe this is just a bad moment, or one more barricade to climb, one more movement to organize. But you can’t refuse to face the worst thoughts. They are hauntingly possible.
And one other point in the whirling spiral of my own thoughts is less about where this is going and how it will all turn out in the end. All I feel on opening up the news or social media is just humiliation, pure and simple. I’ve said before that Trump is a kind of desecration of everything I’ve valued and everything I do at work and in life. I don’t feel disagreement with him, which is what I would have said about almost any conservative (or liberal or leftist) with whom I have disagreed up to this moment. It’s not merely that it is pointless to imagine a “debate” with what Trump says. What he says is not even an idea or belief with which I must reckon and answer. It’s just a rude violence, a kind of pissing on the face of the country. That he speaks for my country, my people, my culture, that he dares to claim that he’s representing a country whose history he soils with every filthy tweet, is something I abominate in my deepest heart.
When my own mental circuit comes round another quarter of its rotation, I know again that there’s an America out there that stands behind him–easily or uneasily, proudly or with inner shame, I don’t know–and I know I need to find my way to understanding them and living with them and thinking about what might make for peace between us all. But somewhere on the way, I’m going to need at least some of them to recognize what they did to all of us in 2016. They didn’t elect a leader of a nation. They elected vengeance and cruelty, they elected bullying and cowardice. They broke faith with democracy and justice and fairness. They stopped believing they had any responsibility to anyone and anything besides personal gratification. They stopped doing the work of citizens and neighbors. I don’t care what you think has been done to you, or what you fear. I don’t care what you think you’re losing or have lost. In any human vision of moral life, in all of them, to answer insult or loss thus is to commit evil. The burden on us, whenever–if ever–this comes to an end, will be not to respond in kind. And yet, if power passes around again, all I know is I want an end to this accursed cycle, whatever it takes.
This brings to mind the idea that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism — apocalyptic pessimism is easier than a trajectory where the left gains power.
I’ve had a lot of difficult processing the election too, but something that has helped was reading Shattered, the post-mortem on the Hillary campaign by the authors of “HRC”. I read it at the same time that I was reading one of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, and they played off each other in this interesting way. Both were stories that were told slightly askew, with main characters who focused so strongly on the minutia of how they behaved within their political realities that this space opened up for a magical-realism-like effect where even though every step they took was precise and calculated, they found themselves in this dramatically alien world, yet within their ways of thinking, there wasn’t an obvious mistake that led them there.
My Twitter feed has started becoming populated by center-left folk reckoning with their ideology. One person just reasoned that the liberal argument that ethnic solidarity beat out class solidarity doesn’t have an actual endgame, whereas the leftist one does, so if they were invested in saving social democracy (and capitalism) then folks like Corbyn are their best bet. But I still think it’s peculiar to want to save capitalism. Why not take this political moment to polarize the public on issues like capitalism and healthcare? Is it green-lantern thinking to try to force centrists to reckon with their allegiances and their history?
“Whatever it takes.” It takes rationality. It takes an acceptance that we humans are not all alike. It takes acceptance that we stand in a world shaped by evolution by natural selection. This natural system has two sides—on one it creates new life forms; on the other, it destroys them all. It has ruled our species since the beginning. It is mindless, purposeless, relentless, merciless and amoral—it is a force of nature.
Along the evolutionary path from old species to new species, varieties of the parent species appear and begin to struggle with parents and sibling varieties for survival. We humans are merely life forms, varieties of a species that is evolving, but also which has evolved into two dominant varieties. They are: tyranni who are aggressive, selfish, and irrational, and democrati who are timid, unselfish, and rational. Tyranni, such as Donald Trump, naturally, irrationally, work against the common good. Democrati, such as Jimmy Carter, naturally, rationally, work for it.
These varieties are locked in a relentless Darwinian struggle for survival—and the outcome is becoming clear—not to me, because it has been clear to me since 1969, but to you, as you keep saying in a variety of ways here in your posts—but none so clear as this one. You, and most of your followers, seem to be democrati and you worry about the tyranni in positions of power in our society. As you should. But like most democrati, this realization is hard to take, because it is scary and it calls for action. But the social systems we have devised, and which are, according to the myth, able to keep things under control, turn out to be of no use. You don’t know what to do.
You are not alone. In the last half-century I have read many books that point out the problems we face. The authors use different metaphors to tell their stories, but none of them, not a single, solitary one, has a solution—to them, there is no way forward. They don’t say “there is no way forward,” they just stop writing.
Problem identification is just the first of many steps toward solution. The second step is acceptance. In order to solve our problems of government and economics we must accept the fact that we have a problem, and the problem will not solve itself in a rational, comfortable way. Left alone, the problem we face will destroy us.
However, there is some good, but momentary, news. Once we accept the problem and realize that we have to actually do something to correct it, we feel better—for a while. But the tyranni in our midst, are relentless, irrational, and aggressive. We cannot reason with them. We cannot allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable by confrontation. We must find ways to rebuke, forcefully, those who act out such as Donald Trump. Instead, we have a long history of admiring them for their combative nature, for their smart, vicious quips.
For a while it feels like we are watching a movie, but the script does not follow the myth. Instead, the guy in the white hat, Jimmy Carter, gets his butt kicked by the guy in the black hat, Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s willingness to push the buttons of racial prejudice, misogyny, and hatred of the poor—all led to the defeat of Carter, by a wide margin, in 1980, and completed the tyranno-South’s conversion from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, bringing with it an entrenched, probably permanent, southern-state hatred of blacks, women, and the poor.
Lyndon Johnson’s contribution to the role of hatred in our current politics came because he tried to end it, and this galvanized the haters in the Democratic Party who had been more or less dormant—but nudged a little by Barry Goldwater. Ronald Reagan, ever the opportunist, ever the tyrannus, saw that fanning the flames of hatred would be to his political advantage. Immediately after receiving the Republican nomination for president, he went to the Neshoba County Fair, (the county in Mississippi where three civil rights workers were murdered), and said, “I believe in states’ rights.” To white supremacists all over America, Ronald Reagan had blatantly signaled that if he became President he would not interfere in the racist actions of the southern states. In addition Reagan famously used the hate-inspiring phrase “welfare-queen” in his campaign speeches. It was a double-barreled blast of hatred aimed at women, and the poor. Reagan had given southern racists and misogynists something to vote for and the Republican Party became, and is still, the party of hate. No longer could our systems contain the hatred and violence that come naturally to tyranni. We have to change our systems. They are not designed to deal with the likes of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, or Donald Trump. Who knows how extreme the next generations of tyranni will be?
Our systems’ greatest weakness is that we delegate too much transformative power, to too few people, for far too long a time, and we use the corrupt process of partisan elections to delegate that power. Scholars surely can take this theme and push it into a new system of government and economics. They don’t have to directly attack the tyranni in our midst, but they can attack our systems. There is a mountain of evidence that proves our systems are failures. Since the beginning, our nation has mistreated seven hated groups: the not-male, the not-white, the not-Christian, the not-well-to-do, the not-heterosexual, the not-native-born, and the disabled. These hated groups have been brutally mistreated by the seven favored groups: the male, the white, the Christian, the well-to-do, the heterosexual, the native born, and the abled.
If you and your professional colleagues won’t change our systems, who will? You could begin by contrasting the two varieties of evolution. Natural selection, which controls our biological development, and Cogitation, which controls, can control, the evolution of civilizations. The Athenians formalized Evolution by Cogitation. Here is what it looks like:
Cogitate: to think deeply about a problem, an idea, a possibility; to ponder.
• The process is not a natural one, it is a tool created by humans for their use. It depends on the sustained, cooperative, and rational acts of humankind. It depends especially on the most important of our intellectual gifts: the power to make something out of nothing but an idea.
• The process is rational and depends on facts.
• The process sets goals and works to achieve them.
• The process is not self-renewing. It is simply a tool that is useful only when humans pick it up and apply it to the problems of life.
• The process works for the common good. It gives our species the best chance of building a better world for us all: tyranni and democrati.
• The process requires that we apply our intellects to gain control of evolution by natural selection. This effort has already begun but has a long, long way to go. At the very least we must fight to mitigate or cancel altogether the undesirable effects of evolution by natural se-lection and genetic variation.
• The challenges facing our species are so great that it will take our combined intellectual power to overcome them. Our STEM institutions and our citizens must work closely together to apply our intellects in rational, benevolent, and forward-looking ways.
• Tyranni will gain power and so our institutions must be organized to keep tyranni from doing harm.
• Our fate is not planned or guided by any friendly power, we must make our own plans, we must be our own guides, and we must be our own friends. We are all in this thing together. We must think our way forward.
• Our future as a species depends on wisely applying our collective intellectual power to answer four eternal questions:
Where do we stand?
How did we get here?
Where do we want to go?
How do we get there from here?
By applying this new form of evolution to all our major institutions we can transform our lives. Tyranni disregard facts that are contrary to their beliefs or that interfere with indulging their selfish, unthinking urges. This tyranno-propensity becomes dangerous when tyranni gain power of the kind that flows from control of a government or a large corporation or religion. It is happening every day in our society. But evolution by cogitation requires that we use our minds. By organizing government and other large, important institutions so that their leaders make decisions rationally and in pursuit of the common good, we will create a better America.
I know you know all of this, but I can’t help myself. I have tried to induce change, but I have failed. I am still trying, and I am still failing. But my failure is to be expected. After all, I am just a white-haired old democratus, who lives in a tiny cabin, by the edge of the forest, at the end of the earth, with his cat. Who will listen to me? But you, on the other hand…
Well said. I agree wholeheartedly.
I recall writing something very similar back in 2004 when George Bush was reelected. Felt then like a gut punch that we could stay the course on a politics of abandonment and meanness. The pendulum swung a small way back with the Obama administration (not nearly far enough by my lights), but now it’s reversed again. I would not have thought it possible to be even more radicalized, yet here we are.
Unlike you, however, I don’t circle around the optimism/pessimism circuit; I stay pretty much in the pessimism quadrant. Examine just about any historical period — say, a 50-year span encompassing a typical lifespan — and there will inevitably be some truly horrific episodes. I’d like to chalk it up to human nature, like predation in the animal kingdom being inescapable, but I can’t help but to think that so much nastiness would be avoidable if we could just get our collective act together. Does that count as optimism?
Tentative: It may be necessary to give up on seeking complete solutions to getting decent treatment for black Americans and settle for making things better.
Emancipation was a great deal better than having chattel slavery be legal.
Not having Jim Crow was better than having Jim Crow.
Maybe the next step is getting rid of mass incarceration.
As long as their happy like, a lot of things we can not change.