May 2016
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Our Unbearable Lightness

by Jonathan Wallace

Milan Kundera said that under totalitarianism, divested of responsibility for our own lives, we become unbearably light, that it is responsibility, heaviness, that makes us real, alive, present and able to act in the world. Freedom, Robert Frost said, is feeling easy in the harness. I think we are hard-wired for responsibility much the way we are hard-wired for language, begin babbling and chattering freely as soon as we can speak. Humans, like wolves or chimpanzees, live and work in groups, dividing up roles and labor, which implies we must feel a duty to perform, and an ability to trust that others will do so. This provides a kind of glue for civil society: if we see a lost child, or someone whose grocery bag just tore, we stop to help without thinking about it. My wife and I were walking in the woods the other day, and emerged to a beach where a Latino family had just stranded their jeep in the sand, and without a thought we spent twenty minutes helping them push it out, and took pleasure in doing so---joy in our common humanity, in providing aid, in these lovely strangers and their children.

I have just been reading Sebastian Junger's essay on this same topic, Tribe, in wich he says that smaller, more primitive human groups more successfully deliver three badly needed “intrinsic” qualities at which modern society fails: the “need to feel competent”; “authentic”; and “connected to others”. (p. 22) Junger might have titled his work "How To Be Heavy".

On the other hand, we occasionally meet people who persuade us that the automatic respect, the default with which we meet people about whom we as yet know nothing, is not deserved. These are the people who feel no responsibility to us, the manipulators, the pathological liars, the people whose words turn out to have no more ascertainable content than the howling of wind, the people whose statement "it is sunny today" you must double-check by looking out the window. These are the vain and selfish, the ones who feel they owe us no duty, who believe they are a higher life form than us.

There is a theory that the higher apes never developed language because they would only have used it to lie to one another about food and mates, and therefore it would provide no evolutionary advantage. Language implies a high level of trust that what it is used to communicate will be true. The painful knowledge that some among us, including some quite powerful and political people, will use language to lie most of the time, probably began when language did, but became a particular focus of the Athenians, who defined the categories of "parrhesia", a word which simultaneously meant "free speech" and "truth-telling", and "sophistry", defined as "making the worse appear the better cause". Through-out history, in order to feel meaningful and on an arc towards progress, humans have rather uncritically assumed that society stands on an architecture of truth, that lies and sophistry are the exceptions, outside solvents seeking to dissolve us in a Manichean battle of light and darkness. Where are you when lies become the norm rather than the exception?

The late Roman empire provides an illustration. Weakened emperors surrounded by powerful sophists complained in their diaries and correspondence that no-one ever told them the truth. In order to respond to dangers and provocations in real time, you need a certain amount of accurate information about your own resources and capabilities. The classic misadventure in late Roman times was to assume you had a full strength legion in Aix-en-Provence and to order it to move northwards. Inevitably, you discovered that the legion you thought you could count on did not really exist: the commanding officer was pocketing the salaries of soldiers who had died or deserted, and anyway, there were no remaining weapons or armor. Truth is not only a moral category but a practical one, as in an atmosphere of total falsehood it eventually becomes impossible to survive.

John Milton in Areopagitica proposed an ideal world--he thought it was the real one--in which a society of truth-seekers freely struggles towards the establishment of a unitary truth. This assumes that the facts of the real world are mostly binary switches which can be set to only one position. The world is either spherical or flat but cannot be both; Columbus' sailors will not divide into groups which either sail around it or fall off the edge, depending on what they sincerely believe. There are of course a lot of problems with the concept of Miltonian truth. Sometimes we have trouble obtaining the information necessary to reach it (we may never know exactly what happened to Amelia Earhart, or Jimmy Hoffa, or Flight 370); sometimes our perceptual equipment may be too limited (we may never know whether certain quantum physics propositions, like the availability of time travel, are "true"); and some topics to which we attempt to apply Miltonian approaches are not susceptible to them (Milton thought theology was a science in which humans could actually advance, but we haven't really made any "progress" since his time). Nonetheless, the Miltonian struggle towards truth has for centuries provided us with a nice and evolutionarily useful model for how to live our lives, in an arc from less truth, to more.

Somewhere along the line, scientific progress, and Enlightenment values, went "boink". Like late Roman emperors who never knew whether they had a functioning legion at Aix, we again live in a world of almost total sophistry. I first started to write about this phenomenon when--my favorite examples that I have almost worn out through constant re-use--President George W. Bush declared a "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq when it was apparent to a really unpracticed and unwarlike eye that it wasn't anywhere near accomplished, and congratulated "Brownie" on a "heck of a job" dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when there was still complete danger, want and violence on the ground. We had built a structure in which the people applying the levers of power had become almost perfectly insulated from Miltonian truth, and the criteria for victory become simply the rhetorical declaration that one has won. We are witnessing the advent of powerful people perfectly able to deny global climate change, like Marco Rubio did, while portions of Miami Beach, in his own state and jurisdiction, are awash in the ocean due to sea level rise.

I fear that the historical period known as the "Enlightenment" is actually ending in our time. The Enlightenment did not pre-suppose equality or democracy; it took root in human minds in a time of monarchy and powerful aristocracies, and it did not even really imply that these would end, just that we would all cooperate to solve human problems in a spirit of rationality, skepticism, tolerance and optimism. A move towards equality was actually a secondary effect of a commitment to truth; the Enlightenment opened our eyes to the unitary truth that we are not as different as we imagined in our capabilities, and that aristocracy is not an entitlement based on some sort of divine right. Today, Enlightenment values seem to be foundering in pure panic about terrorism, migration, epidemics, and our dwindling net worth and comfort zones.

I am trying to capture in a few paragraphs trends which could be analyzed in a five hundred page book. There is a scene in Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather in which a group of tornado chasers sit around a campfire and debate the moment in our history when the tipping point ccurred, when things started to go to hell in a handbasket. I could personally argue that the tipping point occurred almost immediately in American history, when president John Adams and Vice president Thomas Jefferson began using planted sophistic stories un the yellow press to campaign against each other; or a few decades later, when Andrew Jackson became the first brutish, sophistical outsider to attain the Presidency, the Donald Trump of his time; or when our revered Abraham Lincoln interned and exiled newspaper reporters and Congressmen who opposed the war or even criticized the way it was waged; or during the long nightmare of Woodrow Wilson's presidency, when suffragettes, socialists, union members, and even the mildly anti-war were not only imprisoned, but sometimes beaten and murdered; or of course during the McCarthy era; or during the Nixon presidency, when the remaining ramparts of our democracy came under serious attack; or in the post 9/11 era, when we are jettisoning all the post-Nixon safeguards, out of pure panic.

Donald Trump is highly instructive as a human, an icon, a historical trend. He is a man of the Zeitgeist, almost a product of the collective unconscious, a sort of golem assembled from the mud of our perceptions and values.

As a human, Trump illustrates the phenomenon of mediocrity coupled with money. Since wealth tends to increase unless you take very active self destructive measures to prevent it, the fact that Trump has maintained a fortune, or grown it moderately, is not very much to his credit. A recurrent phrase I find enjoyable is that "he was born on third base, and thinks he hit a triple". I have always found him unbearable to watch, almost as much as Richard Nixon was. The panic and pathology rose off Nixon in waves; Trump's groundless self confidence, his belief he is a higher life form, radiates from him. I have also spoken of the phenomenon of smart people made stupid by circumstances. I think money creates this kind of voluntary stupidity. Figuring out how to eke out $100 to live for the next two weeks, until a check comes in, is a character-building exercise, as is owning a computer or stove which doesn't work properly but which you can't afford to replace. My wife, when I met her, had figured out how to give her son everything he needed--an education at a local private school, a computer, the toys and games of childhood--on a social worker's salary. Someone who does not need to flex these moral muscles, can simply hurl a malfunctioning laptop in the garbage while ordering a replacement to arrive within an hour, has no incentive to function in the ordinary world, to deal with real problems or to learn cooperation. I was raised thinking the rich were a sort of aristocracy--much more cultured, educated and intellectual than us--but all too often they tend to be startlingly spoiled and immature in their views and behavior, really monochromatic compared to those who have struggled to live. The woman in Starbuck's raging at the minimum wage barista because she thinks the milk in her latte is not skim is not likely to have worked behind the counter in a minimum wage job herself. Trump, like that Starbucks customer, is a spoiled child, who has always had everything.

Of course, Trump has sometimes failed--he has placed casinos and resorts he owned into bankruptcy, at least twice, run out of money and been bailed out on other projects--but he has not apparently learned from these experiences, for which he has not taken responsibility. His wild boastfulness, that he is the world's best businessman, that everything he touches turns to gold, that he understands the art of negotiation, does not appear to be based on anything. What he has perfected instead is an art, exclusive to the rich and powerful, of successfully bullying the world. Somewhere in Russian literature, in Dostoyevsky I think, I found the aphorism that a gentleman should pay a gambling debt immediately, but need never pay his tailor. This is the creed of Donald Trump, who pays bills when he feels like it. Negotiation--deal making--is the art of finding a just middle ground, as described in Roger Fisher's classic Getting to Yes. In Trump's world, it is the art of using your wealth and power to force an unfair and selfish result.

Watching Trump's wild and mean improvisations has been astonishing: in the last few days, he attacked the judge who is handling the "Trump University" law suit as a "hater" and managed to work in that the judge is a Mexican, which he said at the same time "is fine" (then why mention it?). His style is a blithering word salad, which doesn't have to mean anything specific, just a mass of incoherent innuendos and contradictions. He resurrected the ancient conspiracy theory about the death of Vince Foster, and the even more bizarre assertion that Ted Cruz's father was a colleague of Lee Harvey Oswald--there is nothing he won't spout, in a blustery tone of intense self love, certainty and meanness. He is so obviously an id-driven child-man for whom rhetoric is everything, Miltonian truth unimportant, whose force of will is being applied to produce a presidency much as it once resulted in a television show.

The entire culture shares the blame. Trump kept his name before us all these years because he understood the society of the spectacle; the producers who saw their own profit in giving him "The Apprentice", thinking they were producing harmless entertainment, will bear a large portion of the blame if he becomes President. Journalists who covered him as entertainment, TV networks which ignore a Hillary Clinton press conference to point a camera at an empty podium where Trump is scheduled to appear later, share responsibility. A culture I have called "Billionairism", which made his opinion important just because he had money, practically makes him inevitable. The ultimate irony of billionaire culture is that more practiced and thoughtful forces such as the Koch Brothers are having the epiphany that they have wasted their money, that they missed the element of childish loudness necessary really to succeed in the American thunderdome. The only nice thing I can find to say about Trump is that he caused the Kochs to have wasted their money.

But the most stunning revelation is that millions of American voters are incapable of seeing the obvious about him, have been raised in an environment in which they cannot distinguish between sincerity and pose, between truth and lies, between Trump and Bernie Sanders. I always felt that it didn't take genius, and certainly not any kind of supernatural ability, to watch Richard Nixon give a press conference and see that the man, entrapped in lies, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It seemed like something anyone would see if they weren't peering through a huge mass of socially-induced crap. Similarly, in Donald Trump, I see someone who has not one redeeming feature, no compassion, common sense, carefulness, receptiveness to new ideas, or humility, but whose pointless bluster, not based on anything real, is persuasive to millions. What that says about us as a nation is very disturbing: we may have reached that moment at which you can fool all the people all of the time. After generations of sophistry, of propaganda, of demonization of the other, of a rejection of the middle ground, and of disregard for education, we may finally be reaching the point at which we are no longer fit for self government.

I blame both parties, but the Republicans more, for generations, in fact, centuries, making sure the American people would become Unbearably Light. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams began this effort, almost immediately at the inception of the American republic, by subsidizing the yellow press. Today, Democrats too are hollowed out, dominated by billionaire money, but if you compare Hillary Clinton's message with Donald Trump's, you can detect the vestigial maturity of the Democratic message: words about tolerance and diversity, aimed at people of my race and class, are still asking me to come out of myself, to be willing to enagage in some self sacrifice, some altruism. Trump's rhetoric is nothing more than an extension of Newt Gingrich or Ted Cruz: you have been robbed, you can have it all, once we get rid of those Muslims or Mexicans or Medicare cheats or liberals. The Republican message for many generations has been you are perfect, you are fine, you have rights but no responsibilities, we will do it all for you.

I have been cynical about American prospects for a long time, but was still stunned that about half the American population favors Trump despite so much negative information in plain sight. During the Trump University fiasco, he ran a business which was overtly designed to strip struggling people of their last savings, retirement funds, and even the remaining credit on their cards in return for $35,000 seminars which gave them no actual skills in the real estate market. In other words, people are voting for a man who has preyed upon and destroyed people just like them. There is almost no way to make sense of this. I can only imagine that the part of our electorate supporting Trump has felt so Unbearably Light for so long that they are susceptible to a false message, a lying promise that the way out is not to become heavy, which implies taking responsibility for others, and therefore feeling compassion. Instead, they seem to be like medieval villagers resigned to serfhood, flocking to the baron who promises to beat up the other guy, and give them juicy spoils; or like children seeking the protection of a schoolyard bully, imagining that by becoming his posse they will live safely, escape a beating themselves. None of this has any relationship to true "heaviness", to the American concept of independent, resilient and roughly equal people running their affairs together, or with the competence, authenticity and connection of which Junger wrote.