December 11, 2021
This issue's contents Current issue My Back Pages Search The Ethical Spectacle

A Message at Year's End

by Jonathan Wallace

I founded the Ethical Spectacle in January 1995. Like many of my projects, it had incubated for years. I had first imagined it, under that name, as a paper newsletter, possibly as early as the 1970's, but the cost-- I imagined I would have to spend at least $5,000 per issue-- was prohibitive. Along came the brand new World Wide Web. I taught myself a little HTML-- knowledge I am still using today, everything is handcoded using a few simple commands-- and prepared the first issue in an Atlanta hotel room while my wife gave a parenting talk downstairs. Bill Clinton was president. I was 41 years old. I had been around long enough to understand that the world was FUBAR, that human ignorance and greed foiled most human projects, but was able to cultivate a sort of radical guarded optimism, a powerful sense that things could or might get better. In the decades since, that has slid downhill into what I call (with some vanity) Wallace's Wager: a decision to live as if I were an optimist. Years after thinking of this, I named it upon reading about Pascal's Wager, to live as if God existed-- which, when you think about it, is a version of the same thing.

The world has gotten immeasurably worse in the twenty-six years I have been publishing the Spectacle. For years I suspected we were past the tipping point, and since 2016, I have been certain that is so. The vision of a world in such danger that only extreme rationality, selflessness, compassion and sacrifice could save it, instead fleeing into delusion, dishonesty, selfishness and violence, is stunning and even rather unbelievable. At times I have had to resort to the idea that we are indeed living in a simulation, whose system operators said, "OK, let's change it up a little"-- or even a television series, which some years ago ran out of reasonable stories to tell and "jumped the shark". If you had asked me in the 1980's what Page Six public figure in America could never be President, I would have replied Donald Trump. In my endless Research by Wandering Around for the work on the idea of free speech I call the "Mad Manuscript" (now 12,000 pages, I kid you not), one of the intriguing things I have learned, is that when Andrew Jackson was elected President, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, physician Benjamin Rush, burned his memoirs: he thought America was over, that the project had failed. Andrew Jackson was amoral and brutal and appealed to what would later become the Trump electorate-- but he had also won battles as a general, he knew how to fight and how to architect winner-take-all substantive victories in the real world, like the theft of Indian land. Donald Trump by contrast is an Empty Suit--famous for being famous, he has never had a good idea or completed a project, and literally parlayed a talent for insult comedy into the Presidency. The fact that tens of millions of Americans thought and still think him Presidential is a huge problem, not just for peace and civil liberties, but because a Post-Truth President will quickly crash the ship of state as quickly as a Post-Truth Pilot will crash an airplane ("that's not a mountain"). In a time of existential danger from climate change, what does American democracy, with the wealthiest, most educated electorate in the world, do? Elect someone who denies climate change exists. End of story. The daily spectacle of red state politicians fighting vaccination and mask mandates, most of them vaccinated while some of their populist attack dogs of talk radio and social media contract COVID and die, is astonishing. If Aaron Sorkin had forecast today's realities on The West Wing, I would have thought he had lost his mind.

From the beginning of the Spectacle, when I tried to write an optimistic and inspiring essay at the end of the year, I usually struggled to find something hopeful to say. All I can offer you this year is a Metaphor. I am terrible with plants (watering them regularly is apparently not nearly enough), and though I have adopted ten or twelve that needed homes these twenty years, only two have survived: a vine which lived in my wife's office (it is probably as old as the Spectacle) and a spider plant a neighbor moving to Arizona left in my house without asking permission six or seven years ago. This last was large, ungainly, vital, constantly making new ofshoots, its babies. The vine carries on, but the spider plant stopped thriving about two years ago, each shoot turning brown, very slowly, in succession, until the plant died a few months ago. An agonizingly slow learner sometimes, I figured out when it was too late to reverse course that the water had not drained properly from the flowerpot, and had built up a marshy condition that destroyed the plant. When the last shoot died, however, I did not throw the pot away, because I observed two tiny, hopeful green growths pushing up from the ruins. I let the pot dry out, then watered it very sparingly, and the new growth is already six inches tall. I am optimistic the plant is making a comeback.

As a child, I noticed everywhere weeds pushing up through Brooklyn sidewalks and found them also an inspiring Metaphor-- along the way I discovered that all Life is Metaphor. Dylan Thomas wrote of "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower". All I can say now is that if we fall-- and it seems inevitable we will-- so long as we do not fall entirely, something will be left, cheerful, invincible, loving life, ready to serve their fellows both as Human and Metaphor, and to make a comeback like the spider plant.

I know now that I will work on the Mad Manuscript for the rest of my life, and that I will never try to "publish" any part of it, but will set it free on the Internet to form part of the permanent record. Years ago, I imagined a twelve year old girl named Dawn who lives a thousand years from now. Highly intelligent, curious, avid to read and study after her eight or ten hours of daily work in her village's farms or workshops, Dawn is my Exemplary Reader and my hope of a human future. I hardly dare hope that the race as a whole will have found a way to do better, to stop creating the human scorpions which bring it down. Whether Dawn will help architect a rise which will be followed by another fall, or will assist in achieving a more modest level that, in her iteration will not harm the planet any more, I can hardly say. I stop there: just imagining she will exist is enough.