…what happened to America in 2016 has long been happening in America, before there was an America, when the first Carib was bayoneted and the first African delivered up in chains. It is hard to express the the depth of the emergency without bowing to the myth of American unity, when in fact American unity has always been the unity of conquistadors and colonizers – unity premised on Indian killings, land grabs, noble internments and the gallant General Lee. Here is a country that specializes in defining its own deviancy down so that the criminal, the immoral and the absurd become the baseline, so that even now, amidst the long tragedy and this lately disaster, the guardians of truth rally to the liar’s flag.
A Thousand Words
I can’t unsee this photograph. I really wish I could. To be honest, it fills me with dread. It documents the end of discourse.
I feel like I should be able to understand this countryman of mine. I still feel like I should try to understand him
Is this man economically insecure? Probably: seventy eight percent of all Americans live from paycheck to paycheck. (Though among white voters who voted for Trump nearly 60 percent were in the top half of the income distribution). Nevertheless, perhaps he feels like he is running on a hamster wheel. He runs and runs and still can’t achieve the financial security he feels he should have (or that his parents had). He works his ass off and he imagines that people with different colored faces from different places are getting something they haven’t earned. Maybe he has moved from home more than once in his life to find work or maybe he has never left his small Western Pennsylvania town though his children have left. His high school buddies who left and occasionally come home seem to be living in foreign lands.
Like the rest of us, he lives in a world that floods him with information. What to believe? Who to believe? With whom should he believe? He is awash with technologies that are useful but operate by a magic he does not understand. He resents his ignorance and his dependence. Maybe he resents people who appear comfortable with the new technologies. Maybe he feels useless to himself.
He has a legion of consumables available to him but no control over the array that he is offered. His only agency is the choice of what to buy with his hamster wheel earnings. His only choices are not really “choices”, they are merely features of the wheel. He understands himself as the individual surrounded by the goods he has purchased. This is how he shows himself to the world. Very possibly he resents those who seem to denigrate the “life style” his purchases advertise. Maybe it is not Mexican immigrants he hates but other smug “white” people. Many of these are the same people who tell him that the plain truths he is holding onto about gender and sexuality are “prejudiced”.
It’s bad enough that he can’t seem to “get anywhere” economically but then he hears from too many sources that he shouldn’t even be proud to be an American. He really doesn’t want to hear that shit. Everything for which he feels pride (or took for granted) seems to make him defensive these days. He is an “old white American”. The “old” is problematic because he is running out of time to become a millionaire. The “white” is just normal for him; he has never hurled a racial epithet and he resents being called a racist. That the “American” part of his identity is called into question is the last straw. If America is not the “shining City on the Hill”, if America is not “exceptional”, where does that leave him?
He has not misplaced his gratitude about his birthright. What he can do is find himself a congregation of folks who also want to Make America Great Again. Now he is part of something larger. Once America is made great again, economic insecurity will depart and we will all be on the same team once more. His team. You are either on the team bus or you are not . Your choice. Fuck your feelings.
I find myself imagining that the message on his t-shirt is meant specifically for me as my feelings of dread are simultaneously incited and dismissed.
I don’t know this person. My attempts to understand him are probably overly reductive. But if I don’t care to try to understand the other person, where does that leave me?
Less than fully human?
Is traveling outside of the U.S. therapeutic? I certainly hope so. But before I teleport out, I have to share some readings with you. If you haven’t read Ta-Nehesi Coates’ piece “The First White President” (here), please do.
Adam Shatz in the London Review (here) also writes about American racism and makes the same point Coates makes; Trump is a legacy of the Obama presidency. Is it paradoxical that “a cipher of a man has revealed the hidden depths, the ugly unmastered history, of the country he claims to lead”?
The New School for Analytic Psychology has started a film series (here). I will be helping facilitate the discussion after a showing of “Embrace of the Serpent”. This movie, set in the headwaters of the Amazon, flips Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” on its head and made me think of Gregory Bateson’s essay “Conscious Purpose versus Nature” (here). From the depredations in the Amazon Basin to microplastics in Pacific Northwest shellfish to Caribbean hurricanes to U.S. politics, we are surrounded by our pathologies.
Though like “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa”, the sublime can occasionally emerge from our pathologies.
Trump’s first month has been a disorienting spectacle. Here are some points to keep in mind as you decide how you are going to bear the days ahead:
1) Trump has no skin in the game of being President. Though the rest of us may be at economic risk, he will not. When you start with millions it’s hard even for a businessman like Trump to go backwards. He has made it clear that he and his family will continue to prosper no matter what the obstacle (the Emoluments clause, for example).
2) He has no reputation to worry about because he will always be a legend in his own mind. His fanbase, his family, and his flunkies will mirror back what he needs to see.
3) Don’t bother listening to him because he will never explain anything (certainly not himself):
If Obama often seemed an image of deliberation without appetite, Trump has always been the reverse. For him, there is no time to linger: from the first thought to the first motion is a matter of seconds; the last aversion or appetite triggers the jump to the deed. And if along the way he speaks false words? Well, words are of limited consequence. What people want is a spectacle; they will attend to what you do, not what you say; and to the extent that words themselves are a spectacle, they add to the show. The great thing about words, Trump believes, is that they are disposable
4) His narcissism is protean. He is the ideal content generator for our media. He dominates the news like a fart dominates a car (thank you, John Oliver). Resist the temptation to click on Trump’s latest idiocy. In so refraining, you are reducing the positive feedback loop upon which Trump surfed to the Presidency. (See my September 3 post)
5) Shame is what we feel when our limitations become excruciatingly visible or when we fall short of our self-image. This President cannot tolerate shame. He is missing some of the internal checks and balances of the psychologically stable.
We need to avert our eyes from his tacky reality TV show. We must be willing to miss the next train wreck. We need to consider Trumps’s predictable narcissism as misdirection. The real action is elsewhere.“It doesn’t matter what he says, it matters what he signs.” We must encourage our office holders and 2.8 million Federal employees to provide him with checks and some balance. If they do the right thing, they will shine a light on his limitations and he will dehisce.
Fruit of the Scarlet Pimpernel Dehiscing
George Grosz The Celebration
I used to read and think a lot about our nation’s culture and politics. Since the election, that hobbyhorse has come to feel like a rather masochistic inclination. Why is that so? Corey Robin, a political scientist who has written a great deal about conservatism (here), describes my predicament:
Sometimes, not always, politics is war by other means. Not just for a few small sects but for large-scale groups and populations. I don’t mean war in the sense that one group is trying to dominate another; that’s continuous, always there. I mean war in the sense of overt, ongoing, declared battle between those groups.
We seem to be in one of those moments. One of the things we’ll have to get used to in this moment is the strange whipsaw effect of daily struggle, of seeing defeat mutate, quicksilver, into victory, and then seeing that victory slip through our fingers like it was never ours to have. That’s the way war is. (If you’ve ever been through a strike, you have a visceral sense of this.) Everything is temporary, not much lasts.
We have to learn to survive that, to know that when Trump delivers an executive order, that’s not fate, that’s just the day’s rout, which can be turned into tomorrow’s route. Conversely, when we win some small victory, it may be just an overture to another defeat.
I guess what I’m saying is, above all, we need resilience. And patience.
This week’s decision by the 9th Circuit Court not to lift the stay on Trump’s immigration ban may be just an overture to another defeat….but I believe it is important to always draw a measure of sustenance from a victorious skirmish.
Right after the election a friend sent me this Buddhist maxim:
Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered, we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.
For Ta Nehisi Coates, the veil was pulled back in college:
It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own special Dream but would break all the dreams,all the comforting myths of Africa and America and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness.
A basic substrate of white privilege in America has been a relative immunity to administration changes in Washington DC. But as of November 8th, if you present as a straight white American but you have black, brown or gay family members, there is fear in your family. For those of you who present as white Americans but belong to a union or worship in a synagogue or a mosque, there is fear in your workplaces and in your congregations. If you present as a white American and xenophobia, misogyny, racism and authoritarianism are affronts to your value system, welcome to the political discomfort millions of non-white and gay Americans have always lived with.
I wrote in July: “I think this election is turning out to be an inchoate plebiscite on neoliberalism” and that Trump was coming to bloom in a rich midden of economic dissatisfaction, racism and xenophobia. My last pre-election post shared Richard Rorty’s prescient warning about the appeal of the strongman to an America riven by economic inequality. But…however concerned I have been about our political culture…I refused to let myself believe what rough beast would actually get elected President of the United States of America. I feel like The Onion’s area liberal who “who no longer recognizes his fanciful, wildly inaccurate mental picture of the country he lives in“.
In Ta Nehisi Coates’ terminology I have been a Dreamer; unconsciously clinging to America’s moral exceptionalism. I am through Dreaming and I am going to take the advice Coates gave to his son:
Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom…Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.