How to Monitor Your Psychic Meltdown By the Culture You Consume:

A Love Note to Melvyn Bragg

imgres-3The past year and a half have been stressful.  Like many Americans, of many political persuasions, the nomination and election of Donald Trump to the Presidency showed me that I had badly misunderstood my country.  I
learned that I was wrong about the way the world worked, and I don’t think I’m alone in finding that realization desolating.

I used to be an active and engaged consumer of news, but I find now that my appetite for it is diminishing.  I am able to spend less time reading the daily news without becoming sad and apathetic, and so I have limited my intake.  The void left by news-reading has been filled with a series of other activities, psychic life-rafts I’ve reached for and discarded when they proved unable to adequately absorb my agitation.

When Trump received the Republican nomination, I went on a science fiction binge.  I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars Trilogy‘; Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash and ‘Seveneves‘; Cixin Liu’s ‘The Three-Body Trilogy.  Science fiction has the quality of being both escapist and morally relevant, and, for a while, I found it helped to inhabit the problems of worlds other than my own.

The day after Donald Trump was elected, when I walked into my lab, my labmates and I, all women, locked eyes and started to weep, and I found that my passion for dystopia had vanished.

Houghton_EC65.M6427P.1667aa_-_Paradise_Lost,_1667Escapism no longer seemed a viable option; reality felt urgent but overwhelming, and I needed something which would help me cope with the repulsion I felt towards the world around me.  I’m no optimist, and I especially wasn’t one this past winter, but I wVergilanted something hopeful.  So I started re-reading the old epics: ‘The Aeneid’, ‘The Inferno’, ‘Paradise Lost’.  There was something reassuring about the scope of these poems, their grandeur and their vintage.  They reminded me that civilizations may rise and fall, but that great monuments endure.  They broadened my perspective, and reduced the troubles of my country to the status of a mere chapter in humanity’s story.


images-1Eventually, though, the cycles of suffering and war which characterize epics started to make everything seem futile: so many men fight, so many die.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  I started to feel again that we are all doomed to the endless repetitions of violence which have characterized every human epoch.  Apathy came creeping back.

And then, in the past two weeks, when the House voted to replace a 58%-popular ACA with a 17%-popular AHCA, and the President fired the FBI director for investigating his ties to Russia, and then dashed off to a private photo shoot with a Russian spy, and North Korea threw a missile as high as it could into the air, and the whole world seemed too venal and stupid to be borne, and I was nearly lost in an apathetic stupor, I found my way back to Melvyn Bragg.

Once a week, Melvyn Bragg hosts a discussion on BBC Radio 4 called ‘In Our Time’, in which he and three relevantly-credentialed academics spend 45 minutes talking about…something.  These somethings are broadly classified into the categories ‘Science’, ‘History’, ‘Philosophy’, ‘Culture’, and ‘Religion’.  Since it first aired in 1998, it has covered topics as far-ranging as Japan’s Sakoku Period, Lyrical Ballads, Conductors and Semiconductors, The Baroque, Guilt, Antimatter, and Fermat’s Lost Theorem.

Melvyn telegraph
Melvyn Bragg on the occasion of the 500th episode of ‘In Our Time’, from the Telegraph,

Melvyn Bragg is a mellow, dry host, and he leads his academics in measured dissections of subjects both universal and abstruse.  He is at turns funny and serious, and the allegiance of everyone is, at all times, to the subject at hand.  These people are here to nerd out.

Though I am not normally susceptible to the allure of the English accent (Hugh Grant’s popularity baffles me), there is something about a round-table of dry, British academics earnestly discussing, say, whether Cleopatra was carried into Caesar’s tent in a carpet, or a bag, or a carpeted-bag, which makes the world seem sensible and good.  And I have not yet found anything else as effectively (and endlessly) distracting as this two-decades-old labyrinth of esoterica.  Melvyn has provided me not so much with an escape, but with a reminder that the world contains multitudes, vast stores of history and knowledge which I can never exhaust and which will never stop delighting me.  I need this right now; I need the world to be larger than my own dysfunctional corner of it.  His show is very popular in Britain, and so I doubt that it will give Baron Bragg an enormous thrill to know that he has rescued the sanity of one desperate American, but it is true nonetheless.

So I have this recommendation for Americans who are, like me, lost: download ‘In Our Time’.  Find a comfortable place to sit or recline (I have taken to lying, flat on my back, on the rug in my living room, in my sweatpants – as I said, it’s been a stressful time), put in your headphones, and let Melvin help.

Melvyn Bragg on the occasion of the 500th episode of ‘In Our Time’, from the Telegraph,

Make America Cynical Again

     Recently, during a discussion of current events, my own beloved father looked at me gloomily and said, “You’ve become cynical.  That makes me very sad.”

     “Why?” I asked.

     “Because if you’re cynical, it means you aren’t hopeful about people,” he said.

     I was surprised, and for two reasons.  The first was his use of the word ‘become’.  Whether I am, as he says, cynical, or whether I am, as I would argue, realistic, I have certainly always seen the world through this lens.  It is familiar by now.  I have always been this way – I have never been optimistic.

Trump Rally
Quick, what color are all these people?

     (Although, in my father’s defense, it is true that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America jarred me and, perhaps, sharpened the edge on my cynicism.  I had not believed my countrymen would be willing to elect a man that xenophobic – I was wrong.  I don’t intend to overestimate them again.)

     But I was also surprised by his juxtaposition of cynicism and hopefulness.  He seemed to feel that these were necessarily opposite conditions – I don’t believe that they are.

     ‘Cynical’ can mean several things.  My father, in this context, probably meant ‘distrustful of human sincerity or integrity’.  I suppose I am that.  It’s not that I don’t believe that humans lack either sincerity or integrity, or even that those qualities are rare.  However, I believe that those qualities co-exist, in all humans, with cowardice, malevolence, and a facility for dishonesty, and that, therefore, those virtues are unreliable in any individual or population over time.

Nuremberg Rally
The Annual rally at Nuremberg in 1936

     As I have said before (several times), I believe that all peoples, in all places, at all times, are capable of evil.  That this capacity for evil, like our capacity for good, defines us as a species.  That we will never outgrow it, evolve past it, or become too smart for it, and that we must be ever vigilant against it.  I believe that the data, both historical and contemporary, support my conclusion.  I believe that this conclusion, to put it plainly, is true.

     And the truth is never cynical.  No belief, no matter how rosy it may seem, if it is not premised on the truth, can be really hopeful.

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     The belief that we are better than our ancestors or the people of other nations, this is a self-flattering lie, a delusion which is easier to bear than hard truth.  And lies are never really hopeful; they are, in fact, a surrender to a much darker cynicism than I am capable of: that it is better to believe yourself good than to acknowledge your own capacity for evil and so avoid doing it.  That it is better to seem than to be.

     I believe that it is far more hopeful to be a cynic who looks out for ordinary evils than an optimist who insists that evil is always freakish, because only the cynic will see the evil coming far enough away to stop it.  Only someone who believes in evil will trouble themselves to learn about it, and learning is the best way we can avoid it in ourselves.

     Any view of the human race which denies an essential and ineradicable part cannot be hopeful.  Hope is not hope which is premised on ignorance.  There can be no true hope without honesty first.

     So, no, Dad, I may be cynical, but I’m not hopeless.  On the contrary, Dad: I find that you have much less hope than I.  People who, confronted again and again with the wickedness of their fellow men, with their small-minded hatreds, their tribalisms and rages, people who nevertheless insist on finding them essentially good, they are hopeless.  People who are then always surprised when evil happens, they are hopeless.  People for whom the good opinion of each other means more than actually saving each other, they are hopeless.  If you must lie to yourself about man’s nature in order to accept him, that is hopeless.

Memorial Rwanda
Memorial shrine in Ntarama for victims of the Rwandan genocide

     I believe I have seen man in all his despicability, and I still see a way forward for him.  He’s not a saintly ape, he is not basically good, but, with attention, he might learn.  And, as long as that is true, he will never be completely hopeless.  

     I’m trying to learn, and so I’m not hopeless.

Featured Image: This is a real product, sold on Amazon, ‘Election 2016 Donald Trump Make America Great Again Booty Shorts

“For He Makes His Sun Rise on the Evil and on the Good, and Sends Rain on the Just and on the Unjust”

     I’ve become a little obsessed with something Vladimir Putin once said.

     Putin has, of course, been much in the news lately here in the United States as various interested parties try to figure out exactly how involved he has been with our President.  And so I finally got around to reading a book I’ve been wanting to read since it came out: Masha Gessen’s ‘The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin‘.

My edition has two afterwords.  The second, a postscript written in 2014, concerns the autocrat’s violent anti-gay ideology.  Gessen is herself gay, and it was the persecution of homosexuals which finally drove her from her country, and so in a book with many emotionally difficult portions, it is one of the most upsetting.

     And, in it, Gessen quotes, among other things, Putin’s State of the Federation address to Parliament in 2013, in which he said,

     “Today many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures.  Society is now required not only to recognize everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning.” (p. 312)

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Putin entering the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow to give that State of the Federation address in 2013, from the Financial Times

     It is always fascinating to watch someone invoke the fight against evil in order to achieve evil.  It begs the question: do they know that they are about to commit an evil act?  If not (surely not), then why don’t they know?  If someone else committed that act, would they know it was evil?  Are they hypocrites interested only in the accumulation of their own power, or are they true believers?

     Vladimir Putin and I agree that evil exists, but we have very different notions of what it is, what it looks like, and who is doing it.  In fact, we probably believe that the other is a pretty near approximation of an evil actor.

     Putin believes (I am persuaded by Gessen on this) that evil is personified by liberal, democratizing, Westernizing forces which corrode the conservative, traditional power structures of his country.

     I believe that the evil person is one who seeks to accrete power, wealth, or to experience joy or relief, at the expense of the natural rights of other people: at the expense of their safety, health, freedom, or life.  I believe evil is that which requires that the rights of the other be sacrificed to achieve the goals of the self.

     So how can Vladimir Putin and I use the same word and mean such different things?  If ‘evil’ means ‘someone I disagree with very, very much’, or ‘someone who does something I find personally repugnant’, does it really have meaning worth preserving?  Is ‘evil’ just another level on our personal scale of badness, or is it another thing altogether, a distinct category of human behavior?  If it is the latter, shouldn’t we make sure that our use of that word is spare?  Shouldn’t we make sure not to dull its edge by overuse?

     Obviously, I cannot stop Putin from saying or doing whatever he pleases (apparently, no one can).  But I can object strongly to his use of that word, ‘evil’, which is incorrect and dangerous.

Pew Homosexuality 2014
Results of a 2013 Pew study asking the question “Should society accept homosexuality?’, broken down by nation, from pewglobal.org

     Whether you believe that homosexuality is right or wrong (and I would like to be clear and emphatic here: I believe that homosexuality is exactly as right, as normal, as healthy, and as natural as heterosexuality), surely we can agree that one person’s homosexuality does not deprive any heterosexual person of their natural rights, and, therefore, is not evil and should not be so called.  Tolerance of homosexuality, then, is not a commitment to neutrality in the battle between good and evil – that is a preposterous idea.

     We may disagree about what is right and what is wrong, but we should not disagree about evil.  There are many things which are considered ‘wrong’ by some portion of the population but which we all ought to have the right and freedom to do: take the Lord’s name in vain, get a divorce, tell a lie, have a child out of wedlock, smoke marijuana, marry someone of the same gender, cheat on our spouse, work on the Sabbath.  You may think one or more of these things is wrong, but, if I do them, I do not violate your natural rights, and so my right to do them should be respected.  We can agree to disagree.

I don’t believe that we can afford to agree to disagree about evil – there are lives at stake.  And so I don’t believe that we should be using the word ‘evil’ when we mean ‘wrong’; I don’t believe we should use the word ‘evil’ except when we mean it.  Because we’re going to want to have that word at our disposal, potent and not diluted, when we need it (to, say, describe a man who is having opposition journalists killed).

     And we are going to need it.

 

Featured image from abc.com, anti-Putin protests in the UK sparked by the Russian crackdown on gay rights in 2014.

To Cease to be Divided

     Do you ever wonder whether everything you believe is wrong?

     I mean, not ‘everything’, obviously – I’m sure we all believe many, many true things. But do you ever wonder whether your deeply held beliefs, the pillars of your world-view, the informational basis around which you organize yourself as a moral or ethical member of society, as a citizen, might be wrong?

     I worry about this all the time.  I’m someone who, a generation ago, would have identified as a moderate conservative with liberal social values, which position today makes me pretty solidly liberal.  I live in the Northeast, surrounded by other liberals, and the constant lament these days, the endless question, is:

     How can conservatives believe the things that they believe?  Don’t they see that their views are incoherent?  That their new President lies?  How can they so casually disregard science, fact, data, consistency?

     I am sure that conservatives wonder the same things about liberals; I read conservative news, so I know for a fact that they do.  When two opposing sides disagree about the nature of reality, when each is sure that they are correct, when they will state opposite “facts” with equal confidence and each side rejects the “facts” of the other, my question is this:

     How can you be sure you’re on the right side?  How do you know that it’s the other side that is deafened by their echo chamber, and not yours?

     As far as I can tell, I am the only person in the country right now worrying about this. Everyone else seems very sure that they are on the right side, and they become more sure every day.  Thus, the two sides grow further apart.

     I’m not sure I’m right.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m wrong.  I’m sure I hold some number of beliefs which are completely ass-backwards – I just don’t know which ones.

     How can you tell if your mind is open?  How would you measure such a thing?  I read people who disagree with me, and sometimes they persuade me: does this happen enough?  Too much?  If it doesn’t happen often, is that because I’m closed-minded, or because I’m already mostly right?

     Whenever I find myself very sure that my side is right, I think back (bear with me) to O.J. Simpson’s murder trial.  I was just a kid when O.J. went to trial, but I remember quite clearly that all the adults in my affluent and mostly-white world were sure that O.J. was guilty.

     More than that, these adults were dismayed by what they saw as the shameless race-baiting of O.J.’s lawyers, which they considered manipulative and transparently false.  O.J. was one of the most famous men in the country: of course the police weren’t being racist with him.  Of course they hadn’t planted that glove, that accusation was elaborate, absurd.  The police might have been racist in Montgomery in the 1950’s, but this was the 1990’s, L.A.: they didn’t frame black men anymore.

     And I remember that they all seemed disturbed that black Americans had fallen for the cynical ploy of lawyers.  It seemed credulous and paranoid to the adults around me, for whom the police were an accommodating if obstructionist presence.  It seemed as if race mattered more to them (black people) than truth, as if they were willing to overlook facts in order to stay loyal to their side.

bialik-oj-11
From fivethirtyeight.com: At the time of the trial, nearly the same percentage of black Americans thought O.J. was innocent as white Americans thought he was guilty.

     None of these white adults would have identified themselves as racist; they would have been hurt and offended by the accusation.  But it never seemed to occur to them that, perhaps, every black person in America wasn’t paranoid, that when they said that it was plausible to them that the L.A.P.D. would try to frame the most famous black man in America, it was because they were having very different experiences with police than white people.  That the world, that even their own country, was much bigger than their experience.

     But no one around me seemed to figure that out then – it wasn’t until decades later, when dash cam footage showed police shooting and killing many unarmed black men, that we understood how the police looked to other Americans.

     I think about this whenever I hear liberals lament the blindness of conservatives, because I hear them say the same things about those conservatives that we said about black Americans: that they care more about their team than about ‘reality’.  The implication is that we are superior or smarter, that we see more clearly, that ‘we’ know what reality is.  I’m not sure that’s true.  That wasn’t the case back then – maybe it’s not the case now.  Because, sometimes, the problem isn’t whether you see clearly or not; it’s that you only believe what you see yourself, but the world is much, much bigger than what any one side can see.

     So I wonder: what am I missing now?  What don’t I know?  What can’t I see?  What are my prejudices?  How can I tell the difference between when you are wrong and when I am wrong?  I am sure we are both wrong much of the time, but how can I tell which is which?  I’m frantic to know this, to see into the darkness of my own ignorance and error.  I just need a light I can trust.

Featured Image:

Reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict, taken from atlantablackstar.com

Where All Are Guilty

     I’m not sure what we’re all doing here, exactly.

     I think it’s fair to say that when the Allies liberated the German concentration camps in 1945, most of the world was shocked by what they saw there.  They had not known that mankind was willing to commit an enormity of that measure.

     And so we learned then what we were really capable of.  Maybe we should have known before – the record of man committing evil against man is as old as history itself – but, for whatever reason, we did not even seem to suspect before then.  Certainly, we knew after.

     We saw that we were monsters, that we would tear each other apart for the sheer joy of it, that we would grind out the lives of the young and the vulnerable by the million to sate our own blood-thirsty needs.

     The Germans were not the first people to commit genocide, and they weren’t the last. But they were a fully modern, secular nation, and that proved to us that no creed or technology of thought yet devised places a people out of the reach of those terrible impulses.  It seems we carry our capacity for annihilation with us, that we are born with it, like our capacity for love or language.

     Those camps were our own darkest heart brought to light, and when we looked them full in the face, we faced a choice: we could abandon ourselves to the despair of the wicked, embrace the nihilism that such evil implied, or we could repudiate it.

     However, since human evil is a fact, since it has touched every age and every nation, in order to deny it in ourselves, we must believe that we can change.  And, in order to change, we must be able to learn.  If we cannot learn, history will bend again and again towards those camps, towards the ovens and mass graves, and we will be monsters still.

     But what would it mean to learn away evil?  Presumably, it would not merely mean that we refrained from rounding Jews into camps and exterminating them, or rounding anyone into camps and exterminating them.  It would mean understanding the grave errors in thinking which led us there.

     The most serious error is this: that it is useful or correct to think about groups: national, religious, socieconomic, racial groups, as moral units, to fear or condemn them as though they were individuals.  Treating groups as individuals, as though they possessed the characteristics of individuals (‘values’, ‘intelligence’, ‘trustworthiness’, ‘criminality’), is rarely useful and often evil, and the events of the last century (not just the Holocaust, but also the American Civil Rights movement, the advances of women’s rights in much of the world, the slow death of European colonialism, the enormous genocides in China and the USSR) should have convinced absolutely every thinking person of that.

Brexit 'Breaking Point'
UKIP Pro-Brexit, Anti-Immigration ‘Leave’ Ad

     But my own countrymen have just elected a man to the office of the President of the United States in a large part because of his propensity for exactly this kind of thinking: his willingness to treat Mexicans as a group, “blacks” as a group, Muslims as a group, to act upon them as though they were individuals, to register or ban them.  We are still making this same mistake.  We aren’t learning.

 

     This lesson is so important, so necessary to the functioning of a moral society, that, if we have failed to grasp it after everything we’ve seen, then all our manners and petty ethics and customs are so much farse: play-acting at true civilization, and I don’t understand why we bother.  If the dark evil still beats within us which causes us to drive the other out into the cold because he is the other, to strike him down or deny him, then why are we bothering to honor our speeding tickets or queue at supermarkets or refrain from parking in the handicap spots?  If we still haven’t learned that children are children wherever they come from, if we are still willing to let them die because we can’t look past their category designation, then we are doomed and I don’t understand why I pay my taxes or say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.  These are the trifling rituals of civilization – we have failed to grasp the fundamentals.

     I will pay my taxes; I will say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, because I wish to participate in a civil and good society.  But these gestures do not make a society civil or good – they are just niceties propping up a rotten structure unless we can learn and move forward, can understand our mistakes and become better.  And we aren’t better yet.

 

Header Image:

Selection of Hungarian Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Poland, May 1944.— Yad Vashem Photo Archives, taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website, http://www.ushmm.org