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.

hiroshima5-crop

     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.

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