After I published my last blog post I received the following email from a friend;
“I read your blog post today and it reminded me how different our political points of view are. That being said, I also think we share many views that are very similar. Please take a few minutes to listen to this TED talk. I’d really like to have lunch with you using the guidelines as suggested. Are you game to give it a try”?
First of all I was somewhat surprised that someone actually read my blog and had taken the time to respond. After the shock wore off I thought it best to watch the short TED Talk to understand where this was going; https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_lesser_take_the_other_to_lunch
The TED Talk speaker makes the point that the culture in which we were each raised, and our experiences from that point forward, help form our view of the world on an array of topics and issues. The road of least resistance is to discuss our individual views with those sharing similar opinions, leaving little room for argument. And conversely we tend to avoid confrontation on certain topics with those of opposing views, leading to many assumptions about one another. But, as my friend states in the email, ‘we share many views that are similar’. That said we decided to put it to a test and I agreed to have lunch.
In this season of discontent on both sides of the aisle we all have strong views on the political situation, my friend and I alike. And though we each lean in a different direction, our lunch time talk revealed that we have many of the same concerns. I was asked what scared me so much about a Trump presidency, and as I stated in my last blog; “The one worry I do have, which should have us all concerned, is the empowerment that extremists on the alt-right feel with Trump’s win”. My friend understood but feels the fringe is so small that their impact overall would be minimal. I responded that even if the extremists represent 10% (or 5% or even 2%) of the population, that’s a lot of people and I don’t want to see our country going backwards concerning civil rights, reproductive rights, LGBT rights, etc… We covered a range of other topics including the sensitive nature of discussing politics with close family members who have different views from our own and are unwilling to have a rational discussion.
Without going into detail about lunch, or our similarities and differences, I have to say it was great to sit down with someone who is rational and doesn’t base friendships on ones differences. We were both open to hearing opposing views and learning how they came to be. My hope is that we left lunch understanding more about each other, how our views developed, how rational discussion can lead to closer relationships, whether personal, business or political. Would politicians take a page from the TED Talk or from my friend’s initiative….doubtful. But as citizens we should make the effort to talk to those we know we disagree politically and try to understand one another, lest we start to act like the elected officials who put their self interests first.
I was going to end this post with the paragraph above, but as the week went on and our new president made a mockery of the office and of the people who voted for him, I decided to end with an article by Adam Gopnik from The New Yorker. He expresses much of what I think much better than I ever could…..enjoy;
I have, I’m afraid, a terrible confession to make: I have never been a huge fan of George Orwell’s “1984.” It always seemed, in its extrapolations from present to future, too pat, a little lacking in the imaginative extrapolations we want from dystopian literature. As the British author Anthony Burgess pointed out a long time ago, Orwell’s modern hell was basically a reproduction of British misery in the postwar rationing years, with the malice of Stalin’s police-state style added on. That other ninth-grade classic, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where a permanent playground of sex and drugs persists in a fiercely inegalitarian society, seemed to me far more prescient, and so did any work of Philip K. Dick’s that extrapolated forward our bizarre American entertainment obsessions into an ever more brutal future in which Ken and Barbie might be worshipped as gods. “1984” seemed, in contrast, too brutal, too atavistic, too limited in its imagination of the relation between authoritarian state and helpless citizens.
An unbidden apology rises to the lips, as Orwell’s book duly climbs high in the Amazon rankings: it was far better and smarter than good times past allowed us to think. What it took, of course, to change this view was the Presidency of Donald Trump. Because the single most striking thing about his matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic, and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be. We have to go back to “1984” because, in effect, we have to go back to 1948 to get the flavor.
There is nothing subtle about Trump’s behavior. He lies, he repeats the lie, and his listeners either cower in fear, stammer in disbelief, or try to see how they can turn the lie to their own benefit. Every continental wiseguy, from Žižek to Baudrillard, insisted that when they pulled the full totalitarian wool over our eyes next time, we wouldn’t even know it was happening. Not a bit of it. Trump’s lies, and his urge to tell them, are pure Big Brother crude, however oafish their articulation. They are not postmodern traps and temptations; they are primitive schoolyard taunts and threats.
The blind, blatant disregard for truth is offered without even the sugar-façade of sweetness of temper or equableness or entertainment—offered not with a sheen of condescending consensus but in an ancient tone of rage, vanity, and vengeance. Trump is pure raging authoritarian id.
And so, rereading Orwell, one is reminded of what Orwell got right about this kind of brute authoritarianism—and that was essentially that it rests on lies told so often, and so repeatedly, that fighting the lie becomes not simply more dangerous but more exhausting than repeating it. Orwell saw, to his credit, that the act of falsifying reality is only secondarily a way of changing perceptions. It is, above all, a way of asserting power.
When Trump repeats the ridiculous story about the three million illegal voters—a story that no one who knows, that not a single White House “staffer,” not a single Republican congressman actually believes to be true—he does not really care if anyone believes it, even if, at some crazy level, he does, sort of. People aren’t meant to believe it; they’re meant to be intimidated by it. The lie is not a claim about specific facts; the lunacy is a deliberate challenge to the whole larger idea of sanity. Once a lie that big is in circulation, trying to reel the conversation back into the territory of rational argument becomes impossible.
And so CNN’s Jake Tapper, to his credit, may announce boldly that the story is false from beginning to end—but then he is led by his own caution and sense of professionalism to ask Trump whether, if he sees it as true, there ought to be an investigation into it. Tapper, like everyone else, knows perfectly well that a minimally honest investigation would turn up no proof of this absurdity at all. But that, of course, is the trap, the game. Watch: there will be a “commission” consisting of experts borrowed from Breitbart; it will hold no hearings, or hold absurdly closed ones; or hold ones with testimony from frequent callers to “The Alex Jones Show”—and this clownish commission will then baldly conclude that there is, indeed, widespread evidence of voter fraud. And Trump will reassert the lie and point to his commission’s findings as his evidence.
Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress, thoroughly intimidated, fear shining from one eye and cupidity from the other, will exploit the “question” of voter fraud to pursue policies of actually suppressing minority voters. Caligula, the mad Roman emperor, infamously appointed his horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate, and that has been for millennia a byword for cracked authoritarian action. But we now know what would happen if Caligula appointed his horse to the Senate if the modern Republican Party happened to be in the majority there: first the Republicans would say that they didn’t want to get into disputes about the Emperor’s personnel choices, and then they’d quickly see how the presence of the horse could help justify dismantling regulations in the horse-chariot industry. (“Well, you know, he’s an unorthodox kind of Emperor, so I don’t want to get into that, Jake—but I will say that, whatever the Emperor’s beliefs, we have a very inclusive party, and, if we’re slackening regulations on the stables, I want to point out it’s with the full and welcome participation of a horse.”) The Emperor’s lunacy and the senators’ larceny match perfectly.
Starting this week, it’s vital that everyone who is trying to maintain sanity understand that this is so—that it is a myth that reason, as normally undertaken, is going to affect this process or that “consequences,” as they are normally understood, will, either. Whenever there is an authoritarian coup rooted in an irrational ideology, well-meaning people insist that it can’t persist because the results are going to be so obviously bad for the people who believe in it, whether it’s the theocratic revolution in Iran or the first truly autocratic Administration in America. Tragically, terribly, this is never the way it works. There is no political cost for Trump in being seen to be incompetent, impulsive, shallow, inconsistent, and contemptuous of truth and reason. Those are his politics. This is how he achieved power. His base loves craziness, incompetence, and contempt for reason because sanity, competence, and the patient accumulation of evidence are things that allow educated people to pretend that they are superior. Resentment comes before reason. Conservative intellectuals, as a reading of the Times each day reveals, turn out to share these resentments far more deeply than they value the rational practices. Having experienced this condescension, or so they imagine, on the larger stage of universities and publishing houses, they may mistrust the demagogue, but they actively hate those who demonstrate against him. The demagogue they regard only with disdain; his critics are an ancient object of hatred and contempt. If forced to choose, they will always choose the demagogue before the demonstrators. If there’s one thing we really do know from social science, it’s that people are far more determined to see their ancient enemies made miserable than themselves made happier.
On the positive side, well, there were the women’s marches last weekend, which filled any sane heart with hope. What had seemed doubtful a short week before—that there could be unified, peaceful, indeed joyous mass action against the madness—was fully realized, and for what one hopes will be only the first of many times. It left our minds inspired with simple slogans that did not oversimplify: Community is the only cure for catastrophe. Action is the only antidote to anger. If these sound a bit like Winston’s private mutterings in “1984”—when he writes secretly, for instance, that sanity is not statistical—at least they are, for the moment, still fully public truths. Pray that they remain so.