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Noise, Quiet and Democratic Deliberation

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Soundings

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President Trump daily rants at all who criticize his continuous lies. Indeed, he has lately gone so far as to label, without a shred of evidence, a share of those individuals who have raised questions about his pronouncements, as treasonous. Meanwhile, his choices daily reveal unfathomable narcissism, ignorance and cruelty. In this circumstance, one may begin to wonder if what is occurring in our country’s politics is real or whether we collectively have unwittingly descended into the darkness of a bizarre Kafka-esque short story. Trump’s narcissism bared itself in a recent Tweet in which he described himself, not for the first time, in god-like terms: “As I have stated strongly before, and to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits…”[1] This claim came from a man who had just betrayed the Kurds, an American ally of many decades, by unilaterally withdrawing U.S. troops from Northern Syria, thereby opening space for ISIS in that area and a Turkish incursion into the region as well.[2] Predictably, Turkey has invaded that territory in an effort to exterminate Syria’s Kurds and ISIS is once again active there.

It really does appear to be too much to take in sometimes. And worse, the malignity of the President’s actions is only exacerbated by those who seek to rationalize them on partisan grounds and thereby double or treble the injury already inflicted by Trump’s original ignobleness. Since such occurs every day during this Presidency, one might be forgiven for throwing up one’s hands and retreating to the safety of one’s home, refusing to pay attention to the bedlam afoot in the nation’s governance. While that is no answer if the polity is to recover from its current period of self-imposed madness, I have lately wondered if, instead, it might be good counsel to suggest to citizens who seek to protect the possibility of self-governance and who care deeply about their country and its current anti-democratic trajectory that they find ways to step away for brief periods from the cacophony Trump incessantly creates. Indeed, as I have reflected on the sheer volume of mean, bizarre and brazen claims and outright fantasies that Trump constantly offers, I have been reminded of how such commotion can accompany and obscure evil.

University of Oxford and Cambridge University Professor of English Literature and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis took up this subject in The Screwtape Letters. That novel featured an imagined correspondence between Screwtape, a senior devil, and his incompetent nephew and fiend in training, Wormwood. At one point in their exchanges, Lewis’s protagonist offers the following comment to his protégé:

Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that … no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—. … Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. … But I admit we are not loud enough or anything like it. Research is in progress.[3]

Old Screwtape firmly believed that Noise would work against moralities, reflection and deliberation and prevent prudential choices on the part of those whom he was working to persuade to choose evil. In fact, Screwtape suggested that Noise, brutal noise, was his preferred weapon to prevent or undermine goodness, deliberation and reason in favor of debasement and ignominy. Clatter, too, presumably, could stifle creativity and prevent questioning and exchange of ideas and perspectives, necessities in any examined life and central qualities too of self-governance. In short, Noise was, in Screwtape’s view, essential to the project of undermining the possibility of human progress and freedom. Better instead, for his purposes, to have individuals yoked incessantly to their petty hatreds, small and large tyrannies and jealousies and endless, empty quests for status and power. And better still for his success to cloak those individuals in a ceaseless, deafening and mind-numbing clamor.

Another writer’s reflections on the importance of silence for deliberative reflection also came to mind as I considered the obscuring din that Trump has occasioned in our country’s collective governance. Henry Beston, the author of the classic, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, and one of the most lucid and perceptive writers about Nature, moved in early 1931 to a homestead he called Chimney Farm in rural Maine to draw sustenance and inspiration from the raw beauty he found there.[4] He constructed a rude shack on his property to which he could retreat to write in solitude and where he could agonize over virtually every word he produced to create the limpid and graceful prose for which he was renowned.

One summer not long after he had moved to Maine, Beston gained a new neighbor on the adjoining farm who decided to create a skeet shooting range on his property. The resulting relentless din made Beston gravely ill, requiring several weeks of hospitalization to recuperate. Here is how he described the situation in a letter to a long-time friend:

No writer can possibly sit down to thoughts and his pencils when a sudden and hostile crash is likely to shatter all his peace together with surrounding space and time; it just can’t be done. … all summer long it went on, hateful, foolish and noisy. I just couldn’t concentrate, just couldn’t lead myself into that never land where you can hear the rumble of the waters of creation. The consequence was that worried, frustrated, sick with the corpse reek of personal hostility which had risen up about me, I came down with a bad nervous and physical condition. … So, I made a decision and a wise one (if somewhat of defeat) and closing the beloved farm, turned and left behind me a nightmare.[5]

Beston recovered from his difficult illness only after taking himself away from the ceaseless racket inflicted by his neighbor’s hobby. Beston could once again become whole, so to speak, when he removed himself to a safe space in which he could heal, reflect and contemplate and, energized thereby, begin once again to write.

By analogy, it seems to me that devotees of democratic self-governance, irrespective of their nominal partisanship, must find places for reflection, for deliberative exchange, amidst the tumult of the Trump administration’s constant assaults on the rule of law, decency and any respect for the dignity of humankind. That Noise arises not only from its progenitor, but also from those willing to condone and excuse his narcissism and ugly whimsy in the hope of power and at the expense of U.S. institutions and the norms sustaining them. Institutions do not lead or maintain themselves and reason and reflection require quiet and care, if not silence, for their nurturance. They also demand civil exchanges of views among individuals of varying stations and perspectives. As a practical matter, therefore, the appropriate answer to the frustration and “corpse reek of personal hostility” that the President’s duplicity and lawlessness daily engenders among millions of Americans is not flight. Instead, our nation’s current imbroglio demands that those seeking to remain measured and humble amidst a continuing onslaught on both of those aspirations find in their homes and other places respite from the current governance storm, spaces that offer periodic opportunities for reflection, vigorous exchange of views and deliberation. But they must then reemerge, revitalized with fresh insight, energy and determination, and for the good of the polity, return to the fray.

Self-governance itself increasingly hangs in the balance in our nation as Trump has declared himself unaccountable for all of his actions, however contemptible or unlawful or un-Constitutional their character or consequences. The need for flinty friends of freedom steeled by reflection and determination has never been more profound. This, therefore, is a plea that all who now are angry, saddened or simply at sea about how to react to the present pass in Washington, not relent and retreat in the face of the prodigious Noise, but instead, self-consciously work to find the quiet needed for deliberation and to (re)develop the resolve necessary to persevere in resisting this peculiarly modern attack of evil.

Notes

[1] @realDonaldTrump. Twitter, (2019, October 7). “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, …” [Twitter Post]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1181232249821388801?lang=en, Accessed October 8, 2019.

[2] Kirkpatrick, David, Ben Hubbard and David Halbfinger, “Trump’s Abrupt Shifts in Middle East Unnerve U.S. Allies,” The New York Times, October 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/12/world/middleeast/trumps-abandonment-of-the-kurds-in-syria-has-other-allies-worried.html, Accessed October 12, 2019.

[3] Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters, London: The Folio Society, Ltd., 2011, p. 89.

[4] Beston, Henry. The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003 (75th anniversary edition).  

[5] Beston, Henry, as quoted in Daniel, G. Payne’s Orion on the Dunes: A Biography of Henry Beston, Boston: David R. Godine Publisher, 2016, pp. 236-237. 

Publication Date

October 21, 2019

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