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The “Strange Sap” of Unreality and Intolerance

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Charles McNamara has accurately described our present governance crisis as characterized and underpinned by a mass rejection of reason.[1] I say “accurately,” as I can think of no way one can otherwise explain why millions would profess to believe lies and conspiracy claims that have repeatedly been shown to be baseless.  More, and paradoxically, it is clear to all who have examined those falsehoods that they are providing power to a political party and to media institutions utterly uninterested in alleviating the apparent existential emptiness of those supporting them.

At root, the individuals sustaining these lies appear to be searching for ways to address the perceived metaphysical emptiness of their lives amidst rapid social and economic change and complexity. In so doing, many individuals have abandoned reason, as McNamara observed, while simultaneously feigning omniscience and adopting a messianic and even violent dogmatic lack of tolerance, evidenced by the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. These choices have allowed those embracing them to avoid accepting responsibility to address existing conditions, while aggressively blaming innocents and anyone with different views as the agents of their disquietude.  

This scenario raises at least three central paradoxes. I have discussed the first two in previous commentaries and briefly address only the last listed here:[2]

  • How and why so many individuals are prepared to believe obvious and outright lies, including former President Donald Trump’s Big Lie concerning the November 2020 election and his arguments in support of the nation’s traditional enemies, including Russia, as well as other autocrats around the world even as he disparaged, and continues to mock, the country’s long-time allies,
  • Why those same individuals persist in supporting a political party that does almost nothing to assuage their concerns, but instead persistently undertakes policies that either do not address, or aggravate, them,
  • Why so many GOP supporters have adopted hatred as a primary strategy to create metaphysical meaning and to cope with ambiguity, while avoiding or rejecting responsibility for the implications of their choices.

If one accepts the position that a large share of those citizens—especially rural residents, who believe themselves dispossessed and aggrieved by their present social and economic positions and deeply resent that reality—have adopted intolerance and hatred as a way of making sense of their situations, one must simultaneously acknowledge that they have been persistently encouraged to do so by many GOP leaders and certain media outlets. The question remains: How does that stance provide these individuals the metaphysical succor or meaning they apparently desire? Many now embracing Trump and GOP lies concerning virtually all elements of the reality they confront have been willing to blame the Democratic Party, government and targeted minorities as the architects of their woes in order to address the anxiety they are experiencing in the face of rapid changes in their communities. In doing so, they have elected as a group to abandon reason, forsake tolerance for different points-of-view and embrace scapegoats to provide a story that “explains” the angst they feel.

But that narrative—however one regards the sources of their anxiety, which are certainly real in my view—blames innocent others for the results of political choices those voters themselves have long espoused. Many rural residents have for decades supported GOP officials who have worked to undermine governance and offered policies designed to exacerbate wealth inequalities and diminish the power of labor, including their own, in the nation’s economy. Those same individuals have embraced Trump and his party’s cynicism and countless lies and have refused to accept overwhelming evidence of their own complicity in allowing the conditions they now lament to obtain as a result. What one is left with are millions ready to hate, embrace wild intolerance and falsehoods, even to the point of violence among some, on the word of those willing to manipulate them for power.

What seems inescapable in this continuing saga is the fact that those supporting Trump and the GOP’s attack on the rule of law and the democratic franchise believe they are gaining life meaning thereby. And it is that puzzle which is so difficult to unravel. Hate mongering can apparently provide value, but it is ultimately meaningless, and in the present case, it is predicated on an edifice of lies that degrade the freedom of those accepting them as well as the nation’s rule of law. That same posture finds those citizens refusing to accept their responsibilities as citizens of the polity of which they are a part, symbolized most grievously by the attempted treason at the Capitol and the GOP’s refusal to investigate it formally (or, for many of its officials, even to acknowledge it) resulting in a politics borne and supportive not only of lies, but also of intolerance and irresponsibility.

The false metaphysical surrogate of meaning offered by falsehood and dogmatic hate, ultimately cannot provide its believers succor because it is morally empty. Moreover, continued rejection of reason will do nothing to alleviate the loss of their communities or ways of life, trajectories that have been quickened in part by those voters’ willingness to support policies inimical to them, but sustained by GOP appeals to their anger and hate. As I have reflected on these citizens and this situation, I have been reminded of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man’s reflections on his profoundly unsettled, unhappy and parlous state. Dostoevsky’s character was extremely alienated from society, filled with existential dread and deeply spiteful:

But it is precisely in this cold, loathsome half-despair, half-belief, in this conscious burying oneself alive from grief for forty years in the underground, in this assiduously produced and yet somewhat dubious hopelessness of one’s position, in all this poison of unsatisfied desires penetrating inward, in all of this fever of hesitations, of decisions taken forever, and repentances coming again a moment later, that the very sap of that strange pleasure I was talking about consists.[3]

Beneath this angst lies the Achilles heel of democratic self-governance, a form of rule that depends ultimately on the prudence and good sense of the citizens who control it. Practical wisdom or prudence demands that those practicing it be able not only to tolerate ambiguity, but also to go further and address the situations they confront without benefit of knowing all they might wish concerning the factors creating and shaping it. In a powerful account, historian Joshua Shenk has attributed a major part of President Abraham Lincoln’s prudence-filled wisdom and thoughtful decision-making to his long struggle with melancholy:

Viewing Lincoln through the lens of his melancholy we see one cogent explanation [for his wisdom]: he was always inclined to look at the full truth of a situation, assessing both what could be known and what remained in doubt. When times were hard, he had the patience, endurance, and vigor to stay in the place of tension.[4]

Human beings have never borne uncertainty with easy willingness, and while wrestling with depression may help one acquire such capacity, that difficult road is not the only one available by which individuals may develop the strength of character, will and wherewithal to do so. Countenancing hatred and adopting lies robbing fellow residents of their rights, in response to the siren call of malevolence, as the Underground Man might say, is hardly likely to prove an effective strategy to cope with ambiguity or uncertainty.

In his recent farewell essay as a regular columnist for the New York Times, Frank Bruni, who will now serve as a distinguished professor of journalism at Duke University, also raised this concern as he mused on the state of American politics and journalism concerning it:

I worry … about how frequently we [journalists] shove ambivalence and ambiguity aside. Ambivalence and ambiguity aren’t necessarily signs of weakness or sins of indecision. They can be apt responses to events that we don’t yet understand, with outcomes that we can’t predict. … I don’t want to understate my overarching regard for journalists. The ‘fake news’ that Donald Trump so incessantly and conveniently howled about wasn’t fake at all. It was enterprising and infinitely more truthful than Trump himself. And I feel no ambivalence when it comes to Trump and almost no regret about my denunciations of him. He’s an amoral, dangerous man who was unfit to be president. That needed to be said, even if saying it had no effect on his loyalists. There aren’t two sides to what happened on Jan. 6 or to Trump’s and Republican lawmakers’ efforts to subvert a democratic election. Both were damnable.[5]

Not all can be as wise or steadfast as Abraham Lincoln, but no citizen should either accept or take recourse in hatred and mendacity to still or seek thereby to contravene or override the normal and unavoidable cacophony that constitutes daily life. They should attempt instead to address it on its own terms, rather than retreat into fantasy to escape it. That necessity, linked to a democratic polity’s life blood, is an essential one for any such nation to address successfully. The United States is not now doing so.

Apart from this central point, I can offer several others to conclude these musings. First, our current governance crisis continues and has deepened during the Biden administration, with the obviously increasing, and increasingly obvious, cynicism of GOP officials. Second, as I argued above, whatever their superficial allure, lies can never sustainably provide the metaphysical meaning sought by those Americans now embracing them. Nonetheless, millions of citizens today apparently are willing to believe otherwise. Third, hatred will not address any of the nation’s major policy challenges, including climate change and an aging infrastructure. Fourth, as Bruni reminded his readers, those embracing dogmatic lies assume positions that are in no way morally equivalent to those they are attacking. What those claims are is irrelevant to legitimate problem solving, even as they demean those who adopt them and undermine the possibility of democratic institutions. Finally, if those Americans embracing a tribalism of lies are doing so to address a metaphysical emptiness, it is clear their chosen strategy will never gain them their desired end. Perhaps, in the space offered by that harsh reality, devotees of democracy can find the solace and energy to continue to defend human rights, rule of law and freedom as the nation’s way of life.

Notes

[1] McNamara, Charles. “Know-Nothing Know-It-Alls: The Real Problem with QAnon,” Commonweal, June 2021, p.17.

[2] Stephenson, Max, Jr. “Decency, Democracy and ‘Big Lies,’” Soundings, December 7, 2020; and “On Incitement to Hatred, Sedition and the Way Forward,” Soundings, February 22, 2021, https://ipg.vt.edu/tags.resource.html/ipg_vt_edu:Soundings. Accessed June 21, 2021. 

[3] Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Tr. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, p. 12.

[4] Shenk, Joshua Wolf. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. New York: Houghton Miflin, p. 200.

[5] Bruni, Frank. “Ted Cruz, I’m Sorry,” The New York Times, June 17, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/17/opinion/frank-bruni-final-times-column.html, Accessed June 17, 2021. 

Publication Date

June 28, 2021

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