A dear friend from college (I won’t say “old” friend, since she’s anything but) recommended a link to a piece on The Bitter Southerner the other day. Here’s the engine driving the thing, crafted in response to the suggestion that we should “work with” the alt-right whack jobs now celebrating the election results:
Oh, hell, no. Those are the people we have to fight to our dying breath, but we must fight with dignity and with class and with the long view in mind. The fight for human rights across the South and around the world has raged for a long time, and it rages still. In my most pessimistic moments, I wonder if it will still rage long after I’m gone. But I absolutely refuse to forget the words of one of my heroes, the Civil Rights Leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
“If you’re not hopeful and optimistic, then you just give up. You have to take the long hard look and just believe that if you’re consistent, you will succeed.”
We’d be nuts to look at what happened this week and say, “Oh, don’t worry. It’ll be OK in the end.” But we must find reasons to be hopeful and optimistic, because fighting the battles ahead of us now will be hard. We have to find the same faith that drove Congressman Lewis and his fellow citizens across that bridge in Selma.
It’s a sentiment that I would have endorsed only last week. How can you criticize it? It’s John Lewis, for crying out loud! The words are heroic and stirring. The sentiment is in line with centuries of liberal belief in the crusading reformer, protecting the rights of the weak and downtrodden. As the late, martyred Harvey Milk said, and I repeated last week: “You gotta give ’em hope!”
But the world changed last week, and I set about changing, too.
I spent a good chunk of the past year deeply engaged in news and analysis related to the American experiment, venturing out on a regular basis to converse with a growing Facebook audience. The motivation behind all this digital engagement is an idea called social quorum sensing — the theory that most people don’t so much make up their minds by reasoning through problems as they reach conclusions by conducting endless, subconscious social surveys of the people and messages they encounter. In that view, presenting sensible counter-arguments to the nonsense polluting our social media is at least a contribution to Making Things Better.
For those of you unfamiliar with Making Things Better, Making Things Better is the grand project that liberals have been conducting for centuries.
Making Things Better isn’t one project with one management team. It’s more like being a Baptist: Each person receives their own call, and each person is divinely gifted with the power to interpret that calling (often to hilarious and/or embarrassing effect).
Of course, for liberals and Southern Baptists alike, there’s a strong undercurrent of shame and judgment beneath our scurrying about, whether it’s on behalf of Making Things Better or Witnessing for the Lord. Baptists will give you a robust Come to Jesus Meeting should you, in exercising all that God-given free will, transgress against this or that. But if you’ve never experienced a fellow liberal strapping his or her Social Justice Warrior armor to read you the Sensitivity Riot Act, you’ve missed one of life’s most awe-inspiring annoyances.
That was the world I lived in before Nov. 8, when after months (years!) of fussing and fretting, millions of allegedly liberal Americans simply didn’t show up to vote. Donald Trump, who gathered fewer voters than Mitt Romney collected in 2012, became our president-elect not via some groundswell of conservative passion, but by gift of liberal indifference.
Now, to be fair, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by roughly 2 million people, and Republicans in places like North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin reaped the fruits of their voter suppression labors. But whether voting was made easy or difficult, key liberal constituencies — namely racial minorities, the poor and the young — all lived down to their reputations as lousy voting blocks.
I kept looking for a bright side, but I just couldn’t get around that math.
This same friend also forwarded me a link to a remarkable essay by Jason Brennan, published in Foreign Policy. Here’s the core of it:
Trump owes his victory to the uninformed. But it’s not just Trump. Political scientists have been studying what voters know and how they think for well over 65 years. The results are frightening. Voters generally know who the president is but not much else. They don’t know which party controls Congress, what Congress has done recently, whether the economy is getting better or worse (or by how much). In the 2000 U.S. presidential election, most voters knew Al Gore was more liberal than George W. Bush, but significantly less than half knew that Gore was more supportive of abortion rights, more supportive of welfare-state programs, favored a higher degree of aid to blacks, or was more supportive of environmental regulation.
Just why voters know so little is well-understood. It’s not that people are stupid. Rather, it’s that democracy creates bad incentives.
Consider: If you go to buy a car, you do your research. After all, if you make a smart choice, you reap the rewards; if you make a bad choice, you suffer the consequences. Over time, most people learn to become better consumers.
Not so with politics. How all of us vote, collectively, matters a great deal. But how any one of us votes does not. Imagine a college professor told her class of 210 million students, “Three months from now, we’ll have a final exam. You won’t get your own personal grade. Instead, I’ll average all of your grades together, and everyone will receive the same grade.” No one would bother to study, and the average grade would be an F.
That, in a nutshell, is how democracy works.
Most voters are ignorant or misinformed because the costs to them of acquiring political information greatly exceed the potential benefits. They can afford to indulge silly, false, delusional beliefs — precisely because such beliefs cost them nothing. After all, the chances that any individual vote will decide the election is vanishingly small. As a result, individual voters tend to vote expressively, to show their commitment to their worldview and team. Voting is more like doing the wave at a sports game than it is like choosing policy.
It wasn’t the first time that I’ve been exposed to this idea, but it was the first time that I stopped fighting and I accepted it.
If you’re a white person in America, you likely grew up with what amounts to a faith-based belief in a set of received truths about democracy, essentially a national mythology based on a selective reading of 18th century writers from England and the 13 colonies. These were people actively engaged in inventing — you guessed it — Making Things Better. But it’s one thing to believe that things can be improved, and quite another to believe that people can be. In the classic sense, that’s the entire argument between liberals and conservatives: Liberals say we can improve humanity, conservatives says humans are what they are.
I’m a liberal, but if you ask me, humans are monkeys with guns and money. I’m pretty sure Tom Waits said that, but wherever it came from, it’s an uncomfortable thought for an American progressive. Because our project is the idea of expanding not just prosperity, but rights and dignity, we argue that the answer to all problems is more democracy, more equality, more justice, more participation. I still love that sentiment. I just question whether it reflects the reality we encounter as we walk around in the world.
Let me give you an example: As a reporter in 2004, I gave myself an assignment to study global warming and produce a Health and Science section conceived as a user’s guide for non-experts, rather than a traditional, narrative story. This involved months of study and hundreds of color-coded index cards with facts and citations, each arranged and rearranged on tables and chairs and unused bits of floor in the features department. I’d walk around them, looking for patterns and generally making a spectacle of myself.
I emerged from that effort with three key observations:
- No one in Charleston even bothered to read the result;
- Global warming was not only not a hoax, but outrageously worse than the public was being led to believe;
- Civilization’s existential question was this: Can homo sapiens sapiens respond rationally to a global threat to its common welfare if the individual members of that species cannot experience immediate evidence of the threat with their five senses?
This was an invigorating challenge to 41-year-old me. As a tanker in West Germany during the Cold War, we knew that our ability to beat back a Warsaw Pact invasion was the only thing that could prevent an escalation to nuclear Armageddon. As a journalist in the 2000s, I knew that finding a way to communicate What Must Be Done was the planet’s only hope.
Today we live in a post-hope world. This is not to say that hope won’t return someday, or that we may hope for hope. But elections have consequences, and this one more than any other in our lifetime. I’ll give the final word on this to Tobias Stone, who wrote this amazing piece in July, post-Brexit, pre-Trump.
So I feel it’s all inevitable. I don’t know what it will be, but we are entering a bad phase. It will be unpleasant for those living through it, maybe even will unravel into being hellish and beyond imagination. Humans will come out the other side, recover, and move on. The human race will be fine, changed, maybe better. But for those at the sharp end — for the thousands of Turkish teachers who just got fired, for the Turkish journalists and lawyers in prison, for the Russian dissidents in gulags, for people lying wounded in French hospitals after terrorist attacks, for those yet to fall, this will be their Somme.
Between Nov. 8 and Nov. 11, we received definitive answers to huge questions at a breathtaking clip. No, our species cannot respond to a threat that’s anything less than immediate. Yes, climate collapse is going to destroy human civilization as we know it. Is the cultural centrifuge of Internet Era media terminal? Yes. Are Americans endowed with some special instinct toward pluralistic democracy? No. Will the Republic fail? Yes. Will we break faith with our best traditions and slouch toward a dark future? Yes. And so on.
In the context of those stunning new revelations, questions like “Should liberals organize a new party?” or “Should white people wear safety pins to signal their support for diversity?” struck me as bordering on deliberate absurdity. Each is certainly an impulse toward Making Things Better, but I began to wonder: Better than what?
If I imagine myself strapped into an airliner — wings gone, fuselage on fire — as it plunges uncontrollably toward a dark ocean, I imagine that my agenda would become rather personal: Convey my love to the people most dear to me, remember everything that made me happy, maybe find one or two final, defiant laughs before the sudden stop at the end.
Now imagine my response if my seatmate, who had spent the first hours of the flight bitching about the beverage service, turned to me and said, “I know it looks bad now, but if we organize the rest of the passengers, maybe we can all strip naked and sew our clothing into a giant parachute!”
This is not to say that I’ve stopped caring about others. If you’re on a plane that’s about to crash into the sea, comforting the stranger next to you is probably one of the better ways to spend your final moments. Should you improbably survive the initial crash, helping others to safety remains a noble and worthwhile course of action — not because you’ll be rewarded for it, but just because it feels good.
But let me be clear: Whatever comes next in the larger world, I’ve crossed another mental Rubicon. American media and democracy are in the midst of cascading failure, and there’s no particular reason to believe that any course correction we might make in 2018, or 2020, is going to avoid global catastrophe. If we believe that love, justice, tolerance, diversity and stewardship are worth preserving and expanding, then simply re-embracing our failed liberal articles of faith isn’t going to do the trick.
The dangerous allure of the dark side of our nature is that it’s just so practical if you happen to be in the group that holds most of the power. In an unpublished young adult thriller written by my brilliant wife, the dark side antagonists are fascinating because they make such great arguments: We’re not opposed to human happiness, they say: We just understand that most humans are unthinking herd animals. Give them choices and they make mistakes. Let the strong, wise and powerful decide for them, and net happiness will expand.
We tried that before, though, right? It was called Feudalism, and while it was great for the nobility, it totally sucked for the peasants.
Or did it? Well, the still-living but already mourned Terry Jones makes a pretty strong case against our received wisdom.
This is the point where I have to pause and clarify: I’m not making a case for feudalism, serfdom, theocracy or oppression. I’m arguing that — while it may make for bad politics — continuing to repeat our traditional liberal mistakes isn’t likely to advance the agenda we claim to support. To steal from Brennan, it’s more like trying to start a wave in a half-empty stadium.
On Nov. 9th, a good friend asked me on Facebook, “What do we do, Dan?” I suggested that we should stay calm, be noble, pay attention and wait. I think that’s still good advice for our current situation, but of course, that’s not what we’re doing.
We’re in the streets protesting, and — predictably, I’m afraid — we’re fighting at least as much amongst ourselves as we are with the people to whom we just handed over the country. There’s that impulse again — get out there and Make Things Better. If nothing else, it gives our lives meaning, however contrived. But I fear that the more we whistle past our own flaws as we march off to fight the darkness, the more the darkness expands.
I’m reminded of two utterly opposing influences that work surprisingly well in loose concert.
The first is FM-100, the U.S. Army’s old field manual on military leadership. For all its insistence that victory is a product of attack, it also communicates that retreat is often its necessary prelude. Because sometimes you lose, and it’s an unmitigated disaster. You don’t make anything better at a moment of defeat by reflexively leading your troops back under the guns to be blasted into bone-flecked sausage. When you lose, you retreat. You stay calm. You steady those around you by acting nobly. You pay attention to the changing circumstances, and you wait for an opportunity.
Liberals believed that the Trump campaign was nonsense, promising the impossible and irrational to the uninformed and unreasonable. If we truly believe that — and I do, by the way — then the smartest strategy at the moment is to wait for the enemy to make his mistake. Of which I suspect there will be many.
To be blunt about it, the more liberals oppose Trump, the easier it will be for conservatives to blame our opposition for their leader’s inevitable failures. The populist Tea Party of 2010 was animated by a raw sense of betrayal, and it’s going to burn bright again soon. Let them direct it at their own movement this time, rather than at liberals who didn’t create these problems in the first place. Wait. You can’t make this better by acting.
The second influence is the mythical sage Lao Tzu, who allegedly wrote the Tao Te Ching about 2,500 years ago. According to legend, the people of China were so foolish that the old master gave up and decided to spend his remaining days alone in the wilderness. A gate guard at the frontier recognized him and asked the sage to write down his teachings before departing. Lzo Tzu wrote down 81 verses, then wandered off to live a quiet life with his ox.
That’s not what happened, of course, but remember: Monkeys with guns and money, OK?
You’ll find lots of liberals who love Tao Te Ching, and very few conservatives who have ever read it. Which is good news for liberals, because old Lao Tzu was a pretty conservative guy, at least in the classic sense. Not much of a capitalist, but certainly no member of liberal #TeamMartyr. Look at what he has to say about people, leadership, and government:
Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart.
The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.
If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever people will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.
Heaven and Earth are impartial;
They see the ten thousand things as dummies.
The wise are impartial;
They see the people as dummies.
The space between heaven and Earth is like a bellows.
The shape changes but not the form;
The more it moves, the more it yields.
More words count less.
Hold fast to the center.
Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.
The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.
So sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind;
Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes easily;
Sometimes there is strength and sometimes weakness;
Sometimes one is up and sometimes down.
Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excesses, and complacency.
Rule a nation with justice.
Wage war with surprise moves.
Become master of the universe without striving.
How do I know that this is so?
Because of this!
The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men’s weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.
Therefore the sage says:
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and people become rich.
I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.
Why are the people starving?
Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes.
Therefore the people are starving.
Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers interfere too much.
Therefore they are rebellious.
Why do the people think so little of death?
Because the rulers demand too much of life.
Therefore the people take death lightly.
Having little to live on, one knows better than to value life too much.
I pulled those verses from a translation I bought when I was 18. It’s a paperback, dog-eared and yellow, and one of my most important possessions. But I am not a Taoist. I am a bad student who wrestles with the Tao, a man who just seven days ago described himself in public as “a flawed, damaged survivor still working to make things better.” I am no longer that.
Who am I now? What is the way forward?
I honestly don’t know.
You can say that means that I’ve quit. I haven’t, but we’re probably no longer on quite the same path. And while this way doesn’t feel like progress, it does feel like returning. As Lao Tzu said, “Returning is the way of the Tao.”
I think I’ll try that for a while.
Truthful words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.
Good men do not argue.
Those who argue are not good.
Those who know are not learned.
The learned do not know.
The sage never tries to store things up.
The more he does for others, the more he has.
The more he gives to others, the greater his abundance.
The Tao of heaven is pointed but does no harm.
The Tao of the sage is work without effort.