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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Trumpocracy: Reply to a Reader

My longtime truckbuddy Frank raised some very pertinent questions in a comment box the other day, and it has taken your Head Trucker from then till now to find the inner oomph to answer them - though not particularly well, I'm afraid, for there are no truly satisfactory answers to them, being as they are merely subsets of the Problem of Evil, which has been endlessly discussed for several millennia now without a cheerful resolution, alas.  But to give Frank what I owe him and get this off my chest, here are the Q and the A for all to see:

Frank:  I have given up posting political news. I watch the news (but somewhat less than I used to) and read the news on the web. I feel my "anger" boiling up with each new artrocity and it is not healthy.

We have an "Indivisible" group here, but I have pretty much dropped out. I just have no patience for "meetings" and talk. I signed a bunch of petitions but wonder how much that makes a difference, especially as in return I get more petitions to sign...and ALL asking for money.

I've also been disappointed in the fact that organizations that I've supported with small donations seem to choose to use my few dollars to mail me newsletters and further solicitations.
It's not that I'm apathetic. Just tired and disgusted. I'm not sure what good "preaching to the choir" does, which is why I gave up facebook. I am waiting for this administration to implode, but it seems beyond teflon...perhaps kevlar is a more apt description of its indestructibility.

It is not only those in the government that irk me...the supporters of this evil so-called president are like spectators at the colosseum screaming for blood and gore every time they see or hear their "emperor" as he tosses them more meat. The worse he is, the more rotten the meat, the more they cheer.

I don't understand how such blind loyalty is even possible. Where did these people come from? Where were they educated? Did they never learn the important lessons in kindergarten? What perverted form of christianity do they follow? Too many questions.

I wonder what, if anything, will be the lesson that history will take from this era.

Russ:  It was a busy weekend here with one thing and another; but more than that, I have pondered how to reply to the excellent questions you raise. Alas, the awful truth of aging is that one loses (bit by bit and day to day) one's strength not only of body but also of mind - and also loses the patience and equanimity to deal with frustrations calmly. And yet one knows only too well that ranting, raving, screaming, and shouting will do no one any good, while the universe rolls on quite oblivious. One is reminded of the Stephen Crane poem, which I here transcribe in its entirety:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

And if prayer is unavailing, one is left with pious hope as the last, dwindling comfort. But a consciousness of individual futility at least relives one from the burdensome fallacy that all the outcomes of the world depend on me. Whatever blame may be laid for society's woes and failures, it must be spread across many millions of other backs. No one person can save or break the system of things -- despite what you may have heard.

But even in the most circumscribed, insignificant life, one can choose to do right or do wrong, at least in some respects where one is not otherwise constrained. We humans are not mere animals or robots, though various fools from one extreme or another would have us so: we are, furthermore, not merely a reasoning but also a moral species. And even where age, illness, or circumstance prevent us from acting we can yet assent by voice or thought to what is right and good -- and thereby encourage our fellow singers in the "choir."

I too feel the futility of such preaching, Frank - but how much more ghastly would it be to live without ever hearing your own thoughts validated?

To answer some of your other questions, or attempt to: yes, we now can understand how the Romans were so fond of their Caesars, and the Germans so wild about their Nazis. Those moments of long-ago schoolboy amazement are now quite cleared up, no? For we have seen in our own time, with our own eyes how all that comes to pass.

But the very important point is that "these people" did not "come" from anywhere, Frank. They have been right here all along. Some of them, we are sad to admit, are our own blood kin, and former friends, and near neighbors. They are no strangers, no invaders or aliens, but quite ordinary Americans we are familiar with. Just look over the crowds at the Trump rallies - beyond the sign-waving, posturing people in silly hats, look at the thousands in the background just sitting there, smiling happily and clapping enthusiastically. They could just as easily be found, and no doubt are, at your local movie theater or football game or charity run.  They have sat beside us in school and at work and eaten from the same dishes; as Pogo said, We have met the enemy and they are us -- only somewhere along the line, they have made a different choice.

They are not outlandish aliens or horned-and-hoofed devils, or wild-eyed monsters - they are quite ordinary folks. And here I must refer you to Hannah Arendt's famous phrase about "the banality of evil."

It seems that scholars have debated what she meant by that, but what I mean is that evil is an inherent part of the human personality, always latent, always potential - as much so as goodness - and so one must be carefully taught to distinguish between the two motives, and keep choosing the latter. A difficult task of instruction, and a more difficult task of living! But not mysterious at all - you as a cradle Catholic must recall that this has been the constant advice of the Doctors of the Church and other worthies for the last two millennia, so I need not plow all that ground again. Of course many if not most of "those people" have been instructed in moral choices since childhood, but not enough it would seem - or at least not enough to overcome baser instincts and selfish advantages.

Alas, people do choose evil sometimes out of rage or lust or fear or greed, and sometimes choose it carelessly by mistaking it for the good. Or by neglecting to act, they make a passive choice through ignorance or indifference. And those three choices pretty much sum up the entire history of the human race, the long, sad tragedy of Man. So again, there is no point in my taking time to rehearse such a well-known story of cause and effect, of progress and relapse, repeated ad infinitum.

It is one of the great disappointments of growing up to learn, finally, that all the world is false. People are very often not what they seem. They say one thing and do another. Many are quite good at disguising the fact. And more than that, it is beyond dispute that our human nature being compounded of equal parts good and evil at bottom, we are often good in one direction and bad in another. One might, for example, be an upright doctor, lawyer, teacher, businessman, and yet at home be a petty tyrant, wounding one's nearest and dearest daily. Or one might be an excellent spouse and parent, and yet rather shady or sharp in one's business dealings. One might be a good neighbor, a constant friend, an example to the young and a comfort to the old - and yet still betray the highest values for the lowest reasons, even as Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.

And this is all true of liberals and conservatives alike - your Head Trucker can testify that he has suffered cruelly at the hands of both types, and so my own feeling is, "a plague on both your houses." No one has a corner on decency and morality, and human kindness. And no one is infallible; but as some of us were taught from infancy, all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. So how needful it is, then, to live as the prophet advised: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with thy God.

There is so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it ill behooves any of us
To find fault with the rest of us.

The lesson? "We have here no abiding city . . . ." And we also know now that when our history books and civics texts used the puzzling phrase, "the American experiment," that it was not a mere rhetorical device, but a fearsome fact: democracy and constitutional government have always been subject to the weather and road conditions - they are not part of the unalterable form of the universe, just a flowering in a certain place at a certain time, like bluebonnets in a Texas field. Whether they continue long or vanish soon has always been tentative, a question that hangs in the balances. We see that clearly now, don't we?

Do what you can, Frank, not what you can't. That's all this tired old queen can say at this point, when "can" has shrunk to thimble size. But even when we can no longer do, we can still hope, and with the encouragement of our friends, keep that flourishing in our hearts - mayhap it will bloom anew in a better place and time. That hope, at least, is something worthwhile.

Isn't it?


Tim said...

You both sum up what I feel these days so well, there’s really nothing more to add. Other than ‘Amen' to that.

Frank said...

Thank you, Russ.

You are so well read and such a renaissance man to be able reference such pertinent scholars and authors and to articulate so well what I may have only conveyed emotionally.

But that is who I am...INFP...the personality type pretty closely fits me.

While I do support the "choir" around me in our frequent conversations about current events and do sign the petitions, I am not moved to do much more at this time.

As I wrote somewhere, I was never drawn to the priesthood, but if anything, the life of a monk may have suited me. There is currently among the anti-administration crowd the rallying cry "resist." I have not studied Buddhism, but I have some appreciation for the Zen philosophy. And in the present climate I choose to bend with the wind rather than resist.

This does not mean I accept what is being done, but that I choose not to allow it to rip me up and carry me away. I harbor the hope that by allowing this storm to blow over, it will expire of itself. And I have confidence that others, more fortitudinous than me, will do the work of resistance.

I believe that this stance, for me, is not merely passivity.

As I work on my landscape project in my front yard which involves retrieving by hand thousands of river rocks buried under mulch and soil, to bring their beauty to the surface and into the light of day, a task of insignificant consequence, I find myself most centered and at peace. Probably the closest I will come to true mediation.

For now, this will have to do.

Frank said...

P.S. I'm flattered to have a "label" on your BTRS blog.

Russ Manley said...

Tim - Your voice is always most welcome in this choir, good friend and ally.

Frank - Your indirect reference to the oak and reed fable is quite beautiful I think, and very timely. Most of us are the latter and perforce must bow before the wind, it is true. But even then, as in the story of Midas, we can still whisper, "The king has asses' ears!" And so we too can play a part in the subtle subversion of tyranny.

Cf. http://mythfolklore.net/aesopica/milowinter/28.htm

and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midas#Ears_of_a_Donkey

Your landscape project is an excellent idea, and a lovely way to turn bottled-up energy into something contructive: il faut cultiver notre jardin remains very good advice. If you have never read Voltaire's outrageous satire, now more than ever would be a fine time to amuse yourself with this improbable tale, which is more pertinent every day.

Cf. http://candide.nypl.org/text/chapter-30#1

and https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/01/candide-voltaire-rereading-julian-barnes

However, I am no Renaissance man, just a babbling old sod, more like the useless Dr. Pangloss. But thanks for the thought.

Davis said...

Always wonderful to hear you speak, as ever, with such erudition, Russ. You make us old queens proud.

Russ Manley said...

Appreciate ya, Davis.

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