Not a few of us are frustrated, these days, with the way our politics have been distorted by a spirit of lawlessness and violence, a willing embrace of tyranny and mob rule (which are one and the same), a lashing out in bigotry that threatens what is left of our culture’s denatured sense of decency.
I’ve had a lot to say about that, actually, and could say a lot more:
We are not wrong to recognize our frustration–literally, the lack of efficacy or support for our intentions, their failure to achieve fruition, and our sense that the indifference of some, the excuse-making of others, the fecklessness of many, and our own lack of resolve are all part of the problem.
It is very important to take the measure of the situation. I think we all need a much heavier dose of sobriety than we are usually given, in popular culture or even at church: [see “The Problem of Nihilism in Public Discourse” Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and “The Banality of Nihilism” for more.]
But at some point, some good person always asks the right question: what, then, are we to do? The question is perennial, and gets asked from many angles. There are plenty of resources to suggest a direction for tackling this question.
Still, This “what to do” question is harder to answer that than to be dismayed at the difficulty of answering. It takes time to dig down into the faith, into the hope we really do have, to find its subtler connections to our everyday situation–the options between martyrdom proper and practical-atheist complacency that we navigate creatively together in pursuit of our holy calling.
Herewith, then, a few steps.
1. Sober up
“Realism” should not make you ignore the big picture–the really big picture, the one with God in it and your responsibilities to your family and your neighbors in it, the one where your prayers matter but cannot be unmoored from your concrete obligations, the one that is true even if the statistics and the promises and the conjectures of the chatterers and the pitchers and the candidates, Hucksters and Trumperies and all, prove as false as their all-too-human (and often corrupt and criminal) opposition claims. You are not choosing between options presented you on TV, unless you have succumbed to the mistaken notion that TV is a window on reality, forgetting that TV news exists to sell your attention span to advertisers. That’s right, folks. The mass media buy and sell your attention spans as surely as markets for the securitization of debt buy and sell the poor.
So stop believing them. Stop judging things in their terms. Find out who makes the real decisions, and focus your attention and advocacy on their reasoning and actions.
Do not believe that you know something about reality when you know what “wins the game” in horse-race handicapping of campaigns, or in hypothetical vote counting and prediction, or in staging the confrontations and feeding the “narratives” that make for good attention-span sales and bolster the self-importance and saleability of those with the media muscle to make or break celebrity brands. What you know is how to manipulate the delusions of others. If you need to do that, then do it knowing that is what you are doing; do it effectively and ruthlessly, all the while *also* being sure that you are honest with yourself and about yourself. This is light years away from what happens when most people enter politics, or from what we naively assume in typical news-driven political conversation.
Quit thinking in cliches, even if you have to spout a slogan here and there to rally the troops.
2. Think your way in from the edges
We don’t want, and shouldn’t want, to live in fantasies of “what might be” or to spend too much time on our pipe dreams. (Much as I love pipe dreams and Modest Proposals, and wish I had time to flesh them out more.)
But we also cannot make realistic judgments if we do not understand the parameters of the situation. For this reason, reframing the question is a basic move in political debate, and the frame of various mass media (and social media) conversations ends up seeming more important than any of the actual decisions or the relevant data. Not a few problems are much simpler than anyone involved has any interest in allowing them to be, sadly (e.g., bathrooms). And some problems are constantly reframed as a debate over “solutions” when in fact nobody involved seems to have any serious idea what is to be done (e.g., entitlement reform).
Reframing isn’t bad, any more than any other rhetorical gesture is; the problem with this, as with any move from “slippery slope” to “appeal to authority,” has to do with the substantive question at hand and the effects of the gesture on our habits of thought. When you can show us that beyond a certain threshold there is nothing that will prevent a predictable bad result, you are quite right to make a “slippery slope” argument–and that does not protect you in the least from being wrong about any particular one. Rhetorical gestures are not magically “true” or “false”; they are honest/dishonest and apt/inapt, and always entirely contingent upon our knowledge of reality.
So in keeping with “Sober up,” we need to be ready to engage in proper reframing of our own. When someone comes at you with a false choice, or assumes that X is inevitable unless you do Y that seems unacceptable, then you need to stop and analyze the total set of knowns, unknowns, and possibilities more carefully. Has X really been decided, or can you reasonably advocate for Z (even if Z is unlikely) when you find Y unacceptable? If so, you ought to do so.
And that means that you must become accustomed to doing something that is not acceptable in formal logic and academic debate, but essential in public discourse: you must regularly, even habitually, reject the premise of arguments presented to you.
When people try to logic you into a corner, you must always suspect a false choice, interrogate them to understand the nature of the enthymeme, and search for an alternative that enables you to reject the (usually suppressed, because often implausible if stated) premise.
Therefore, a dialogue:
Jimmy: We have to unite around Trump, because otherwise Hillary will get to pick the next Supreme Court Justices!
Jerry: Do you think Trump can really beat Hillary?
Jimmy: Well, not if we don’t unite around him!
Jerry: Why don’t we reject him and pick someone else?
Jimmy: But a convention fight would only weaken the GOP!
Jerry: But wouldn’t Trump weaken the GOP?
Jimmy: But Trump is our best chance for beating Hillary!
Jerry: But will Trump actually be any better than Hillary?
Jimmy: But he’ll have to rely on the GOP to win!
Jerry: Why don’t we reject him and pick someone else?
Jimmy: But whatever we do that weakens Trump helps Hillary!
Jerry: How so?
Jimmy: Well, you have to vote, don’t you?
Jerry: Uh, no….
Jimmy: But if you don’t vote, your vote gets wasted!
Jerry: And if I vote for someone I think is bad for the country, my vote gets perverted, right?
Jimmy: But not voting for Trump is the same as voting for Hillary!
Jerry: Oh, really, how’s that work out mathematically?
Jimmy: Well, if 100 people vote, and each side would have 50/50, and you take away two votes from one side, that make it 51/49 percent against that side!
Jerry: Hmmm. I’m not saying I would think it made sense substantively or morally even if those numbers were right, but…how are you getting your 100 people voting? I mean, it’s not like we select exactly 100 voters per district or something…right?
Jimmy: But however many people live in that place, that’s the total, and whoever doesn’t vote for one side is helping the other.
Jerry: What if most of the people, or even a sizeable plurality of the people, don’t vote?
Jimmy: Well, then we just count the ones who are voting.
Jerry: But if we only count after the vote, and only count the ones who voted, then how does your “take away” work?
Jimmy: No, see, you start with the polls of likely voters, then you move from there to what actually happened, and your decision not to vote changed that “likely voter” poll outcome to be what really happened. Your not-voting is like a vote for Hillary!
Jerry: I’m pretty sure you just conflated fiction with reality, there. Who’s buying the next round?
There is nothing “unrealistic” about insisting that we make the actual decision in front of us without conflating it with mass-media driven narratives about the meaning of polls and the relationship between various blips of reportage and the real decision-making. Those stories are always going to inflate the importance of whatever aggrandizes the national news media and their corporate overlords, and will do so in a manner that promotes the celebrity brands (and not necessarily the principles or the interests) of those politicians and others who abet them in that highly profitable trade in human attention spans.
So that’s a start: replace fiction with substance in your discourse and decision-making. I’ll be back soon with more steps to take.