Lately I find myself returning to Neruda’s line: “Tonight I can write the saddest lines.” But I’m not thinking about lost love, but something closer to the loss of innocence.
If only I could pinpoint what it is that’s weighing heavy. But there are so many overlapping disappointments criss-crossing in different directions. Perhaps more than anything, I’m thinking about the culture wars being waged on Facebook, people growing in hate toward one another, and my sense that everyone is wrong in their extremism, their need to be heard, their inability to listen, and ultimately their arrogance and false sense of security.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not a moderate. I don’t think the truth is somewhere in the middle. And I don’t think that both sides, or however many sides there are now, have put their finger on something right. I also no longer think that Trump is making anything worse on his own. We are all complicit; it is our indecision that allows him to run amok.
Nor do I think a lack of rationality is the root of all evil in our country today, as some argue. On the whole, the arguments are out there and they are pretty straightforward. Let’s try one on for size. The current administration says that “illegal” immigrants are criminals. But if we look at the numbers, something like less than .5% of undocumented immigrants commit a violent crime. Now compare this to the percentage of US citizens who commit a violent crime. Whatever the latter number – for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s 3% – the point is pretty simple: if our goal is to reduce violent crime in our society, then we ought to welcome more immigrants. And, in any case, everyone knows that hard cases make bad law, right? But notice that, the clearer the argument, the less likely it is to have any effect on those who disagree with you deeply.
Part of my point is that we are not exchanging reasons; we are not even in a position to exchange reasons, especially not on social media. What we are witnessing is the extent to which people in this country live in different worlds, and unless we find some way to cultivate a shared base of values, background assumptions, and definition of “facts” – something that won’t and I don’t think should happen – we’re better off finding a way to protect ourselves from one another.
Nothing seems to make sense to me anymore. For instance, as I began writing this, I was wondering why Justice Kennedy, who is known for being rational and disinterested, would retire now, all but guaranteeing that Trump can shape US culture through law for generations to come. And I was thinking, if Kennedy is not a hardcore conservative working closely with Trump – which, I understand, might be the case – the only explanation is that he feels the same despair I’m feeling right now. Perhaps he’s thinking that culturally we’re so broken today, there’s no reason to expect that any president in the foreseeable future is likely to replace him with someone equally reflective and even-handed, and so, at the age of 81, he might as well get on with his own life.
Either way, one thing after another seems to be falling apart, socially and politically, and philosophy seems woefully inept to change the current situation or alleviate my despair. A couple of weeks ago, a few colleagues of mine and I wanted to say something publicly about what’s happening on the border today (family separation). But we never got around to it, mostly because we didn’t know what to say, that is, we didn’t know what would have any impact and wouldn’t come off as taking advantage of an ongoing tragedy to promote ourselves somehow. And what is there to say, other than that this situation is positively evil and unjust, and that what is needed right now are not more thoughtful words, but hard resources to help those who are suffering at the hands of our cruel and not-so-unusual policies.
But at the same time, silence is not the answer. We have to keep fighting the tide with honesty, wherever we can, and hopefully in the form of journalism. But am I not now proving the point that liberal elitists are sophists trying to maintain control with clever words and their own set of “facts”? Perhaps none of this is new, and we’re not very much different from where we were 150 years ago. But is that not yet another reason to despair?!
Yesterday, I found myself not knowing what to celebrate exactly. Is the great experiment of US independence and democracy, beautiful on paper but built on the back of slaves and on stolen land, not just a utopian dream coming to an end? What has ever really unified us other than an individualistic respect of the right to own property, and an utter disdain for those who are suspicious of our confusing freedom with the freedom to get rich?
I can’t help but feel that war is on the horizon, if the new war hasn’t already begun. And therein lies another form of despair: it’s not even clear anymore what the next war will consist in. Will it be information, trade, credit, nuclear? Will it be nation against nation, or some other way of delineating alliances? Will we even know who our enemy is? Whatever it is, one truth about war will remain: there are no winners, only varieties and degrees of losing.
When I began writing this, I was hoping these sentiments would serve as the preface to some hopeful response. But perhaps like Neruda’s poem, there is no silver lining. I’m not announcing the end of capitalism or bourgeois liberalism. They seem to be doing just fine. Nor am I announcing the apocalypse. This may all be just a phase, a bad dream, though I doubt that, too. Nor am I pleading for people to listen to others more carefully, to make an effort to put themselves in the other’s shoes, to study logic, or commit themselves to mutual understanding. Maybe nothing will change. Maybe nothing has changed, other than the loss of our innocence, all sold for a modest house, white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and a Chevy out front.
Even if I were to end on a positive note, it only be to say that maybe our political salvation consists in recognizing that what unites us, what makes us human, is our fundamental fragility. Maybe we should all stare deeply into our own mortality, as I’m doing now, and realize that eventually you will be forgotten, and sooner than later. Maybe it’s time to come to terms with our total inability to control nature and others. (Lately I’ve been thinking about a reminder by some of our indigenous communities that it’s false to ask people to save the environment. The world does not need us to save it. Really what we’re asking is for us to save ourselves on Earth, which will go on just fine even if we make it uninhabitable for human beings.)
Maybe if we fully immerse ourselves in the total fragility of human existence, we’ll come back to some basic values that all forms of seeking salvation seem to share: compassion, humility, love, and acceptance. Maybe if we give up the idea of “progress” and realize that history is going nowhere, we’ll stop judging and finally be free to love our neighbor as ourself. I wonder what Facebook would look like if everyone realized that his or her life was about to end.
But today I won’t end on a positive note – I can’t – because, as Neruda says, the night is shattered, my soul is not satisfied, love is so short, and forgetting is so long.