There are times when I genuinely wonder whether I can hold up psychologically in our current politics and culture. My shrink tells me I am far from alone in this, and that everyone she listens to is consumed with a depression that swings from despair to rage to what can only be called learned helplessness. There are moments when everything I have come to believe in — reasoned deliberation, mutual toleration, liberal democracy, free speech, honesty, decency, and moderation — seem as if they are in eclipse. Emotionalism, tribalism, intolerance, lies, cruelty, and extremism surround us (and I have not been immune in this climate to their temptations either). Trump has turned the right into a foul, spit-flecked froth of racist reactionism, and he has evoked a radical response on the left that, while completely understandable, alienates me and many others more profoundly with every passing day. Hell, there have been many moments in the past couple of years when I have alienated the better part of myself. There is something about the current toxicity that has seeped into everyone.
Trump himself seems hard to oppose without in some way mimicking him. Take the high road and you risk genteel irrelevance. Go down to Trump’s level and you find yourself wrestling with a brawler whose indecency eventually defines you as well. (In some ways, the dynamics of the GOP primaries continue to this day.) And so the opposition party has found not a single spokesperson who can counter him in any compelling way, and, more to the point, it is constantly in danger of becoming simply a mirror image of the Trump right: based primarily on racial and gender identity, defined by rage, bent on revenge, and empowered by moral certainty. I will vote for a Democrat this fall and encourage everyone else to do so, because it is our only hope against accelerating authoritarianism. But I’ll do so with the same kind of nausea that led me to support Hillary Clinton in 2016. I don’t think there is a way out of this cycle of tribalism in the foreseeable future, given Trump’s inexhaustible capacity to fuel it every minute of the day. Radicalization is a dynamic process. It can occur rapidly. I feel it in my own gut, if not my own head. In the end, it will consume all of us — until some kind of catastrophe wakes us from this fraught and intensifying nightmare.
And so I walk the dogs. And I meditate. And I smoke more weed in the evenings. And I browse the apps. And I find myself searching for figures outside this time and place who were in similar circumstances and yet kept their heads. You can never go wrong reading Orwell. But I’m particularly drawn to W. H. Auden these days, not simply because of the transfixing wisdom and beauty of his poetry, but because of who he was, and how he led his life. I recommend two essays about him, one by Hannah Arendt in 1975 in The New Yorker and one by Edward Mendelson in The New York Review of Books. I stumbled upon both recently and am glad I did.
Auden is an antidote to Trump and to our times. He despised celebrity; he ran from fame and money; he never “signaled” his many virtues to anyone; in fact, he went to great lengths to hide them from view. “Once at a party I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery in New York,” Mendelson recalls. “She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.” He privately paid for the tuition of a succession of war orphans until his death; he made himself look like an asshole in demanding immediate payment for some work — but only so he could quietly give the money to Dorothy Day’s homeless shelter in New York. Mendelson also recalls how “I got a phone call from a Canadian burglar who told me he had come across Auden’s poems in a prison library and had begun a long correspondence in which Auden gave him an informal course in literature. Auden was especially pleased to get him started on Kafka.” It turns out that there were countless such acts of quiet generosity.
He hated to grandstand. He knew the temptations of the easy political stance. He gave a public speech in the U.S. just after he arrived here in 1939 and got a rapturous response from the liberal crowd. But he wrote to a friend afterward: “I suddenly found I could really do it, that I could make a fighting demagogic speech and have the audience roaring … It is so exciting but so absolutely degrading; I felt just covered with dirt afterwards.” He took full, deep responsibility for his misjudgments born out of excessive, if well-intentioned, zeal. Arendt noted: “He turned against his early leftist beliefs because events (the Moscow trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact, and experiences during the Spanish Civil War) had proven them to be ‘dishonest’ — ‘shamefully’ so.” She goes on: “In the 1940s there were many who turned against their old beliefs, but there were very few who understood what had been wrong with those beliefs. Far from giving up their belief in history and success, they simply changed trains, as it were; the train of Socialism and Communism had been wrong, and they changed to the train of Capitalism or Freudianism or some refined Marxism, or a sophisticated mixture of all three. Auden, instead, became a Christian; that is, he left the train of History altogether.”
Most important of all, he never succumbed to the belief that evil was always on the other side, that those fighting for the good weren’t also capable of great wickedness, and self-deception. He was not one of those, in Mendelson’s words, “who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own … He observed to friends how common it was to find a dedicated anti-fascist who conducted his erotic life as if he were invading Poland.” I love that line. But what he saw most potently was that victims are also capable of becoming victimizers, that the best intentions come wrapped in the crumpled tissue of human fallibility, that “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.” He was, like Orwell, a patron saint of anti-tribalism.
Unlike Orwell, Auden found this wisdom — and indeed way of life — in Christianity, as so many others have over the millennia, which is why I worry about our day and age. We live in a post-Christian world, and even many who say they are Christian turn out to be craven sophists, dedicating themselves to an evil man for the sake of something they call good. So where do we go to get off the train of history now that faith has “ended,” to see it in some deeper perspective, outside the hot take of 30 seconds ago, the news of the last hour, or the most recent assault on reason and decency from the man at the head of the table?
The left has denounced religion as insane; the right has redefined it into another twist on identity politics. But Auden’s religion makes more and more sense to me: “He had no literal belief in miracles or deities and thought that all religious statements about God must be false in a literal sense but might be true in metaphoric ones. He felt himself commanded to an absolute obligation — which he knew he could never fulfill — to love his neighbor as himself … he valued ancient liturgy, not for its magic or beauty, but because its timeless language and ritual was a ‘link between the dead and the unborn,’ a stay against the complacent egoism that favors whatever is contemporary with ourselves.” Perhaps the greatest gift my faith has given me is a sense of this grand perspective, a guard against presentism, a constant thorn in the side of my own ego and its enthusiasms. Mendelson notes that the book Auden wrote “while returning in 1940 to the Anglican Communion of his childhood was titled The Double Man. It had an epigraph from Montaigne: ‘We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.’”
The only antidote to Trump and the politics he has forged and intensified is this kind of self-doubt and self-knowledge. It refutes him while never empowering him. It opens up the possibility, if we let it, that the insanities of today’s right and left will not inevitably ratchet themselves into an ever tighter spiral of vengeance and mutual incomprehension, ending, as it must, in violence or the political mimicking of violence. They might even disable these impulses from the ground up, helping us not merely cope with this era of hate and division but to overcome it somehow before it obliterates even more of what we all love about this place we call home. (On these lines, I also recommend Bob Wright’s concept of “mindful resistance.”)
There is a political answer to Trump: Vote against him and his GOP backers wherever and whenever you can. But if this is not merely to replace one fever with another, there must also be an intellectual struggle to recover moderation and toleration, and a spiritual effort to find the peace no politics will ever provide. Yes, one side — the red — has a more urgent need for self-doubt and self-criticism than the other. But the moment we decide that our side has no need of uncertainty or perspective or moderation at all is the moment liberal democracy dies.
Fired for Science
A couple of stories collided in my web-reading this past week, and they both bring up the now-tortured question of gender, “patriarchy,” sexual harassment, and the rest. The first is a study — and a really comprehensive, global one — that shows, once again, that disparities between men and women in their choice of occupations actually increase as societies become more egalitarian. This study homes in on science and technology — and finds that the more equality there is between men and women in the society as a whole, the greater the gap between the genders in STEM fields. The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan admirably reported on this latest finding, concluding that, while some cultural and social inhibitions might still discourage girls and women from these fields, ultimately, “feeling financially secure and on equal footing with men, some women will always choose to follow their passions … and those passions don’t always lie within science.” (For my own summary of many studies along these lines, see the second item in this diary from last year). The study itself found that “the gap between boys’ science achievement and girls’ reading achievement relative to their mean academic performance was near universal.” And each gender leaned in on their respective relative strengths.
In a sane world, this would be no big deal. Who cares if men and women congregate disproportionately in different professions? It’s no outrage that a huge majority of those employed in the publishing industry are women, for example — so why should it be so appalling that over 80 percent of computer coding graduates are men? As long as we keep doing our best to ensure more baseline equality of opportunity, inequality of outcome should be seen, in my view, as a celebration of actual human diversity, rather than its abrogation. I don’t want women and men to be interchangeable non-gendered “humans.” I love the differences in the world as much as our commonalities. And those differences may even become more pronounced as our real life choices expand.
But in the world we now live in, I am actually committing an act of sexual harassment by merely writing the previous two paragraphs. Yes, I’m citing a respected, peer-reviewed 2018 study. No, I’m not drawing some idiotic conclusion that men are somehow better at math than women. I haven’t touched a single human being; I haven’t said anything personally to anyone; I don’t work in an office. But, under current law, I’m a sexual harasser who could be fired with cause for mentioning scientific data.
That’s what the National Labor Relations Board found last week in a review of Google’s termination of James Damore (it’s separate from his ongoing suit against Google). They found that Damore’s claim that there are differentials between men and women of this kind that may have some impact on the male-female balance at Google, and that there is greater variability among men’s IQs than women’s (another fact), were firable offenses. Money quote: “[E]mployers must be permitted to ‘nip in the bud’ the kinds of employee conduct that could lead to a ‘hostile workplace.’” Airing these studies in the context of Google’s aggressive “diversity” policies is thereby a form of abuse.
The memorandum cited analogies like baselessly accusing someone of being a Klansman, or using sexually abusive remarks to a colleague, or demanding that an employee “come out of the closet.” In other words, according to the NLRB, referencing peer-reviewed studies can be grounds for firing someone, “notwithstanding [Damore’s] effort to cloak his comments with ‘scientific’ references and analysis, and notwithstanding ‘not all women’ disclaimers.” Notice that the word “scientific” is in quotes, where the science is not in dispute. And notice the dismissal of any argument that cites distributions and bell curves — very basic statistical tools — as if they are designed to obscure rather than reveal the complicated truth.
This is not just another elite campus incident. It’s embedded in federal employment law. It’s practiced by one of the most powerful corporations on the planet. In the fight between science and today’s social-justice movement, science has little chance. It will either conform to ideology or be banished from consideration.
Obama and Wakanda
I went to see Black Panther this week (a spoiler ahead). I know it’s asking for it for me to voice an opinion about the movie in public, but what the hell. I had a blast. With all the ponderous, if intelligent, commentary, you almost forget that it’s another comic-book action movie, but far better and far more interesting than most. If you have a thing for beautiful half-naked men, it’s not too shabby either. (Not since 300 have I seen so many pecs and lats and traps aquiver.)
But its message also surprised me with its mainstreaminess. It’s about racial magnanimity over revenge, global unity over tribal hatred. It doesn’t shy from the deep, deep wounds of colonialism and slavery, but it doesn’t posit revolutionary violence or racial payback as a response (even as it shows how understandable and even noble the roots of the urge for that payback are). It is, rather, a movie that brims with racial pride and self-confidence and humor and beauty. Its nearly-all-black cast both puts race at the center of the picture but also removes it from the foreground as you are simply brought into the human characters and drama. It’s much more MLK than Malcolm X. Come to think of it, it’s quintessential Obama, a non-tribal tribal chieftain.
But even in the racial uplift, there was nuance. The way in which “colonizers” like Bilbo were subtly condescended to was more powerful than an indoctrination course in “whiteness.” The whole concept of an Africanness that inverts the West’s technological prowess is, of course, genius (as well as poignant). The tragic semi-suicide of Killmonger keeps the raw wound of history open, its countless victims in our minds, while still positing a better future. That’s much harder to do than this movie made it seem.
At least that’s what this ticket-buyer felt. I cannot feel or appreciate this movie the way millions of others do, because I do not and cannot know the full range of ideas and feelings and arguments this movie is generating among African-Americans. But I have benefited from reading many reviews from varying perspectives on that theme, learned from them, and gained from them. And what I loved about this movie was its capacity to include anyone in its embrace. For a couple of hours, a fantasy entranced us, and its extraordinary box-office success proves the breadth of its simultaneously racial and yet transracial appeal. If only this formula could somehow be replicated in our politics and culture more generally. It once was, of course, not so long ago. Perhaps in the future, it will again.
See you next Friday.