Messages in a Bottle

December 11, 2016

Fragile Democracies. Around the world, in nation after nation, the commitment to liberal democracy has weakened. Fewer people believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy; more people are open to military rule if government institutions weaken; and broadly based parties and movements have become influential or gained power by arguing that existing regimes and institutions are illegitimate. Most strikingly, young people are significantly more likely to believe only weakly in liberal democracy and are more open to military or authoritarian alternatives.

Systemic Corruption. Studies of corruption regimes in nominally liberal democracies such as Brazil, Argentina, and Korea also confirm what we intuitively know, that the pursuit of private gain infects and hollows out trust in governing institutions. Systemic self-dealing and the absence of accountability corrodes norms and ideals of public service and breeds pervasive cynicism about the rule of law. The unabashed mixing of public and private interests in the Trump government also assaults these norms and pretty much obliterates public trust and the rule of law, and in these respects fully resembles an emerging corruption regime.

When Words Mean (Less Than) Nothing. Corruption regimes also hollow out public speech. When the assumption prevails that all public figures and politicians lie and deceive endemically, political parties and political movements are more likely to self-organize as territorial gangs and warlords with tribal loyalties and affiliations. Movement rhetoric becomes more about sowing further mistrust and breeding cognitive chaos, rather than striving to meet standards intrinsic to a nation’s governing institutions and founding ideals.

It Can Happen Here. It Is Happening Here. Those among us who deal in ideas need to ask ourselves hard questions, perhaps especially in the academy (of which I am not a member). The fragility of intellectual diversity and discourse in colleges and universities is a major problem, at many levels. I think Nicholas Kristof gets that right. If universities and colleges close minds, where else on earth will they open? But Kristof, and David Brooks and Thomas Friedman and other mainstream pundits who get paid for being “wise and reasonable men,” entirely miss a deeper point, which is that insular and sheltered academic institutions are incredibly vulnerable.

The Coming Purge. In a pretty vile, self-congratulatory (and self-disclosing) post-election interview, Steve Bannon savaged the media and others who had written off Trump’s. Their mistake, he said, was that they did not understand Politics Is War. In the recent election, the Democratic Party and the establishment media had made the foolish, contemptible error of bringing a (butter) knife to a gunfight. So yes, as Kristoff says, the time for liberal hand-wringing is over. Because Trump and Bannon and Betsy DeVos and like-minded partisans in Congress and in state legislatures (e.g, Wisconsin) will now seize every opportunity to diminish and curb student activism, diversity programs, and academic freedom. They will place their people in charge of public institutions, cut funding, roll back tenure protections, dismiss faculty they don’t like, and purge and and punish and silence everyone else. These looming realities are what academic institutions need to concern themselves with, not white privilege and its discontents.

Messages In A Bottle. The only question that remains for all of us is What Is To Be Done? This is not an easy question to answer, and the answers may vary among us. But it should be the single question that occupies our thoughts and our conversations.I’m aware that I write things and send them by email in this Journal Of Jeremiadus. I appreciate my methods are unorthodox. I also don’t know much about whether people read what I write, so the emails definitely have the quality of a message in a bottle. Which I’m okay with. Because most of our communications, when you think about it, have that quality. We lose a lot of control when we try to speak with and understand each other. We know this. Communication between living creatures is fraught. Meanings are diaphanous. When we speak with others, we risk presuming too much about the value of what we are saying, and about what they can and should do with our speech on the basis of the value we assign to it.

Macaque Monkeys. But speech is pretty much all we have. You might have seen the recent article about the macaque monkeys, who possess the ability to vocalize like humans, but not the brain wiring to actually fashion speech, at least as we understand it. The macaque monkeys in some ways resemble Donald Trump, our next President, who similarly can vocalize like other humans, but who (in addition to his emotional challenges) is obviously profoundly learning disabled (a point that cannot be overemphasized) and who therefore lacks the brain wiring to communicate in a humanly meaningful way.

Epistemological Incoherence. Our status as humans is at stake when we think about the contemporary degradation of speech, the gaslighting (Teen Vogue!), the epistemological incoherence we now confront, and the fog of war that has begun to descend upon us. So messages in a bottle are somewhat like luminescent beacons that can help to guide us through the darkness. If this is true, then one of the things we can do is send out as many messages as we can, with no certain knowledge that any one bottled message will reach its destination, but with an awareness that the focus and coherence of our messaging can somehow lead us home. For my part, this means that one of things I can do is write as if my life depends upon it.

This Will Not Happen. Which is, in a sense, the answer for all of us to the question What Is To Be Done? Each of us has a skill or a gift, a mastery in some domain. And we must each use that special type of mastery in the service of the things we most care about, because everything of value in our diverse, profluent, abundant world is profoundly at risk. So even more than writing (or researching or teaching or composing or painting or healing or building or litigating) as our lives depend upon it, we must do these things as if the world depends upon it. Without ego. Without hope of personal gain. Without regard for personal consequences. It really amounts simply to each of one us individually, in our own way, saying No. This Will Not Happen.

Explaining Our Befuddlement. One of my recent (and perhaps faddish) obsessions is with emergent systems. It may be useful for us to consider the Trump phenomenon in these terms. For the purpose of this essay, I’ll only say that our befuddlement about the political inversion we have recently witnessed probably is the result of what we might (loosely and metaphorically) call a phase state transition, such as the transition from water to ice, in which the properties that constitute reality fundamentally shift. To the degree we live in a world in which we map reality along a stable continuum, say of water temperature, we might experience the water as warm or cold, but know it always to be water. When water phase shifts and becomes ice, that continuum shatters. We live in a new reality. If we remain trapped in the cognitive map of the continuum of the old reality, we are truly lost.