I’ve never concerned myself much about things like demographics and target audiences, but in sending this out, I’d like to dedicate it to the cynical, the indifferent, those who are skeptical of whether any good can come out of political involvement—at least, through human design rather than chance, which, after all, operates equally well under all governments and leaders. Whether you are a disillusioned idealist or disenchanted with a system you are not yet qualified to participate in, whether you feel like you ought to care or just feel that you have better things to do, I think that there are good reasons to consider the matter from a new perspective.
Hang on, I think my soapbox is a little crooked. Give me a second—okay, that’s better. Where was I?
Perspectives are what I do here. It’s right in the title. Politics usually fall outside my purview, but this is something that affects all of us who are citizens of the United States. Life will go on after the election—life already has gone on. It always does. The initial disbelief, anger and panic have faded, and that’s for the best, but it would be a shame if people conclude from this that they don’t have to do anything now.
Doing nothing isn’t a position of neutrality: it’s a form of acquiescence with the status quo. If we acquiesce in the way we live our lives, we lose our right to speak out against it. Life may always go on, but something important often gets lost in the process, even more so when an entire society has to start taking terrible things for granted to make life going on possible. We may not think of ourselves as political individuals, but if living authentic lives matters to us, then we cannot remain indifferent to politics.
Those who are already inclined to get involved should also consider this point. There are many forms of hypocrisy in the world, and in the political realm, the most common one is to excuse yourself for the same practices you berate your opponents for. Many people feel like they can’t be convincing advocates unless they make extravagant promises and sweeping generalizations and use every little slip-up on the other side to their own advantage—that if they don’t, they can’t compete with their opponents, and are hurting their cause. Or perhaps they believe that faith in a cause is incompatible with self-criticism—which is really the same issue at bottom. If you’re dealing with people who are certain, then you may feel like uncertainty on your part is likely to be taken for a sign of weakness rather than a recognition of ambiguity and the need for moving the discussion onto a deeper level.
These are reasons people may give when they do it themselves. But when their opponent does it, it’s because they’re liars, they’re sneaky and underhanded, they’re too stupid to know better, their followers are too stupid to apply even a tiny bit of scrutiny. But if their own were to start asking difficult questions, would they themselves start to wonder whether these people are really on their side?
The results of this are debates in which reality and the words being exchanged no longer bear any natural relation to each other—which is possibly why so many people choose not to say anything. To them, politics has become synonymous with hypocrisy. The extent to which “the media”—a much-used but rather odd collective designation—is guilty of this hypocrisy as well is probably the reason for much of the criticism it’s now receiving—usually from other bits of “the media,” oddly enough.
And as for those followers: who knows how many of them are letting themselves get duped as a way of proving to the world what a great leader so-and-so is, thus earning more supporters on account of so-and-so being so popular? And the more polarized the dialogue becomes, the easier it becomes to take positions that, if you considered them candidly, you’d have admit weren’t chosen with much care. When the people on one side are obviously and demonstrably wrong, that makes the choice easier, right?
No, it doesn’t. And if you want proof of it, just watch them using the same logic over on their side. It will probably look a little different on the surface, and probably a lot more egregious. But as long as the people on one side can say “Why should I play fair when they’re not doing it over there?” then the people on the other side will be able to say it as well. And at that point, the question of who started it becomes irrelevant. The question you should be asking is “Who’s keeping it going?”
And it’s almost never a question that has only one answer.
But to be honest, I am not a purely neutral party regarding the current political situation. I believe that when considered dispassionately, one side of the scale dips significantly lower than the other. I’m willing to believe that “the media” is not wholly honest, that perhaps some sneaky things going on behind closed doors are not receiving the attention they deserve—but not when the accusations are coming from people whose dishonesty is apparent even on the surface, and who have thoroughly discredited themselves through their rejection of courtesy, responsibility and logic. Put less diplomatically: I find Donald Trump an appalling human being. He is a narcissist, he is crazy—and not the good kind of crazy, let me add.
I don’t mean this as an expression of how appalling I find him, but as a statement of fact. I would not be discourteous enough to say it myself it if hadn’t become everyone’s business. Yes, he has been successful in the corporate world. Being insane doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re ineffective— if your society is insane in the same way you are, you might be very effective within certain limits. The trouble only becomes clear when you try to step outside them, and unfortunately, one of the consequences of crazy is that you are no longer capable of seeing where those limits are. Someday, at some critical juncture, Trump is going to have to choose between ego-bolstering and the good of the country. That’s what I’m afraid of. There are worse things that might happen, but this is the one that is going to happen just because of who he is and the position he holds.
We might wonder: why do people like Trump? Some of his supporters, I know, are glad to see him in office because they think he’ll make decisions that will increase their material well-being or because it upsets people they think of as enemies. But the main reason he’s got fanatics on his side, the people who will follow him no matter what he does or says, is simply because he isn’t a politician. He’s honest, they might say. He says things like they are. And that’s completely wrong: he’s not honest. He’s even more of a showman than the rest of them. It’s just a different kind of show, and I’m betting that many of them know this, at least on some level.
But there is a kernel of truth to the claim: people who try not to cause offense, who try to make themselves appealing to groups of people who find very different things appealing often end up appearing colorless, generic and lacking in integrity. And while that does not keep them from being effective policy makers, it makes sincerity impossible—it makes hypocrisy habitual.
Trump isn’t being honest, but he is being himself. That’s what people like about him; that’s what people hate about him. That’s character. Bernie has it too, and he had integrity as well, which is why I would have liked to see him in office, even though I’d probably be a conservative if conservativism hadn’t developed into such a toxic culture by the time I reached voting age. But since Trump is what we have, all we can do at this point is try for a response that’s constructive rather than the next step on the downward spiral.
I’d like to see a more open, thoughtful atmosphere within parties and between parties; I’d like to see a political atmosphere where the word “personal” is not invariably followed by “attack,” where politicians can take it for granted that they and their opponents are both doing what they think is right for the whole, and that the disagreement is simply over what that might be. These are cultural problems and not political problems as such, which suggests that it will have to arise outside the system before the system itself becomes healthier. I’d personally like to see the arts help to foster such a culture, but that’s a story that will have to wait for another occasion.
And as far as practical measures go, I’d like to see basic logic made a standard part of school curricula—at least as early as high school, maybe even earlier. Faulty logic isn’t the cause of hypocrisy, but it’s invariably the way that hypocrisy expresses itself, and once recognized as such, it loses all its persuasiveness. For everyone, and not only those who are specialists, to be able to spot when people are using bad arguments and put a name to them that the people around them will understand would be no small improvement.
So what is the cause of hypocrisy, then? There are many ways one could answer that, and I don’t think it ultimately boils down to just one thing anyway, but a major aspect of it is failing to recognize that your own life and your own destiny are inextricably bound with those of others, mostly in ways that you will never know. Faulty logic is one expression of it, but most kinds of partisanship are expressions as well. The world is complicated enough without trying to arrange the order of things so that certain people are hurt and certain others receive a little extra benefit. This is exactly the kind of political wrangling that will turn out results due to chance—or whatever you’d like to call it. We have to keep the good of the whole in mind—that’s the only way that makes sense.
So yes, I think that, in general, we should try to involve ourselves. But as a final note: I also think that there are also times in our lives when it’s better to step back from involvement with politics. These are the times where we take a step back from active involvement in many areas of life to figure out what kinds of lives we want to lead, to distinguish what matters to us from what we’re doing out of habit or a misplaced sense of duty. This is also necessary to leading an authentic life, and it’s hard to manage it when you’re constantly in the thick of it. There may also be people whose other commitments are so compelling that they genuinely can’t afford to spare the time and attention to politics, and even those who take such a wide view of things that they can accept whatever happens without falling into hypocrisy. But I don’t think there are many people like this, and they already know who they are. If you don’t, it’s not you.
There may be whole eras when most people can afford to avoid politics, but I feel confident in predicting that the one we’re entering will not be one of them. We will be challenged; we will have to make difficult choices. Hope is a nice game to play sometimes, but in the end, it doesn’t matter so much whether what we’re looking forward to actually becomes reality: the important thing is to keep looking forward so that we can face the challenge that’s already facing us head-on.
“I had an interesting dream last night,” my mother says. We’re in the car together, on the way back from a visit to some relatives—for me, a visit-within-a-visit. “I was at a party, and Draco Malfoy was there. I was talking to him and thinking that he didn’t seem like such a bad person after all.”
My mother seems to spend a great many of her dreams attending parties, often in the company of the fictional and famous—or maybe those are just the most enjoyable ones to talk about. Once, she even met the grim reaper at one and had a nice round on the dance floor with him.
“Mine was interesting, too,” I say. “I was planning out a story.” We’re all the actors, script writers and directors of our dreams as well as the audience, but it probably says a lot about me that not even my dreams always make it to the production stage. “It was about a man who had once been the president of a country. Most people there felt that he had been a good leader, but years later, a radical group came to power, and they were stirring up bad feeling towards this man—so much that his life was in danger. I was thinking that I had to protect him—that you can’t judge the actions of people in the past by standards that didn’t even exist at the time.”
My mother, always the historian, agrees wholeheartedly. My father, who’s driving, doesn’t say anything. I wonder if he understands. Probably not—it’s a tricky one. I didn’t understand it myself until just now. But just maybe, something important will still make it across.
This is the last time I’ll be seeing either of them for a while. I’ll be out of the country for the next few months—something I had planned long before the election, though not without an eye towards the future. So many times, I’ve come back to the States and found everything just the same as when I left it, but that’s something I no longer feel safe counting on. I’m not counting on anything at this point.
I’m glad I could come here first, but it did mean missing the lutherie’s first political meeting, and my trip will mean not being able to attend any of them for a while. The lutherie is an interesting place— part workshop, part concert venue, and now set to become a sort of community center as well. It’s technically not my community—where I’ve been living, there’s no community in the proper sense of the word unless you can speak Korean—but I’ve been spending more and more time around that town lately. It’s a place that lost its purpose when industry moved out and is currently trying its hardest to become like the neighborhood where I’m usually found on Friday nights—but not really like it, you understand.
“You may be aware that we lean towards the left,” the owner had said at intermission when he announced the upcoming meeting last week, “but we welcome all opinions.” The week after the election, he had come out at intermission to give a speech about smashing capitalism, so yes, I’d say they lean a little towards the left here. But I’m also sure he meant it when he said that all opinions were welcome. I wouldn’t expect anything less from a former philosophy student, and he and his son are among the most open, welcoming people I’ve known. If the typical philosophical debate is like a duel, and the typical political debate is like a street brawl, then there—well, maybe it will be a little like a dance. It would have been the perfect place to start, but maybe I’ll have something to contribute myself by the time I get back.
But maybe I’m selling myself short– a person who sees the world differently always has something to contribute. There’s a saying I once heard from a judge at a conference—a saying that she learned from her grandmother: “No matter how thinly you slice a loaf of bread, each piece always has two sides.” Normally, I just write things down and forget them, but some things have a way of staying around.
Every question has two sides—but there are many ways of cutting them, and for me, even the political ones don’t have a right and a left, but an outside and an inside.