Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Bad Faith Blues

Well that’s that. We've succumbed to the attractions of someone who was not only a transparent con artist and buffoon but who chose to position himself as little short of an actual fascist, a man who was willing to throw open the doors and invite it all in, the bigotry, the misogyny, the hatred, the violence, all the swirling dark matter of our “civilization,” all for a taste of power. It would be nice to believe that the American people have simply lost touch with reality, but I'm afraid that's too charitable. We knew what we were doing. Any illusion that we the people are now somehow different from — more enlightened than — our predecessors who seized a continent and put millions to suffer and die as slaves for their own material gain is dispelled, for once and for all. We are the bullwhip, the noose, waterboard. I could say that I’m ashamed to be a white man, but that’s letting those responsible off way too easy. Race and gender are not destiny — specific individuals chose to do this, and I was not one of them.

I have zero patience for what-ifs and should-have-dones. In the end, we had a sufficiently clear choice — even if for many it was an unappetizing one — and we made it. And I frankly don’t give half a fuck about what political scientists, historians, and biographers may have to say about how what got us to this pass and what it all means, which I’m sure will all make fascinating reading for future generations when we’re safely dead. My only interest is a moral one. What does this election, in both senses of the word, say about us, about how we square our consciences with what we do?

Of course if free choice is just an illusion or democracy is just a charade then none of this matters. Turn the page, shoot up, and move on. But that’s a cop-out and I don’t buy it. If the human spirit means anything at all — and hey, maybe it just doesn’t — then it includes the ability to formulate and act upon moral obligations, however they are arrived at (and of course they will be arrived at differently by people depending on their circumstances and backgrounds), and to do so even — perhaps especially — in the face of great difficulty. I’m convinced that at the heart of our failure to do what is right, in this instance as in others, is a fundamental question of bad faith. We hide our own vested interests and guilty consciences, we mold evidence to our preconceptions, we ignore plain facts, because it suits us to do so. It suits us, always, to believe that other people are the problem. No one is willing to admit that the problem is us, that we act as we do because we benefit, unjustly, from our actions or our failure to act. And our lack of curiosity, our impatience with complex issues that require serious and nuanced consideration, our inability to see beyond our own limited frames of experience, these failures of imagination are, I’m convinced, also profound moral failures, because imagination is not simply a native faculty but also an act of will. We can’t imagine other possibilities because we aren’t telling the truth, either to others or to ourselves, about our real motives.

So why say any of this? (Who, in any case, listens to me?) And who am I to preach? What do I do that gives me the right to lecture others on their moral obligations, other than trot down to the polls every few years like a good boy and shoot my mouth off on extremely rare occasions? Is it somehow more morally admirable to recognize what is right and fail to act on it in any serious way than it is not to recognize what is right at all? The truth is that I consider myself morally utterly ordinary — perhaps not the worst, but definitely no saint — except in this one regard: that I refuse to “praise what is no good.” (The phrase is Paul Goodman’s, who also talked — and this was fifty years ago, before much else would happen — about how the United States was “like a conquered province,” except that we ourselves were responsible for the actions of the conquerors.) What has happened here is not right.

End of screed. Take it as you will.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

“Specific individuals chose to do this”: yes. I won’t mention the events from European history that this language immediately evokes for me. But I think you can guess. From American history, I’m reminded of what Samuel Proctor said in a PBS discussion of Genesis, about the American institution of slavery: people got ships and gunpowder and they did it. They used their freedom.