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Thursday, 26 January 2017

Some Thoughts on Responsibility in the Age of Trump

Sometimes it is best to keep quiet. At least for a while. it gives one time to think.

In a period of history such as the one we are living through now, when the pressure is on to respond to political events with the immediacy of one’s feelings, it takes an effort of will - or perhaps it is a spiritual discipline – to stay silent. This should not be confused with quietism, or abdication  of responsibility. But what exactly are we responsible for?  

I can’t subscribe to the British playwright Edward Bond’s Dostoevskian sentiment: “you are responsible not just for your life, or for what happens on your doorstep, but for the universe. You have an extreme moral responsibility”. This seems more akin to an omnipotent fantasy than a guide to responsible moral living.
Yet the question of responsibility is real. What is my responsibility – our responsibility – in the era of Trump, in the era of Brexit, in the era of populist nationalism, in the post-truth era of ‘alternative facts’ (i.e. lies)? These questions have been pressing in on me over these last months. And keeping silent – a time to reflect – is all I have been able to manage.

And yet I can also hear that Edward Bond is right when he says, reflecting on humanity’s consistent and insistent capacity for inhumanity, “problems grow unseen, inch by inch, until it is too late to go back and what was unthinkable becomes inevitable. The impossible always occurs in history”. Indeed.

This week Trump announced details of his long-threatened intention to build his wall between the US and Mexico. Really? The border is almost 2000 miles long. That’s a lot of advertising space that’s going to become available for his businesses. (Spoiler alert: that was an alternative fact). But – if Trump’s Wall is built – it will put the  Berlin Wall, Hadrian’s Wall, the West Bank wall into perspective. America first!

Admittedly the Great Wall of China can’t be surpassed (13,000 miles) but Trump is an emotionally- regressed ignoramus and will be claiming his wall is the longest, the best, in the history of the world. It becomes relatively easy to predict the childlike thinking of Trump: which young boy hasn’t chanted, in narcissistic delight, while standing on a pile of stones, “I’m the king of the castle - and you’re a dirty rascal”?

Even though the tides of history have always swept away all such walls, and the need for them – Israel’s is still too young to be undermined by history – Trump’s wall will serve as a monument to his concrete thinking and (in Melanie Klein’s terminology) his paranoid-schizoid thinking. We all try to build walls – ‘defences’ – against what we find disturbing, uncomfortable, unpalatable, unacceptable, invasive of our fragile sense of well-being. Whatever thoughts enter our minds unbidden  and unwanted – darker, aggressive, disruptive, greedy, lustful or hateful thoughts – need a wall to keep them out. Often these thoughts get projected onto the ‘other’ – and then we feel we have to be protected from those disowned impulses which we now believe are threatening us. Most of us only have the power to build our walls internally, unconsciously, in fantasy. But Trump can enact it. Much good will it do him.

To whom can we turn in dark times? This is what I have been reflecting on in this recent period of quiet. I have no certain answers, because I distrust the impulse in me towards certainty as a response to the certainty articulated by those whose views I abhor. I am going to try to stay true to what I know and what I value. For example, the stance described by the poet  John Keats as ‘Negative Capability’: when a person “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

This is clearly a time when we need ‘fact and reason’ in our repertoire of responses. And need to know how and when to use it. But Keats is on to something vital. We need also to be ‘capable’ of holding within ourselves all the uncertainties engendered by the new world order. So that’s how I’m beginning to see my task: am I capable of resisting the retreat into split thinking, into horrified condemnation, into a mirror image of Trump’s regressed thinking? I am trying.

And trying too to look to the poets and novelists and dramatists of the past, and the present, who are able to speak about the infinite complexity of our lives, our potential and our limitations. Poets whose work confirms Shelley's famous claim (in 1821) that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world".

Sometimes it is the creative artists in our midst who have the surest finger on the pulse of the times - and sometimes a moment of prescient insight into what will unfold in the future, for good or ill. David Mamet, for example, in his 2008 play November, set in the Oval Office, created a ruthless, immoral president, Charles Smith, and penned this piece of dialogue between the President and his adviser Archer:

Archer: (checking his notes) We can’t build the fence to keep out the illegal immigrants
Charles: Why not?
Archer: You need the illegal immigrants to build the fence.

Jews like Mamet are well-versed in using humour to see us through dark times. It is not the only response we need. But it is a vital strand in the fabric of resistance and action and reflective thinking that I sense we will have to call up in ourselves in these next few years. 




5 comments:

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  3. Lots of food for thought here, and a good joke! But negative capability seems to be an odd concept to apply in this particular case. I have no uncertainty about what the demagogues are doing and its potential harm. My uncertainty is about what I and others can do to counteract the harm, Tolstoy's "What, then, is to be done?" As Marx said in the eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."

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  4. We choose whose alternative facts we do not want to debate. I find the entire discussion uncomfortable. For instance there are many on the fascist left that ascribe to the Palestine version of alternative facts – they have created a narrative of Arab victimhood and Muslim supremacism that ignores its less than noble past of persecution, genocide, religio-ethnic triumphalism and conquest and why do we never mention that even the European slave trade could not have existed without the active participation of Islam and the Arab people. new are the narratives we choose to uphold over all others. The fascist left supports an anti-Semitic narrative of Israel – created in ‘original sin’ something that the two missionary faiths know far more about than either Judaism or Zionism. In the age of trump you also could do with a bit more nuance in your arguments.
    Maurice Solovitz
    www.Thebilateralist.blogspot.co.uk

    Shabbat Shalom Chaver

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  5. Howard, as you know I greatly respect you and usually agree with your views. However, this time I must offer my alternative thoughts.
    Reasoned rumination and restraint are admirable, but will most likely be interpreted by a megalomaniac narcissist (or similar diagnosis by a professional) as weakness and will afford him yet more time to impose his anti-democratic vision on the country and the world. The Talmud reminds us of our obligation to protest and the breadth of our responsibility:
    "Rav, R Hanina, R Yochanan, R Haviva taught: Whoever can stop his household [from doing wrong] but does not, is punished for [the wrongdoings of] his household; if he can prevent his fellow citizens, he is punished for the sins of his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is punished for the sins of the whole world." BT Shabbat 54b
    From 1933 on, the rights and freedoms of people were systematically taken away while the world stood by - perhaps ruminating that things could not get worse or that the time was not yet right for action. We must not allow DJT to think that only a million people disagree with his views and actions. And I believe it is our obligation to let our own government know that economic interests do not justify holding hands with a potential tyrant.
    Shared with love, Janet

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