The tower of babel, the tyranny of trump
The story of the tower of Babel is the first nine verses in the eleventh chapter of Genesis. Taking place after the events of the flood, Noah and his family have since given birth to many generations and people have spread across the land. All of these were of the same customs and spoke one language. They traveled from the east and settled in the valley of Shinar. The people said, let us turn clay to brick and build a great city and a tower whose top will be in heaven so that we will make a name and not be scattered across the earth. And God descended to see the city and the tower, and remarked, "they are one people and one language and this is what they decide to do?” God confused the people and caused them to speak a great number of languages and spread them across the land. The end.
In the story, the people are all of one custom and one language, and that seems to be the primary method by which they are able to organize and build. The moment that this mode of communication is disrupted, the people are scattered and the city is abandoned.
I have been privileged in my life to travel to far-flung places in this world, where I have attempted to live for a moment though I did not speak the language. How then, did I eat? How then, did I communicate with my fellow people? Through listening, through watching, through eye contact, hand gestures, smiles and eyebrow raises. When I was trying to survive, to learn, to laugh, to love, verbal language was just a barrier to transcend on the path to communication. In 2015 I found myself in an apartment in Bogotà where a local reggae band held practice. Over a week I grew to understand more of their slang, their jokes, and they enjoyed practicing their English with me. But from day one, through rhythm and songs, we knew that even if we could not understand each other’s speech there was a deeper language that we shared, that facilitated a different form of conversation that one provided by formal language.
In my anecdotal experience, non-verbal communication has allowed me to survive, by finding food and water, and as a means of sharing music and love. So then, what happened to our builders of Babel when the words fell down? Did they continue to work as one, continuing in their mission despite the setbacks, organized by a truly held and shared purpose? No, they crumbled, their shared mission dashed on the floor. Were they building the city for survival, for love? No, the city was meant to be the crowning achievement of a singular narrative - that these people were here and they were not to be spread across the land. But once they were not able to share in the same verbal language, how could they perpetuate this same story? If there are two, three, seventy, infinite forms of verbal communication, whose story is told by the grand tower in the sky? In the story God bemoans that this tower is the grand result of human organization, that this was the best idea that we could design by committee, and therefore we had to be scattered and return to the drawing board. Maybe focus less on petty narratives and more on love.
And now we turn to the here and now. America 2016. Still a Democracy last I checked but the lines are getting a bit hazier, national discourse is getting lazier. We gather together in representative democracy and hope that the government we elect holds to the original terms of our agreement. Each of our branches performs their function and balance each other out. As citizens we hold them in check by voting them into power and lobbying for causes that we believe need support. The press functions as the intermediary between government and people, calling out the good and the bad in the service of what? Truth?
The difference between a representative democracy and a totalitarian state is that in the former, truth is not a static and fixed position. It is an ideal, towards which all participants in the state are responsible. In the Totalitarian state, truth is absolute and objective. More dangerously, truth in a Totalitarian state, or what I would call absolutist truth, prohibits any deviation or questioning. It assumes that once absolutist truth is reached, the only thing left to do is protect and preserve it at all costs.
John Stuart Mill in book V of Principles of Political Economy writes on the harmful and undue influence that government and public opinion can hold over the health of a country:
that a government should choose opinions for the people, and should not suffer any doctrines in politics, morals, law, or religion, but such as it approves, to be printed or publicly professed, may be said to be altogether abandoned as a general thesis. It is now well understood that a regime of this sort is fatal to all prosperity, even of an economical kind: that the human mind when prevented either by fear of the law or by fear of opinion from exercising its faculties freely on the most important subjects, acquires a general torpidity and imbecility, by which, when they reach a certain point it is disqualified from making any considerable advances even in the common affairs of life, and which, when greater still, make it gradually lose its previous attainments.
There cannot be one narrative that determines the trajectory of a country. To be forced into a singular fit is to lose the individuality and diversity that sparks human creativity and prosperity.
One of the the most disturbing narratives that I have heard during this election season has been “if you don’t love America then leave.” It has been most notably directed at Colin Kaepernick and the other athletes who have used their voices and position to raise a question, what are we celebrating when we raise the stars and stripes, whose freedom are we championing? In so doing, they have raised questions about truth, questions that I never thought to ask about the authorship of the star spangled banner. I consider myself lucky to live in a country where private citizens can take action to raise awareness and call into question dominantly held narratives of power and authority. And yet, there is a vocal contingent within this country who hold that any deviation from a narrative of America as land of the free, home of brave, of endless opportunity from sea to shining sea, is something tantamount to treason. This narrative more often that not sees America as one thing and not the other. As a place where white people manifest their destiny and took power over something rightfully theirs. And it is in this whitewashing of history that I find something truly fearful - the building blocks of a totalitarian vision of America.
In that same section of Principles, Mill writes that even more dangerous than the role that government plays in perpetuating a totalitarian notion of truth is the role that we as citizens play. Of 19th century England, Mill laments that;
the effective restraints on mental freedom proceed much less from the law or the government, than from the intolerant temper of the national mind; arising no longer from even as respectable a source as bigotry or fanaticism, but rather from the general habit, both in opinion and conduct, of making adherence to custom the rule of life, and enforcing it, by social penalties, against all persons who, without a party to back them, assert their individual independence.
How do we as a country levy social penalties against those who assert their independence, against those with no party to back them? We send hate through social media. We suspend high school students who silently protest the song of a slaveowner. Would these be our worst crimes, our times would not seem so troubling. We acquit white terrorists who commit double jeopardy, colonizing and recolonizing the same bits of land. We loose dogs and water cannons on the water protectors, the Indigenous lives whom we’ve thieved from and murdered. We sit by and watch as equal rights are not afforded to all citizens, and equal protection under the law has passed from ideal, past myth, into fiction.
And it is easy for me to sit in a house and type away on an old laptop. And words are just words and they don’t mean a thing unless there is something that ties them together. And it could be fear, and then words become a blueprint to build a tower to see over all. Or it could be love that turns disparate words into a song, and builds something greater than hate, bricks, and sand.
To finish, let us return to the beginning. In the story of Babel, God sees the efforts of man and says not yet, not even close, try harder. The people had a universal connection and made it about themselves, tried to make their own names great. For us to do the same is to hide behind a veil of false patriotism. To crow the greatness of America without acknowledging the truths that brought us here. If this is the land of opportunity then let us seize the opportunity to promote radical individuality. Because we need to hear one another, and learn to love each and every fiber of one another. Because love trumps hate.