Can Americans See Each Other Again?

The Rage and the Light

It’s difficult. Very difficult. To talk about America these days. Have you noticed? When I or anyone else says, “America is (this)”, or “Americans are (that)”, instantly there’s a kind of violent reaction. No! You’re generalizing! Americans aren’t this or that. And yet in that little rage something profound is said. Let me see if I can clumsily put it to words.

What is a society, anyways? To me, a society is just a way of relating to one another. How do we do that today? You, like me, are a member of many social groups. Religious, social, demographic. It doesn’t really matter what they are. Here’s what’s really unique about America today: every single group bears some kind of grievance against the others. It’s striking when you think about it — it’s distinctly not true in most other developed countries. Whether it’s the much-hated alt-right, the fringe left, the poor, the rich, the middle, blacks, whites, minorities, Muslims, anyone, everyone — bears a grievance, a grudge, a complaint. We’ll get to their validity.

What happens next? Well, usually one group says to the next, or the rest: “you are the bad people!”. What’s really happening here? Think about with me carefully. We are projecting our flaws outwards, aren’t we? Before we are members of various identity groups, presumably, we are members of a society together. If we are not, then why are complaining in such a way where society is the object of the discussion at all? Why not just campaign to secede? Write off society entirely?

Now that isn’t to say that society hasn’t failed people. Nor that you shouldn’t talk about it. Of course it has, and you should. America is a failing society, and what is truest about it is that it has failed everyone. Yes, really. Everyone. It has failed old, young, black, white, poor, middle, even rich. You might think to yourself: “how the blazes has America failed the rich?” The simple fact is that a rich man isn’t made any happier by his billionth dollar — just more miserable, cruel, and foolish — and yet every incentive in America as it exists today is to make more billionaires, not, say, scientists, artists, philosophers, poets, or even just wise, gentle, humane people, so they can buy…what? If not happiness, then maybe the illusion of safety from all the above. Grievance, suffering, pain. But life isn’t that simple, is it? You can’t buy your way out of a failed society, really. You can only buy a fortress protecting you from it. But those are not nearly the same thing. This society, this way of relating to one another, has failed every last one of us. But what are we to do with that truth? Use it as a club to beat one another over the head with? Or something a little more positive, beautiful, useful, enduring?

Now that isn’t to equivocate “levels” of failure. It isn’t to say that, for example, segregation and an opioid epidemic amongst poor whites carry perfectly equal morally weight, value, harm. Of course they don’t. But at the same time, this project of being a society take a truer kind of relating to one another than just performing a robotic mental calculus of pain, and saying “I’ve suffered the most! And they are the reason for it!”. After all, in all this, this game of projecting society’s flaws outwards, that’s all we are really doing, isn’t it? We reduce ourselves to something like little Ezra Kleins, moral accountants standing in judgment of one another, human calculators of virtue. But virtue is not really a calculable quantity. It is more a quality.

And to me that is the real point. We are all wounded by this war against being us. Hurt, ashamed, broken, rejected, disappointed, disillusioned, exhausted, afraid. To constantly judge one another as bad, terrible, lacking, elides the truer truth that beneath the wrongdoer, vendetta, eruption, insult, attack is usually a scar, a wound, a trauma, a soul that got badly broken in some way. And so the question for those who wish to be a society is: can we care about one another in such a deeper way — as human beings, not just as “identities”, roles, players in a theater of a society? If we are only going to be adversaries, opposites, prizefighters, sides, judging one another’s moral sins, then of course we neither can nor will ever really be a society.

So. You’ll maybe hate me for saying it, but this violent reaction I get when I say “Americans are (anything)” is precisely the point. Right now Americans aren’t anything together — only pure, violent negativity, the negation of being anything together. All we are really doing is hating, raging. But beneath hate and rage and the volcano is always grief, shame, hurt. Sorry: the hate of the alt-right is born from suffering, just as the rage of the fringe left is, just as the cold distance of the punditocracy is, just as the endless litany of my Twitter feed — “Trump is terrible!” — is. All of it. It’s one great ocean of suffering surging in different directions. Yes, Trump is terrible. He’s the world’s tackiest douchebag. But he’s not the point. We are.

We are better than this. We say that a lot, don’t we? But what does it really mean? Anything? To me, it means something like: we deserve better than this. We deserve better than this constant, bruising way of negativity, of simply projecting at the next group our fears and anguish instead of trying even for a moment to see, discover, know, what we hold in common. For what we hold in common is always greater than what divides us, or we would not be here at all. I don’t mean that in an cheesy, fake founding fathers kind of way — “hey, we’re all in it together! Except you guys, you’re only 3/5ths of real people!”. I mean it existentially: beneath even the foolish idea (to me) of nations, first there is one human experience, one soul, made of the same raw stuff, pure essence, happiness, grace, truth, pain, tears, birth, death. And yet if all we are is human calculators of pain, if all that we can say to one another is “those are the worse people!”, then at the very moment we deny ourselves any good genuinely social at all. Only in what is held in common can lie the possibility to really create a vision for a badly, deeply broken society. Not just a broken me, or a broken you, but a broken all of us.

And that is what is missing, isn’t it? Trump is the worst thing in my adult lifetime. If we’re reasonable people, we all agree on that. And yet, what we can’t agree on is what comes afterwards, what’s positive, what’s constructive, what’s helpful, graceful, noble, worthy, beautiful, just, true. Why not? Because we’re too busy caught up in this foolish game of being angry, hateful, enraged, oh so outraged, negative.

Negativity has even become cool, hasn’t it? There’s nothing more uncool than “sincerity”, so all the comfortably afflicted writers in vogue at this and that magazine tell me: and yet insincerity is the luxury of the therapeutic classes, isn’t it? So it’s just the same old failure to relate to one another in any true way, isn’t it? The left hates the right, with endless snark and cynicism and mockery, and the right hates the left right back, and yet neither side really sees both are acting out exactly the same role, the only common ground left in this foolish game: it’s oh so cool to be smoldering, enraged, angry, a kind of badge of honour amongst the intellectual soldiers of this forever war for the American soul. But what is it good for, this anger, really?

You know, deep down, that if anger becomes an end in itself, it is only like a storm. It passes, without creating anything. Anger is a means, maybe, sometimes — only when it helps to see one another with greater clarity and truth. But first our eyes must be open, and that is all anger can and should do: open our eyes, snap them wide awake. To the wonder and beauty and grace in every single human life. And right now, if you ask me, our eyes are shut tight, like a child afraid of the dark. And yet the darkness doesn’t go away just because you’ve closed your eyes.

We are suffering. Every single one of us. Some more, some less, but suffering is not a currency, not a game, not an accountant’s ledger. There are no winners and no losers, no kings and no beggars, in suffering — only those who can treat suffering with insincerity have the luxury of pretending so. Suffering is tears and sweat and hurt. Therefore every single one of us deserves better than this. A genuine vision for a society is about all of it, not some of it. The age of negativity, of cool anger, that America is trapped in is the defining feature of its decline. And in such a self-destructive age, to be positive — genuinely constructive, creative, inclusive, kind, graceful, gentle, true, not just “optimistic” and “hopeful” and other forms of passing the moral buck, but to see a glimmer of light burning right there, deep in the heart of every single human soul, no matter how different it is from the little “us”, even if it is as ugly as the alt-right or as cynical as the fringe left or as oblivious as the pundits or weak or desperate or foolish—to see that spark, to catch it, to hold it, to breath life into it — that, if you ask me, is the challenge of now.

August 2017