Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump

The year of magical thinking

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Elon Musk at Trump Tower

Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.

—Homer Simpson, “Whacking Day”

Yesterday, Tesla founder Elon Musk defended his decision to remain on President Trump’s economic advisory council, stating on Twitter: “My goals are to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and to help make humanity a multi-planet civilization.” A few weeks earlier, Peter Thiel, another member of the PayPal mafia and one of Trump’s most prominent defenders, said obscurely to the New York Times: “Even if there are aspects of Trump that are retro and that seem to be going back to the past, I think a lot of people want to go back to a past that was futuristic—The Jetsons, Star Trek. They’re dated but futuristic.” Musk and Thiel both tend to speak using the language of science fiction, in part because it’s the idiom that they know best. Musk includes Asimov’s Foundation series among his favorite books, and he’s a recipient of the Heinlein Prize for accomplishments in commercial space activities. Thiel is a major voice in the transhumanist movement, and he’s underwritten so much research into seasteading that I’m indebted to him for practically all the technical background of my novella “The Proving Ground.” As Thiel said to The New Yorker several years ago, in words that have a somewhat different ring today:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, “Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,” and in 2008 it was, like, “The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.”

Despite their shared origins at PayPal, Musk and Thiel aren’t exactly equivalent here: Musk has been open about his misgivings toward Trump’s policy on refugees, while Thiel, who seems to have little choice but to double down, had a spokesperson issue the bland statement: “Peter doesn’t support a religious test, and the administration has not imposed one.” Yet it’s still striking to see two of our most visible futurists staking their legacies on a relationship with Trump, even if they’re coming at it from different angles. As far as Musk is concerned, I don’t agree with his reasoning, but I understand it. His decision to serve in an advisory capacity to Trump seems to come down to his relative weighting of two factors, which aren’t mutually exclusive, but are at least inversely proportional. The first is the possibility that his presence will allow him to give advice that will affect policy decisions to some incremental but nontrivial extent. It’s better, this argument runs, to provide a reasonable voice than to allow Trump to be surrounded by nothing but manipulative Wormtongues. The second possibility is that his involvement with the administration will somehow legitimize or enable its policies, and that this risk far exceeds his slight chance of influencing the outcome. It’s a judgment call, and you can assign whatever values you like to those two scenarios. Musk has clearly thought long and hard about it. But I’ll just say that if it turns out that there’s even the tiniest chance that an occasional meeting with Musk—who will be sharing the table with eighteen others—could possibly outweigh the constant presence of Steve Bannon, a Republican congressional majority, and millions of angry constituents in any meaningful way, I’ll eat my copy of the Foundation trilogy.

Donald Trump and Peter Thiel

Musk’s belief that his presence on the advisory council might have an impact on a president who has zero incentive to appeal to anyone but his own supporters is a form of magical thinking. In a way, though, I’m not surprised, and it’s possible that everything I admire in Musk is inseparable from the delusion that underlies this decision. Whatever you might think of them personally, Musk and Thiel are undoubtedly imaginative. In his New Yorker profile, Thiel blamed many of this country’s problems on “a failure of imagination,” and his nostalgia for vintage science fiction is rooted in a longing for the grand gestures that it embodied: the flying car, the seastead, the space colony. Achieving such goals requires not only vision, but a kind of childlike stubbornness that chases a vanishingly small chance of success in the face of all evidence to the contrary. What makes Musk and Thiel so fascinating is their shared determination to take a fortune built on something as prosaic as an online payments system and to turn it into a spaceship. So far, Musk has been much more successful at translating his dreams into reality, and Thiel’s greatest triumph to date has been the destruction of Gawker Media. But they’ve both seen their gambles pay off to an extent that might mislead them about their ability to make it happen again. It’s this sort of indispensable naïveté that underlies Musk’s faith in his ability to nudge Trump in the right direction, and, on a more sinister level, Thiel’s eagerness to convince us to sign up for a grand experiment with high volatility in both directions—even if most of us don’t have the option of fleeing to New Zealand if it all goes up in flames.

This willingness to submit involuntary test subjects to a hazardous cultural project isn’t unique to science fiction fans. It’s the same attitude that led Norman Mailer, when asked about his support of the killer Jack Henry Abbott, to state: “I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent. I am saying that culture is worth a little risk.” (And it’s worth remembering that the man whom Abbott stabbed to death, Richard Adan, was the son of Cuban immigrants.) But when Thiel advised us before the election not to take Trump “literally,” it felt like a symptom of the suspension of disbelief that both science fiction writers and startup founders have to cultivate:

I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally. And so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not “Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?” or, you know, “How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?” What they hear is “We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”

We’ll see how that works out. But in the meantime, the analogy to L. Ron Hubbard is a useful one. Plenty of science fiction writers, including John W. Campbell, A.E. van Vogt, and Theodore Sturgeon, were persuaded by dianetics, in part because it struck them as a risky idea with an unlimited upside. Yet whatever psychological benefits dianetics provided—and it probably wasn’t any less effective than many forms of talk therapy—were far outweighed by the damage that Hubbard and his followers inflicted. It might help to mentally replace the name “Trump” with “Hubbard” whenever an ethical choice needs to be made. What would it mean to take Hubbard “seriously, but not literally?” And if Hubbard asked you to join his board of advisors, would it seem likely that you could have a positive influence, even if it meant adding your name to the advisory council of the Church of Scientology? Or would it make more sense to invest the same energy into helping those whose lives the church was destroying?

From Xenu to Xanadu

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L. Ron Hubbard

I do know that I could form a political platform, for instance, which would encompass the support of the unemployed, the industrialist and the clerk and day laborer all at one and the same time. And enthusiastic support it would be.

L. Ron Hubbard, in a letter to his wife Polly, October 1938

Yesterday, my article “Xenu’s Paradox: The Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard and the Making of Scientology” was published on Longreads. I’d been working on this piece, off and on, for the better part of a year, almost from the moment I knew that I was going to be writing the book Astounding. As part of my research, I had to read just about everything Hubbard ever wrote in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, and I ended up working my way through well over a million words of his prose. The essay that emerged from this process was inspired by a simple question. Hubbard clearly didn’t much care for science fiction, and he wrote it primarily for the money. Yet when the time came to invent a founding myth for Scientology, he turned to the conventions of space opera, which had previously played a minimal role in his work. Both his critics and his followers have looked hard at his published stories to find hints of the ideas to come, and there are a few that seem to point toward later developments. (One that frequently gets mentioned is “One Was Stubborn,” in which a fake religious messiah convinces people to believe in the nonexistence of matter so that he can rule the universe. There’s circumstantial evidence, however, that the premise came mostly from John W. Campbell, and that Hubbard wrote it up on the train ride home from New York to Puget Sound.) Still, it’s a tiny fraction of the whole. And such stories by other writers as “The Double Minds” by Campbell, “Lost Legacy” by Robert A. Heinlein, and The World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt make for more compelling precursors to dianetics than anything Hubbard ever wrote.

The solution to the mystery, as I discuss at length in the article, is that Hubbard tailored his teachings to the small circle of followers he had available after his blowup with Campbell, many of whom were science fiction fans who owed their first exposure to his ideas to magazines like Astounding. And this was only the most dramatic and decisive instance of a pattern that is visible throughout his life. Hubbard is often called a fabulist who compulsively embellished own accomplishments and turned himself into something more than he really was. But it would be even more accurate to say that Hubbard transformed himself into whatever he thought the people around him wanted him to be. When he was hanging out with members of the Explorers Club, he became a barnstormer, world traveler, and intrepid explorer of the Caribbean and Alaska. Around his fellow authors, he presented himself as the most productive pulp writer of all time, inflating his already impressive word count to a ridiculous extent. During the war, he spun stories about his exploits in battle, claiming to have been repeatedly sunk and wounded, and even a former naval officer as intelligent and experienced as Heinlein evidently took him at his word. Hubbard simply became whatever seemed necessary at the time—as long as he was the most impressive man in the room. It wasn’t until he found himself surrounded by science fiction fans, whom he had mostly avoided until then, that he assumed the form that he would take for the rest of his career. He had never been interested in past lives, but many of his followers were, and the memories that they were “recovering” in their auditing sessions were often colored by the imagery of the stories they had read. And Hubbard responded by coming up with the grandest, most unbelievable space opera saga of them all.

Donald Trump

This leaves us with a few important takeaways. The first is that Hubbard, in the early days, was basically harmless. He had invented a colorful background for himself, but he wasn’t alone: Lester del Rey, among others, seems to have engaged in the same kind of self-mythologizing. His first marriage wasn’t a happy one, and he was always something of a blowhard, determined to outshine everyone he met. Yet he also genuinely impressed John and Doña Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, and many other perceptive men and women. It wasn’t until after the unexpected success of dianetics that he grew convinced of his own infallibility, casting off such inconvenient collaborators as Campbell and Joseph Winter as obstacles to his power. Even after he went off to Wichita with his remaining disciples, he might have become little more than a harmless crank. As he began to feel persecuted by the government and professional organizations, however, his mood curdled into something poisonous, and it happened at a time in which he had undisputed authority over the people around him. It wasn’t a huge kingdom, but because of its isolation—particularly when he was at sea—he was able to exercise a terrifying amount of control over his closest followers. Hubbard didn’t even enjoy it. He had wealth, fame, and the adulation of a handful of true believers, but he grew increasingly paranoid and miserable. At the time of his death, his wrath was restricted to his critics and to anyone within arm’s reach, but he created a culture of oppression that his successor cheerfully extended against current and former members in faraway places, until no one inside or outside the Church of Scientology was safe.

I wrote the first draft of this essay in May of last year, but it’s hard to read it now without thinking of Donald Trump. Like Hubbard, Trump spent much of his life as an annoying but harmless windbag: a relentless self-promoter who constantly inflated his own achievements. As with Hubbard, everything that he did had to be the biggest and best, and until recently, he was too conscious of the value of his own brand to risk alienating too many people at once. After a lifetime of random grabs for attention, however, he latched onto a cause—the birther movement—that was more powerful than anything he had encountered before, and, like Hubbard, he began to focus on the small number of passionate followers he had attracted. His presidential campaign seems to have been conceived as yet another form of brand extension, culminating in the establishment of a Trump Television network. He shaped his message in response to the crowds who came to his rallies, and before long, he was caught in the same kind of cycle: a man who had once believed in nothing but himself gradually came to believe his own words. (Hubbard and Trump have both been described as con men, but the former spent countless hours auditing himself, and Trump no longer seems conscious of his own lies.) Both fell upward into positions of power that exceeded their wildest expectations, and it’s frightening to consider what might come next, when we consider how Hubbard was transformed. During his lifetime, Hubbard had a small handful of active followers; the Church of Scientology has perhaps 30,000, although, like Trump, they’re prone to exaggerate such numbers; Trump has millions. It’s especially telling that both Hubbard and Trump loved Citizen Kane. I love it, too. But both men ended up in their own personal Xanadu. And as I’ve noted before, the only problem with that movie is that our affection for Orson Welles distracts us from the fact that Kane ultimately went crazy.

An open letter to my daughter

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The author's daughter

Dear Beatrix,

As I write these words, you’re four years old. Last week, you went to your first ice skating lesson. You’d been looking forward to it all month, and you excitedly told all of your friends that you were going, but when you came home that afternoon, you were almost in tears. When I asked you what was wrong, you said that it was harder than you thought it would be, and that you kept falling down. I responded as I suppose most decent fathers would. It takes a while, I told you, to get the hang of a new skill; it’s normal to fall down a lot at the beginning; and you should keep trying until you get better. After you’ve practiced enough, I concluded, you won’t even remember how difficult it used to be. You asked: “But what if it’s still in my head?” And I wasn’t quite sure what to tell you. As you’ve probably figured out by now, adults aren’t always great at following their own advice. They’re haunted by their failures, and they often resist pushing themselves or trying new things. I know I do. But you know better. You’ve been to free skate twice now, and every time you’ve gone out on the ice, you’ve gotten further without falling than ever before. Whenever you fall down, your pick yourself up. It’s more than I could do at my age. And I won’t pretend that the courage that you’ve shown is thanks to anything that I’ve taught you. You did it yourself. My one piece of advice, in fact, is that you hold onto as much of it as you can. You can judge grownups by how much they show of that kind of bravery, and it can take us decades to rediscover what we knew as children. So I hope that you hang onto it—it’ll save you time and wasted effort later on.

When you finally read this letter, you’ll be a little older—maybe eight or so. That’s hard for me to believe. I remember being eight. It’s one of the earliest ages at which I have a clear sense of what I was thinking at the time: not just events, but my inner life of dreams, fantasies, impressions. I don’t remember much from before that. It tells me that the years of your life that we’ve shared together so far might end up as a blur, much as they sometimes are to me already, and that only a few isolated flashes will survive for when you’re older. If I’m honest, the thought of this is slightly painful: you and I have been through so much, but I don’t know how much of it will persist for you in ways that you can consciously recall. Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. For all I know, it may matter more than anything else. I hope that your mother and I have shown you sufficient love and patience that you can take it for granted, and that the memories that you keep are good ones. And I also hope that you can remember President Obama. It’s a small thing, but I’d like him to be the first memory you have of the presidency. You seem drawn to him, as a lot of kids are, even if you’re usually more interested in Michelle. Maybe one day it will all seem like a dream, as it does to me even now. For all the ups and downs of the last eight years, I still believe that Obama was a far better man than we deserved, or at least that a series of unlikely developments meant that we got him before we were collectively ready. I used to think that was a good thing. Now I’m not so sure. But I’m glad that you were around for some of it.

The author's daughter

Now we’re about to get a president who, by any measure, is worse than any of us deserve, thanks to a series of equally implausible events. (Which is just to say that they seem improbable by historical standards, which is probably an illusion in itself. If the stars could align to give us Obama eight years too soon, it stands to reason that they could also combine, on the downside, to give us a President Trump. Volatility on the whole seems to be rising, and past performance is not indicative of future returns.) By the time you read this, maybe we’ll have another president. I don’t know if we will. Frankly, I’m not even sure I’ll have completely figured out this last election by then. Even now, I find myself wavering between seeing it as an outcome that could have gone either way or as a development, in retrospect, that feels inevitable. Which doesn’t rule out the possibility that it was both. I think it’s fair to say that the fundamentals were closer than most progressives believed or that the numbers seemed to indicate, which meant that a few small factors—some from home, some from abroad—were enough to affect the results in three states just enough to make a difference. If fifty thousand voters had changed their minds, I’d be writing you a very different letter. Perhaps, in some other timeline, I am. But the fact that it was close enough for a few nudges in the right place to affect the result implies that there was something larger at play. Periods of progress are always followed by periods of reaction, and it’s clear, looking around the world, that we’re in the middle of a particularly severe one. That isn’t much consolation. But it was bound to happen eventually. It’s just sooner and far worse than anyone could have expected.

I wish I could tell you that everything will be fine, but I can’t. It emphatically won’t be fine for a lot of people, at least if the incoming administration keeps the least of its promises, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t. Our family is luckier than most, and I don’t know how our lives—or the ones of those we love—will change. I also don’t know what the psychological consequences will be. You’re about to spend some of the crucial years of your childhood in an atmosphere that can only affect your feelings about the presidency, this country, and your place in the world. And I’m not going to lie to you: a lot of things that we care about are about to be destroyed. They’ll be rolled back at once or in pieces, openly or in secret, for no better reason than it’s easier to destroy than to create. It’s enough to make me wonder whether any of it was worth it, and I’m afraid that you’ll grow up asking the same thing. But it made a difference. History alternates between eras of advancement and regression, the latter of which can last for centuries, but the trend over the longest possible timeline is clear. We take two steps forward and one step back, and we can only hope that we’ve planted the standard of humanity far enough forward into chaos that we end up slightly ahead of where we started, in defiance of all the forces that want to turn back the clock. Many of those who voted to enable it were motivated by the same feelings that I’ve described here: they looked into the faces of their daughters and sons and worried about the lives they would have. I’m sorry that a minority of my generation decided that this was what was best for yours. We screwed up, and I don’t know if we can fix things by the time you’re old enough to understand this. Maybe it will be up to you. All I can do is try to learn from your example. I need to get back on the ice and skate.

Love, Daddy

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2017 at 9:00 am

Posted in Writing

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The kingdom of leaven

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The Parable of the Leaven by Jan Luyken

Last month, at the church that my wife and I attend in Oak Park, the pastor delivered a sermon on a passage from the First Epistle to Timothy, which I can only assume was intended to make his overwhelmingly liberal congregation uncomfortable:

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all goodness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our savior, who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto knowledge of the truth.

He followed this with a prayer that invoked both presidential candidates by name, asking that they be granted wisdom and strength, regardless of the outcome of the election. After the service, my wife said to me: “I don’t want to pray for Donald Trump.” I responded, a bit lamely, that I had to give the pastor credit for delivering a message that the majority of his congregants probably didn’t want to hear. But I didn’t disagree with her. And it’s a point worth raising again today, when well-meaning calls for the country to come together are being opposed by voices that argue, unanswerably, that it’s hard to ask the groups that are most vulnerable right now—minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community—to preemptively forgive and embrace their oppressors.

So what would Jesus do? When we honestly ask this of ourselves, the answers don’t become any easier, and perhaps they shouldn’t. But it’s an important question. I’m agnostic, and I go to church mostly for the sake of my wife and daughter, but I also spend more time thinking about the words of Jesus than I do of any other religious figure or philosopher, if only because they reward extended reflection. My usual gateways are The Five Gospels, in which the Jesus Seminar valiantly attempts to separate the authentic sayings from material that has accrued or been deliberately added over time, and the work of the scholar R.H. Blyth, who saw Jesus as an exemplar of the life of Zen. This approach is unavoidably skewed, a view through a particular lens, but that’s also something that we all do. The fact that evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump tells me that they’re picking and choosing, too, and that they’re acting according to the subset of the Bible that they find most congenial to their needs. I don’t have any qualms about doing the same thing. In part, it’s because it consoles me, but it’s also because I refuse to allow the religious right and their opportunistic allies to claim Jesus for themselves. On some level, we’re all editing the text, taking the parts that we need and leaving the rest. For instance, I doubt that my pastor would have gotten the same response from the crowd if he had gone just a few verses further in his text and read: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

The Parable of the Mustard Seed by Jan Luyken

And when I turn to what seem like the original words of Jesus, or at least the ones that might plausibly have been preserved through a purely oral tradition, there are two that stand out for our present moment. The first is “Love your enemies.” The second is “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give to God what belongs to God.” Neither is a particularly easy saying, but they both arise from the same set of concerns. As I’ve written elsewhere, I prefer to see Jesus as the ultimate pragmatist. If you believe that the kingdom of heaven is something that is happening right now, it has a way of focusing your priorities. Hating your enemies is a waste of time and energy. If you’re ruthlessly practical about it, you find that it makes more sense to love them. Similarly, from the perspective of the truly destitute, the beggars who are beneath even the ordinary poor, it doesn’t matter who rules. It certainly doesn’t change the way they ought to act. Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, would be utterly indifferent to political outcomes. That seems clear enough. But part of me also resists it. Taken literally, it appears to advocate passivity, acceptance, and a surrender to the idea that everything is part of a larger plan. Maybe it is—but it’s worth remembering that this plan can also include our reactions to it, in pockets of opposition, big and small, that take place far from the circles of power. And it doesn’t speak much to those who are honestly afraid right now. So you’ll forgive me if I push past the obvious answer, even if I suspect that it’s probably true, and dig deeper for something that gives me what I need.

I’m going to close my thoughts on this awful week, then, with the idea of the kingdom of heaven itself. Jesus talks about it endlessly, but he never says explicitly what it is. Instead, he speaks in parables, which are ultimately the only way in which it can be described. And what strikes me the most about the kingdom of heaven, as reconstructed from the sayings that we have the greatest reason to regard as genuine, is how modest and everyday it is. In the original version of the parable of the mustard seed, for example, it’s a tiny seed that grows into a weedy little shrub. It’s only much later, in versions that were designed to make this disconcertingly humble analogy seem more conventionally impressive, that it gets inflated into “the greatest of shrubs,” or a majestic tree in which the birds of heaven build their nests. But the underlying image is that of a common plant that grows underfoot and can’t be eradicated. And in both Matthew and Luke, it’s followed by the most beautiful parable that we have, as well as one of the strangest:

The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.

I may not know what the kingdom of heaven means, but I think that we get very close to it here. It’s invisible. Like leaven, or yeast, it’s something that the unthinkingly devout dismiss as impure, unclean, or sinful. It does its work in hiding. And it happens in the hands of a woman.

Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2016 at 9:04 am

Hamilton in Camelot

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John F. Kennedy and family

A few months after her husband’s assassination, in a famous profile published in Life magazine, Jacqueline Kennedy said to the journalist Theodore White:

When Jack quoted something, it was usually classical, but I’m so ashamed of myself—all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy. At night, before we’d go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were: Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot…There’ll be great presidents again, and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me—but there’ll never be another Camelot.

As others have pointed out, despite its self-conscious air of candor—”I’m so ashamed of myself”—this was a deliberate attempt to create a new myth. After the interview, Sorenson dictated a draft of his copy over the phone to his editors, who were standing by to run the article in the magazine. At first, they indicated that the reference to Camelot should be cut, but Mrs. Kennedy, who was standing nearby, signaled to White to keep it in. Much later, White expressed regret over his role in the legend’s creation, describing it as “a misreading of history.” But few of the myths that we make for ourselves are entirely true, or accidental.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Camelot myth, and how it applies to Barack Obama. It seems fairly clear that one of Donald Trump’s first priorities will be to roll back most of his predecessor’s signature achievements. He can’t unkill Osama Bin Laden, but he can take back just about everything else. Some of it will be to fulfill his campaign pledges; some will be to appease his supporters on the right; and some, I think, will simply be because it’s easier to destroy than to create. Trump is highly unlikely to deliver on even a fraction of what he has promised, but it’s possible to give an impression of action from the blunt, unthinking negation of policies that were the product of years of negotiation and compromise. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to prepare ourselves for the systematic reversal of most of the progressive agenda from the last quarter of a century. Trump may only be able to hang onto his majorities in the House and Senate until the next midterm election, but two years is more than enough to undo the work of twenty. This means that Obama’s legacy is less likely, as once seemed possible, to resemble that of a president like Roosevelt, who left a permanent impact on our ideas of government and its obligations, than that of Kennedy, who symbolizes nothing so much as unfulfilled potential. Obama was in office longer than Kennedy, did far more, and wasn’t silenced by a bullet. But as time passes, I have a hunch that his presidency will feel just as much like a dream.

President Barack Obama

But even that dream is worth preserving. Trump can take away almost everything, but I refuse to let him take away what Obama meant to me—an emblem of class, elegance, humor, and empathy that often felt too good to be true even in the moment. He wasn’t perfect. It took him a while to get the hang of the office. But on the whole, it was a balancing act that embodied everything I wanted a man to be. Trump may imperil the future, but it would be just as tragic if he reached backward to poison the past. You could argue that the myth of Camelot actually damaged the progressive movement in America: it made the ideals of liberalism seem like something unattainable, casting them in magical or nostalgic terms that could never be replicated, or as a matter of style rather than of hard choices. That’s a fair point, and at a time when so much real work remains to be done, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to romanticize Obama into something that we won’t see again. But Jacqueline Kennedy—who, notably, later became a very successful editor in her own right—understood that an alternative myth was necessary to keep her husband’s memory from being overwhelmed by its horrific end, as well as to nurture more practical goals. And if turning the Obama administration into something like Camelot is what I need to freeze those precious, fragile emotions against the day when I can use them again, then I’ll do it. And I’ll be as deliberate about it as possible.

Of course, Obama’s musical wasn’t Camelot, but Hamilton. I’ve been listening to Hamilton practically nonstop for the last few months: my daughter likes to hear it at bath time, and one of its discs always begins to play whenever I start my car. Not surprisingly, my reactions to it have served as an index to my feelings about this election. There were times when I listened to it with a sense of triumph, mixed with a vague fear that it would turn out to be tragically premature: “Immigrants—we get the job done!” And it’s hard for me to even think of Hamilton’s closing lines:

Legacy, what is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
You let me make a difference, a place where even orphan immigrants
Can leave their fingerprints and rise up…

Even before the election was over, it was impossible to listen to “One Last Time,” sung by Chris Jackson as George Washington, and not think of Obama. Its resonance now is more bittersweet than I imagined it would be. I’m content, just barely, with allowing him to go home to his own vine and fig tree. But he’s still here. And like Arthur, the once and future king, Obama—or what he represents—will return one day. It’s only a matter of time.

Written by nevalalee

November 10, 2016 at 8:51 am

The world of Tlön

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Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Ferdinando Scianna

Last month, my wife suffered a miscarriage in her eighth week of pregnancy. We had been trying for a second baby for a long time, and it devastated us. She has already written about it more eloquently than I ever could, and I don’t want to relive it all here. But there’s one memory that I’ve been turning over in my head for most of a sleepless night. It was during our first visit to the hospital, when we were waiting to go upstairs to hear the results of my wife’s blood test and ultrasound. I ended up alone in the lobby for a little while, and I caught myself wondering if this would be the last happy moment I would ever have. At such times, you try to strike bargains with the universe, and my personal life already felt so entangled with the election that I made a silent offer: I would accept a Trump presidency, if only it meant that I could have this baby. A few minutes later, we were seated across from a midwife who told us that the fetal heartbeat was abnormally slow, and that it didn’t seem to be viable. There was a chance that it would survive, but it was very low. We went home, spent a tense week waiting to see what would happen, and finally returned for a second appointment. The fetus was already gone. And when I think back now to the deal I tried to strike—Trump in exchange for that baby—I’m reminded of what the late Gene Wilder screams at Charlie at the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: “You get nothing.”

Of course, that isn’t exactly true. I’m fortunate enough to have a life that is mostly shielded from the obvious fallout of a Trump administration. There isn’t any risk that I’ll be deported. I’m a heterosexual male in the middle class. If I want to tune out the news for weeks or months, I’ve got an absorbing project that was going to take up most of my time anyway. But the prospect of doing any work on my book now reminds me of how Jorge Luis Borges ends the story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which the world is devoured by the alternative reality of a fictional encyclopedia:

Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly…Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön. I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogue hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne’s Urn Burial.

We’re all about to take the plunge into unreality that Borges describes here—and it isn’t a fantasy spun by a secret society of encyclopedists, as the Borges fan Karl Rove might have foreseen, but the product of a single man’s brain. And part of me is tempted to pay no attention to it and go on revising.


In many ways, it feels like any reasonable person is faced with two alternatives. Either you can fully accept that this is the time that you’ve been given, as Gandalf says to Frodo, and gird yourself for four years of battle, or you can withdraw, tend your own garden, and try to make as much happiness as you can for yourself and your loved ones—which is a luxury that not everyone can afford. I’m an imperfect creature, so I suspect that my reaction will be some combination of the two. I’ll unplug for a while, wait for the noise to die down, and then figure out a way to muddle through and do the best I can. It’s not so different from the way in which I dealt with the George W. Bush administration, which, in retrospect, encompassed eight of the happiest years of my life. It had nothing to do with politics: I was in my twenties, I was making my way in the world for the first time, and I felt no need to identify with the man in the White House. Trump may well turn out to be similar, if far worse. For one thing, I’m not twenty anymore. But I’ve also been spoiled by Obama. For most of the last decade, the president was a man I admired and understood. He made me feel that I was part of something larger. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that way again. Part of me sensed this, which is why I tried to savor this last, awful year in whatever way I could. Maybe my relationship to politics has simply been restored to what should be its natural state, as forcefully and abruptly as possible. But that doesn’t make it any less painful.

As for Trump himself, I don’t think there’s any point in denying that what he did was extraordinary. As L. Ron Hubbard, a charismatic leader with disturbing affinities to Trump, once wrote: “I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form even if all books are destroyed.” Trump did this unequivocally, and along the way, he reminded us of how little we know about anything, both individually and collectively. Maybe it’s a lesson that all we needed to be taught, although I sincerely doubt it will be worth the cost. And I still don’t know what to make of it. Goethe said of another historic figure:

The story of Napoleon produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.

Despite its apocalyptic tone—or perhaps because of it—this is pretty much what I’m feeling now. I don’t have any illusions that Trump will be a decent president, and even a mediocre presidency seems like too much to ask. What consoles me now is that there are good things in this country, and in all our lives, that Trump can never take away. As the world becomes Tlön, the rest of us will muddle through, even if it has to be on our own. My wife and I lost one baby, but we’ll try for another. But I still don’t know what to say to my daughter.

The comedy of survival

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Yesterday, I was browsing at a local used bookstore when I stumbled across a copy of The Comedy of Survival by Joseph W. Meeker. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, ever since encountering an extended treatment it in the ecological classic Muddling Toward Frugality, and I’ve even shared an excerpt from it here before. This is the quote that I posted more than four years ago:

Comedy demonstrates that man is durable even though he may be weak, stupid, and undignified. As the tragic hero suffers or dies for his ideals, the comic hero survives without them. At the end of the tale he manages to marry his girl, evade his enemies, slip by the oppressive authorities, avoid drastic punishment, and to stay alive. His victories are all small, but he lives in a world where only small victories are possible…Comedy is careless of morality, goodness, truth, beauty, heroism, and all such abstract values men say they live by. Its only concern is to affirm man’s capacity for survival and to celebrate the continuity of life itself, despite all moralities. Comedy is a celebration, a ritual renewal of biological welfare as it persists in spite of the reasons there may be for metaphysical despair…Comedy muddles through, but seems to care little for such weighty matters as progress and perfection.

And although I wasn’t deliberately looking for Meeker’s book, it seemed like a sign that it happened to fall into my hands when it did. As I read the chapter “The Comic Mode” in its entirety for the first time, it struck me that its message is one that both liberals and conservatives ought to take to heart. Meeker points out that tragedy, as a literary genre, is based on a grandiose view of mankind: it assumes that humanity occupies an exalted place in the scheme of nature, that life comes down to a choice between moral absolutes, and that the perfect hero would destroy himself, his loved ones, and plenty of innocent bystanders rather than stoop to a compromise. Comedy, by contrast, is more concerned with keeping as many people alive as possible, even if we often look ridiculous in the process. The comic hero’s willingness to accommodate himself to the world has affinities to natural selection, which will try anything that works. Yet despite the fact that the tragic mode invariably ends badly for all concerned, there’s something weirdly attractive about heroes like Hamlet or Oedipus, who drag everyone around them down to a universal catastrophe. As Meeker shrewdly observes:

If there were moral philosophers among the lungfishes and peppered moths, [their] innovations would very likely have been condemned as threats to the continuity of tradition, or perhaps as shameful immorality. All admiration would no doubt have been reserved for the heroic fish who would rather die than give up his gills and for the moth who faced his end wearing customary gray.

Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight

And this sheds a surprising amount of light on the dynamics of the presidential race. Donald Trump, to put it mildly, is no Hamlet, despite his recent attempt at his own version of the Yorick scene. But he obviously sees himself and his campaign in tragic terms, even as he endlessly predicts his own victory. He claims that he alone can save us, that our salvation lies in the destruction of the old order, and that America needs to be made great again—in a return to the idealized past. And if the result has often been more grotesque than inspiring, Meeker helpfully explains why:

If people generally see themselves in the tragic mode, it is perhaps because it satisfies their vanity and makes their actions seem important. It is gratifying to see oneself as a hero, a great sufferer, a martyr, or an oppressed idealist…But unfortunately, the tragic heroes preserved in literature are the products of metaphysical presuppositions which most people can no longer honestly share…Moderns can only pretend to tragic heroism, and that pretense is painfully hollow and melodramatic in the absence of the beliefs that tragedy depends upon.

This is a perfect description of Trump, a moral pygmy whose attempt to model himself after the great leaders of the past is both farcical and profoundly frightening. He’s laughable, but he isn’t a comic figure. If we know anything about Trump, it’s that he’s a spectacularly humorless man when he’s the butt of the joke. And as his story nears its end, he seems more than willing to invite the kind of catastrophe that accompanies the fall of a hero.

Which doesn’t mean that he’ll get it. If we’re going to find a way forward, regardless of the outcome of this election, we need to take a page from Meeker, who rejects the tragic or apocalyptic in favor of the comic:

Evolution is…a shameful, unscrupulous, opportunistic comedy, the object of which appears to be the proliferation and preservation of as many life forms as possible without regard for anyone’s moral ideas. Successful participants in it are those who remain alive when circumstances change, not those who are best able to destroy competitors and enemies. Its ground rules for participants (including man) are those which also govern literary comedy: organisms must adapt themselves to their circumstances in every possible way, must studiously avoid all-or-nothing choices, must prefer any alternative to death, must accept and encourage maximum diversity, must accommodate themselves to the accidental limitations of birth and environment, and must always prefer love to war—though if warfare is inevitable, it should be prosecuted so as to humble the enemy without destroying him. The events depicted in tragic literature cannot occur if these principles are observed. Comic action follows naturally from them.

Frankly, this sounds a lot like politics—which implies that it requires an actual politician. Luckily, there’s a good one available. And even if her opponent is a tragic hero only in his own imagination, we can still give him the ending that he so richly deserves.

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2016 at 8:44 am

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