Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jacob T. Levy

The stories of our lives

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Last week, I mentioned the evocative challenge that the writer and literary agent John Brockman recently posed to a group of scientists and intellectuals: “Ask the question for which you will be remembered.” I jokingly said that my own question would probably resemble the one submitted by the scholar Jonathan Gottschall: “Are stories bad for us?” As often happens with such snap decisions, however, this one turned out to be more revealing than I had anticipated. When I look back at my work as a writer, it’s hard to single out any overarching theme, but I do seem to come back repeatedly to the problem of reading the world as a text. My first novel, The Icon Thief, was openly inspired by Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, which inverts the conventions of the conspiracy thriller to explore how we tell ourselves stories about history and reality. I didn’t go quite as far as Eco did, but it was a subject that I enjoyed, and it persisted to a lesser extent in my next two books. My science fiction stories tend to follow a formula that I’ve described as The X-Files in reverse, in which a paranormal interpretation of a strange event is supplanted by another that fits the same facts into a more rational pattern. And I’m currently finishing up a book that is secretly about how the stories that we read influence our behavior in the real world. As Isaac Asimov pointed out in his essay “The Sword of Achilles,” most readers are drawn to science fiction at a young age, and its values and assumptions subtly affect how they think and feel. If there’s a single thread that runs through just about everything I’ve written, then, it’s the question of how our tendency to see the world as a story—or a text—can come back to haunt us in unexpected ways.

As it happens, we’re all living right now through a vast social experiment that might have been designed to test this very principle. I got to thinking about this soon after reading an excellent essay, “The Weight of the Words,” by the political scientist Jacob T. Levy. He begins with a discussion of Trump’s “shithole countries” remark, which led a surprising number of commentators—on both the right and the left—to argue that the president’s words were less important than his actions. Levy summarizes this view: “Ignore the tweets. Ignore Trump’s inflammatory language. Ignore the words. What counts is the policy outcomes.” He continues:

I have a hard time believing that anyone really thinks like this as a general proposition…The longstanding view among conservatives was that Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall” were important events, words that helped to mobilize western resistance to Communism and to provide moral clarity about the stakes of that resistance.

On a more basic level, since it’s impossible for the government to accomplish everything by force, much of politics lies in emotional coercion, which suggest that words have power in themselves. Levy refers to Hannah Arendt’s argument in The Human Condition, in which a familiar figure appears:

The stature of the Homeric Achilles can be understood only if one sees him as “the doer of great deeds and the speakers of great words”…Thought was secondary to speech, but speech and action were considered to be coeval and coequal, of the same rank and the same kind; and this originally meant not only that most political action, in so far as it remains outside the sphere of violence, is indeed transacted in words, but more fundamentally that finding the right words at the right moment, quite apart from the information or communication they may convey, is action.

Levy then lists many of the obvious ways in which Trump’s words have had tangible effects—the erosion of America’s stature abroad, the undermining of trust in law enforcement and the civil service, the growth of tribalism and xenophobia, and the redefinition of what it means to be a Republican. (As Levy notes of Trump’s relationship to his supporters: “He doesn’t speak for them; how many of them had a view about ‘the deep state’ two years ago? He speaks to them, and it matters.”) Trump routinely undercuts the very notion of truth, in what seems like the ultimate example of the power of speech over the world of fact. And Levy’s conclusion deserves to be read whenever we need to be reminded of how this presidency differs from all the others that have come before:

The alleged realism of those who want to ignore words will often point to some past president whose lofty rhetoric obscured ugly policies. Whether those presidents are named “Reagan and George W. Bush” or “JFK and Barack Obama” varies in the obvious way, but the deflationary accounts are similar; there are blunders, crimes, abuses, and atrocities enough to find in the record of every American president. But all those presidents put forward a public rhetorical face that was better than their worst acts. This inevitably drives political opponents crazy: they despise the hypocrisy and the halo that good speeches put on undeserving heads. I’ve had that reaction to, well, every previous president in my living memory, at one time or another. But there’s something important and valuable in the fact that they felt the need to talk about loftier ideals than they actually governed by. They kept the public aspirations of American political culture pointed toward Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”

He concludes of all of our previous presidents: “In words, even if not in deeds, they championed a free and fair liberal democratic order, the protection of civil liberties, openness toward the world, rejection of racism at home, and defiance against tyranny abroad. And their words were part of the process of persuading each generation of Americans that those were constitutively American ideals.” America, in short, is a story that Americans tell one another—and the world—about themselves, and when we change the assumptions behind this narrative, it has profound implications in practice. We treat others according to the roles that we’ve imagined for ourselves, or, more insidiously, that our society has imagined for us. Those roles are often restrictive, but they can also be liberating, both for good and for bad. (Levy perceptively notes that the only federal employees who don’t feel devalued these days are immigration and border agents.) And Levy sounds a warning that we would all do well to remember:

“Ignore the tweets, ignore the language, ignore the words” is advice that affects a kind of sophistication: don’t get distracted by the circus, keep your eye on what’s going on behind the curtain. This is faux pragmatism, ignoring what is being communicated to other countries, to actors within the state, and to tens of millions of fellow citizens. It ignores how all those actors will respond to the speech, and how norms, institutions, and the environment for policy and coercion will be changed by those responses. Policy is a lagging indicator; ideas and the speech that expresses them pave the way.

“Trump has spent a year on the campaign trail and a year in office telling us where he intends to take us,” Levy concludes. And we’re all part of this story now. But we should be even more worried if the words ever stop. As Arendt wrote more than half a century ago: “Only sheer violence is mute.”

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