Reflections on the GOP 🔥🐘🔥

Movements and institutions are like wells from which people draw guidance for how to live justly. Examples of such institutions and movements can include the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States, the US Congress and Senate, the European Union, the Catholic Church, Silicon Valley and Wall Street, colleges and universities, or even the progressive Enlightenment. 

By consulting their traditions and values, we may decide how to govern ourselves, how to conduct ourselves around others, and how to distill meaning from our experiences. As long as these wells are continually replenished by good faith and public trust, they continue to serve as useful foundations for our society.

Unfortunately, several of these wells have been poisoned by deceit and bad faith. I reserve my ire for the Democratic party, the media, and the law and judiciary for another time because I would like to focus on the institutional movement that I believe has been most corrupted by its own fears and weaknesses: the Republican party and the conservative movement. In relying on manipulation and resentments, the GOP has irrevocably ruined their public credibility as keepers of democracy.

Joe Brusky/ Flickr

Joe Brusky/Flickr

Eric Levitz of New York Magazine helpfully lays out why mainstream Republicanism is a threat to democracy.

“mainstream Democrats” have come to view the Republican Party as a threat to democracy because the Republican Party has come to (correctly) view democracy as a threat to itself.

Levitz points out that Republicans have repeatedly sought to “disenfranchise Americans who do not agree with them” and “dilute the influence of those Democratic voters who do happen to make it to the polls through aggressive, partisan gerrymandering.” When Democrats do attain a seat of power, Republicans across the country have tried to systematically limit their power, most recently exemplified in North Carolina. Why go through all this trouble? Because the Republican Party’s proposals are not popular nor do they have the majority of voters or citizens behind them. 

The GOP’s tactics for hijacking institutions to become a permanent ruling minority weren’t developed overnight. Their playbook of saying one thing and doing another was honed from years of policy-making. Republicans offer tax cuts and deficit reduction as policy proposals, and yet only cut taxes on themselves and the very wealthy while ballooning the deficit. They advocate for increased military spending while leaving the nation’s economy and security vulnerable to outside actors. The core of Republican socialization consists of discussing the next con or grift they intend to purport on the gullible American public (a trait that I’m afraid to admit is an increasingly common part of Democratic circles as well). 

Furthermore, whatever anti-corruption ethic rooted in the defense of individual liberties the party once embodied has been eradicated due to its Faustian bargain with corporations and white supremacists. In hindsight, it is difficult to claim this tradition, which many conservatives claimed was the soul of their party, wasn’t just another cynical ploy to protect the concentration of power in the hands of those historically served by white supremacy and patriarchy.

I have often appreciated the work of conservative critics, who have sought a more morally just society in their advocacy for the arts, beauty, and faith as bulwarks against rational, progressive, techno-utopian visions. At their best, conservative thinkers have looked inward upon communities built on trust and common belief and thus identified aspects of the human experience worth preserving and defending.

The Republican party and the conservative movement embody none of these characteristics. Their animating principle consists largely of myriad resentments and an ever more narrow vision of a racist, sexist, hyper-violent future. Worse, their hate has become an infectious disease, one that seems to be emerging all over the world.

Many of our greatest political and moral challenges are questions of whether we ought to continue drinking from a poisoned well, hoping it gets better, or to abandon the well and build a new one, even if the new well serves a similar function to the old. There are no rules or heuristics for determining when to make one choice over the other. All we have is our ability to observe carefully what these institutions say and do, and to exercise our moral judgment accordingly.

That’s why I believe we must seek the peaceful end of the bipartisan system as we know it that has led to this extremist iteration of the Republican party and the conservative movement, and begin the process of building a true multi-party democracy in the United States of America.

Many American conservatives find the possibility of abolishing the Republican Party unthinkable. Conservatives operate from the idea that there is a trusted in-group and consequently a less trusted out-group. The point of conservatism for many conservatives is to create and defend institutions that are gatekeepers to the trusted in-group.

Alas, these institutions succumb to corruption when the only value the gatekeeper cares about is self-preservation. Conservatives trusted the Republican Party and conservative movement to gracefully apply its traditions to modern society while holding at its center a defense of civil liberties. In return the GOP has given them an authoritarian Trump and tax cut worshipping death cult in which individuals don’t have the freedom to dissent.

Anyone who sincerely identifies with the American conservative tradition should reject the “conservative” movement for its betrayal of their trust. Remaining loyal to this diseased and dying movement isn’t conservatism, it is merely irresponsible dogma.

It won’t be easy to reconfigure the political traditions of the United States. The work of exercising moral conscience is itself taxing, especially when beset by an overwhelming amount of things to care about and understand. But I believe that the stakes are high and getting higher every day.

If we fail to eradicate the diseased corpse of partisan extremism and the conservative movement fueling our country’s increasingly hateful, authoritarian bent, we greatly endanger our ability to build a peaceful truth and reconciliation with our past and our future.

Don’t let them tell you what to do!

Playwright Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005. At the awards ceremony for the prize, Pinter delivered a lecture titled Art, Truth & Politics via telecast from his hospital bed.

He begins the lecture by describing one of his core beliefs as a young writer:

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.

Pinter as a mature writer, however, finds that this notion of truth is not enough:

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

I believe this distinction between an artist’s search for truth versus that of the citizen may be considered seriously through reflections on Pinter’s plays and his Nobel speech. Further in his lecture, Pinter clarifies the fundamentally slippery nature of truth in art:

So language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time.

But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.

This commitment to the search for an inherently ambiguous truth is what draws me to Pinter’s work. The struggle for truth is expressed through his use of oblique language and moments of silence that barely conceal the socially-shattering violent and sexual undercurrents domesticity belies and  how this domestic tension, borne of the struggle to resist normalization, inevitably culminates in the failure of reason and language.

For example, in The Birthday Party, Stanley, a seemingly down-on-his-luck pianist in a rundown boarding house, is nagged by Meg, the older woman who runs the boarding house with her listless husband Petey and with whom Stanley may or may not have an intimate relationship. She exhorts him, in a manner inappropriate to a mere boarder, to be a more socially integrated part of the household and her life. He’s similarly egged on by Lulu, the voluptuous 20-something neighbor, to get out more and later harassed by the gangsters McCann and Goldberg who seem to know about him and his past.

The Birthday Party / Northwestern University /  W    ikimedia Commons

The Birthday Party / Northwestern University / Wikimedia Commons

The language of English politeness gradually breaks down as it transforms from social niceties to verbal assault, as first used by Stanley against Meg, and then by Goldberg and McCann against Stanley. By the play’s end, Stanley is left speechless following a nervous breakdown during the “birthday party”, able to only grunt as he’s being reclaimed by Goldberg and McCann and hauled away to some sinister fate.

The Birthday Party is full of inexplicable exchanges and shifting truths, as characters deploy multiple names, origins, identities, and innuendo, not to outwit each other but to muddy the waters of how they relate to each other with protective ambiguity. Bob Bows, a critic for the Denver Post, astutely points out that “in the silence between the characters and their words, Pinter opens the door to another world, cogent and familiar: the part we hide from ourselves.” The dialogue reminds me of the limited vocabulary and claustrophobia that can emerge within the confines of an intimate relationship and how our words and silences, if left untended, may slowly engulf us.

Pinter’s plays ripple with violence, often culminating in nightmarish (and oddly humorous)  bacchanals. The juxtaposition of comedy and menace in The Birthday Party is best exemplified by a scene near the end of the play where Goldberg demands McCann blow puffs of air into his mouth as a sort of shamanistic infusion of life energy, after a lengthy monologue about his father and his studious loyalty to hard work and organization. The surreal moment passes without comment or footnote, unexplained yet undeniable.

Explanations are scant in Pinter’s plays. The factual truth of characters’ pasts, origins, and relationships is concealed, to both the audience and the author. Pinter in his Nobel lecture describes how he wrote most of his plays starting with an image or a line and working his way out from there, using the dialogue to reveal, even to himself, who these characters are and what is to occur on stage.

Consider The Homecoming, a play about the return of an American academic, Teddy, to his North London family with his wife Ruth. It quickly becomes apparent that Teddy’s family is deeply involved with a criminal underworld tied to a boxing ring. The play escalates from menacing pleasantries (a Pinter specialty) upon Teddy’s arrival to the family aggressively claiming Ruth for themselves with her unexpected consent. The precise reasons why Ruth would leave her children and her husband Teddy to become a prostitute and surrogate mother for Teddy’s father and brothers, or even why Teddy left North London for America in the first place, or even why Ruth seems so familiar with a milieu and social class she ostensibly has never been in are all left ambiguous.

What’s exhilarating about The Homecoming is how the characters’ actions are both rationally inexplicable and emotionally coherent. Even the most shocking, violent, erotic, and taboo turn of events in Pinter’s plays can erupt from a seemingly banal, polite conversation. It is clear in Pinter’s worlds how a society with so much pervasive domestic tension cloaked under manners and expectations could wind up going to war.

Indeed, Pinter’s lifelong disgust of war becomes more evident as he began writing plays set in prisons or bureaucratic frontlines where, like the home, cruelties and tortures are carefully obfuscated and hidden yet present in language and the depths of relationships.

in Mountain Language, the difference between emotional and bureaucratic truth is made even more explicit. Prison guards coerce their captives to speak in their language, the language of the capital, which they deploy in complicated linguistic gymnastics to formalize their cruelty. Meanwhile, the mountain language of the prisoners is reserved for expressing psychic traumas and grief. The truth of pain and violence is explicitly confined into a language the captors cannot understand.

Pinter’s work is intentionally confrontational. His plays force audiences to abandon the impulse to speculate and to just see the actions unfolding before them. Rather than unsee emotions and passions in favor of their logical origins, Pinter’s plays force us to be emotionally present by surfacing “the part we hide from ourselves” onto the stage. This approach itself is a challenge to a regime that seeks to define truth and our sense of self for us.

Pinter further expands on this theme in his Nobel lecture:

To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

Which he then contrasts to the life and work of a writer:

A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don’t have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection--unless you lie--in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.

The task of determining what to say and how to say it sometimes leaves me stymied. I find myself confronting in my own work the failures of language to express how I feel.

I believe that part of this challenge of expression is rooted in my troubled relationship with desires that I habitually deny or hide from myself. To acknowledge these feelings of anger and violence, lust and gluttony, envy, domination, and fear feels like a betrayal of my project of defining myself before I am defined by others. Yet, to hide from these feelings, as Adam Philips and Barbara Taylor argue in On Kindness, is a form of unkindness because it obscures us from ourselves and confines us. Likewise, refusing to see what is dark and inexplicable in others is a form of unkindness too. Without the kindness of seeing ourselves and others in full, can we ever accord ourselves our due dignity?

Maybe this multiplicity of truth pursued by writers like Pinter, the results of their practice of sitting and seeing the scope of humanity in full, is the core of human dignity and the ultimate consequence of genuine kindness. Embracing the multiplicity of truth may also be a form of resistance to coercive force. 

Goldberg and McCann at the end of The Birthday Party insist to a blubbering Stanley in a barrage of promises that they will essentially be, as Goldberg puts it “the hub of his wheel” from now on. It appears that whatever Stanley was trying to discreetly escape, he was incapable of running away from it fast enough. As Stanley is being carried away by Goldberg and McCann, Petey calls out to him, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!”, a suitable rallying cry for our age.

Pinter winds up dedicating the majority of his Nobel lecture to an indictment of the US and the UK for their crimes in Iraq and the US overall for its relentless bullying of other nations and support of cruel dictators throughout its 20th century history. The simmer of the early 2000s rather than abating has instead approached a rolling boil. For that reason, I believe that Pinter’s closing exhortations still serve as a terribly urgent benediction to our collective conscience to guide us as artists and citizens:

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us--the dignity of man.

Already they were back at their wine

Polish poet and Berkeley-ite Czeslaw Milosz adopted the notion of ketman, a type of doublethink in certain Islamic theological traditions, as a way of describing how the middle classes of his native Poland found themselves enthralled to a totalitarian system after World War II. Ketman was the curious contradictory way people could express, for example, their aesthetic distaste for a social realist mural while also acknowledging how practical it is to affirm the legitimacy of the one-party state.

One of Milosz’s most interesting insights is that self-deception as a means of survival or a route to power was not limited to Communism, but in fact a part of every ideology that claims a complete description of how the world is and how it ought to be. Czech dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel impinged on a similar realization following his ascendancy to the presidency of his country after the fall of Communism, remarking that the hyper-capitalist world his people were entering into also encouraged an aversion to truth. An avowed enemy of marketing and manipulation, Havel in his final days found himself a critic of the new order he spent his life working for.

Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz connected national self-delusion in his own people with their penchant for wearing masks. For Paz, the original sin for the peoples of Mexico was the trauma of Cortez and Spanish colonization for it splintered communities and identities into a labyrinth of solitude impossible for any individual to navigate.

Milton Mayer, a Jewish-American of German descent, also found delusion in post-war Germans. He embarked on a project shortly after the surrender of Germany in World War II to document the experience of ordinary Nazi party members during the Third Reich. For his book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933–45, he casually interviewed 10 German men living just outside of Frankfurt.

In the course of interviewing these former Nazi party members, he realized “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man.” What seems remarkable, as I’ve gathered from Cass Sunstein’s review of Mayer’s book in the link above, is that even after several Nazi atrocities were revealed to the world and verified, these men grasp to disbelief like a thin branch hanging over charging rapids.

Americans share a similar penchant for self-deception as their sisters and brothers in Germany, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, weaponized in the form of the “American Dream.” We made a belief in individual achievement, freedom, and democracy into a universal narrative for not just us but everyone in the world. We put ourselves as the zenith of these concepts, using them to legitimate our role as sole global leader.

The pinnacle of a mountain is the point in which there is no room to move without relinquishing the top. There is no meandering up or down the mountainside, no circumambulation around its tops, no place to look up to as a destination. By placing ourselves at the top, we find ourselves like Paz’s Mexicans trapped in a labyrinthine prison, one whose injustices like a fractal repeat themselves at the local, national, and global levels. As James Baldwin pointed out, supremacy in its myriad forms doesn’t just force the oppressed to wind through an infinite maze, but also traps the privileged too.

In the past few weeks, my constant sense of dread finally tumbled into panic and fear, as I have been stripped of my own delusion about what my countrymen will do and what they are capable of. But somehow a sense of peace has emerged out of the relentless disillusion. Growing up, I felt like I had to believe in the American Dream because it was a passport to being a citizen of my own country. I had to learn, like all Americans, that the core of living in the American Dream is the practice of unseeing the humanity of outsiders and the reality of our own experiences. As a perceived outsider myself, this form of ketman has been exhausting to maintain.

The most freeing realization for me has been that America and Americans are just as tragically fallible as anyone else on this planet. This even means that as violence continues to turn on perceived outsiders like me, there is no guarantee any of us will be saved either by our violent oppressors or by liberal Americans who claim to care about our well-being. Both groups are still largely suspended in the ether of the American Dream, so much so that they struggle to become engaged with their own life, much less others. 

At the same time, I also see myself suspended in the dream, struggling to engage. I live in the interstitial zone between the caring liberal and potentially oppressed. Because of that, I too have been guilty of failing to be present in my own life. One reason I’m afraid is that I don’t know what I will do when the time comes to sacrifice my comfort or security in the pursuit of justice. At the same time, I’m also afraid because I don’t know how the people around me will act if I become a target myself.

This uncertainty however is crucial. I have struggled for years to see America as a real place in the same way I have seen every other part of the world. What has finally grounded America for me is the possibility that this country has the capacity to be human and fallible .

We can realize that America, and the nations, parties, religions, and other symbols that compel us into action, are not the firmament upon which we stand but rather a canopy of our own collective construction hanging over us. As the sun passes through this constantly changing canopy, new areas of light emerge and other areas are cast into shadow. 

I don’t have any intention to re-envision this country by reviving its so-called founding principles. I want to be able to see it for real, for the first time in my life. I want to see it as my neighbors, friends, family, and the land. I don’t want to live in a lie anymore, least of all a lie of my own making. I want to see my country by casting my own inner coruscating light on everything around me.

Milosz in Warsaw, 1943, describes the atrocious perils of self-deception in his poem Campo Dei Fiori, as Jewish communities were being liquidated and their bodies slaughtered.

Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by the martyrs' pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died.

But that day I thought only
of the loneliness of the dying,
of how, when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.

Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons
they had shouldered to the fair,
and he already distanced
as if centuries had passed
while they paused just a moment
for his flying in the fire.

This process of disillusion despite the pain many of us feel is forcing us to seek the truth and reconcile our contradictions, to keep us from burning our neighbors at the stake one moment and feasting the next. 

I feel like we’re emerging from a long sleep, not at all rested, but alert. The pain of others in society who are in a weaker position than us will be far greater if we who still have the luxury to do so don’t do something to sort ourselves out. We have a wonderful opportunity to reconstruct how we relate to each other and build a new world free of all the old constraints of nation and creed we see fit to dispense. It’s our great privilege to build a new, more just, more free society.