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.