Friday, August 25, 2017

The Banality of Awful

I. Marty Faye

As a little boy growing up in 1950s Chicago I was at once fascinated and disturbed by the periodic presence on our family television set of a man called Marty Faye. I learned later that he was something of a broadcasting celebrity in the city, a “controversial” commentator on topical events. He referred to himself as “The Loud Mouth,” and he once made headlines by receiving a bomb threat after disparaging the newly emergent Elvis Presley as a “mediocre, raucous, street corner singer.” The two teenagers who made that gesture were arrested and prosecuted.

Marty Faye projected a bug-eyed, leering countenance and, for me, a disturbing enjoyment in being rude and insulting to guests he would interview. The adults around me watching Marty Faye’s show would laugh or complain out loud in response to his provocative utterances, but I could sense that even at his most reptilian—or perhaps especially at his most reptilian—my parents and their friends were energized by Marty Faye. I had trouble integrating these impressions into a clear picture of how people should behave. Marty Faye was being awful. On purpose. He was on television, and people wanted to watch.

My understanding of the appeal of unashamedly, unapologetically offensive media figures deepened in the course of my college years in the 1960s. Comedians like the Lenny Bruce succeeded in blurring the lines between laughter and embarrassed astonishment. Saying that, describing that, crossing never before crossed lines generated all manner of adrenal responses, including a certain kind of laughter, the kind of laughter that says oh no! The public appetite for intended offense seemed to me fed by the same uncomfortable ambivalence that compels gawkers to crime scenes. 

Marty Faye, as it happened was no more than a mild harbinger of the Shock Jocks to come. A continuing parade of practitioners, aided now by instant digital access anytime, anywhere, has transformed what was once a cultural sideshow into something like the main attraction. The legacy of Marty Faye, of Joe Pyne, of Morton Downey, Jr., pervades our punditry, our “news”: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly. They are awful. On purpose. They are on air, and people watch and listen.

 II. Hard and Easy

My first and only job was as a teacher—and later headmaster—in a school for boys. In the course of four decades teaching, coaching, and counseling middle school and high school age boys I had unceasing opportunities to deepen my understanding of the power of awfulness to engage the developing minds of my students. 

The boys in my school, like boys anywhere, tended to venerate historical heroes. Almost all of them, despite occasional and even spectacular lapses, acknowledged the rightness of the school’s insistence that they tell the truth, keep their commitments, and maintain a generous, inclusive, and courteous regard for others, including the understanding that vulgar, bigoted, and threatening behavior were not to be tolerated. But they were also fascinated and energized by media and entertainment figures who behaved dramatically otherwise. Like me trying to integrate the fact of Marty Faye into my boyhood sense of right and wrong, my students experienced and expressed openly the cognitive dissonance created by not okay at school but thrillingly okay on Saturday Night Live.

Saturday Night Live is, in my judgment, less malevolent than exuberantly boundary-pressing. The sketches elicit genuine, deserved comedic appreciation, but they also elicit a good deal of oh no! laughter, in which the emotional clout is a trespass into the forbidden rather than any triggered hilarity. In their response to SNL and in their other favored entertainments, the boys of my school went both ways.

They were of course children, and we were in school together, and my clear responsibility was to help them understand that being stimulated is not in itself a good thing; that being stimulated to do and to tolerate hurtful, repellant things is, however arousing, bad for them and bad for others.

Boys were generally receptive to this message. Most of them could see the distinction between genuinely funny and oh no! But seeing the distinction does little to alter the allure of the next oh no!

In my own teaching and disciplinary exchanges with boys who questioned—often thoughtfully—anything that appeared to censure their tastes and pleasures, I did my best to point out concrete, consequential harms that resulted from immersion in vulgar, aggressively provocative or violent cultural offerings. The issue, I conceded, was not free speech. Long live free speech. The issue is what we do with our free speech and how we respond to the free speech of others.

I did my best to draw another distinction between life-enlarging stimulation and oh no! stimulation. I invited my students to consider the full range of publications available on any given magazine rack, the tabloids lining the check out counters of supermarkets, the range of programming on television cable networks, the range of on-line offerings from YouTube to games to pornography. I asked them to assess what kinds of offerings were most popular, most prevalent and what they themselves preferred. They saw the point. They admitted readily that they were drawn to mostly violent video games, action videos, and porn. Their frankness was  a promising sign, and there were no high-minded outliers. I asked them if these inclinations to thrill-seeking, law-breaking, and extravagant sex expressed their true nature, the way they would live if they were allowed. This they energetically denied and proceeded to describe themselves and their actual behavior along lines that might reassure their parents and teachers, including me.

Suspended before us was the puzzle of these likable, generally well-behaved boys’ admitted tendency to dissolve imaginatively into illicit and otherwise forbidden behavior. “It’s just a relief,” they explained, “an escape.” “It’s not as though we are going to do all that stuff.” I probably lost a teachable moment in not pointing out that some boys in their circumstances do all that stuff. Two Columbine High School boys did all that stuff. Instead, I asked my students why, since they were not inclined to such trouble, they were so diverted by its virtual enactment? And why, for that matter, was the field of cultural offerings dominated by so much that was aversive, repellant, evoking situations and worlds no one would want to live in.

The boys did not pretend to know, so I offered an explanation. Sleaze, crime, delinquency, mayhem are easier to convey than any basic social good, such as truth-telling, friendship, committed love, community. Anybody, I told them, can say fuck. Anybody can pull a fire alarm. Anybody can commit a crime, be a terrorist. No special training or talent are required to do those things.  Nothing is harder, I told them, than heroic sacrifice. Nothing is harder than achieving excellence in a demanding field. Nothing is harder than to be consistently good. Nothing is easier than to deny all of that, to disparage such boy scout notions. Nothing is easier than to stop trying, to be dramatically lost, to get drunk, to get high, to play victim to so many plausible injustices and deprivations.

I was trying to appeal to their “better natures”—natures in progress. I was telling them hard is better than easy. But the boys were aware, and so was I, that the larger culture was making a different case, and they were all ears.

III. Black Holes

Black holes are created when star-size masses of matter lose their cosmic thrust and collapse back into themselves with such powerful gravitational force that they suck  surrounding matter into the lightless abyss they have created. They are voids and cannot be observed, their existence detectable only by the forces they exert on other cosmic bodies.

Black holes are promising metaphors for all kinds of sub-cosmic processes, including social processes. An example might be the devolution of knowledge into ignorance, empirical science into primitive superstition. How would such a devolution begin? It would most probably begin with the popular acceptance of authoritative but false assertions. It would be accelerated as valid assertions, those supported by logic and evidence, were ignored or reduced to the status of mere claims. When supportable assertions and unsupportable ones become no more than rival claims, when any fact can be opposed by an “alternative fact,” conflicts between competing claims can only be resolved by the relative power of those who hold them. The assumption of objective, transpersonal truth is lost and with it the grounds for trusting others and the validity of any proposition, thus dissolving the only reliable basis of interpersonal agreement and political consensus. It is then no longer possible to know, to know better. There are no grounds for correcting or reversing this descent, the speed and force of which are at first astonishing, then terrifying-- as when familiar neighborhoods become walled ghettos, when citizens are herded into cattle cars, when they pass under a gate saying Work is Freedom, when they file naked into poison showers.

This black hole is not a metaphor.

IV. Iron Filings

Iron filings scattered within the attractive range of an electro-magnet will be drawn to the magnet and held fast. The location and prior propulsion of each filing will determine its individual trajectory en route to the magnet.

Now assign each filing a mind, a mind complete with ideas, emotions, and a measure of understanding, a mind distinctive to that particular filing. What might each mind experience on its trajectory to the magnet?

The range of responses might include I am going where I was created to go, proceeding to something ultimate, to my maker. Or: this change of course is powerful, irresistible—I like this ride. Or: I was going in another direction, but maybe this new route will get me where I wanted to go. Or: What is happening? Everybody is going crazily off course. Can’t they see they are going to be stuck in a bad place—and that they are taking all of us with them?

Whatever they think or feel, all the filings are headed for the magnet. This is a metaphor. 

V.  A Human Absence

I am a liberally educated man, a student of politics, at the threshold of old age. I was slow to recognize the emergence of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate and even slower to credit it. At a professional meeting in June of 2016, I predicted confidently to an informal gathering of my colleagues that Trump would not carry a single state. When a number of friends hastened to tell me that Trump was certain to carry the states they lived in, I began, sickeningly, to pay closer attention.

For me Trump was hard to understand in the way Marty Faye was hard to understand when I was a ten year-old boy. I hadn’t taken much notice of Trump prior to the past election cycle but had formed a vague image of him as an embarrassing self-promoter, hungry for publicity. When I was in midtown Manhattan I often passed his shiny glass tower, TRUMP gaudily displayed in gold. I was aware he had a television show, the appeal of which was said to be the tension surrounding his firing prospective apprentices, but I never watched it. A few years back I was struck by an angry letter he wrote to The New Yorker in response to an article he felt had disparaged him. The letter was crude and defensive in the manner of a wounded child. In it he called the author of the offending piece a terrible writer and said that his, Trump’s, books were better written. I did not know then that Trump had not written a sentence of the books published under his name.

These impressions were fragmentary and superficial. To the degree I had thought about Trump at all, it was as an aversive figure, far from my world, busy with erecting  buildings with his name on them, proud of his “deals,” a vain, ridiculous  looking person with that impossible hair-do, interesting, if at all, as a figure of fun.

But as he began making his way successfully through the Republican Party primaries, I felt a citizen’s duty to pay closer attention. It was not easy for me to watch his rallies, debates, and interviews. He made preposterous claims, including the pledge to erect a wall separating the United States from Mexico and that Mexicans would pay for it. Who on earth could take that seriously? The unnatural set of his mouth as he forms words, the affected, purring cadence of his speech, his unembarrassed flow of self-praise were and still are all but unwatchable for me. Something insistent from my deep interior wanted the camera to turn away from him, wanted to switch off the set, wanted him to go away. In all, a much more intense expression of my childhood response to Marty Faye. He was being awful. On purpose. And people not only watched, they cheered. 

I was certain at the outset of his campaign that some spectacular falsehood would undo his candidacy. He had said that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City had cheered in the streets as the Twin Towers were leveled by terrorists on 9/11. He stood by this claim even after it was firmly established that no such thing had happened. No one composing what we now call his “base” seemed to mind. Not long afterward while campaigning in Iowa he boasted that said he could “go out onto Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody, and not lose voters.” At this point it was becoming possible to imagine him demonstrating the strength of his supporters’ allegiance by trying it.

Watching news hour clips from Trump’s rallies, willing myself to sit though every second of his three debates with Hillary Clinton, I felt I was witnessing a kind of dystopian Wonderland in which nothing was what it seemed, nothing was continuous with prior political process. Not only could anything happen, anything was happening. 

Every week and sometimes every day, a new seemingly candidacy-ending, if not career-ending revelation about Trump’s past or business practices would dominate headlines. A number of women accused him of sexual trespasses. It was revealed that a former wife in the course of divorce proceedings had accused him of rape. Long, investigatory articles appeared in print recounting how various business ventures, including his short-lived casinos, had failed unto bankruptcy, harming creditors and contractors, but leaving Trump solvent and prosperous enough to engage in subsequent deals. A man called Tony Schwartz who had ghost written Trump’s The Art of the Deal came forth in The New Yorker and other forums to confess that he had fabricated an attractive, business-savvy Trump persona in order to make money, and that the man himself was dishonest, dangerously impulsive, and self-obsessed. The for-profit Trump University was challenged legally as a fraud, the case settled in favor of the defrauded plaintiffs. A coarse, ugly video clip was unearthed revealing Trump and a Hollywood talk show host sharing their inclination to sexual imposition, including Trump’s now infamous admission that because he was a “star” he could do “anything” with women he encountered, including grabbing them by the vagina. In calling out Hillary Clinton’s disputed use of a private email server, he publicly invited Russian hackers to carry on, in the hopes of embarrassing her and weakening her candidacy. And they would do so.

There is more, all of it, like the above, well known, none of it sufficient to deter Trump’s rise to the Presidency. Like many other appalled, confused, liberally educated Americans, I stepped back to consider why I had failed to see Trump coming, why I failed to see how millions of people could have observed the same Trump in action I had observed, contended with the same evidence of his awfulness  and, unfazed, excused him, defended him, voted for him.

I read books and selected journalism documenting the attitudes and opinions of Trump supporters. This material helped me understand the depth of the popular aversion, especially in the south and in the heartland, to privileged liberals and the perceived media bias in favor of established liberal candidates and policies. It was also apparent that poor and struggling whites generally were fed up with federal programs pitched to improve the plight of minorities while ignoring theirs. 

It was not hard to understand single-issue partisans who would vote for whatever candidate promised to abolish abortion rights or oppose gun control or rescind unwanted business regulations, all of which Trump promised to do. It was also not hard to understand wealthy conservatives who, while privately dismissive of Trump personally, stood to gain mightily under his tax proposals. 

The peculiar admixture of populist grievances, single-issue passions, and an abiding unease about Hillary Clinton propelled Donald Trump to his surprise electoral college victory. And while I understood the various Faustian bargains voters had made in voting for Trump, I could not understand how this particular Mephistopheles, given all that that was so spectacularly on display during his candidacy, could be counted on by anyone to deliver on his promises. More urgently: how could this person, Trump, be anybody’s best bet to guide the nation through whatever domestic and international challenges lay ahead? Even granting the legitimacy of every Trump voter’s favored outcomes, how could they filter out his personal awfulness?

In my heightened state of alarm after the inauguration, when it became clear that no other, “more presidential” Trump was going to emerge, I found it difficult to focus my concern. Seemingly everything was wrong. Key advisors like Stephen Bannon were even spookier and more volatile than the President. Lewis Carroll whimsy seemed to direct cabinet appointments: a climate change denier was appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency.  A southerner deemed even by fellow Republicans  too racist to be a federal judge became Attorney General. The former Governor of Texas who, as a presidential candidate had vowed to eliminate the Department of Energy, assumed the post of Energy Secretary. A bevy of billionaires was set in place to direct the economic course of a country beset by crippling income inequality. There was a stream of delusional presidential tweets from the White House in the small hours of the morning.  The FBI acknowledged a months-long, ongoing investigation of Trump’s campaign staffers’ suspected collusion with Russians in tampering with the election.

Pundits trying to take the measure of Trump’s first Hundred Days as President were as flummoxed as they were taking the measure of his emergence as a candidate. A fraction of Trump’s dubious utterances, personal embarrassments, and reckless gestures would have undone any other elected official. What was it about Trump that enabled him to bluster and bumble forward with what now feels like dreadful inevitability? My own answers failed to satisfy me. Worse, I was aware that in my mounting preoccupation with Trump, I was now held fast in his orbit. 
I could not even state with confidence exactly what he was. I wanted to conclude 
that he was an incipient tyrant, but that was not it.  In Trump there was no evidence of the will, the focus, or even the intelligence of Mao or Stalin or Hitler. Like the psychiatric establishment, I was eager to peg Trump with a known pathology. I tried to understand him as the kind of sociopath who makes a convincing con man or salesman, as the kind of narcissist who, because he is unable to relate empathically to others, feels no guilt or shame hurting or abandoning them.

A dark realization lifted me out of this amateur psychologizing and name-calling when I read a Facebook post composed by Virginia Heffernan, a contributing editor and co-host of Politico’s Trumpcast. She too wanted to identify Trump’s essence and wrote the following:

The president is not a moral figure in any idiom, any land, any culture, any subculture. I am not talking about the liberal enlightenment that would make him want the country to take care of the poor and the sick. I mean he has no Republican values either. He has no honor among thieves, no cosa nostra loyalty, no Southern code against lying or cheating, none of the openness of New York, rectitude of Boston, expressiveness and kindness of California, no evangelical family values, no Protestant work ethic. No Catholic moral seriousness, no sense of contrition or gratitude. No Jewish moral and intellectual precision, sense of history. He doesn’t care about the life of the mind OR the life of the senses. He is not mandarin, not committed to inquiry or justice, not hospitable. He is not a bon vivant who loves to eat, drink, laugh. There is nothing he would die for—not American values, obviously, but not the land of Russia or his wife or young son…Trump has no fairness or piety. He’s not sentimental; no affection for dogs or babies…

There is more, but at this point I realized at last why I had failed to reach any kind of mental closure about Trump. In my revulsion for so many of his aspects I had been trying to pin down, to name his distinctive presence. It took Ms. Heffernan’s extended riff on the things Trump is not to realize that he is fundamentally an absence.

The problem was never Trump himself. He represents no coherent set of values, directs no coherent policies. He is the living negation of anything like coherent values and policies. He is an absence, an illusory orange cartoon projected over the abyss into which we are now helplessly drawn. Even as we descend, we understand that he is being awful. On purpose. Fascinated, we cannot turn away. 


Note. The excerpt from Virginia Heffernan’s Facebook post, which was also included in an article she wrote for Roar magazine, is cited with her permission.