A comment appeared on the website the other day from someone who seemed driven to utter despair -- even to the consideration of suicide -- by the current state of our politics. This was disturbing enough, but I was also struck -- jarred -- by this remark: "Sharing Floyd's views and values is literally disabling."
I thought this warranted a more substantial reply than a quick riposte in a comment thread. So below is the original message from the reader, followed by my response. (The post in question, by the way, was "Of Arms and the Man: War-Profiteers and Progressives Make Common Cause for Obama.")
Is there anything we can do? By which I mean, is there anything I can do?
I try to be noisy about this stuff. I incessantly remind my "progressive" friends what the leader most of them still embrace is doing -- and (if they're still listening) how this is merely the latest manifestation of the fact that our entire civilization is intractably toxic and unconscionable, past and present. I've lost friends. I've insulted my own family. The ones I keep have mostly learned to tune me out or shrug helplessly -- and indeed, what more can they do? I don't even have the heart to mouth off about this to my own mother (an Obama supporter) anymore -- God help me, I do so want her to be happy.
My best friend opined that what's so obnoxious about me is that everything I say is completely intellectually and philosophically valid -- it's just practically incompatible with any degree of social functionality. I do not disagree.
Of course, I realize doing nothing (assuming the "nothing" is going to involve continuing to live) necessarily amounts to complicity in abuse, oppression and exploitation on a thousand levels. I can't walk through the grocery store without seeing the systems of corruption and violence at work in my surroundings, and my own inescapable place within them; it is almost too ugly to bear. Sharing Floyd's views and values is literally disabling.
So, what? What then? Suicide? (The only legitimate question, as I think Descartes put it.) Heavy drinking? That's pretty much the only personal alternative I have come up with, but I hate the taste and threaten to graduate to heroin any day now (Mom rolls her eyes.) Are capitulation and self-destruction really the only options? What is there for us?
And here is my reply:
You have to remember that politics is a toxin. It will make you sick, taint your mind, poison your soul, blight your life if you let it. One has to deal with politics as a form of waste management, just as you need to have some kind of sewage system in your home or community to prevent disease.
Politics -- the machinations of the stunted, damaged souls and third-rate minds who hanker for power -- is just a small part of life. It entirely lacks the tragic element; nothing tragic or depthful about politics and power, it's just brute force, greed, ignorance and spite. So there is no deep meaning to be found in it. No tragedy; no real joy either. Even the greatest moments, the epiphanies -- and they do happen in politics on rare occasions, one must admit -- will lead very quickly back into the sewage. And that's OK, that's the way it is; sewage, waste management -- it's part of life. But it's not where meaning, joy, tragedy, the salt and savor of existence can be found. So why let the evil done by third-rate goobers drive you to despair of life itself? By hook, crook, lies and murder they've already amassed all kinds of power; why give them power over your very soul?
It's sad to hear that you've been driven to the margins of your own life, mocked or marginalized by friends and family because of your political beliefs. I must confess I've never tried to press my beliefs on anyone close to me. I don't have political arguments with them, and I never try to convince anyone of anything. If someone asks me a political question, I'll answer honestly, and calmly, in an informational way, saying, Here's a little bit of what I think about that, and here's why I think it. If I'm with someone who seems vaguely simpatico, I might let a little more passion into it. But I've never felt the urge to bring politics into personal relationships. Of course, sometimes it can forced on you, I suppose; maybe your friends and family are in your face about it all the time. In that case, it would be harder to avoid conflict. But even when I find myself in that situation, most of the time I simply think: "Well, if you don't see it, you don't see it, and I'm not going to be able to make you see it; not in an argument, anyway."
Of course, the blog is a help in this regard. Maybe you should try writing one. It can serve as a release valve -- and you can make better, more coherent and informed arguments in a blog than in a personal argument. With the blog, I don't feel I have to push my views verbally on someone; I've already set it down, thought it through a bit, it's out there for anyone to see. I can always say to someone, "Well, I wrote something about this the other day. You can read it if you like."
One of the main reasons I write the blog now is to give myself this outlet, to have a place -- a pipeline -- where I can deal with the sewage and the toxins of politics, and get them out and away from the more meaningful aspects of my existence. And as I said, it helps me to work out what I actually do think about these issues. Having to put it down into coherent words, knowing that it must make sense to other people out there, is a tremendous impetus to clarifying thought, I find. It doesn't matter if only a few people read it; certainly only a few people read this blog, even on its very best days. What matters is that you've got it out, you've got it down, it's out there, you can point people to it if they want to see it, and you don't have to let it leech into the rest of your life and relationships.
I always keep coming back to the words of Italo Calvino, which I've used here many times. I found this passage years ago, quoted in an essay by Gore Vidal.I don't know if it's any help to you in your situation, but I believe there is genuine wisdom here, especially in a despairing time:
"The inferno"is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."
For you see, I disagree with you, and others, who say that "doing
nothing" amounts to "complicity in abuse, oppression and exploitation on
a thousand levels." I don't think that's true in many respects;
certainly not in every respect. There is a genuine, qualitative
difference between someone who actually carries out (or commands)
atrocities and crimes -- and someone who doesn't. It's ludicrous to say
otherwise. Someone who puts a gun to a child's head and pulls the
trigger is worse than someone who doesn't put a gun to a child's head
and pull the trigger. Someone who leaps into the toxic swamp of politics
in order to obtain power is worse than someone who doesn't. If more
people "did nothing" in this regard, there would be far less suffering
in the world. Yes, there are many other things a person can do; and yes,
it is part of the tragic element of human existence that no one can
completely escape levels of complicity with the evils of the systems
they happen to be born into. But simply refraining from active evil can
be a first step toward the light. It can also serve as an example to
And anyway, to "see the inferno" -- to look at reality clearly, to see what is actually being done behind all the political rhetoric and national mythology, to try to glean nuggets of genuine information from a mountain of bullshit -- that is not "doing nothing." That is the only way we can begin to see "what is not inferno," and begin to help it endure, to carve out space for it.