No Man’s Land

Sometimes it is just a fight. Sometimes, regrettably, it is just us and them, good and bad. It’s never good and evil–I can’t think of a less helpful term for characterizing the people you disagree with than evil–but sometimes it’s not possible to characterize the struggle over the future of the place we live and of the lives of the people with whom we live in it as anything other than a battle.

Flander’s Fields, Belgium, 1919

I’m thinking this now because I watched the January 6 hearings yesterday and because I’ve just read a couple of excellent pieces about Yascha Mounk and other anti-woke warriors from the right and the center. There are those who attack people in politics and in higher education who value and work for diversity and the rights of the marginalized from a position that is explicitly against those things, and there are those who do the same from a position they describe as less extreme, claiming to support those ideals but against what they call the extremes on the left.

Of the former group, John Warner writes:

These are people who are actively hostile to education and to the larger democratic ideal of a diverse society. (The telos to which Warner refers is the pursuit of truth in higher ed, but it’s not hard to see that it’s about more than that, that it’s about everything.) Then there are the Mounks, who flatter themselves by thinking of their discomfort with the angry left as a sensible bid to save democracy rather than a both-sidesing staking out of a middle ground that doesn’t exist, between two positions whose extremism can only falsely be called equivalent. As Ian Beacock writes of Mounk’s new book:

Sometimes you just are on the side of the good cause. Addressing the history of how people in power in this country have treated groups with less power–addressing it in education and in politics–is the good cause. Fighting against these things in a way that allows you to convince yourself that you are on the side of what’s right, even when you are simply helping right wing extremists who may not be as far to the right of you as you think (and not because you don’t understand them)–this is being on the wrong side.

The other reason I’m thinking about this this morning is because I’m starting to see friends and internet acquaintances (and strangers) stating their aversion to voting for members of this administration who might be running for president in the next election. You might think seeing this would lead me to make an argument for compromise, for finding a sensible position between two extremes–for just the thing I’m arguing sometimes doesn’t exist–but that’s not what I’m thinking. Instead it leads me to want to argue for voting with an understanding of how voting works and of what the good causes are up against. There’s nothing wrong with finding some Democratic politicians distasteful for their failure to stand up for the good causes as resolutely as you’d like. What you do in this situation is fight to elevate other candidates who stand up straighter and stronger. But you do this understanding that there’s a difference between thinking about things and getting things done, and you vote for whichever candidate emerges as the nominee.

There are, again, some ideas and causes between which there’s no sensible middle ground. But elections and legislation happen on the battleground in the middle, between the good and the bad. If you want someone to fight for the good, you might have to vote for someone who is not your ideal candidate. Not doing so shows nothing but your failure to understand that between good and bad, allowing the bad to win is an infinitely, painfully, disastrously worse outcome than allowing someone less than ideal to win. They might not fight as hard as you’d like for these causes; they may be better positioned to scratch out some wins for those causes. It’s hard to know. What’s not hard to know is that the guy on the other side will be actively fighting against those causes.

Not the good cause

So all I want to say this morning is that sometimes it really does come down to a fight between good and bad. If you think of yourself as on the side of the good but less extreme and hysterical than some of its champions, criticize the way some people conceive of the good and the way they fight for it, and the bad will win. If you think of yourself as on the side of the good and won’t support people who conceive of it and fight for it in ways different from yours, don’t support them and the bad will win. I’m putting this in simple terms because it’s simple. Like yesterday’s hearing was simple. You don’t have to think in terms of evil or of moral character: you just have to see the plain truth that there are people who for whatever reason don’t currently value democracy, diversity, equality, the rights that in this place we live have always been an ideal fallen well short of. You just have to know who’s trying to achieve this ideal and who’s not. And figure out which side you want to be on.

Against the Day

Gordon Parks, American Gothic, Washington D.C., 1942

Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling 2006 novel set in the late nineteenth century and first two decades of the twentieth, paints a picture of the turn of the century and just beyond as a time of technological innovation, rampaging capitalism, and bewilderment at the pace of change and the loss of shared meaning and purpose amid labor unrest and violence, world war, and catastrophe possibly natural, possibly not. Also included prominently are the never-aging and impossibly optimistic boys of the Chums of Chance, who among many, many other exploits encounter time travelers. Learning of a dystopian future and doubting that they could continue to remain untouched by mortality, they are “ready to deal with hell itself, to betray anything and anyone if only they could be sent back to when they were young, be allowed to regain the early boys’-book innocence.”

You can clap your hands, it’s all right

And they do, hopping back in the balloon in which they fly from adventure to adventure, floating above the modernizing earth, escaping from its labor troubles and coming catastrophes. They fly away and continue to pursue improbable missions in their hopeful journey to their official ostensible destination, Shambala, the mythical Tibetan Buddhist kingdom, which they and other characters seek as a place of transcendence or as a source of power, depending, among other things, on whether they are well-intentioned pilgrims trying to transcend a world of power struggles or among the “capitalist Christer Republicans” turning the American West and the globe from free to exploited.

From the cover of Against the Day,
a seal that translates “Tibetan
Government Chamber of Commerce”

The Fourth of July is, among other things, both an act of time travel and a search for a mythical place. This is the case in any year but especially this year, when the Constitution is being torn up by elected and unelected employees sworn to defend it and its total destruction just got put on the docket. Especially in these faux originalist times, when specious references to the specifics of the founders’ intentions are used to justify the destruction of what the documents the founders wrote make clear are the larger values they intended the nation to pursue. Following the long tradition of patriotic amnesia, ramped up in an orgy of nationalism after 9/11, we pretend to travel back in time to the nation’s founding (increasingly, in the popular imagination) as a white, Christian nation. The Fourth of July is for this vision a proud celebration of a time when American men commenced kicking ass, a recuperation of a victory culture built even early in Indian massacres that’s been taking serious hits ever since, certainly in our loss in the war in Vietnam but arguably even earlier with our dropping of the bomb, an act that makes it hard to claim we’re the ones in the white hats. Our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq are the result of these hits, part of the larger cultural imperative to be innocent and victorious, to, like the Chums of Chance, betray anything to regain innocence.

The culture war battle to keep this past out of schoolchildren’s ears is driven by this same imperative. We are the nation that doesn’t lose. The Big Lie of the 2020 presidential election is driven by this imperative too, this promotion of a Myth America where everything wrong is the fault of those who don’t love it and ought to have left it or, since we’re wishing here, never ought to have come (forgetting for a moment that that’s pretty much all of us). It’s all a wishful time-travel return to a time and place of innocence that never existed.

Anti-CRT Protesters in Virginia, June 2021

Those of us who want this history taught right, who insist on the harmfulness of ignoring the realities of the past and who recognize that the prosperity gospel of the GOP is nothing more than a continuation of the grand resentment-based fleecing of poor whites that gave us racial capitalism–we’re having a different kind of Fourth today. There have been some powerful reflections on what our national exercise in time travel and mythical meaning-making means to them this time around. Some of the people angry about abortion and prayer in schools and gun safety and climate warning–even people who have in the past celebrated–have announced that they will wear black, they will take a knee, they’ll skip the fireworks. Others insist that expressions of patriotism are more important than ever this year, that we can’t let the flag be taken away from us.

I’m not a flag-waver; I’m an anthem-sitter. And I think I sort of understand what it feels like to know that flag’s not waving for you. But I do think there’s something to this argument. As much as we know (because they keep showing us) the dangers of nationalism and as much as patriotism manifests routinely in violations of the flag code and of basic human morality, patriotism doesn’t have to be nationalism, and pride in a country doesn’t have to be invidious or false or inspire violence. One of the things people who read Pynchon read Pynchon for (aside from the puns, the high/low mashups that in Against the Day include appearances by Karl and Groucho Mark and a dog who reads Henry James, and the beauty) is his way of exploding history so that the moments in the past that seem determinative and set in stone can be revealed for what they were and always are–moments of possibility that could have gone a million other ways.

Mason & Dixon is my favorite of his novels for the way it does this, showing that what happened could have not happened that way, that what’s happening now won’t be understood until the unknowable future happens, that the feeling of inevitability we have about history is just a feeling and not in fact the case. Mason & Dixon brought together three such moments–the 1760s, 1860s, and 1960s–moments when lines were drawn and possibilities realized or unrealized, explosions of change that came and went, pointing to future moments of possibility when lines can be redrawn or erased. The line the title characters drew turned “subjunctive to declarative,” in Pynchon’s words, but the future is always subjunctive, and moments will come around again where different possibilities can be realized.

“America One”

One thing I’ve grown tired of hearing (and I’m not alone) is invocations of King’s line about “the arc of the moral universe.” He meant something particular by it, and it’s brought up to express hope, but when quoted it often carries a kind of passivity with it: don’t worry, it ends up saying, eventually we’ll have justice. We won’t–not eventually, inevitably, somewhere down the road. The long-building but sudden-seeming violence done to the legal foundation of the nation over the last two weeks should be our wake-up call. There are no laws of history or essential innocence or goodness or nugget of Declaration-declared, Constitution-constituting truth that will determine our outcome, and we can’t fly off in balloons of wishfulness or denial, refusing to look down and get our hands dirty or waiting for the revolution and pointing out the dirty hands. Maybe a dirty patriotism is what we need. A determination to do the hard, unglamorous work of democracy and compromise and resistance and to save the country for what it could be, from what its descending into becoming. Maybe it’s the only way we have to bend the arc in the right direction.