A Communicable Emptiness

by David Oates

How hard it is to watch our national election ordeal as it draws us into yet another week of chicanery and bad faith. How hard to watch. How hard to turn away.

I write this in an attempt to avoid both avoidance and obsession. (Can I do it? I’ve been trying all these horrid four years, with such mixed results.) I reflect that Donald Trump’s ceaseless attention-stealing, itself, is a powerful reason to eject him from our public life. Whatever else this corrupt president turns out to have stolen (and surely there are revelations to come), he has already stolen our time and our attention – hogged the spotlight with a truly weird skillfulness – and crowded nearly all other thoughts off our mental stage.

Bonnie Kristian, a conservative commentator, warns about “politics’ creeping infestation of obligation in our lives,” reflecting that the Founders set up this  representative democracy precisely in order to allow citizens their freedom of mind and attention – while the politicians went about conducting the necessary tasks of government. But “Trump is always on our minds, and he is teaching the rest of Washington his methods.” She points out, fairly enough, that this trend predated the Current Occupant. He has merely made it worse – I would add, by several degrees of magnitude. The vacuous emptiness of his nonstop lying expands like a gas, filling all available space.

What is it like, to live under this continuous assault? To have mind and feelings hijacked daily, hourly?

I find it a kind of nausea, a queasiness. Frustration, exhaustion. Boredom and outrage at the same time. My mind flickers, struggles to sustain attention. So much easier to scroll down than to read a book! And I’m a book person. Is this feeling at bottom about a loss of autonomy? Ourselves as consumers and little more: robotic, predictable, triggerable. Rage-bots. Yet still we click, still we watch, argue, return to it always in our daily conversation.

In this sense our national political life has become a pathology. We are obsessed, possessed. Hypnotized by the train wreck, mesmerized by the fistfight, listening to the neighbors argue. None of it real or ours or healthy. A vicarious illness. A crisis of inauthenticity.

None of it real? Only in the sense that it focuses on invented versions of reality. Immigration – that’s real. Caravans of drug-mule rapist/murders with Spanish accents? Fictional. Covid-19? Real of course, and deadly. The shadowy menace of mask-wearing, or over-counting, or world-domination chips in vaccines?  Fictional.

And even our endless labor in opposing the fictionality of a presidency based on continuous lying. . . what is that, exactly? Like wrestling a kettle of eels. Useless, degrading, neverending.

* * *

One of the best reads for me in this year of politics has been Andrew Marantz’s book Anti-Social, reporting on his submersion in the alt-right, apparently for a couple of years (he started even before the 2016 election). He meets its stars like Richard Spencer and Mike Cernovich. And he hangs out with the followers and enthusiasts. They know he’s Jewish and no doubt a liberal – writer for the New York Times and Mother Jones after all – yet they shrug and let him in.

What he finds turns out to be a hall of mirrors: very little actually there. Despite the seriousness (to you and me) of the racism, misogyny, hate, and violence that are their stock in trade, Marantz finds the alt-right to be populated by fundamentally unserious people, for whom nothing means much of anything except as a pose to get an effect – to troll, to get a rise, to laugh and feel superior. To “own the libs.” (And, in so doing, to become briefly something – anything – themselves.)

Marantz sees that nearly everything the alt-right does or says is cloaked in a superficial irony. Provocations are typically posed as jokes but there’s always a winking likelihood that they really mean it. Probably. Maybe.

So: motivated not so much by actual racism but more by racism’s ability to get a rise. Its instrumental value.

Is this somehow better? They are not redneck haters. They are (even) more vapid than that. They are people using a sort of “hipster fascism” to gain notoriety. And if there are consequences in the real world. . . they are too shallow to consider them from any direction except their own immediate desire to be noticed.

In a radio interview, Marantz summed up this performance – somehow simultaneously depraved and juvenile – in words that have rung in my ears ever since I heard them. I feel like I have been given a key to understand a side of  humanity that has been locked and incomprehensible to me for my whole life. Simply this:

“People are stranger and emptier than you can possibly imagine.”

That’s it. Emptiness. That’s the discovery. It’s not deep. It’s so shallow it hurts. And I find that the half of history and human behavior that we’d rather not think about is better explained in these ten words than in anything else I’ve encountered.

It’s why Trump, the apotheosis of emptiness, is their natural leader. He who exists only when filling our space. . . with his emptiness. It’s like a demonic koan.

* * *

How many times, Reader, have you glanced at a newspaper’s front page and tallied up how many of the headlines are reporting on Trump, reacting to Trump, or predicting Trump? Fifty percent? Seventy-five? Nearly all? Opinion page, the same. As if there were nothing else on earth going on. We obsess. We react. We are “owned.” Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Meanwhile actual problems go unaddressed. The Covid-19 death toll reminds us that, beyond opposing the fictioneers, there are real things to be done. Life to save, sick to tend, grief to share. A climate-change crisis still waiting to be met forcefully. A forty-year impoverishment of the middle and working classes. Real things waiting to be done.

These are the “opportunity costs” (as the economists say) of the Trump years: what we didn’t do, but could have. While we obsessed and reacted and allowed ourselves to drown in weird news from our elected little dictator,  how much else did we not think about, achieve, discuss, or imagine?

These are the years of lost chances, of squandered time and energy. A collective toll (or tax, if you like). Incalculable.

A lifetime ago—just barely within the limits of my own personal memory – President Dwight D. Eisenhower is remembered for his warning about the “military industrial complex,” delivered as he left office. Yet as he ascended to the presidency in 1953, he had issued an even more poignant warning, embedding the reality of “opportunity cost” vividly and permanently, I think, in our national consciousness. The first sentence has become famous, but it’s worth reading in fuller context:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

What cross are we hanging from then? A cross of spittle. A cross of spite. A cross of tweets and grudges and lies. A derangement we cannot seem to escape – a disturbed mind that disturbs all around it.

* * *

In my three decades in the college classroom, I came to understand something about how the humans interacted. I noted (what every teacher soon learns) how every assemblage of people has its own collective personality, rather unpredictable if you just looked at the individuals. I learned that I could only guide this personality – it was going to have as much to say about our learning as I was.

And I saw that some individuals were going to have an outsized influence. I watched, for instance, an obstreperous nineteen-year-old boy wholly derail a class ostensibly in “creative writing.” It was weird. He wasn’t the smartest in the room, by far. Nor the handsomest or most appealing. There were others older, smarter, more grounded, and indeed fully willing. Yet. . . there was an electricity in him, negative and palpable. And in his sullen, I-don’t-wanna-read,  I-wanna-write-about-swords-and-sorcerers way, he steered the class into a kind of perpetual funk. Honestly, I wasn’t a tyro and I’m not a pushover either. But none of my goodwill or experience could triumph over his strangely communicable resentment. The class limped along sickly and dank for the whole term, an exercise in mediocrity.

Of course I thought about him too much. I was teaching a full load, I had scores of other students to concern me, including paragons of brightness and willingness whom I was honored to serve. Yet, of course, this brat was the one who haunted my mind and stole my sleep.

Eventually I came to a formulation. It let me off the hook, a little. It was partly about how the teacher isn’t in control, no matter how skilled and dedicated he or she might be. Teaching would always be a collaboration. But the darker part of the formulation was this: Disturbed people are disturbing.

Let that soak in. It wasn’t some fault or incapacity in me. It wasn’t a lack of technique, a failure of love, a flawed pedagogy or a weakness of soul. No: It was the core reality that humans vibrate to each other, and sometimes a contorted personality is so weird, so “off,” that it disturbs everyone around it, as surely as twanging one string of a spiderweb will shake every dewdrop right off.

We’re in this together, in mysterious ways. I don’t have any woo-woo theory to offer about that, just this hard-won observation: Disturbed people are disturbing. In proximity to them, we will all pay the price.

And Donald Trump has been twanging us all, daily and hourly, for four years. He’s a kind of genius (his word) of disturbance. We’re exhausted, distracted, depleted. We have all become the less for it.

* * *

As I labor over this essay in the days before the election, it seems that our wasted time and diverted attention suddenly becomes the topic of the week. Several New York Times headlines appear. Columnist Michelle Goldberg’s op-ed jumps straight into the opportunity-cost insight:

“But when I think back. . . on the texture of daily life during the past four years, all the attention sucked up by this black hole of a president has been its own sort of loss. Every moment spent thinking about Trump is a moment that could have been spent contemplating, creating or appreciating something else.”

She documents how, for instance, the book-publishing world has seen a huge swing from fiction toward nonfiction titles. As if “reality” were in need of constant reassurance; as if we were already overdosing on fiction (in the form of lies). And she documents the deeper question thus implied: all those creative artists who feel suddenly adrift, useless, not responsive to the alarm-bell ringing in our ears at seemingly every minute of every day. “Since Election Day 2016, writers, artists and critics have wondered what many forms of cultural production — novels, fine art, theater, fashion — mean ‘in the age of Trump.’”

Part of our pathology is this loss of focus, loss of confidence. What are we doing, scribbling our little poems and wee essays? Trying to make our paintings deeper, or flatter, or truer, our music more musical?

The inhuman thought-space of systematic official lying and intentional chaos reduces all things to its own meager dimensions. Pettiness as atmosphere, stifling and inescapable. Surely it is our job as humans – and even more surely as creative humans – to rebuke this diminishment. To resist it. To breathe deep and sing out. To think about something else. Everything else.

* * *

Is all that wasted time of the last four years – all that sidetracked attention, lostness, silence – really trashed and disappeared into the rubbish bin of time?  It feels that way. But I have a deeper faith (tentative though it is). Call it a suspicion. It is that nothing is really wasted. That to get where you’re going, you have to go through what you go through.

I can’t prove it, but in my better moments, I believe it.

It’s what has turned you into you, isn’t it? All that struggle. All those mistakes. Tell me that your now-self, mature (or matur-er anyway) isn’t a strangely transformed version of your old self. Tell me the path we walk, doesn’t walk us somewhere better, richer, deeper. If we allow it to.

Truthfully that’s what I think the life of a writer or artist is, anyway. A commitment to discover. Even amidst the failings of our humanity.

So – a brief and somewhat quirky example in closing. Everyone remembers the poet Robert Browning, so celebrated in his late-Victorian era. Or perhaps you remember him as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s husband. No matter. His creative life presents a perfect parable of the impossibility of wasting time – if you’re on your path.

He was known at first (a little) for what was reviewed as  an “intense and morbid” self-conscious poem, published when he was twenty-one. Stung perhaps by the rejection, he turned to writing plays, which also flopped. Some of them (as verse dramas) perhaps a little less terrible.

Over time, the windy dramas receded. The sophomoric self-obsession stayed in the deep past. And step by step he evolved from those failures towards a synthesis that was entirely his, and quite new: he wrote dramatic monologues. These are brief poems, usually just a page or two, given entirely in the voice of a distinct character. No “Robert Browning” to be heard – just the voices of these unforgettable personalities. If you’ve been in an Intro to Lit class, chances are you’ve read some of them. “My Last Duchess” probably, the monologue of a certain Renaissance Italian duke, as he babbles on (in the way of self-important men everywhere – nudge nudge) little suspecting how his words give him away as a narcissistic monster

Robert Browning just lived on through the seemingly wasted time of failure. Kept working, kept writing. Allowed what came to him to become him. And for him, there proved to be no such thing as wasted time. The bad dramas, and all the work and learned skill of voicing them, gave him the path into some of the best poems and most original poems in the language.

A later poet (Robert Frost) put it this way: “The best way out is always through.” And I hope that will be true for us, too: through all this opportunity cost and into an opportunity of discovery and change.

As I finish this essay, the election sweeps us all into its vortex. Days pass. No resolution. The voting is mixed, no tidal wave.  Instead we’re still wallowing. But don’t have to stay there. We made some mistakes – big ones. We have blood on our hands. We can do better. We can take the experience imposed upon us by a terrible leader, the wasted time and the trashed values, and do something remarkable with them. We can become something closer to our ideals. We can pay attention to things that are real (at last) and get to work.

Perhaps we will. I guess we’ll see.

 

SOURCES

Bonnie Kristian, “You weren’t supposed to have to think about politics” The Week 12 February 2018.https://theweek.com/articles/750875/werent-supposed-have-think-about-politics.

Andrew Marantz, Anti-Social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation (New York: Viking, 2019).

Dwight D. Eisenhower speeches:  “Military-Industrial Complex Speech, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961,” The Avalon Project https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/eisenhower001.asp. “Chance for Peace” speech, 16 April 1953 [excerpt] Eisenhower Public Library https://eisenhowerlibrary.org/the-chance-for-peace-speech/.

Michelle Goldberg, “Four Wasted Years Thinking About Donald Trump,” New York Times 29 Oct 2020.

Robert Browning. https://www.storytel.com/sg/en/books/769182-The-Complete-Plays-of-Robert-Browning.

Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants.” From North of Boston (1914).

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