Not an Essay, A Letter
First some links to recent interviews that I feel quite good about:
Totalitarian Trajectory vs. Courage. Interviewed by Tessa Lena. I really appreciate her perspective and insights as someone who grew up in the Soviet Union. We had quite a few good laughs.
The Delusion of Dehumanization. I was intrigued by the title of this podcast, which is called “Leaving the Left for Liberty.” I don’t consider myself as having left the Left; it is more a feeling of having been abandoned by the Left. I was prepared to talk about politics for this interview, but we touched on it surprisingly little.
Safety Third. This was for the Wise Traditions podcast, had a really good connection with the interviewer, Hilda Gore.
Covid is a Prism. At long last, a conversation with Paul Kingsnorth, facilitated by Ian MacKenzie. Paul is a deeply thoughtful and honest person whom I’ve respected for years but have only gotten to know a little this month.
Amanda Johnson podcast. A Higher Perspective. This was a far-ranging conversation in which I discussed some topics I don’t normally visit.
I hope I didn’t miss any. I’ve been on a lot of them recently. I’m happy to have the holiday break. My words were getting tired!
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I began 2021 with a declaration that I was going to turn away from writing essays and work on a screenplay instead. I noted a congealing of the body politic into mutually non-communicating reality bubbles. When there is no agreement about what is a valid source of fact, persuasion cannot bridge the divide. Besides, as the saying goes, you cannot reason someone out of a belief they didn’t reason themselves into to begin with. I was fed up and wanted to try something else. Or so I told my readers. And so I told myself.
You can’t argue with a story, I said. Stories slip beneath logic-garbed psychological defenses to connect people with truths prior to reason. I still believe that, and in fact I have been working on some screenplays for short films. However, as you may have noticed, I kept writing essays, more this year than ever. Why? Well, there were some hidden motives behind my impulse to stop. As these cleared, I turned toward writing essays again.
First, I had hit a wall of despair. I have been writing about the Technological Program of control and its political dimensions at least since The Ascent of Humanity, which I wrote from 2003-2006. That book even has a section entitled “The War on Germs.” It seemed to me that my life’s work was an abject failure that did nothing to stop the calamity. To continue writing that sort of thing seemed at the time about as useful as unfolding a parasol against a hurricane.
A second hidden motive was fear. I sensed danger: the danger of the mob, mass formation, totalitarianism. An instinct told me to keep my head down, to be canny, to work on a level that the enforcers would not easily recognize as subversive. This is what writers and artists did in the Communist Block, and what enslaved Africans did in the old South. They would encode their rebellion in art, songs, and stories, making it unrecognizable to their oppressors, to keep the flame of sanity burning. There is no shame in that.
However, after some months of despondency and the inner work that accompanies it, I also recognized that the current situation is not like it was in the antebellum South or the Communist block. Those pushing a techno-medical-totalitarian program are nowhere near to consolidating power to the extent of the Soviet Communists, the slave-owning class, the Nazi Party, or the medieval Catholic Church. Similar forces are at work—dehumanization, scapegoating, ideologies of control—but there is still time to turn the tide. Vocal dissent does not mean certain death.
Something else was operating in me besides the prudent instinct to display in-group attitudes as a safeguard against mob victimization. Lots of things in fact. Desire for approval. Wanting to keep both mom and dad happy. Aversion to conflict. Unwillingness to upset people. And a toxic self-doubt that arose from discounting my direct experiences and not trusting my gut feelings. These are some of the things that became visible to me over 2021. So I resumed speaking out against Covid orthodoxy after a hiatus of half a year.
The feeling of futility revisits me still. When people send me angry letters privately or denounce me publicly, I feel a pain bigger than the sting of personal rejection. It is the enervating ache of futility. I never wanted to take sides, because underneath this all is the ancient pattern of dehumanization, the categorizing of human beings into the good and the bad, the worthy and the unworthy, the deserving and the undeserving, the smart and the dumb, the valid and the deplorable. How can I speak out against practices that horrify me without othering those who support those practices? How can I affirm the sanity of the countercultural minority who see things as I do, without implying the insanity of those who do not? It is no solution to say something like, “You’ve been wrong and stood by in complicity with policies that have caused huge suffering, but that’s OK because we all make mistakes and God still loves you.’ How patronizing. It reminds me of a bumper sticker: “Jesus loves you. Everyone else thinks you’re an asshole.”
Even worse would be to condescendingly ascribe another person’s beliefs to some kind of psychopathology. I know what that feels like. One of the benefits I’ve received from being outspoken about Covid is lots of psychological diagnoses—free of charge—from helpful persons who have taken time from their busy schedules to explain to me that I am a sociopath, narcissist, pathologically defiant, a spiritual bypasser, attention-seeker, acting out mommy issues, acting out daddy issues, and so forth. Oh yeah, also political diagnoses: I am a Trumpist, a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, a conspiracy theorist.
Please be careful. Does the forgoing arouse indignation? Does it consign the accusers, in you the reader’s mind, to the ranks of the contemptible? When I feel a twinge of self-righteousness I like to take a moment of pause. I pause and feel the rush, the burn, of “I’m right they’re wrong.” Contempt for others is conditional self-approval in disguise. What part of me wants to organize the world into warring sides so that I can be affirmed, accepted, and validated by one of them?
As long as that desire lives in me, then anything I put into the world might bear a seed of division.
It is also true that people might project divisiveness onto my writing no matter how compassionately I state uncomfortable truths. I once heard from some guy, who read it on the internet, that the amygdala in the brain reacts the same way to a challenge to a belief as it does to a physical attack.
I don’t have an easy solution. We are in quite a mess. All I can do is to connect and reconnect to a truth beneath our differences, the truth that we are all brother and sisters, that we are each life itself, miraculous and sacred, doing what life does when it is being you, me, them, and us. To the extent I stay grounded in that knowledge, my words can invite those whose beliefs they challenge to listen.
I believe anything I or anyone else creates from that place will help change the psychic ground conditions that tilt the world ever toward inhumanity. Essays, stories, it does not matter. I’ll do both. I’m feeling grateful these days for all the beautiful things people create, especially for the artists and musicians. Over the holidays I’ve been listening to my son Philip play the piano, and watching another son, Cary, draw pictures. Somehow I know that anyone who does these things is working toward the same world I am. Our opinions on current affairs might be opposite, but both of us are serving life and beauty on earth, demonstrating with our most precious possession—the days of our lives—a common prayer for what the world shall be.
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