A writer’s eternal questions amidst America’s ugly political blip
Standing in my father’s library as a teenager, I opened Dorothea Brande’s slender 1934 book Becoming a Writer. I read:
Do you believe in God? Under what aspect (Hardy’s “President of the Immortals,” Wells’s “emerging God”?)
Do you believe in free will or are you a determinist? . . .
Do you think the comment “It will all be the same in a hundred years” is profound, shallow, true or false?
Suffice it to say, these and other questions in her quaint quiz stumped me as a kid. And not just because her examples were, even then, dated. But Brande (1893–1948) gave me the sense that knowing or groping toward Truth is pretty much writers’ job description. This starts as personal truth, offered to all to test against theirs. Trying to figure out bedrock truths appears to be simply a human task.
A friend, recalling my rookie reporter apprenticeship under his wing 36 years ago, called bullshit on such assertions.
“It’s so you,” he said, after reading a draft of this post. “It reminds me of several conversations we had, with you tortured by the Meaning of Life and humanity’s Big Questions and my saying why should it have meaning? I was more concerned about whether the fish were biting or whether there was good barbecue or beer somewhere.”
Okay, I’ve got an itch, hard to scratch. Yet I know my mentor’s method is to exaggerate his way to truth. I’m a lot older now, and, while still puzzled, do finally know one or two things for sure.
A comfort of aging? Maybe, given a recent realization: older folks own the world, on paper, but it really belongs to the young. Those starting out, coming up, in love. I was proud of that bit of wisdom until, on reflection, it sounded like I stole it from 1931’s bittersweet song “As Time Goes By.”
C’est la vie. The fundamental things do apply. What are they?
Community vs. the clan in 2016’s presidential primaries
Modernity versus tribalism. That’s what this has come down to. Already the conflict roiling swaths of the world, it’s what has turned this campaign season vulgar and violent.
Modernity’s ideals include diversity and tolerance. Tribalism fears differences, and its hallmark response toward the Other is kneejerk rejection. Modernity is not overtly religious, though I sense in its belief in human nature and human progress a spiritual seed. Politics and religion, at their core, share a concern with community. And of course, like free societies, all major religions—including Islam—preach tolerance. A pagan, in contrast, is anyone or any group that will not grant you their God. It’s true that when the Jews discovered God some 3,000 years ago, God was theirs and theirs alone—an angry parent sore angry at his stiff-necked offspring. But by removing God from a particular shrine or mountaintop and lofting him into the sky, they effectively made their God available to all.
As humans gradually threw off despotic leaders who sought to usurp religion’s power, religion itself moved steadily inward. In my view, it draws ever closer to to the animating mystery at its core: human goodness. What explains it? How can we nurture it?
Surely this conundrum explains religion’s reliance on metaphor. Surely it explains Judaism’s emphasis on learning. And Donald Trump is Exhibit A for why humans must grow. Learning—maybe along with some sort of spiritual practice that disciplines the ego—fosters wider, humane values. Knowledge gives you a place to stand and a means of testing rhetoric against history and literature and your sense of reality. For writers, who in one way or another profess or portray their take on human nature, learning what they believe and why seems especially essential. But, as I say, that’s just going pro with humans’ basic task.
Sober, humble leaders help people, en masse, achieve wisdom, or act on theirs. Maybe that’s because great leaders receive the group’s collective wisdom. The leader as signal receiver and servant. Does this model describe Donald Trump and his ilk?
Donald Trump’s angry cry for love
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
—the close of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address
Though he seems an intellectual and emotional mess, how well Trump understands our primate substrate. Very old, very deep, buried by more evolved emotions, under great stress the Machiavellian, clannish, pagan ape within us emerges.
Even with his short fingers, Trump can reach and punch that small, deep vestige. He’s unsound intellectually, and a craven liar, but he’s not stupid. Contrast Trump’s sly, cynical approach to politics with Abraham Lincoln’s. Lincoln was a tough politician, a fierce campaigner, but his knowledge of people and our republic still resonates. At any rate, he rose in office. In his ultimate test, fueled and fed by Shakespearean and biblical wisdom and by Enlightenment ideals, Lincoln led America through its greatest test by appealing to our better nature.
The Enlightenment gave rise to America’s still-revolutionary Constitution. What massive irony in seeing Trump and others, each the spawn of immigrants, attack immigrants in our nation of immigrants. When cheap and illegal immigrant labor forms the base of Trump’s own gaudy enterprises. When immigrants are not just part of our community, they are our community. Perhaps excepting Native Americans, immigrants are America. This attack has worked, to an extent, because so many Americans are suffering economically. They’re angry and scared. By appealing to and stoking that, a politician unleashes primitive, violent, tribal forces.
One of the perplexing issues raised by Trump’s rise has been whether it matters that his rhetoric inflames our worst qualities because he doesn’t mean what he says. Many think he’ll be different if elected. He has admitted that, for him, lying to get elected defines politics. And certainly his record, before the current campaign, resembles that of a pragmatic political moderate—maybe even one with a mildly progressive bent. Neither his businesses nor his current policies withstand scrutiny, however, except as evidence of Trump as a needy, egotistical self-serving man. He’s made a fortune, of course, in dens of gambling that exploit other humans’ vanity.
In the end what surely will inoculate America against Trump and other runts are Lincoln’s angels—humans’ bone-deep, bred-in values of morality and justice. At least Trump’s got us talking about the beliefs that bind us. Beliefs sensed in our nature, nurtured in study, tested in conflict. These ideals form the face of modernity. They’re what already make America great.
[Louis Armstrong & Nat King Cole perform “As Time Goes By”—a classic version.]
It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
—“As Time Goes By,” words and lyrics by Herman Hupfeld, made famous in Casablanca.