Legal and social fictions, political fictions, cognitive dissonance, compromise in means toward an end are inevitable as we move in our daily lives and even in our physical bodies. When my joints aren’t flexible enough on one side of my body due to injuries and age, the other side takes the weight. I can’t move naturally, smoothly, coherently, I may lose my balance. My muscles and ligaments feel the strain, if I take the pressure off in one place it moves to another.
Morality and conscience are making clear choices about what and how and where I compromise in anything that affects my deep values and commitments, knowing what those are. Examining them and re-examining them, not taking anything for granted.
My commitments are first and foremost to myself. Maybe in a different kind of society I’d be comfortable doing it differently but really, nobody has my back in a way I’d trust to create a common system of value that is strong enough to hold even if one of us breaks.
Inevitably, as I’m moving through my life, there is fragmentation and seeking of integration, as it’s too fast to see where the coherence lies in the moment of action, when there are split commitments. I think that really this is inevitable for anyone who is oppressed, who has experienced abuse, who lives in modern post-industrialized society. Gregory Bateson called it the ‘double bind’ and said it was the basis for so-called schizophrenia* as well as enlightenment, implying that it’s something out of the ordinary. But he also placed it in a framework of hierarchical orders of learning, hierarchical in the sense that each represented the working of consciousness on the previous one taken as its subject matter. He saw the double bind as occasion for learning when the worldview you have arrived at over time that organizes the other large and small things you have learned and go on learning (similar to the ‘paradigm’ in Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), is challenged. This requires a kind of learning that isn’t easily described, but that allows one to move past the paradox, or past the inability to move that the paradox inspired. Despite the paradox.
This week I was listening to the Trump impeachment trial (or lack thereof) in the Senate while doing other work and going about my business. The Republicans claim it’s all political, that the Democrats timed the impeachment to hurt Trump’s chances of being re-elected, and that this is no different morally from Trump’s own quid pro quo using the mechanism of foreign policy to get a US ally to dig up dirt on one of his Democratic opponents in the presidential campaign. The Democrats are promoting rule of law as a core value, rightly, because it has to be a core value once we are in the ballpark of a state that claims to rule in the name of the people: otherwise it’s brute force. The Republicans are showing they don’t give a damn for the rule of law, that Trump’s personal authoritarianism and the movement he represents, a coalition (see Anne Nelson’s The Shadow Network) of Christian theocrats, extractive industries and other predatory capitalists, and white supremacists (all authoritarian and anti-democratic by nature), is party doctrine and discipline. And so it is intensely political and moral at the same time, and this battle is itself contextualized by the premise of continuation of the US state and its Constitution. Progressives don’t have much of anywhere to go that isn’t nihilistic outside that premise right now, since the authoritarians themselves would like to change the Constitution and they’re stronger than we are. So we saw Nation writers and readers at one point a few years ago, early in Trump’s presidency, defending the FBI and the CIA as the bulwark of democracy, a bit hard to take for those of us who remember COINTELPRO and the assassinations of democratic socialists who won election in other countries. and other dirty tricks of the spy/covert action agencies. I suppose in an era of private mercenaries (Blackwater) the official ones may seem better?
The mainstream, corporate-run media, including unfortunately National Public Radio (ok: to name some of the others – CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times), have steadily trashed the candidacy of progressive populist Bernie Sanders while promoting his centrist opponents, particularly Biden and Klobuchar, and fomenting conflict between Sanders and his next-left opponent, Elizabeth Warren. This happens both in their journalism and in the Democratic primary debates run by various media outlets. The Democratic Party has changed its rules on campaign contributions to allow billionaire former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run. And meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, despite having built a strong organization and campaign with support from unions, environmental organizations, and key Congressional progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Premila Jayapal, has muddied his own waters by accepting an endorsement from racist, misogynist Joe Rogan – apparently to cultivate supporters among the Trump base of racist, misogynist white men supposed to be working class.
It’s a conundrum with no apparent way out. Americans are not in Washington banging pots and pans en masse in the streets outside the Capitol and the White House (or as close as they could get given the tactical confinement of demonstrations that has been the policy of US cities since 9/11). My pointing that out won’t get me or anyone else there any more than anybody else’s has. We’re already hunkered down, we’ve either been boiled slowly in the water of authoritarianism and are about to die as a country and scrambling to save what we can in pieces or just to survive wherever we are materially, however we are materially.
And then outside the legal fiction of the state. My friend in Iowa has a small farm where she raises goats. It’s a beautiful life and hard. I look out my window and know I’m relatively secure in the land I live on and in our house. Climate change has made our winters warmer, I feel like what wants to hibernate is struggling with half-wakefulness, but it’s a joy to experience even that.
Another friend sent me a quote from Chinese novelist/poet Han Dong, translated: “The energy sparked by battles is suspicious as it doesn’t give birth to anything new. What we need is the labor of birthing, not a fight over the child.” That resonates with me as similar to Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality, which helped me confront the nihilism of Judith Butler. If we are used to battles, we might fear the labor of birthing as something unknown, and resist it as if that were violence and not the other way around. But our lives as well as our moral integrity will depend on navigating that difference.