Quotes & Commentary #12: James Joyce

Quotes & Commentary #12: James Joyce

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

—James Joyce, Ulysses

I can’t imagine a more appropriate quote for today, the day I learned that Donald Trump had been elected president.

This morning I fully expected to wake up to news of Clinton’s victory. Even though I wasn’t very happy with Clinton, I was still excited for the first woman president. But I was much more excited to never have to look at, think of, or talk about Donald Trump ever again.

The truth is, I have developed an unhealthy loathing for the man—not just as a politician, but as a person. This hatred is unhealthy because it gives Trump, an egomaniac, exactly what he wants: power over my attention. Unwittingly I got sucked into his reality show world, watching out of spite just to see him lose. Instead, I lost.

This morning I went to work with a pit in my stomach, a feeling of impotent, nebulous anxiety. Seeing the gloomy faces of my coworkers, blanched and speechless, only tightened the knot in my gut.

It wasn’t long before the initial shock wore off, my powers of denial began to fail, and the full enormity of what happened hit me. My reaction was more physical than intellectual. I felt dizzy and lightheaded. I couldn’t think, talk, or do anything remotely productive. I could just sit in sullen silence, trying to hide my feelings from my students.

But James Joyce’s quote reminds me of something. History is nearly always a nightmare. Corruption, bigotry, xenophobia, the lust for power—these have been with us from the beginning, and always will be. The wicked leaders far outweigh the decent ones. Trump is not new, merely a new manifestation of something very old: a demagogue who represents and draws upon the darker impulses of our nature.

If by history we mean the ceaseless tide of human action, propelling us forwards and backwards, raising us to the heights and sinking us into the depths, then it is impossible to awake from history. As long as humans are humans, history will be, in the words of Edward Gibbon, “little more than a register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” History is the constant, heroic, and ultimately doomed attempt to fight against entropy.

But besides the literal meaning, I also like to interpret this quote in another, more psychological, way.

Trump is an archetypical example of a man who places value in external things. For him, this thing is winning. He needs it like a drug, in ever-increasing doses. While it may seem like a strength, this craving to win is really the product of a crippling weakness: the need for constant validation.

When you identify your own value with something external—whether it be money, love, or whatever—you doom yourself to a hamster wheel existence. You spend all your time pursuing it. But when you get it, you immediately want more; and when you don’t get it, you feel worthless.

For me, this is the history from which I am trying to awake. Instead of chasing things, I want to enjoy them. Not that there is anything wrong with pursuing a goal—to the contrary, it is the most admirable thing you can do. But you can pursue goals without wagering your sense of worth and identity in the bargain. You can treat the hustle of life as a necessary, exciting, and vexing game, not the ultimate judgment of your value.

Donald Trump does just the opposite. In his world, if you lose then that makes you worthless, an insect, a nobody, a loser. And if you win, your life has been validated. He identifies totally and completely with the outcome of the game of life. Because of this, no matter how successful he is, he will always feel a gnawing sense of emptiness at the core of his being. No win will ever be enough, and every loss will be devastating.

The reason I am thinking along these lines is that I am now reading Epictetus, the former slave who became a Stoic philosopher. Because Stoicism grew up amid political turmoil and instability, it is a philosophy ideally suited for disastrous times.

Epictetus teaches that external things (like elections) are always ultimately beyond our control. Of course, you do what you can, and you must do so. But you are not obligated to be agitated when it doesn’t go your way—as will frequently happen. Indeed, agitation serves no purpose. Either act, or be tranquil. We cannot always control events, but we can always control how we react to those events.

This Stoic lesson will be increasingly necessary in the coming years, if we are not to wear ourselves out with worrying. It is especially necessary with a man like Trump, who is so addicted to attention. When I talk to friends, watch TV, or look on Facebook,  I am constantly surprised by how completely he has captured the attention of the entire world. And this is exactly what he wanted. It’s the only thing he’s good at. Whether you love or hate him, chances are that you can’t stop thinking about him.

But letting Trump totally dominate our thoughts and moods is giving him the ultimate victory. It is giving him exactly what he craves. And ultimately this stress and anxiety will not make us any more effective in countering his proposals or fighting against his influence. To act appropriately, we must remain calm and focused; and to do that, we cannot, must not, let Trump so totally invade our thoughts and destroy our ability for reflection and thoughtful action.

And we certainly cannot let ourselves, like I have done, become obsessed with our hatred and loathing for the man. To act hatefully is to sink to his level. To become obsessed with beating him is to let him win the ultimate battle over your soul.

All power fades, all tyrants die, and everything, good or bad, is swallowed by time. History can indeed by a nightmare; but like a nightmare upon waking it will one day vanish into nothingness.

Change what you can. Accept what you can’t. Enjoy what you have. This is how we can awake from history.

Review: The Speech

The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed & the Decline of Our Middle ClassThe Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed & the Decline of Our Middle Class by Bernie Sanders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Greed, in my view, is like a sickness. It is like an addiction.

Say what you will, this presidential race has been, at the very least, an intensely interesting affair. Of course, there is the debacle of the Republican primaries; but those are mainly interesting in the same way that a car accident is interesting—you can’t help but rubberneck, even if you’re a bit disgusted with yourself for doing so. Much more engrossing, for me, has been the rise of Bernie Sanders, something which seems to have surprised everybody, even Sanders himself.

I should admit, right off the bat, that I like Sanders; but I’m going to try my best in this review, however ineffectual that may be, to maintain some skeptical distance. I suggest you do the same for me.

This book was first released in 2011. As its back cover will tell you, it is a transcription of Sanders’s long filibuster speech, delivered on December 10, 2010, on the eve of a deal, brokered by Obama and the Republicans, which extended the Bush tax cuts on the super-rich, among other things. The whole speech is on YouTube, if you’re interested, all eight-and-a-half hours. This book is just a transcription of the speech.

As Sanders warns in the beginning, this speech is quite repetitive, deliberately so; he expected viewers to turn in for only a few minutes on CSPAN, and not to stick through the whole thing. This redundancy is probably the worst aspect of this book. I don’t see why it couldn’t have been edited and neatened up. Even so, despite the recurring sections, there is just enough new material scattered throughout the speech to keep the reader’s interest—or at least, to keep mine.

The subject of Sanders’s speech is most immediately the financial legislation in question and its shortcomings; but Sanders uses this as a jumping-off point to discuss what he sees as the pressing and dire problems facing the United States. Sanders is a remarkably consistent politician, and you will see him focused on the same issues, often using the same language, that he’s employed during his presidential bid this year.

The core of Sanders’s campaign, and this speech, is income inequality. Truly, the level of income inequality in the United States is staggering and hard to wrap one’s head around. Sanders does his best by hammering his listeners with statistic after statistic, numbers so big and so stark that they baffle the mind. After about five repetitions, they start to sink in; and after ten, your own moral outrage begins to simmer along with Sanders’s.

It’s worthwhile to compare Sanders’s speaking style with that of Obama. Obama is, I think, certainly the stronger and more versatile speaker. He is capable of sharp wit, of passionate outrage, of good-natured jocularity. But where I think he most excels, and what was his biggest asset when he ran for president, was his ability to inspire. He does this mainly through the use of anecdotes. He makes his speeches very personal; the way he speaks of nurses and teachers and firefighters is not at all condescending or pandering, but really makes you feel he knows them, knows them personally and intimately.

Sanders’s approach is quite different. For one, he is certainly more narrow in ability and focus. What Sanders conveys, with his voice, with his words, with his thrashing body language and unkempt appearance, is moral outrage. Indeed, I find something Biblical about Sanders’s speeches. He shouts until his voice cracks, until he is absolutely hoarse, detailing in a long, grotesque list how unfair and unequal our society has become. You don’t so much feel inspired as galvanized, jolted with a mixture of desperation and indignation.

To create these feelings, he does not tell stories, but recites facts. It’s astonishingly simple, really; he just has to read off a long list of ways that America is doing poorly—our shamefully huge prison population, our crumbling infrastructure, our soaring college tuition and health costs, and of course the absurd level of wealth and income inequality, which seems to grow more every year.

To speak personally for a moment, I remember the moment when his message really hit me. First I have to tell you that, among my friends, it’s almost a cliché to talk about how much better life in Europe is than in America. In fact, one of my friends, after a long vacation in Europe, said to me: “It’s honest really depressing how much better life is over there.” And it’s not just us; a lot of people have these thoughts. You get used to thinking of the United States as poorer, less prosperous, more benighted than places like Germany and Denmark.

Anyhow, one day when I was listening to a Sanders speech, he said: “Some of you may not know this, it’s easy to forget it sometimes, but the United States is the wealthiest country in the history of the world.” This really made something click within me. I’d gotten so used to thinking of the United States as poor and inferior—a place where you can’t afford to go to school or to get sick—that I was shocked to be reminded that we have more wealth in this country than anywhere else. This is, I think, what’s so effective and compelling about Sanders: you feel you’re being snapped back into reality.

So this is what I like about Sanders. What I dislike is his tendency to demonize the rich. He speaks of the super-wealthy as if they’re a bunch of nefarious, mustache-twirling, conscience-less devils trying to enslave the rest of the world. I just don’t see this rhetoric as necessary. First, everybody pursues their own interests—the poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy—so I don’t see any reason to act morally superior. And second, I simply don’t think it’s true, strictly speaking, that the economy is hurting solely because of the greed of the wealthy. Yes, I am sure that a lot of stupid, selfish greed contributed to our economic situation today; but the economy is bloody complicated; it’s not a moral playground, but a vast system that even the best minds have failed to understand.

The cynical side of me sees this finger-wagging as just the sort of us-versus-them rhetoric that politicians use to gain power. But I do think, to be honest, that Sanders is not capable of something so underhanded. He’s been ragging on the rich for his whole career; it’s only recently that this strategy has started to pay off. And besides, I do think his larger point is not only valid, but vitally important—namely, that the influence of the wealthy class on politics, with campaign contributions and corporate lobbyists, has to be curtailed in order to preserve a working democracy.

As for Sanders’s political vision, I can’t deny that it appeals to me deeply. In a nutshell, Sanders’s vision is to make the United States more like Europe, with cheap college education, with free healthcare, with a strong social safety net, with higher taxes on the rich, with stronger infrastructure, and with a great deal more economic regulation. For the truth is, life in European countries often sounds too good to be true to young Americans.

Let me give you some concrete examples. Just the other day, I was in a car with a Spaniard. We got on the topic of vacation. She said she has a friend in the States who only gets 8 vacation days per year. “Is that typical?” she asks. Yes, we tell her. In my last job I got 15, but my girlfriend only had 5. Our driver is aghast. “I get thirty,” she says, “and I think that’s too few!”

Here’s another example, with regards to infrastructure. A monthly subway card in New York City costs $117; the equivalent here in Madrid costs 55€, and only 20€ if you’re 26 or under. What’s more, the subways in New York are overcrowded and dirty, with constant delays due to lines being shut down for repair; whereas the metro here is clean and always has good service. I’ve even seen a video—here’s the link—which shows some of the machines being used today in the NYC subway system. They were built in the 1930s, if you can believe that.

And this is not to mention the looks of shocked disbelief on the faces of Europeans when I tell them just how expensive college and healthcare are in the United States. So, really, when you’re reminded that your country—the place with the slow and expensive and obsolescent trains, where every young person is several thousand dollars in debt from college, and where we still have high levels of unemployment and child poverty—is the richest country in all of history, it hits a nerve.

And while I don’t like demonizing the rich, I do agree that the rich in the U.S. live in a world apart. This was illustrated for me last year when, by chance, I found myself looking through a yacht magazine. Have you ever seen one? It was unbelievable, and I mean I honestly couldn’t believe what I saw. These ships were just huge. Inside they had bowling alleys, movie theaters; they had personal gyms and helicopter landing pads; they had living rooms created by world-famous interior designers. The boats were, I admit, super cool. But what does it say about our society that there are people who can afford things like this, when on every corner is somebody on the street?

This review has already dragged on too long, and still there is so much to be said about Sanders and what his campaign means. The pundits dismissed him before he began, and even now, even in some liberal publications, he’s discussed—discussed all too rarely—with a kind of guarded skepticism. Some have said that the media is ignoring him because of their corporate overlords. But in general, I don’t think conspiracy theories are necessary. The news media in the U.S. is not evil, it’s just shamefully bad.

For example, on several occasions I’ve heard pundits criticize Sanders for focusing on income inequality in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. What a bizarre situation we’re in, when a politician is criticized for not trying to whip up fear. Other pundits have dismissed Sanders based on poll numbers; but even when Sanders was leading in Iowa and New Hampshire, Hillary was regarded as inevitable. Besides, my understanding is that these poll numbers, which change every week, are done on landlines—and thus probably exclude most young people, the bulk of Sanders’s supporters. Ironically enough, the only thing that seems to get the journalists’ attention is how much money Sanders is managing to make without accepting donations from corporations—which says quite a lot about the American media.

Almost every prediction I’ve heard about this election cycle has been shown to be foolish, so perhaps I should demure. But let me give it a go. Even if he doesn’t quite win, I think Sanders will surprise everyone on election day by how close he gets. And even if he loses, I predict that his presidential run will serve a similar function as Barry Goldwater’s did, back in the 60s, giving impetus and direction to a new political movement in the country. In other words, even if he loses the political battle, I think he’s already won the battle of ideas. And, who knows? Maybe he’ll win the political battle, too.

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