Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Dese are de conditions dat prevail!"

The Greek concept of tragedy was based on their cosmology.  For them, creation was a matter of logos, but not the logos John referred to in the opening of that gospel (close, though!).  Logos as reason, not just as word.  Logos, reason, imposed order on chaos, and thus the cosmos as we know it arose.

Problem was, logos was not that tight a lid on chaos.  Christians wrestle with the problem of evil; the Greeks wrestled with the problem of unreason.  When things went wrong, it was a failure of logos; it was an irruption of chaos.  Reason did all it could, but it could fail.  When it failed in tragic heroes, tragedy resulted.  When it failed in human affairs, chaos resulted.  Chaos was never defeated, but only controlled, only quelled.  The lid stayed on by the efforts of reason, and chaos stayed in the background.  But eventually, in the last tragedy of all, logos would fail, and chaos would reclaim its supremacy.

Call it another reason Plato was pessimistic about the viability of democracy.  It's not really part of Plato's argument, but like the elegiac in Old English literature that still sounds in the best British and American literature today (think of all the glories of the past on Tolkien's Middle Earth, gone, long gone, and never to return; and even when they do, Aragon's rule, too, will fade), it's somewhere in the background of Plato's reasoning.

So now comes Charlie Pierce to lament the rise of Trump and the departure of Obama, and he says, in his summing up:

But the one thing he never did—and the fact that his political opposition is so contemptuous of his personal style is proof enough that he was right—was to turn the office into what his successor apparently intends it to be: an endless celebration of nothing. On his last day, despite all the interviews he's given about how his faith in the American people has grown stronger, it's hard to believe he doesn't look out the windows of the White House now and wonder if he truly understood the country and its people at all. It is the last day he will be President of the United States, a once-great country that doesn't understand itself.
Obama understood the people, and he told them what they wanted to hear.  Trump did the same thing, but he managed to gain control with less than a majority of the country, and his support is going down.   Not that the support of the people means that much:  Obama had support of 90% of the country after the Newtown massacre, but he couldn't do anything with it.  Our system doesn't work that way; it never has.  That Trump won the White House, though, and Obama leaves more popular than Trump comes in, doesn't mean support for Obama or the Democrats is going up.  That's the zero-sum game Hillary Clinton played and lost.  Disgust with Trump didn't translate into support for Clinton, and Trump's victory hardly means he's got the whole country in his hands.   The system doesn't work that way; it never has.

 Still, the ancient Greeks had a better handle on it, though the Christian doctrine of original sin isn't inapplicable, either.  The way to understand the "American people" is to understand that:  the one thing that joins us is not nationality or patriotism or heritage or tradition.  We all have different understandings of those terms. What joins us is a concept of sin, or the nature of chaos.  In either one, reason fails, and trouble results.  Our institutions have never been able to make us do what we don't want to do, and have never been able to save us from ourselves.  We started with a compromise on the "peculiar institution" of slavery, and it took a war to end it.  We made no effort to right that wrong for another 100 years, and the past 60 years have been marked by the refusal to accept that promissory note Dr. King spoke about in 1963.  This country was formed with its own version of chaos, rooted in slavery from the arrival of Columbus, and we haven't managed to eradicate that sin with words, yet.

This country has never understood itself, and it never will; not until it hears the words of Jeremiah Wright, quoting a U.S. Ambassador, that the chickens truly come home to roost, and we are responsible for what we have done in the world.  It wasn't Obama's place to be our national preacher and tell us those truths.  He was right to praise the strengths of the American people; as right as Trump is wrong to peddle lies.  But humankind cannot bear very much reality, especially from its President.  And if the chaos does overtake us someday, well, it will be on us.  There will be a certain inevitability in it, a certain justice.  And it will be because we thought too much of ourselves; and too little.


  1. I think Obama thought he was going to be Jed Bartlett without the drama. At least that's what I see in the eternal riddle of why he campaigned as a giant and chose to not lead, even with the American People giving him an overwhelming mandate to do that in 2009 and reaffirming it with a weaker one in his second term.

    I remember that I was skeptical of Obama as soon as he announced and I'm really angry that he did so much to validate that skepticism in the past eight years. It took me decades to come to similar conclusions about John Kennedy but I was a lot younger then.

    Jeremiah Wright once said that the word in Chicago was that Barack Obama made Arne Duncan Sec. of Education because he wanted him around to play basketball with. I wish I could think that was a rumor, I'm sorry to say I can't be sure it isn't true.

    We have to make sure we never have another guy who gives everything away to people he's obsessed with loving him when they never will. I don't think Barack Obama ever really respected his supporters, he respected star athletes, famous people, rich people and his political opponents. I don't think he ever really respected Democrats. I always remember that silly meeting he had with the then hot bloggers to try to rally the support of young people (none of them exactly qualified as young) and he told one of them that it was their job to make him do his job. I don't remember him ever telling Republicans it was not their job to not keep him from doing his job.

  2. "We have to make sure we never have another guy who gives everything away to people he's obsessed with loving him when they never will."

    Unfortunately that's exactly what we've done; again.

  3. When I said "we" I meant Democrats. I-Trump has enough love for himself to make up for anything else. I think what he really wants from others is fear. He's got that in common with Vlad.