A rhetoric professor of mine used to amuse himself by saying, “The truth is always simple.” By this, he usually meant that accurate-seeming propositions are built from small assumptions, arrayed around a central premise easy to accept as common sense. The central premise is simple. The rest is usually a complex rhetorical exoskeleton designed to protect it. He didn’t believe in a single monolithic truth. A genuine sophist, he looked for the validity of persuasive discourse.
It took a while to understand that his “simple” was shorthand for this idea. But that’s how some people communicate, by elision, ellipses, implication. It gives them room to persuade, to demonstrate, to marshal sources and mould arguments without being hampered by culturally prescribed truth narratives, attestations of belief, professions of faith, declarations of what is real, what all respectable people of good character are expected to think.
I find I’ve increasingly come to resemble my teacher in this way—not in his preference for indirect expression, but in his distrust of the “true” and the “correct.” There seems to be no shortage of sacred truths and respectable opinions in the United States right now. Everyone is suddenly in church.
Maybe it’s the Coronavirus. Maybe it’s the emotional fallout from the recent protests and riots. Maybe it’s because I’m turning 47 this year—not yet old, but no longer young—that I feel like I’ve had enough. Enough newsfeed. Enough hypocrisy. Enough banal evil. Enough stupid authoritarianism and reflexive outrage. Enough identity politics. Enough lip service and moralizing. Enough monetized nostalgia. Enough sadomasochism, dread, and consequences. Enough fake performative virtue. R. Crumb was fond of asking in his underground comics, how much can one man take? I’m at a point where I feel I can answer that, at least for myself.
I’m sick of being told what’s true and false, right and wrong—as if anyone actually knows. I think I’ll need to find a mountaintop soon, or a subterranean cavern, someplace quiet, away from all the respectable people telling me what to do, what to think, and how to feel. America is obsessed with propriety but unwilling to admit it. And it’s only getting worse.
I just read about the Arctic explorer, Augustine Courtauld, who, in 1931, was trapped in a polar weather station for months. The biography made it seem like a dreadful ordeal, and I suppose it was. But the idea of that much solitude is very appealing right now. I suppose I might feel differently after months of it. Then again, maybe not. At least, in that deep isolation, I wouldn’t be waiting in line at the confessional.
For the last few days, I’ve been thinking about Mark and Patricia McCloskey, now immured forever in the pages of the New York Post, which is where I first read about them, along with every other newspaper and social media platform in existence. They are the suburban St. Louis couple who recently brandished their guns at a crowd of George Floyd protesters.
Since first seeing the McCloskeys’ terrified vacuous expressions, I’ve felt that the fact pattern in their dumb predicament is all rhetorical exoskeleton. What really happened? Two mousy attorneys thought their house was going to be burned down by a mob and overreacted. They also happened to be white, irritating to look at, and apparently prone to making terrible decisions—just like four cops in Minneapolis not too long ago. And they could have killed someone. It seems like sheer luck they didn’t.
They said they were defending their property. They said they’d only touched their weapons twice since moving in. They said they were afraid of a “storming of the Bastille” situation (they thought of their home as an 18th century French prison?). They said they were afraid of terrorism. They said they had guns in order to keep mobsters away (The Untouchables in suburban St. Louis?). And they said they support Black Lives Matter. Of course they do.
I imagine them saying all these things in a single exhalation, without pauses, then dabbing their faces with perfumed handkerchiefs. Honestly, Valmont, it sounds like an ordeal. Howsoever did you survive it? Well, dearest, they’re called the underclass for a reason. You have to be fair with them but stern. Violence is all they truly understand. Oh, Valmont! You ravish me!
The central premise, on the other hand, is something easy to accept: white people are afraid. It dovetails nicely with the abundance of twitchy columns and articles steaming out of the New York Times, The Atlantic and, to a slightly lesser extent, The Washington Post, which often seem more like professions of faith instead of reportage: this is what good people everywhere now believe. Rich white people are dangerous. Proof positive of what we’ve been saying all along right here in St. Louis. The truth is always simple, isn’t it?
As a white moderate liberal who believes in the marketplace of ideas, humanistic inquiry, literacy programs, diversity, the possibility of equal opportunity through non-violent reform, and the continued applicability of certain quaint democratic ideals, I’ve been accused by those to my left of willingly perpetuating a racist system (as if I were something more than a nobody with a laptop). Those to my right have called me a snowflake, among other unpleasant things, and accused me of writing thoughtless garbage. I’ve even gotten a few death threats in the post-apocalyptic hellscape of Twitter, which now just seems par for the course, especially on social media.
What I haven’t found is anyone willing to agree with me that the riots made perfect sense but the fanaticism of critical race theory does not. Kill people and their friends, families, and communities will respond in kind. They should protest. Everyone should when the police have gone feral. It’s understandable that when people feel oppressed, they’ll act out their frustration until they see changes. At least, they’ll destroy some monuments, burn some cop cars, throw the butt urn down the courthouse steps, and spray “ACAB” on the windows of the local network affiliate. Well, it’s something.
But the current woke gamesmanship being played by our corporate, managerial elite willing to indulge in the worst excesses of critical race theory in order to be on the right side of profitability is repugnant. As a fellow writer at Splice Today put it: “lots of white guilt and centering individualistic narratives of change,” a venting mechanism meant to preserve the status quo: “Class and socioeconomic privilege are preserved and movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too can only exist to support class status.” Put the right slogan on your T-shirt and you can have your BLM cake and eat it, too.
Maybe it’s better to say that, while I don’t know what’s true, I have a sense of what isn’t. It’s a sense that tells me certain perspectives are more profitable than others right now for celebrities, politicians, and brands. It tells me the only way positive changes come about is when people stop trying to leverage the trends, set aside their differences, and work together in the spirit of common humanity and good will. And it adds that such changes are never going to happen if you’re preoccupied trying to storm the Bastille or if you’re out on your front lawn with an AR-15, trying to defend it against the mob.
Mostly, I’m just as tired as anyone in this pathological country. Every government is somewhat horrible and evil. But I’m not interested in pulpits and commandments. I’m not trying to be virtuous or right. I’m not interested in today’s purity test. I didn’t even plan to be in the United States for more than two weeks. It’s been almost four months. I’ve had enough American exceptionalism and respectability to last me at least until our brave new police-free utopia hits its stride sometime in November.