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I look back at the stressed-out writing I did four years ago after Trump was elected and recall what my European friends were saying at the time.  They were a bit blasé about the new administration, a bit cynical about whether anything had changed or would change in U.S. geopolitics. 

They wanted to know why I was so upset.  They saw Trump as a slightly more pungent embodiment of the same old repellent post-WWII American hubris.  Yes, he lacked Obama’s varnish and capacity.  But, in that sense, they seemed to think Trump was a little better—take the makeup off the beast and you can see it more clearly.  Take off its camoflauge and you can more easily track its movements.  America, they felt, is evil, uneducated, childish, and wrong.  Let’s be honest.  Let’s reveal its true nature.  Why not accomplish this by letting Trump flail about and demonstrate American dysfunction on the international stage?

But the imperial, crass, clumsy, adventurist America that colored the perceptions of my friends abroad wasn’t what I was mourning.  Countries, like the people that create and sustain them, are not simple.  Reducing them to an exploitative foreign policy (which their people may not even fully understand or approve of) and the philistine values of their nastiest and most brutish citizens is disingenuous at best. 

The America in which I grew up was liberally and tolerantly Democrat and Republican.  People voted locally, believed in civil rights, valued humanistic education, and, incidentally, were not part of anything that could be considered “systemically racist.”  Higher education and health care were expensive but were seen as inherently good and worth working for.  My southern Californian neighborhood was diverse.  My childhood friends were Hmong, Vietnamese, Italian, African-American, Polish, Mexican-American, and every other ethnicity you can imagine. 

This is not to say that the country (including my small part of it) didn’t have serious problems or that there was no racism or crime.  It’s to say that America was seen as a decent place in which to live, in spite of those things.  And I grew up in a fairly poor neighborhood in a house with the roof always falling in.  I wasn’t dirt poor, but I wasn’t “rolling like a hog in the fat house,” either.  So, with deep reservations, I voted for Hilary in 2016.  I was well aware of the evils in my country.  But it was the good that I cared about and wanted to protect by voting Democrat.  I suspect most who voted Republican felt the same way.

The reason I was upset four years ago, and why I disagreed with the pessimistic view of my European friends, was that Trump brought a vision of “American carnage”—a distorted view of failure and fallout that didn’t square with what I knew from firsthand experience as a citizen.  He encouraged us to envision ourselves as a nigh-failed state.  And I knew that what you envision eventually becomes real.

But none of us could foresee the damage that this would do to the political continuum in the United States and, by extension, to American society.  The last four years have been tragic, convoluted, and intense to an almost unbelievable degree, such that the best analysts and political commentators now seem occupied with catching up or doomsaying instead of predicting what’s to come or offering solutions; though, one can admit that foreseeability is always an issue.

The complexity of this moment in American history is as broad and deep as it is disturbing.  And we might forgive the pundits for having a hard time with it.  It’s hard to think of any moment in American history simple and clear enough that we can say it’s open and shut, that we can easily understand it without much discussion.

For example, it’s not enough to argue that Truman dropped the bomb in 1945 to curtail protracted war in the Pacific and ultimately save lives.  It’s not enough to say that he was spineless and unduly influenced by hawkish generals and politicians looking for payback and glory.  It’s not enough to say that the American public had grown hardened by the war to the extent that the mass-murder of Japanese civilians seemed like an acceptable trade-off for victory.  If we’re in search of the broadest, clearest, most unvarnished view, we have to say all these things and more. 

Such considerations and a hundred others like them, existing side by side, are what make American history so confounding and fascinating (and are what make the New York Times’ dubious “1619 Project” more race-oriented speculative fiction than history, on par with creationist textbooks and What If the Nazis Won the War fan fic).  History is not simple because we are not simple.  The breadth of a cultural, historical moment is always hard to grasp, even in retrospect.  And, at the time, suffused as it is with emotion and rhetoric, it’s nearly impossible to fully and clearly understand what’s going on, even if we have a great deal of information. 

Nevertheless, we all agree that it’s the job of journalists, philosophers, artists, historians (even politicians) to set aside the fear and make sense of things.  When they succeed, we can arrive at maybe a partial understanding of what’s happening, maybe to the extent that we can act in accordance with best possible premises and mitigate the damage.  But after four years of American carnage, we seem to have unambiguously failed in that respect.  And we can’t pin it all on Trump.  We’re the ones who fed him tequila and acid and took him off the leash.  We’re the ones who burned our own neighborhoods.  Political writers, in particular, share the blame.

What we unfortunately have now is vicious black-and-white thinking across the political spectrum, the sort of irrationality that greenlights violence, tribalism, feuding, and revenge and thinks it’s all for the best, the sort of illiberal extremism that forgets how to come together and resolve differences.  And foreseeability remains a key problem—even the partial sort that sets aside the Huxlean herd poison in favor of the common good. 

The vision of American carnage is coming to pass when we could have imagined and brought forth something far better.  Such is the root of my discontent—what I felt in 2016 and what I feel now.  It’s why I regard political conventions as rituals of death worship, paying homage to dead systems and broken ideologies, rigidly entrenched in old enmities and feuds, and enslaved to a partisanship so obsolete and toxic that it has become clownish and absurd.

Cynicism and black-and-white thinking are too easy in times like this.  My deepest wish for the United States is that it will let go of those things and embrace classical liberalism—the radical notion that the left and the right can come together in the middle, take the best of what they are, and form a more perfect union.  We’ve done it before.  I don’t see why we can’t do it again. 

There are libraries in this world so beautiful that the visitor can almost believe humanity has a chance.  One thinks of sweeping architecture, polished stone, cool quiet atriums, deep stacks, the smell of old paper.  One imagines a certain reverence for knowledge, for words and learning, in a place dedicated to the best of what we are. 

Even the dingiest, poorest library can convey that sacredness, which is nondenominational and therefore inherently optimistic.  In that sense, a library can be an island of decency, democracy, and culture in an unkind world.  Unfortunately, decency, democracy, and culture seem to be on the wane.  I believe I’ve already written enough about that.

The libraries, which is to say structures committed to the veneration of knowledge, can burn if that’s what the people want.  And I’m no longer interested in arguing that they must be preserved, that humanistic inquiry lies at the heart of the democratic ideal.  I’m no longer interested in trying to develop some taxonomy of toxic political subdivisions or in outlining the internecine schisms that have come into being across the current spectrum. Nor am I interested in the pushback, the spite, the purity spirals that must lead to deeper ignorance and iconoclasm.  Those things will be obvious to the reader already or they won’t.  And if they aren’t obvious, no one will enjoy reading about them for the first time here.

Instead, my goal is to mention a non-obvious, highly personal belief: the idea of knowledge as not just a product that can be bought, sold, or otherwise transferred in the marketplace, but as a metaphysical verity that seeks expression in the world generation after generation, cycle after cycle—the concept of knowledge as something that transcends its material media and therefore cannot be burned.

I’ll admit to being influenced by Neo-Platonism, but this idea is not, strictly speaking, Neo-Platonic.  As I mentioned above, I’m not interested in formal taxonomies and categorizations.  An uncharitable critic might say that I’m simply forming an ungrounded new-age assumption about what knowledge is and how it functions.  That might be true, but I’m not here to convince anyone that my beliefs are authoritative or even slightly true.  This is personal writing that I’m making public—a journal entry reframed as a blog post—because I think it’s interesting.

In my opinion, the non-materialistic concept is interesting because it does not view knowledge as residing in a book or a library or a university or a city or a culture.  Rather, it sees knowledge as an essence always seeking entry into the world, a creative, constructive potential in all human contexts.  So an ancient architect creates an aqueduct.  Three hundred years later, a playwright completes a satire.  On a different continent, writing in a different language, a historian completes an essay.  And so it goes.  The ways of knowing may all be unique and priceless, specific to their time and place.  But the impulse to know will be constant and knowledge of all kinds will emerge.  Therefore, one upholds the arts and humanities because it is very important to be able to curate and study each particular “emergence,” each way of knowing bound in human space and time. But one also keeps the faith: there will be new drawings and operas and comedies.

For example, there was only one van Gogh, even if painting as a way of knowing emerges again and again in culture after culture.  Consequently, we admire van Gogh’s work as an impressive part of human history and a unique window on the human condition.  At the same time, if all the van Gogh paintings in the world caught fire, we know that someone, somewhere is expressing himself or herself through paint.  It won’t be van Gogh, but it might be just as significant.  If we think this way, we might say that we have the optimism of a librarian.

In other words, you can’t kill knowledge.  You can’t kill art.  You can’t kill philosophy or history or literature.  And you can’t eradicate the deep-seated human impulses that lead to the production of these things—idealism, joy, the love of freedom, inquisitiveness, the constructive power of language, the alchemy of color and perspective.

All you can do is attempt to outlaw certain ways of knowing, repress their expressions, lock them away in favor of whatever less enlightened ideology happens to be in vogue for those with power.  You can burn the library, yes.  And you can execute the librarians.  And try to erase the histories.  And exile the philosophers.  And make the novelists eat their novels, chapter by chapter.  And in such a generation of fools, the arts and humanities may become meaningless—for a time. 

But it’s precisely when no one is looking, when the library has been reduced to ashes and the inquisitors have moved on, in the pre-dawn hours, while the town’s political officer still sleeps in his villa on the hill, that someone will light a candle, sit by the window, and, on a blank sheet of paper, write, It’s curious what I felt . . .

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I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“The job of a President is to lower the temperature, to bring people who disagree with one another together, to make life better for all Americans, not just those who agree with us, support us, or vote for us.”

— Joe Biden