Should the New Normal Be Normative?
If the republic is pulled down, what then? Will it land on me? Could it be built again? Would it be? And do I even need to care? What should I do in the meantime, while I wait for whatever is going to happen to happen? In The Sleepwalkers, his masterful study of the misunderstandings and fatally ill-considered decisions of state that brought Europe haplessly to the brink of war and over it in the summer of 1914, Christopher Clark cites “the tendency among human beings to assign normative authority to actually existing states of affairs.” Members of our species, Clark observes,
tend to gravitate quickly from the observation of what exists to the presumption that an existing state of affairs is normal and thus must embody a certain ethical necessity. When upheavals or disruptions occur, they quickly adapt to the new circumstances, assigning to them the same normative quality they had perceived in the prior order of things.
“The new normal” has tellingly become a buzz phrase of late. As such, it is glib and unhelpful unless we’re prepared to consider what it really means. America’s old normal is no longer normal, and we don’t yet have a new one. All human beings, but especially Americans, crave what Warren G. Harding called normalcy. But what if we get a new normal, and it’s a bad one? Will we, out of fear or laziness, let a bad new normal become normative? Or will we continue struggling for a good one?
It would be nice if we could all pull together in the same direction, but ultimately the dilemma is individual: Either you make your peace with the new order, or you don’t. Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn’t, and paid the price. Sebastian Haffner (Defying Hitler) and Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen (Diary of a Man in Despair) left us invaluable documentation of the plight of persons of conscience from within a dominant majority community – in Reck’s case someone of distinctly conservative leanings. Reck was arrested in October 1944 and died of typhus in Dachau. Haffner chose exile, lived to return to his country when it was safe to do so, and went on to become a very distinguished historian.
We Americans of 2016 have been forced – we have forced ourselves, all of us – into positions of inevitable moral compromise. Does silence equal complicity? Perhaps not. Camus’s decision to become silent on Algeria in France in the 1950s was principled, was explained for the sake of anyone who needed an explanation, and was taken only after he felt he had exhausted all other personal options. Edwidge Danticat once told me that she would write only if she felt she was “writing a story only I can tell, in a way only I can tell it.” Trusting that others are writing, “with all their heart,” some of the stories that need to be told but not by her, she can “pause and not force myself to write.”
This suggests, among other things, that the task at hand is a shared one: all God’s critters got a place in the choir. I also took from what Edwidge said that it might be all right for me to pause sometimes too; that I don’t always have to have something to say. I take comfort in that. At the moment, though, I do have something to say, so I’m saying it. But one thing I know is that I needn’t expend my time and talent writing mere opinion or political analysis, because there’s a perpetual glut in the market for those commodities. The world also doesn’t need for me to “tweet” my “take” on things. There’s all too much tweeting already, too many takes. I write what I can and feel I should write, I aspire for my work to attain some traction or usefulness in the public world, and I fret that it does not. That is an occupational hazard for any writer, because language and meaning, the tools of the trade, are imprecise and intangible things. But it’s a more general problem for all of us these days, because the institutions we used to rely on to give structure to our collective life – if only so we could chafe or rail against them – are dissolving and recombining in confusing and unpredictable ways, and no new status quo seems likely to emerge any time soon.
But don’t we need for a new status quo to emerge? Or do we? If we do, what should it be like? Should we sit around and wait for Them to lay a new status quo on us, or should we take matters into our own hands, like Tommy DiMassimo? Why shouldn’t we? It’s a free country, isn’t it? “The reality that we are experiencing today is not the reality that we have to have,” Bernie Sanders told me and 13,000 other Americans at Key Arena in Seattle on March 20, 2016. “Change happens when people look around them and say, ‘The status quo is not acceptable.’”
So, given that I don’t like either the prior order of things or the current instability and confusion, I ask myself what I’m in a position to do. We may lack any national purpose anymore, but purposes don’t have to be national. The things I’m in a position to do include writing essays like this one and, literally, tending my own garden. I hope to be making myself useful, but whether I am is for others to judge. But even my private garden is attached to the larger world. We can try to withdraw, and sometimes we need to, but the public world unavoidably impinges on our hearts and households, not only materially but emotionally and morally.
For example, the day that Ted Cruz won the Republican caucuses in Kansas and Maine and Donald Trump won the Louisiana and Kentucky primaries, I was away from the house doing errands in my neighborhood. I was on foot and it was a beautiful early spring day, the first sunny Saturday after a long, rainy Seattle winter. One of my errands went slightly awry – the woman at the bank put off processing the paperwork for my business account and made me cool my heels while a steady trickle of other customers approached her counter – and somehow it ended up ruining my mood and my day. And my wife’s day. And for the duration of that previously calm and cheerful Saturday, everything seemed pointless. We both tried to enjoy working in the garden but did so only with a glum sense of futility. Why bother pulling that weed? It’ll just grow back, or another will grow in its place. And behind and beyond our somber home front loomed all that was happening, and likely to happen, out there around America and the world. I’ve got my own baggage and demons, to be sure, but I also think the personal anger I inflicted on my wife that day somehow spewed from the vast toxic reservoir of anger and futility pervading national life. My own life and career might well be humming along just fine, as indeed they are; but what good is that if the society in which I live and try to function is going to hell in a handbasket?
What’s additionally messed up, truth be told, is that I derived a chilly satisfaction from writing the preceding paragraph in my notebook, while sitting on the glider on the patio after my wife went inside to start doing the laundry. Graham Greene was right about the splinter of ice in a writer’s heart. Writers live and suffer all the same things as other people, but we also cultivate a lifelong habit of observing it all at arm’s length. It’s another occupational hazard. And it’s not only necessary and/or self-justifying, but also personally damaging, because keeping the world’s bad shit and confusion at arm’s length requires emotional exertion as well as a certain measure of moral dishonesty: I’m just here to watch the car wreck and write about it; nothing to do with me.
So I do have to come to terms with it, on one set of terms or another. The default presumption of human society seems to be that the state, whatever form it might take and however its ineffable presence might be expressed, is always entitled to have its way with us: a comprehensive droit de seigneur that is tactfully or cunningly kept implicit most of the time, until moments arrive when They feel that we need reminding. “A King cannot attain absolute power, while the people remain perfectly free,” observed William Hazlitt in 1818; “yet what King would not attain absolute power?” But the state exists at all only because we agree to imagine it collectively. “Too many people still believe in the State,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in 1934 (echoing Randolph Bourne), “and war is the health of the state. You will see that finally it will become necessary for the health of the so-called communist state in Russia.”
You are invited to read the eight-part chain of essays “America: Now What?” online here. It will also be published, in print and as an e-book, in early 2017 by Blue Ear Books as part of a collection of speeches and writings titled America: Now What? and Other Questions. Purchase Home Free: An American Road Trip now for $14.95 plus $3.95 shipping, and you will receive one of the first copies of America: Now What? and Other Questions when it is published in early 2017.