Midnight Radio

Choral Drift

Soundtrack for leaving Iceland: the choral drift of Popol Vuh’s ‘Aquirre I Lacrima di Rei sounds like glaciers, mist, and devotion. After listening to this song six times in a row it occurred to me that the word ‘theology’ means the ‘logic of god’—which seemed rather profound at 35,000 feet.

Popol Vuh – Aguirre I Lacrima di Rei

Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Ohm, 1972 | spotify | More information
Citations

Some Excessive Humiliation

Meanwhile the president’s seething need for adulation continues to blow through the nation’s skull like a playground shriek that will never end. “Usually the megalomaniac, whether insane or nominally sane, is the product of some excessive humiliation,” wrote Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness, a meditation on the anxieties of modern life first published in 1930—and a reminder that today’s agitations, while refracted into a blinding glare by our screens, stem from the age-old conflict between fact and delusion, whether in our private lives or on the public stage.

Russell’s diagnosis of a creature like Trump is unnerving: “Since no man can be omnipotent,” he writes, “a life dominated wholly by love of power can hardly fail, sooner or later, to meet with obstacles that cannot be overcome. The knowledge that this is so can be prevented from obtruding on consciousness only by some form of lunacy, though if a man is sufficiently great he can imprison or execute those who point this out to him. Repressions in the political and in the psychoanalytic senses thus go hand in hand.”

Although there are slow-moving rumblings of buyer’s remorse and investigative committees, there are no meaningful constraints on Trump’s lunacy. If we had a functional government or a press that did not rely upon clickbait, a cruel toddler never would have made it into the primaries, let alone the White House. Perhaps the only saving grace is that Trump is uncommonly stupid—and hopefully his need to be admired will lead to a magnificent unravelling before he becomes ‘sufficiently great’.

I find reassurance in another passage from Russell written shortly after World War II. In Philosophy and Politics, he outlines the insanity of any kind of fanaticism, no matter how well-intentioned. The inflexible views of fascists and ecclesiastics as well as communists and anarchists cannot be tolerated because they prefer to “inflict a comparatively certain present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good.” Reminding us that we should always aim for “order without authority,” Russell tackles the perception that liberalism is too squishy to succeed against the ferocious single-mindedness of conservatives:

“It is commonly urged that, in a war between liberals and fanatics, the fanatics are sure to win, owing to their more unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause. This belief dies hard, although all history, including that of the last few years, is against it. Fanatics have failed, over and over again, because they have attempted the impossible, or because, even when what they aimed at was possible, they were too unscientific to adopt the right means; they have failed also because they roused the hostility of those whom they wished to coerce. In every important war since 1700 the more democratic side has been victorious. This is partly because democracy and empiricism (which are intimately interconnected) do not demand a distortion of facts in the interests of theory.”

Liberalism and reason may indeed triumph in the long run—but at what cost today? How many of these unnecessary battles persist due to a failure to communicate rationally and compassionately, and a refusal to tackle unchecked capitalism and the legal obligation to maximize profits at the expense of citizens? People who do not feel financially exploited do not tend to respond to strongman politics of tribalism and fear.

I no longer understand the daily shock and anger towards Trump or the Republicans who pretend the emperor is clothed. They are the viper in the fable and it is useless to complain about being bitten. The ire and energy of anyone who cares about decency should be directed towards the Democratic Party; its refusal to articulate or support a  coherent liberal vision created this breeding ground for America’s most self-destructive instincts.