As we both bewail the current political situation indicated by the rise of Donald Trump, we seem to have a dispute. You have been vitriolic about satire that is debasing and insulting rather than probing and informative. Initially, I defended Saturday Night Live. We needed comic relief. I felt good calling President Trump ‘The Donald,’ ‘Trump Two Two’ and ‘Orange Top.’ But the more I thought about my own writings on humiliation, the more I began to question the use of comedy as retort and diminution of the other.
When I call Donald Trump a serial liar and a malignant narcissist, is this a description, a put down, or both? If both, can I communicate the descriptive content without the insult? It is hard – much harder than I thought. I want readers and listeners to attend to my words. But, in desiring attention instead of understanding, was I not playing into the lowest denominator of media that required short attention spans? Was I not using language to produce shocking images rather than reflective thought? Was I not, in a less successful vein, merely imitating the ability to shock, the ability to be a loud bully making one inflammatory statement after another about the man who now occupies the White House – not as Big Brother repressing my words, but as Big Bully blasting my sound bites to smithereens with his own much louder and piercing noises?
Son number four, you are correct that insult and mockery do not enhance public discourse, do not add to the civility of civil society, do not encourage the substitution of thought for instant response, and do not replace the monologues and bubbles we live in with the dialogical mode we need to inhabit. Ideological narcissism based on perpetuating lies and creating myths that bear no relationship to reality can only be counteracted if we keep our feet on the ground and continue to insist on the relevance of both a correspondence and a coherence criterion for truth. There are NO alternative facts. There is no way that inconsistency and incoherence should be allowed to substitute for trying to comprehend the world.
I believe that civil and human rights are not descriptors, but transcendental conditions for both justice and democracy. But when a man occupies the office as a democratic monarch based on checks and balances, that man has a latitude to make decisions permitted by law, but also boundary conditions for both the process and the content imposed by law in conformity with that system of checks and balances. Trump adviser Stephen Miller is indeed correct when he says that, “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial,” but he is dead wrong when he continues, “and will not be questioned.” When that man in the White House trumps democracy, when he views democracy as continually opening doors to new vistas and images produced by his imagination, when he and his acolytes tout blatantly false claims about millions engaged in voter fraud, instead of electoral politics as an entry point to occupy a home that operates based on traditions – on norms, on rules, on regulations and on laws – then what we have is a case of both civil and human rights being reduced to the only right that is right, Trump’s right, the monarch’s right. We have authoritarianism and demagoguery.
Donald Trump’s constant preoccupation with his image and his repetitive and inappropriate efforts to shape that image is perfectly understandable for a politics of imagery rather than a politics of principle and reflection. Donald not only never has to be consistent, he cannot be consistent, otherwise we would not be waiting with gaping mouths and startled eyes for each new revelation from on high that is crazier than the previous one. We are living in a world in which those who love and respect traditions have been hoodwinked by a soap salesman determined supposedly to “drain the swamp,” by a man for whom the very term ‘tradition’ has no meaning and can have no meaning, in a world constructed by tweets and responses to each image he sees on television.
My Judaic tradition has prepared me to sense and fight against any system ‘where the gates begin to close,’ but I get lost when the problem is not closing gates but opening them wide to every clown and harlequin, to every bit of nonsense and amusement one can find to fill one’s hours. I was prepared for the Devil to take power, but not the Joker. Trump does not have to be a dictator who bans books, for our current period has made books the sideshow; amusement has entered centre stage. And how can a book compete with a good joke? Trump inundates us with so much false news, so many variations of his own imagery, we soon have as much difficulty focusing as he does.
There is a principle that if democracy is going to work, we must not only stand for principles, but stand up for them. But when we are bombarded with images that suggest principles belong in the ashbin of history, then irrelevance and indifference increasingly become the order of the day. Donald Trump almost exhausts our ability to deal with most – let alone all – of it.
I have begun to understand your obsession with the deforming nature of modern technology, with the satirical depth of the series, “Black Mirror,” instead of just being entranced by its imaginative brilliance. I have begun to catch a glimpse of your criticism of the way satire is often used, particularly by Saturday Night Live, where chasing a joke becomes more important than the mesmerizing effects of good mirroring. I need to re-read Marshall McLuhan and Jacques Ellul as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.