As we enter 2020 and what looks to be one of the most contentious elections in US history, it seems that we’re divided on everything. We can’t so much as go see a movie without there being political motivations behind it. Hell, movies are now beginning to tailor themselves to different ideologies. Consider yourself a conservative Trump supporter? Don’t worry, there’s always going to be Michael Bay movie about patriotic boobs that explode. Can’t stand Trump and wish we could live in a far more liberal time? There will be thousands of romantic comedies or dramas that feature the asexual who ends up finding plutonic love with a cactus. Everything, from our entertainment to where we shop is getting divided along ideological lines, because capitalism be like that sometimes.
In all this it seems there’s really only one thing we can all agree on, and no, it’s not that Baby Yoda is the cutest thing this world has ever seen and that we must protect him at all costs (so, so sorry Baby Yoda).
Okay, so maybe it is about Baby Yoda.
Seriously, the one thing it seems we can all agree on is that something has gone wrong. We look at this American experiment and wonder where it all went wrong. Well, by “we” I meant “white people,” and by “white people” I mean middle and upper-class white people. Those in the lower class have always known that things are wrong and unequal, they’ve always looked at the American Dream as something that could never be achieved, even though it was promised to them. And to non-white people? Well, the American Dream was never really promised to them. You can look at a modern song on inequality, or look to Tupac’s “That’s just the Way it Is,” or go back “America” by Claude McKay (the best poet in American history), or to the essays and speeches by Frederick Douglass and realize that over 160 years of written literature on the black experience in America has remained relatively unchanged.
So maybe the ruling class of America, the wealthy and white, are starting to realize that the American experiment has always been flawed? But that doesn’t seem correct either. After all, for all our massive failures in history – our enslavement of the Africans, our genocide against Native Americans, our robbery of Mexican lands, our attempt at imperialism before WWI, our segregation, our treatment of women through the centuries, and for all our many other failures – we also have many other successes. This nation that produced vile racists also produced incredible reformers. We produced Martin Luther King Jr, Mary Austin, John Brown (yeah, I’m including him), Antionette Brown Blackwell, Malcolm X, Harriett Tubman, Cesar Chavez, and a whole host of other flawed heroes.
There’s a battle in the American mind between the idealistic view of ourselves and the realistic, pessimistic view of ourselves. It’s a gap that we can’t seem to bridge. Despite all evidence of our flawed past and of the good we’ve done in our past, it seems people’s minds can’t be changed. So the problem isn’t one of lacking knowledge, perspective, or even identity. We have a crisis of belonging.
I think that, ultimately, we’re lonely. I’d argue that this has also almost always been the case. We’ve always been a nation of colonists, a nation of spread out and isolated communities, and even in urban areas we’ve done a fantastic job of locking ourselves in our homes, only coming out when necessary. We are a nation of houses, but not homes. We’re a nation of communities that lack community.
A community, properly understood, is a group of individuals that work together for a common good. They may all be different, have different views, different beliefs, but they put that aside to work together with their neighbors to try and achieve a common good. And the goal doesn’t have to be lofty. It doesn’t have to be to make the greatest town or city the world has ever known. The common good can be as humble as just choosing to live in peace. A community, really, is supposed to be an extension of the family and part of the family (something else we’ve lost in our country). It’s more than having barbeques on the 4th of July or gatherings, it’s looking after each other’s kids and even helping to raise them, it’s helping people financially when they fall on hard times, it’s ensuring that no one in your town goes homeless or without food, and wanting everyone in the town to succeed.
We do have an artificial and perverse form of community in our country. It’s called your job. Notice how at your job heated political arguments don’t typically happen even though, in most cases, people in your workplace likely have very different political views than you. People of different colors, different religions, different views, beliefs, genders, everything all come together and work toward a common goal; to get a paycheck, or at the very least to not get fired. While a very perverse version of community, it’s still a type of community. It’s likely that you care for most of your co-workers regardless of their beliefs or who they are.
Your job functions as the best example of a perverted view of community, but there are others. Most, not all, churches function as communitas sicut simulacrum (apologies to Protestants for using Latin; apologies to pre-Vatican II Catholics for me thinking that’s Latin). Most churches still focus on the individual or, at best, on the family. The community is really part-time and any needs are typically met with “I’ll pray for you” rather than, you know, actual solutions. Gone are the days of Acts 4:32 where everything was in common, rather we live in the days where that was meant for then and now it’s just communist social Gospel propaganda.
We have “online communities,” but they’re not really communities. There’s something to be said for flesh and blood, even in the digital age. And even then these communities are typically put together by large corporations that intend to use them to fish for information on how to better sell their products. Or, worse, they’re on Instagram or TikTok and it’s meant for self-promotion. The simulation of community for the sake of making a profit, something so crass it’d make Gordon Gekko blush.
One of the emerging simulations of community are political ideologies. I say “emerging” because it’s nothing new. It’s been around forever. Yet, we haven’t learned. See, one’s identity is always tied to one’s community. Some of us might want to deny that or act like we’re the lone wolves or that we’re Jokers who can wear fedoras and study the blade, but that’s all idiotic and contrary to what we know about human psychology (it’s also its own community – if you have to ironically say “we live in a society” and you’re saying it to other people, finding comradery in being anti-social and anti-communal, then boy do I have some bad news for your performative self-contradicting self…). Let’s break this down.
What is it that causes populists to be so…well…popular? The reason is populism provides a false sense of community and therefore creates a feeling of belonging without actually belonging.
People perceive problems in the world because they’re already isolated. Things that could usually be handled over a dinner – like getting to know a Muslim refugee or Latin American immigrant – are handled through sensationalized news stories. Populism allows these isolated individuals, people who have no sense of belonging to someone who is different than them, to feel like they belong. The dear leader speaks angry words that appeal to the irrational paranoia of these isolated individuals and they feel like they belong.
To go 80% Baudrillard on this, political communities are a simulation of communities. It’s not a real community. MAGA-hat wearers don’t really care about each other and if they found out that 1/3 were suffering financially, the remaining 2/3 wouldn’t give a shit. Yet, they all feel like they belong. Or I can pick on the far left and look at the Tankies who worship Daddy Stalin or believe that China can do no wrong. By supporting a personality or an ideology they feel like they belong to something, all the while not realizing that the personality or the ideology couldn’t give two shits about them. They feel like they belong, but they don’t belong at all.
This lack of actual belonging is, I believe, at the core of our issue (and always has been). It’s why everyone walks around wanting to be understood but not wanting to understand. Everyone wants their side of the story told, but don’t care about any other side of the story. It’s not that they’re narcissists (well, that could be partiallywhy), it’s that they haven’t felt like they’ve belonged until that cult of personality or ideology came along.
What’s the solution? How do we let them know they belong? That’s a rough one, because there is no easy answer.
For one, we do need to do better economically for people. While this isn’t the only reason people begin to experience loneliness, it’s certainly the biggest reason. People are less likely to seek out a populist figure if they feel that they’re economically safe, mostly because with expendable income and time for leisure people begin to form natural communities and therefore begin to belong.
Secondly, for those that have bought into the cult of populism (and not all populism is a cult or bad, but when it calls for you to basically hate other people and wish them harm…that’s bad) we almost have to treat them like they need to be deprogrammed. If you look at reformed neo-Nazis and Klansmen, the biggest thing is their sense of where they belonged and who they belonged to began to shift. It was a non-white person who helped them, it was someone they hate who showed them love. Such is the subversive nature of love. In all these cases, in every case of an avowed racist seeing the light and coming to love his fellow man, his sense of belonging changed.
It puts us in an awkward position where we have to speak out against them and stand against them, but also need to leave open the possibility that they can turn things around. And man, repentance is not in vogue. We don’t like it when people get their shit together, we don’t like when someone says, “I was wrong for saying that.” We want them to admit they were wrong and then continue to do so every single day for the rest of their lives. For such a secular people we really put the Catholics of old to shame when it comes to guilt, at least they had penance. Our hatred of repentance makes Pope Leo X’s indulgences look reasonable (Martin Luther would have never rebelled if he saw what the world would look like without indulgences). We have to stop that. We have to leave open the possibility of forgiveness and, more importantly, reconciliation. Ah, now there’s a word. To reconcile is to be friendly with someone again, to not ignore the past but to not hold it against them. In short, to reconcile is to let the person know that they still belong.
If I’m honest, I believe the solution might be too late. When half the nation finds that its only sense of belonging is found in a political movement I’m not sure that can be fixed. If we were talking about a few hundred Neo-Nazis that’s one thing. But we’re talking about at least 25% of our nation having no issues with Steven Miller and actually liking the guy – how do you fix that? Like, you have to be really lonely to feel like you belong with
the Dark Lord of the Sith that guy. To be honest, until they’re let down I don’t think anything will solve it. The letdown always happens, it always occurs, it’s inevitable. It’s the moment when they realize they don’t belong, when they realize that Dear Leader doesn’t actually care about them. And that moment will happen at some point (it almost happened with the last government shutdown) and when it does rather than basking in the glory of being right and rubbing their noses in it, it should be a time when we invite them over for dinner to maybe talk through a few things. They may not agree at the end of the dinner, hell, they won’t agree, but they’ll slowly begin to feel like they belong more with you than with some asshole billionaire with a cheap toupee. And that’s something.