Until we reclaim our language, we’ll have no clue who is setting our moral compass.
What do we do with our darkness? When you hold your baby and tell him you love him, you understand almost every school-shooter was held and loved the same way. If you accept that, then you accept there’s an element of randomness in our morality.
Obviously, this desire comes in degrees. We’re fortunate to live in a country and culture where most of us shove our bleakest thoughts to the outskirts of the imagination. But acknowledging you have a hint of darkness in your soul means you are a complicated person.
What does this impulse want? Why does any part of us want to see a system fail? Surely, it’s a desire to start over, to admit the well-water we irrigate our lives with is poisoned. That doesn’t mean we’re closer to a solution, but it may mean we’re closer to annihilation. And what could be a surer re-setting than that?
2. Do you remember when 9/11 killed irony? Well-paid pundits sincerely believed this to be the case. It’s easy to think of this as a byproduct of our terrorist-induced naïveté, but rest assured, it sounded stupid then too. I remember thinking, “Who is that for?”
When we’re heartbroken, we consume cultural comfort food. Often, this comes in the form of lies we know are lies but we repeat because they feel good.
When we’re heartbroken, we consume cultural comfort food. Often, this comes in the form of lies we know are lies but we repeat because they feel good: “They hate us because they envy our freedom,” “The nation healed when George Bush threw out the first pitch,” “The French, the Germans, Hollywood and some renegade country musicians are undermining America.” It’s nonsense, we knew it was nonsense, but it’s a fun story. The “death of irony,” however, was shit plopped from an entirely different breed of bull. Who wants irony to die? Nearly two decades later, it starts to make sense.
A certain class of pundit wanted irony to die because irony necessarily complicates. It has implied meanings that run counter to the actual meanings, and it demands context. Irony requires nuance, which requires an understanding of the unsaid, which requires empathy. In the wake of 9/11, with the smell of roasted flesh wafting above the Statue of Liberty, do you think we wanted irony? When we feel pain, we revert to our simple, no-nuance, no-irony language. Language molds the way we think.
So, could a person skilled in media manipulation take advantage of people’s pain by using simplistic language to create false villains and use it to gain power? Am I talking about Donald Trump? Obviously. But not just Trump. Until we reclaim our language, we’ll have no clue who is setting our moral compass.
3. Consider Satan. We’re taught to recognize and resist the devil or to leave him in the same closet that held the boogeyman and the kid who made a face and it stuck that way, but no one does him the kindness of considering his mind. First, cleave the Biblical Satan from the Pop-Culture Satan.
Biblical Satan was a renegade angel, a rebel whose cause fell short. In that, he is no different than Jefferson Davis or Patrick Pearse. What would his rebellion have looked like had he won? It doesn’t matter. He lost. That’s his sin — failure.
American children don’t go to school on the birthday of George Washington, one of the world’s most successful traitors. Why is Washington an American patriot and not a British traitor? Why is Benedict Arnold America’s Judas, despite having a heroic personal story? Because Washington won and Arnold lost. There’s more to it, but not much. The most treacherous thing you can do in America is fail.
The most treacherous thing you can do in America is fail.
If failure doesn’t warrant eternal punishment, then what does? Our minds go to history’s villains — Hitler is as much of a placeholder for evil as he is a person — but make it personal. I imagine Stalin and Pol Pot don’t stir your blood as much as your bully, your rapist, your mugger, your friend’s abusive husband, the man who shot your cousin. No doubt you wish pain on those people, but you don’t want them to be tortured for eternity. Only the rarest sociopath wants to hear the unending shrieks of their enemies to soothe their mind.
Thinking this way is difficult — it puts us in the mindset of our enemies, which means we have to empathize with them. Our brains aren’t programmed for empathy. We’re more at home putting up fences and looking for intruders. This allowed us to survive for millennia, but as our safety is no longer directly threatened, it’s possible our inability to honestly love our enemies dampens our morality.
If we believe in Satan, we don’t need to love our enemies. Satan is evil because he wants to be evil. No reason — he prefers it to being good. A small subset of humanity wants to be evil, but a majority of us want to be surrounded by evil.
Evil is exciting. It’s fun and energizing, and once you start identifying evil, you see it everywhere. It also has the advantage of only existing in other people.
It’s worth noting that your atheism won’t save you. Not everyone believes in the Biblical Satan — not even every evangelical Christian — but Pop-Culture Satan is unavoidable. He’s infused our entertainment, our politics and, most crucially, the way we regard others. To believe in Satan, we must believe that those who do wrong have no motive — they’re simply bad people.
That’s the plot of every movie and TV show, including most of our beloved pretend-complex “Peak TV.” We aren’t watching people — we are watching gods. Why is there no suspense when 40 anonymous henchmen surround one unarmed hero? These are musicals without music, existing only to reassure the audience that the gods are on our side and death isn’t real. They’re saying, “Don’t worry, nothing’s at stake. The super-attractive are awarded supernatural protection. Death can’t touch gods. Anyone who stands in the way of a god is a devil who deserves pain.”
We all have a platform. That means we feel compelled to reassure each other we are on the side of the angels.
Who cares? A generation ago, the coalition of the useless demanded warning labels on records; today, their descendants demand morality in fictional worlds. But my concern isn’t for art as much as for us who consume it. We all have a platform. That means we feel compelled to reassure each other we are on the side of the angels. Now that the news has become art, we feel like it’s our job to stand on the sidelines and point out the devil. That’s not only a waste of time — it invites us to see Satan in anyone who disagrees, or even agrees too slowly.
4. If the first 20 years of the internet has taught us anything, it’s having all our needs met doesn’t make us happy. Being a click away from all movies, TV shows, pornography: it leaves us full but unfulfilled. We binge, but these are empty calories. We don’t want constant distraction. No matter how entertaining a story is, we want it to mean something.
What does this have to do with our political climate? If what elevates us is meaning, what depresses us? The opposite of meaning: nothingness. If you scrape away the bluster, what is President Trump promising? Nothing. Or rather, nothing but his personality. His positions usually boil down to “But what if I did it?” His policies have no specifics because he doesn’t understand specifics. Some took his pledge to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” as Napoleonic posturing, but I think it’s honest. Has he given it more thought than that sentence?
Donald Trump doesn’t believe in science, the rule of law, any recognizable God, the institution of marriage, the institution of government, the FBI, that foreign countries who meddle in our elections don’t have our best interest at heart: only in himself. What benefits him is righteous, and what harms him is fake. Consistency doesn’t matter, only he matters. We see his whining as the pampered bitchings of history’s most spoiled rich kid. What’s harder to understand is why it works.
It was the force of his personality that dumped him in the White House. It’s his personality that lets him glide out of scandals that would’ve cooked more skilled and intelligent politicians. He wins because he’s drawn us into his kind of fight. The left is useless against Trump when we echo him. When Trump says, “I believe in me” and the only answer most hear is, “Well, I believe in me.” Both sides are preaching The Gospel Of Me, an egocentric version of nihilism.
Both sides are preaching The Gospel Of Me, an egocentric version of nihilism.
5. Who is the greatest liar in American history? “Liar” isn’t a pejorative here; you and everyone you know is a liar. Whether your lie begins “Once upon a time” or “I’d love to, but this damn latex allergy,” you manipulate the truth to make the world a more palatable place. But if your sole goal was power, what’s the most effective lie you could tell?
You’d need a self-perpetuating lie, one that could infect the listener’s perception of reality. If you have an important position, where you had to make hugely consequential decisions and solve thankless dilemmas every day, I’d argue the most effective lie is, “This is easy.”
Does Trump ever agonize over his decisions? Presumably. Agony is the price of the human experience. But he is careful not to show any doubt. If Trump addressed the nation sleepless and gray-faced, saying how this was the hardest decision he’s ever made, it would be refreshingly human. It’d also blow a hole in his reputation that would sink his presidency. If the other side might be right, then it’s a battle of ideas. He doesn’t win that fight.
Doubt is an acknowledgment that the other side has legitimacy. Not that they’re correct, but there’s reason to think they might be. You can’t simultaneously show doubt and claim that your opponents wipe their ass with the American flag. If opposing ideas are poisonous, then your only job is not to drink them.
This is what the bombthrower tells himself: The answer is obvious, but no one will help me because they want me to fail. We need someone to go in and blow it all up — a revolutionary, in other words.
There may be no sweeter song in the siren’s repertoire than “revolution.” By its very nature, it requires starting over. Hollywood has an endemic problem with sexual abuse? Burn it down. The government doesn’t serve the people? Shut it down. Football causes brain damage, video gamers are as sexist as everyone else, college campuses are manna for rapists and snowflakes, social media is toxic? Blow it up and start over. The revolution spares no injustice. After all, how hard can it be to build a more equitable society?
Who wins revolutions? People who already have some power, who deeply understand the press, who give the illusion of being outsiders and can rile a crowd to their bidding? People like Donald Trump.
6. To find Satan, look for the verbs. If the devil lives in our language, then it feeds off passive voice: I am, you are, she is. When we speak the language of clear identity, we commit ourselves to tribalism. The only thing that unites tribalists is the certainty that the devil lives outside their tribe. And for the tribalist to win, you don’t have to join the tribe — you only have to recognize the legitimacy of tribal lines.
The only thing that unites tribalists is the certainty that the devil lives outside their tribe.
What happens in real life when a Nazi gets punched in the face? A person gets a concussion or a broken nose. Whatever evil the puncher punished likely gets further ingrained. Somebody learns about the moral and corrective force of violence and uses it to punish the next person they disagree with. Someone else learns not to say anything unpopular lest they get their jaw broken. It wasn’t long ago that the discussion was if it’s OK to punch anti-war protestors so soon after 9/11. If you’re scared to say an opinion because you may get punched in the face, you are in an abusive relationship. If that fear forms our political views, then we live in some form of fascism.
Why am I not a Nazi? Obviously, I find their ideas repulsive. But statistically, had I been born in a Nazi country, I would probably be a Nazi. If you were born to a race, culture and country conducive to Nazism, would you be a Nazi or would you make like Satan and say, “I will not serve”? The world is chock-full of people who are positive they’d resist fascism, but history shows very few examples of those who actually did it. Nazis aren’t an aberration of the species — they’re a product of a particular set of circumstances, most of which are beyond their control. Are we better people because we we’re born in a country and a time when fascism is unfashionable?
Are we better people because we we’re born in a country and a time when fascism is unfashionable?
What’s harder and truer to admit is that evil doesn’t exist. The villains and monsters in our lives have been brought to this point in the American story by the same random set of genetics and flawed logic that brought us. They don’t hate us irrationally — they hate us because rich people with skin-deep values convinced them they’d feel righteous if they did. Which is the exact reason we hate them. Part of why empathy remains so difficult and so valuable is it eliminates seeing your adversary as “evil.” It not only means letting go of your hatred, but it means letting go of being hated. And what replaces being hated? Irrelevance.
7. When we consider Satan, we think of the apocalypse. Surely, these are the end times, we think. Donald Trump is great for this. He’s literally doing the things we used to conceive as satire. This must be America’s nadir, followed, of course, by some revolution — some Jesus — to save us.
But it can get worse, and it will. In 20 years, Republicans will call themselves “Trump-style conservatives” while Democrats will say, “I don’t think my friend here understands the Trumpian spirit.”
In 20 years, Republicans will call themselves “Trump-style conservatives” while Democrats will say, “I don’t think my friend here understands the Trumpian spirit.”
Trump isn’t the worst president we’ve had. If you’ve been through puberty, he’s not the worst president of your lifetime. Trump didn’t unnecessarily invade Iraq, kill a million civilians, destabilize the Middle East and create ISIS. That was George W. Bush, who saw the enemy as “evil-doers.” He didn’t consider Satan, but he made it his mission to annihilate him. Once you believe your enemy has no inner life, you’re fighting a demon.
When liberals decry the media for “normalizing” Trump, they are pining for the days of George W Bush. They hate Trump’s antics, his vulgarity, his oafishness so much that they miss the days of a more dignified genocide. “This is not normal,” we say. But why is “not normal” a bad thing?
I said “consider Satan” because the more you consider him, the less plausible he becomes. Satan can’t raise an army of the like-minded — he couldn’t fill a PTA meeting of sociopaths who want to be evil. No one wants to be the bad guy. To believe in Satan, we believe the world is full of simple answers, and those in charge won’t help because they’re evil. Funny thing about evil: It always lives in another neighborhood and votes for a different party. Evil fades the closer we examine it. The reason Satan still exists is that we need someone to unconditionally hate us. If you doubt that, consider that when the Pope suggested hell does not exist, half the Catholic population thought that was bad news.
My theology stems less from the Pope than Tom Waits: “There ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk.” God isn’t a mean drunk, just an inarticulate one. When I’m drunk, the world looks clearer, the answers are simpler, my Twitter feed resembles Donald Trump’s, and I have immense faith in myself. Because the answers are obvious, the injustices seem monstrous. If I’m drunk for too long, my confidence turns into anger. I not only believe I have the answers, I resent anyone who doubts me. Eventually, I give up and believe in nothing. Satan isn’t evil — Satan is nothing.
Hell is populated entirely by strangers who live in another town.
Active language creates the mind — don’t be something, do something. To defy Satan, we don’t need God, real or figurative. We need to stop romanticizing the void that follows an explosion. The urge to destroy, like the urge to create, is inexplicable and overwhelming. The difference is that no moment of catharsis is meant to last. To survive, we need something lasting. Search as we might for an eternal hell, populated entirely by strangers who live in another town, we find only this world, created in our image, our last defense against nothingness.
This article was originally published by Salon.