Mine not mine

Tuesday, 16th January 2018

I’ve seen several people raise the question of whether this American president is “my” president. Obviously, that is a question Americans are asking – the rest of the world is saying, you broke it, you bought it. He’s all yours. But for a large number of people in the US, the question of whether he’s “my” president is a live one.

As I said in a comment on someone else’s thread, the word “my” is the real problem here, isn’t it? It can refer to ownership (my car), or relation (my spouse), or representation (my lawyer), or responsibility (my cat), or origination (my idea), or defining aspiration (my beliefs or ideals), or motivating agent (my subconscious), or essence (my body), or group (my people), or probably a bunch of other things. But of course, it’s more complex than this. No one of these examples is an example of only one version of “my”. I own my car, but I also have responsibility for it. And, it might express my essence, as an extension of my body. So, identifying different senses of “my” only foregrounds a prominent version of the word, it doesn’t separate out discrete and unrelated uses.

There’s no problem in saying “my” when there’s something we like. This is true even when the claim of “my” is tenuous, or completely made up. White people say “my” to all sorts of technological innovations, and the very idea of innovation itself, when it can be shown that the claim is false. “My” country (like “my” faith) is more than a statement of belonging, it is also a projection of one’s own ideals, in some cases one’s own fervent wishes (whether they are ideal or not). It makes it easy to marginalize things you don’t like (so, various actions of the American government, or of faith leaders, can be denied as being part of my country or my faith, because these things can only be understood in their ideal form). The standard evangelical answer to any criticism is to say that that’s not “my” faith, that’s some other version of Christianity, and mine is pure and lovely and in every way good (as am I, of course, since I’m the one who holds that view). And, to take the logic further, anyone criticizing us doesn’t really understand “my” faith, and so they are unfair to me and to it (note, by the way, how often the president uses the term “unfair” – this is where it comes from, I think). It’s why people can maintain that Christians are the most persecuted people in the country, when it looks for all the world like the opposite of that. My, mine.

A popularized version of Buddhism says that we should turn our back on possessions. Or, as Homer Simpson intones after destroying some of his daughter Lisa’s stuff, “Possessions are fleeting.” A better understanding (which can also be found, in its own way, in the Christian mystical tradition) is to give up on attachments. That’s hard, with so much “my”, but not all of these sorts of “my” are attachments, at least, not in the same way. The stuff about giving up on attachments always comes with a recognition that we have to get from here to there, that it doesn’t just happen. How does one really give up? I guess the first step is to realize that one’s attachments are not a scoring system. Having more, or having the right things, doesn’t mean that you win at life.

I doubt that turning one’s back on an odious American president counts as giving up on attachments, in the Buddhist or mystical sense. Paula White, the president’s spiritual advisor, has reportedly told people to give one month’s salary to her church or “face consequences”. I doubt we could say that she is giving up on attachments, but the reliance on attachments, whether material or propositional is, after all, a defining feature of evangelicalism, as it is with conservative politics. Property is at the core of both of these, and that property is extended to ideas, beliefs, and lots of other things. The various versions of “my” boil down to ownership.

But there is an attachment to give up on here, I think. We are attached to the things that we think will save us. The Muller commission, the institutions of democracy, the courts, the voters (especially black women), the next flashy candidate (Oprah, anyone?), the guy who “would have won”, the ground game, the efforts against gerrymandering — fill in your favorite thing that will make this November bearable and make 2020 a return to good times. Am I saying that all is lost, that nothing will save us, that the world is in a decline that leads even further to oligarchy? No. I’m saying that there’s no magic bullet here. Every one of these is retrodiction put in the service of prediction. Retrodiction is the identification of causes and effects in the past as if they were in the future. It’s not learning from the past, it is imposing a narrative on the past in the desire to use that narrative to control the future.

What is “mine” in this, is the narrative. It’s justification is in the past – look, this happened and then that happened, and that justifies my view of the world. What is lost is that there is enormous risk of confirmation bias here. Superhero movies are great examples of this. What makes a superhero? It is not super powers. It is the ability to control the future in some way. So, it doesn’t really matter that Superman has “powers” and Batman doesn’t. It matters that both control what goes on around them, in all sorts of ways.

We all dream of that. In a chaotic world, we love the hero who makes the world right and just. It’s not so different from the skateboarder who lands the trick on video. With all these things, we see the successful event, and forget that it might have taken a hundred or a thousand tries to get there, or that CGI might have been necessary, or a crew of practical effects experts, or a stunt double. Superheroes allow us to think that there is a world in which people can get that right the first time, every time. Hawkeye doesn’t miss, Captain America figures out a plan, Hulk smashes, Ironman just invents a new thing, and it always makes things right. Competence means control. It is the desperate story that at lies at the heart of white supremacy, and misogyny, and lots of other problematic modern beliefs – there is control, and me and my group have it.

The world isn’t like that, but retrodictive narratives make us believe that they could be. They make us believe that the world could be mine. And that’s what has to be given up. That’s the attachment that must be shed, because it isn’t true to reality. Reality isn’t mine.

Is he my president? Yes and no and everything in between. I was never attached to him in the first place, so there’s nothing to give up in that sense. But he’s not mine in the sense that he and his people haven’t given up anything. They firmly believe that the world can be controlled. If one must give up this kind of “my”, one must also give up those who themselves haven’t given it up, who think that the world is there to be controlled and they are the ones to do it. That also means, by the way, that we must give up the technocrats and bureaucrats who also think this. In the end, I’m not sure who’s more damaging in the long run, a president who is absolutely sure of his view of the world, and believes he is the master controller, or those who think that with just a few little tweaks to a system it will all run like clockwork. What I do know, though, is that the hubris of control is at the root of a lot of the violence that this country has inflicted on itself, its citizens, and the world. I’m not sure whether the US has within its intellectual resources the ability to move out of that hubris – this might be how empires fade away.

All I can say is: my, my, my.

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