I don’t really like writing about politics, mostly because there’s so much to be wrong about. Republicans are not jack-booted plutocrats; Democrats are not jack-booted socialists–analogies to Hitler and Nazi Germany were really popular this year, on both sides. Middle-America is not the breadbasket of mediocrity, and the coasts are not the last best hope of Western Civilization. That doesn’t mean I think that votes don’t matter, or that politics in America isn’t largely dominated by the poltergeists of demographic instability and shrinking wealth. It also doesn’t mean that I think the issues can be split down the middle in order to get to the soft gooey truth in the center. The truth isn’t in the center. It’s not in the middle of this or any other country. It’s not the diversity of positions averaged into one great national mean. Cultures are wrong all the time–as I mentioned in an earlier post on the midterm elections. Take a core sample from the Congo, or Cambodia, or the Continental Congress on the issue of Native American personhood and tell me what the middle says. Compromises produce compromises, and little else. Sometimes the results are positive, oftentimes not so much. The only thing that can be certain is that the middle will tell you something about the prevailing mood of that time and place. Sometimes that mood is murderous, sometimes munificent, but usually it’s somewhere on the long circuit from one to the other, because people are basically good, until they’re basically not. Of course, none of this means I’m not going to write something about politics, which I’ve already done–after a fashion–but I am going to use an analogy, because that tends to be the way I think about things….
I’ve been hiking and backpacking for quite a few years now. I started in college on the eastern side of the Sierras, and have been going ever since. I was utterly defeated my first time out; starting at 8,000 feet, with some distant peak as my goal, I barely managed to climb the modest 2,000 feet from the trailhead to the valley’s rim, which marked the bottom of a colossal moraine, which marked the bottom of a maze of switch backs that climbed another 2,000 feet to the peak, whose name I didn’t even know. I don’t remember much about that trip except the total and overwhelming depletion of my body’s resources. I had poured out all of my vim on the side of the foothill of the mountain, and this expenditure amounted to less in the mountain’s economy than the scattering of a seed. I simply didn’t matter. My frustrations, my desires that the tree line be closer, the day shorter, the heat less severe, totaled towards nothing. So, I did the only thing I could do: I put my head down and kept walking towards the twilight.
In fact, what I did that day, and for many days thereafter, is what everyone I have ever taken hiking does when the climb starts. They put their heads down and plant one foot in front of the other. Now, to be fair, I shouldn’t say “everyone.” There are those few elfin souls who skip along apparently indifferent to gravity; then there are those who don’t skip or plant their feet, at all. As soon the trail turns tough, they sit down, huff, and head back, rarely finding their way to the mountain again, though they’ll usually talk about going as soon as they get in shape, or the summer arrives, or they get a new pair of boots. But for most of us, our heads are down, and we’re walking and we’re thinking: why am I out here–where’s the flat part–I can’t wait to get back home–this must be the top–damn flies–damn mosquitoes–no, no, no, please, no more uphill–I can’t wait to get home–why am I here–what’s the point, to climb some ridiculous mountain, sleep, and then walk back down–I can’t wait to get home–I can’t wait to get home!
Under extreme fatigue, our interests become stupid and narrow. There are no starving philosophers. Even for fasting monks, abundance is abstained not absconded. Perhaps wandering some distant Himalayan range, there is one famished ape that would expend his last calorie plucking fruit for a stranger, but it is a breed so rare that we should call it Vessantara and kill it on sight.
Humans are unique in that what we regard as self-interest extends beyond the borders of our skin and kin and finds life in the thin atmosphere of abstraction. We identify with schools and cities, countries, parties, generations, colors, creeds. Of course, the larger the identification, the more things that can go wrong. A cell can lose an organelle or two, but a mollusk can fail in a hundred ways, and a human, well, take a look at an encyclopedia of epidemiology and try to get some sleep tonight. So while we have the capacity to imagine that great-coalition-tent-in-the-sky, when we start uphill, we put our heads down and worry about our feet. Our interests narrow. Our largesse wanes. It’s hard to care about anyone else’s feet when ours are so heavy.
The odd thing is, the very thing that we are prone to forget on that long hike is the thing that makes it bearable. Pick up your head and look around, and you’ll know why Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, and you’ll know why the Quran says that when they question “thee concerning what they should expend, say, ‘The abundance,'” and you’ll know why you called up your buddy and cajoled your wife and browbeat your brother to strap society on their backs and head up the mountain in the first place–because there’s something to see: 4.5 billion years of geology, thousand-year-old trees, the dying of the glaciers, a curious muskrat. Still, it’s hard to remember all of that when you’re beleaguered and tired and maybe just a little scared that you didn’t bring enough water, and the mountain doesn’t seem to care…
It’s a long analogy, I know, but this election is no more difficult to understand in its broad-strokes than any other election; Mark Twain explained it well in his essay, Corn-pone Opinions–though my take is a bit more generous, since I haven’t lived long enough to achieve Twain’s disillusionment. When things get hard, it’s our nature to put our heads down, narrow our field, and trudge ahead. We stop caring about caring for strangers, and moon landings, and music programs, even though that’s why we started up the mountain in the first place.