Mindful of the Republic
by David Ottlinger
Resistance. It is a concept many people now use to describe their politics. It is regrettable more people have not thought on what it means. It is worth noting, for instance, that the concept is inherently reactive. By declaring themselves part of “The Resistance,” the Resistors implicitly state that they feel besieged by some alien force, which they intend to resist. Noting this, of course, does not make resistance wrong or unreasonable. But in the inherently reactive nature of resistance lies a danger. The danger is that resistance will become reflexive, instinctual, impulsive, and unreflective. The danger is that resistors will, by acting automatically, embrace self-defeating methods and miss strategic opportunities. The danger, in short, is mindlessness.
In the present essay I want to capture two things. The first is the mindlessness of much of the resistance to Trump as it is currently conducted. It is not monolithic, but I believe it is fair to say that there is a message which The Resistance, as a whole, consistently espouses. It is that message I wish to criticize. Secondly I will sketch some of the features that I believe a more effective resistance must have. In doing so, I will explain why I enthusiastically support Robert Wright’s Mindful Resistance Project and why I hope every reader will become involved with it. (1) But my concerns are also somewhat broader. I will argue that any successful resistance to Trump and Trumpism must be a democratic and a republican movement, a movement which appeals to the people and takes civic virtue seriously. Without such a movement, I believe we will never, as a country, address the root issues to which the rise of Trump and Trumpism are merely symptoms.
Browsing through Left-Twitter fashionable thought-organs and other watering holes for Resistors, one can discern the Resistance’s agenda, central to which is media criticism. Trump supporters were led by fake news on Facebook and other social media platforms, by the fact that journalists did not challenge Trumpism with sufficient vigor, by the traditional media giving the impression that there were two equal sides to the Trump debate, and so on. And with bad media having been identified as the culprit, good media is proposed as the solution. Once Trump and Trumpism are covered and challenged correctly, the idea goes, support for Trump will be greatly reduced or perhaps even disappear.
The criticisms pushed by the Resistance extend to both traditional and social media. On the traditional side, media outlets are accused of having inflated the importance of Hillary Clinton’s emails by giving them so much coverage. (2) Others have argued that the media should make a point to explicitly characterize Trump’s false statements as lies. (3) CNN has been criticized for giving Trump so much time on the air, for hiring Trump supporters as in-house political commentators, and for prioritizing the entertainment-value of stories over their news-value. (4)
The major social-media platforms, meanwhile, have been criticized for not doing enough to control what users can post. (5) Facebook has been condemned for being a platform on which fake news was widely spread. (6) Twitter has been charged with giving the use of their platform to “trolls, bots and bullies.” (7) Reddit has long been accused of hosting white-supremacists and for sustaining a hostile online culture. (8) Strikingly, since the 2016 election all three have bowed to political pressure and made changes to their platforms. (9)
But the controversy which most captures the spirit of the times would have to be the one over a New York Times profile of Tony Hovater, a proclaimed fascist and Hitler admirer from small town Ohio. (10) The piece wrestled with the question of how to reconcile the ordinariness of Hovater’s daily life with his fringe political beliefs. Hovater eats at Panera, shops at Target and watches big-budget blockbuster films like Pacific Rim. His extreme political beliefs stand out in stark relief against the backdrop of such a generic life, raising the question of how such an extraordinary ideology attracted such an ordinary man. By the author’s own admission, he found few answers and decided, ultimately, that the core message would have to be the question itself. (11) The final, published version announces a mystery more than it solves it, and suggests that more must be done to understand the Hovater’s of the world.
The scale of the reaction to this innocuous piece was shocking. Rafts of chiding essays came to shore, including at least one parody. (12) Those who objected said that the piece “normalized” and “humanized” Nazis. As best I can tell, having read many such criticisms, the idea is supposed to be that depicting Nazis as normal or even as human will make Nazi ideology more attractive — or at least less repellant — to the average New York Times reader. There even seems to be the idea that somehow this will make Nazis and Nazism more prevalent.
Beyond media criticism, The Resistance also intermittently pressures politicians to toe a hard, progressive line, as we saw in the outcry against Nancy Pelosi’s suggestion that the party should be open to pro-life candidates. (13) There is also the ever-present “Russia question,” but in contrast with the media criticism, there is no immediate political goal for those who take a hard line on the issue. As noted, in recent months The Resistance has been able to force Twitter, Reddit and Facebook to change their behavior by means of political pressure. There is no such opportunity to change the behavior of either the White House or the Mueller investigation. The worst one can say is that Russia-Gate is a distraction and a waste of time.
Such are the positive goals of The Resistance. But while it is defined, in part, by what it prioritizes, it also is defined by what it ignores. Rarely, for example, do the declarations of The Resistance appeal to large swathes of voters. Certainly appeals to Trump voters are entirely absent. But far more striking is that The Resistance rarely offers exhortations even to friendly voters. The Resistance rarely gives opinions on what voters should think, what they should do or how they should change. Most Resistor-written articles seem to be addressed to people who already agree with the author. Their basic content tends to be: Here’s why you’re right, and you don’t have to change. The same pattern is displayed on Twitter. A good tweet does not make an opinion seem correct, it makes it seem obvious and unassailable. A good tweet about an opponent’s view does not make it seem wrong, but absurd and laughable. Such a lack of reflectiveness accounts for the style of The Resistance, which is usually strident and triumphalist. Rarely do Resistors consider the dangers of such an attitude.
The Resistance certainly wishes to change the citizenry and the political culture, but its means are always indirect. As we’ve just noted, The Resistance rarely tries to change people’s minds by appealing to them directly. Rather, they appeal to elites – especially in the media – whose job they think it is to change people’s minds. There is always some middleman – whether Mark Zuckerberg, Dean Baquet or Nancy Pelosi – for in the mind of The Resistance, it is always assumed that such people are the ones with the real power to effect change.
The Hovater controversy is a perfect encapsulation of this. The objection was that the Times had “normalized” and “humanized” Nazis, thus running the risk of making Nazism more accepted and perhaps even more prevalent. Consider what one would have to believe of the reader in order to be able to make this argument. It would have to be the case that just by being exposed to a portrait of a Nazi which may elicit the reader’s sympathy, the reader would then be rendered more likely to accept Nazism. Such logic is almost Pavlovian: the reader is just some malleable, receptive matrix being pushed in one direction or another by the information presented to them. Resistors never consider the idea that people might read their newspapers critically and separate their sympathy (if any) with Hovater from their estimation of the political doctrines Hovater accepts. Clearly, this is what the author of the profile intended. Passage after passage of the essay lulls readers into complacency as it lists off quotidian details of Hovater’s life only to shock them awake with a sudden reminder of Hovater’s abominable ideology. These collisions between the everyday and the abhorrent are meant to heighten the sense of paradox and deepen the sense of mystery surrounding an unexceptional man with such exceptional, and detestable, beliefs. This kind of writing assumes an active, critical reader, who follows the author’s train of thought and interprets his designs. But the Resistance does not credit the average New York Times reader with such abilities. Almost nowhere do the Resistance’s critiques exhort the readers to engage critically with the piece or offer instructions on how to read it. The emphasis, instead, is on how the Times should have kept it from the public’s eyes.
This logic generalizes. CNN put Donald Trump on their airwaves early and often and to the astonishment of many, despite his vulgar, fact-free rantings, millions of Americans found him compelling. For the Resistance, however, the primary concern is not Americans’ positive reactions to Trump, but rather that CNN exposed Americans to Trump in the first place. Fake news unquestionably proliferated on Facebook, where millions credulously soaked it up, but rather than being concerned mainly with the fact that so many Americans are so easily manipulated, Resistors’ primary worry is that Facebook allowed the object of their credulity to be disseminated. The credulousness of Americans is taken as fixed, unchangeable; as simply the way people are.
This view of the people helps explain how the media became such a central concern for The Resistance in the first place. If the people are largely corks in a storm, being pushed this way and that as a function of what surrounds them, one would certainly wish to surround them with good things. If what people do and believe is largely a function of the information presented to them, one would want to present them with information, so as to lead them to do and believe what is supposed to be best. It would have to be the case that if dangerous messages are loosed upon the public, they will inevitably do damage. And as nothing can change this, the best strategy must be containment.
And here we come to an important realization. Though many in The Resistance would be surprised at the accusation (and undoubtedly would deny it), their reasoning and political strategy are implicitly undemocratic. Democracy is rule of the people, which implies, at a minimum, that citizens are at least capable of engaging in political activity in order to work their will. But if we view the people as The Resistance does, it is unclear how this could be. If the citizenry is passive to the extent that what we show people must be carefully controlled, it is unclear how we could ever be conceived of as self-governing. Rather, it would seem that Mark Zuckerberg, Dean Baquet and Nancy Pelosi are governing. And a picture in which media and political elites determines what goes on is not a picture of democracy.
Fortunately The Resistance’s way of looking at political change is radically misconceived. Containment is not the problem. The people – we – are the problem.
I am not, it seems, the only one disaffected with The Resistance. Robert Wright has had similar misgivings, and in recent months launched a weekly newsletter called The Mindful Resistance which summarizes the political news, collects useful articles and offers commentary and interpretation. It amounts to a short, regular meditation on The Resistance, including where it might be going astray and how it could be doing better. This may seem somewhat modest, but one can discern in its contents an alternative conception of resistance, one with the potential for real power.
For nearly every weakness I perceive in The Resistance, I perceive in The Mindful Resistance (MR) a strength. At the center of its superiority, appropriately enough, is mindfulness. All of the peculiar strengths of MR stem from this one concept. Mindfulness, as MR uses it, encompasses the ordinary English definition: “n. Attentive, aware, careful.” But to understand the richness of the concept and what it is invoked to mean in this context, one has to explore its meaning in the Buddhist tradition.
I confess that I am a newcomer to Buddhism, but in many ways I find the Buddha quite familiar. Socrates likened the experience of having a human mind to being like the hundred-headed monster Typhon. (14) He knew that one head could achieve nothing if it was opposed by ninety-nine invisible peers. To achieve any kind of self-control, the ninety-nine would have to be known and, if possible, tamed. The Buddha harbored similar fears and similar ambitions. He likewise saw the mind as something wild and teeming, like Typhon’s swarming heads, and saw the dangers this posed for ethical life. In his teachings, the solution to this is mindfulness.
It seems that the Buddha believed our natural state is one of mindlessness. We often fail to see how like Typhon we are, and our natural tendency is to identify with our experiences. When an angry mood strikes, it is natural to say “I am angry.” If one does so, one has in a sense claimed the feeling as one’s own. If the anger is directed at some object, I am angry at that object. If the anger arises on some grounds, they are my grounds. Very soon it has given me a purpose. I am angry, and I must do something. It is harder instead of “I am angry” to say “anger is occurring in me.” Yet, the latter, surely, is more accurate. Anger comes upon us. It is an event in our subjectivity and our choice whether or not to take it as our own. Being mindful means realizing that we can refrain from ascribing our subjective experiences to this “I,” a process the Buddha called “dis-identification.” Mindlessness occurs when we naturally identify with our experiences and allow ourselves to be carried away by them. Mindfulness is realizing we have a choice.
MR applies such teachings to contemporary politics. No one will have difficulty believing that contemporary politics often make us angry, but MR challenges us to reflect on that anger, consider its merits and decide how to use it. Its core tenet is that mindfulness makes for better resistors. The newsletter, for example, took up the controversy following Trump’s suggestion that he might order a military parade. (15) Liberals, suspicious of militarism and excessive nationalism, were naturally enraged and many took to social media to express it. But the newsletter pointed out that Trump had precedent on his side. Truman and Kennedy, Democratic presidents both, had ordered military parades in peacetime. Trump also could point to major state occasions, such as the hundredth anniversary of the First World War, which would merit some sort of military display. Furthermore Trump voters do not seem particularly concerned with militarism and authoritarianism and would not be inclined to take seriously objections on those grounds. They would see liberals objecting to a patriotic, military display for what would seem to them no reason, and would conclude that liberals are opposed to the military and unpatriotic. (This reaction will be even stronger, if the liberal outcry to which it is a response, was sneering and derisive (which, of course, it was). No doubt the objections would fail to stop the parade, and liberals would have succeeded only in making a negative display of themselves.
All resistors, even mindful ones, are apt to feel their blood-pressure rise at the prospect of Trump astride a military procession. But that anger need not bring us to any immediate conclusion nor dictate our reaction. The mindless path is to identify with the anger and immediately act on it. The mindful path is to recognize that anger, dis-identify from it and consider how one should react.
The most crucial and endearing difference between the Resistance and MR is that the latter is addressed to us. The Resistance feels that in order to change our politics it has to address itself to the media, politicians and other elites. MR does the exact opposite and attempts to influence the elites by changing the people. It recognizes that events like the election of Trump are a function of the actions of millions of individuals. If the example of a military parade seems small, that is part of the point. MR attaches significance to these small, daily exercises of citizenship.
The same logic applies to media. The people are not the passive recipients of the information presented to them by the media and politicians. By cultivating a mindful attitude, citizens can determine their own reactions, so there is no need to protect them from the spectacle of Nazis making pasta and watching Pacific Rim. So long as we cultivate the appropriate virtues, it is not necessary to contain information which might be difficult or dangerous. We do not need newspapers to omit difficult and challenging stories. We need citizens capable of reading the newspapers no matter their contents.
And while MR is premised on the belief that the people can meet the challenges of democracy, it recognizes that they must do so in a spirit of intellectual humility. The Resistance is defined in part by its brashness and certitude. MR recognizes that in a democracy, people must cultivate self-doubt and self-reflection. Mindfulness means being alert to the fact that we often deceive ourselves and that a good citizen does not follow every impulse that beckons. Our problems are often complex and admit of no easy solution. They require a degree of dispassionate equanimity, and even when we believe we have found solutions, we should always be prepared for a reexamination.
For this wisdom, Wright has generally gone East. But if he had chosen, he might have found similar insight much nearer home. In many ways he is only rediscovering and restating, in a very different idiom, the republican politics of the Founders. (16) Republics, they noted, lack the powerful central authority of a monarch to maintain stability. Instead they rely upon the virtue and commitment of their citizens, who need to be devoted to the common good, willing to sacrifice their own interests and capable of putting themselves above petty factions. Such virtues do not occur naturally. The Founders believed that a republic would have to cultivate them by means of culture and education. MR echoes the Founders’ views by placing virtue at the center of politics. The essential point of republicanism is that the business of democracy requires a citizens to actively seek the virtues of dispassionate rationality and public-mindedness. MR emerges to remind us that work is as important today as ever it was.
We often read today of the decline or even the expiry of Western liberal democracy. (17) A sense of defeat looms over much of our political discourse. But such fatalism is only the inverse image of the post-Cold War sense that liberalism would conquer the world. The real problem with liberalism today is not something inherent in the ideology which dooms it from the start, but the flawed way we have enacted it.
It is a well-known story but it bears repeating. (18) As Benjamin Franklin was walking home from the Constitutional Convention, a woman called out to ask what form of government the infant nation would have. He replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Our problem is not with the republic, but how we have been keeping it. We have not been mindful of the work required to keep it alive and healthy. Returning to that work must now be our central political task. People may look to The Buddha or Doctor Franklin to have their pick for a fat and smiling sage. But above all we must return to mindfulness of what democracy requires of us. The times demand it.
- Kara Swisher has made a career out of such criticisms with her magazine Recode. She discusses her views in a general way here:
(In the last link, the editors reply to criticism.)
For discussion see Jonathan Lear, Freud (New York: Routledge, 2005), p16.
- See Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1992), p104-105, 221
- The following article appeared while I was writing: