March 13, 2018
“Not everyone is a demon”: Curtis White on the 2016 election
by Curtis White
Back in the summer of 2016—so long ago you can barely remember it—we cajoled the great Curtis White to let us share a few of his thoughts on the great national circus that was then unfolding before us. We all know how that went.
Today, as we celebrate the release of Lacking Character, White’s triumphal return to the novel after years of publishing nonfiction, we’re looking back on that demonology he wrote, shaking our heads. He knew the time all along.
I’ve been working my way through the twenty-six samurai movies that make up the series Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman. The films were hugely popular in Japan in the sixties. Because of the sheer number of films made, they are of necessity formulaic — a former Yakuza master swordsman leaves the world of gangsters for a life on the road correcting injustice, protecting women, children, and the aged, and, in every climax, dueling with glamorous samurai “gun slingers”—all dressed in black, all with great hair—who lose their lives to Zatoichi’s flashing cane sword. (Think Alan Ladd and Jack Palance in Shane.)
The villains are always the same: murderous yakuza bosses and corrupt government officials with their armies of sword-toting but expendable henchmen. (The henchmen lose their lives by the dozens, sliced up like the flies that Zatoichi kills in mid flight.) These villains are indistinguishable one from the other. They are vain, mendacious, money-hungry, and cruelly exploitive of women.
Not unlike certain American presidential candidates, one might observe.
I have a favorite line from Zatoichi that he repeats in several of his movies. Every once in a great while, someone (usually a virtuous peasant right out of Tolstoy) will selflessly aid the blind Zatoichi, after which he will observe, soto voce, “I guess not everyone is a demon.” If you did a head count (or body count) of the characters in these films, people who put kindness ahead of self-interest would be only the tiniest of tiny minorities in a world full to the brim with demons. Even Zatoichi is part-demon: a not-quite-entirely reformed gambler and gangster who applies the sake liberally, cheats at dice, and frequently incites violence by deliberately offending thin-skinned henchmen.
It’s a Saturday matinee version of the Buddhist idea that ours is the world of dukkha, a world of selfishness, cruelty, and endless suffering, or, as Zatoichi would put it, a world full of demons.
In the current political season, Zatoichi’s world and our own have a lot in common. Demons and demonizing are everywhere. Everyone outside of one’s own immediate political circle is suspected of being a self-seeking liar whose victory would mean the fall of every human decency. Our opponents are people to whom a sword should be taken, or, as Trump put it, on whom the “second amendment people” should be loosed.
Like Zatoichi, these political sects are mostly oblivious to their own faults, their own participation in a demonic world. From the advocates of democratic socialism to the darkest of Trump’s dark fanatics, all seem to be committed to a self-righteous sense of personal grievance and their own blamelessness. They are also blind to the destructive potential of their own impassioned actions. Each side casts the other in frighteningly reductive terms, whether “communist baby killers” or “rural white males lacking a college education.” Admittedly, the depiction of Trumpsters as ill-educated country boys is closer to a description of the facts than “baby killer,” but it’s difficult to mistake the contempt in that liberal judgment. The Republican base is stereotyped as stupid, as rural rubes living in the sticks, a stereotype as old as the reduction of blacks to shuffling and eating watermelon.
“The Stupids Are Coming!! The Stupids Are Coming!!”
What nobody seems to see in all of this is its bloodiness. None of these groups—whether democratic socialist, plutocratic money-whore, or Tea Party zealot—is sufficiently self-critical to see that if they are to have what they claim to want, it will require violence. None of these groups has any intention of going passively into a world governed by the other side’s notion of the common good. For his part, Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened civil unrest if he loses the presidential race because of a “rigged system.” This frightening state of affairs has been put in dramatic terms by the treatment of Sanders advocates at Trump rallies and Trump advocates at Sanders rallies. To a degree, it’s like Nazi brownshirts chasing communists around Alexanderplatz in 1933, and communists chasing them back in a hellish farce.
This complicated if not utterly confused state of affairs should tell us at least one simple thing: what we are experiencing is not about Donald Trump. Is he like the gangster demons in Zatoichi movies? Sure. But the question for both Zatoichi and ourselves is, “What does it mean to be a demon in a world of demons?” It means that, whether homicidal gang boss or Mr. Trump, all are expressions of something much larger than themselves, and not in a good way. As a consequence, it is possible to say that Donald Trump does not exist, not even for himself. Even Trump has no idea who Trump is, as his constant retractions and self-contradictory policy statements show.
Donald Trump is a collective fantasy. As Freud would have put it, he is a complex of ideas (in his case, incoherent ideas) in which psychic energy has been “cathected” (or invested). For example, when you are in love, you focus an emotional charge on an object, the loved one. This object has nothing necessarily to do with a real person. Similarly, Trump and Sanders partisans have cathected with objects of their own unreasoned, jubilant, and angry creation.
Bernie, oh Bernie! Donald, oh Donald!
Just when we need them least, we have devoted ourselves to idols. Onto these heroic individuals we have projected both our best and our worst inclinations. I say best as well as worst because it is true that what both democratic socialists and race-baiting nationalists understand best is the raw hurt of poverty, isolation, inequality, and injustice. Those are real enough. The tragedy is that all parties have chosen to confront these hurts through the creation of idols who will inevitably fall, leaving us feeling disappointed, betrayed, and angrier than ever.
Through our dependence on political saviors, the “bosses” for our political “gangs,” we are—once again!—energetically conspiring in our own defeat. Because of this, our world will continue to be a welcome place for demons.
Curtis White is the author of many books, including the acclaimed The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers and We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, both from Melville House. His newest book, Living in a World That Can't Be Fixed, comes out 11/5/2019.