[See also: Don’t Panic, Think.]
“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam. “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”
“I wonder,’ said Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”
“No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”
“No, they never end as tales,” said Frodo. “But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.”
“And then we can have some rest and some sleep,” said Sam. He laughed grimly. “And I mean just that, Mr. Frodo. I mean plain ordinary rest, and sleep, and waking up to a morning’s work in the garden. I’m afraid that’s all I’m hoping for all the time. All the big important plans are not for my sort. Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, or course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!’ And they’ll say: ‘Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave. wasn’t he, dad?’ ‘Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.'”
“It’s saying a lot too much,” said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. “Why, Sam,” he said, “to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. ‘I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?'”
“Now, Mr. Frodo,” said Sam, “you shouldn’t make fun. I was serious.”
“So was I,’ said Frodo, ‘and so I am. We’re going on a bit too fast. You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.'”
“Maybe,” said Sam, “but I wouldn’t be one to say that. Things done and over and made into part of the great tales are different. Why, even Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he is to have by you, anyway. And he used to like tales himself once, by his own account. I wonder if he thinks he’s the hero or the villain?”
I hold to certain values, those shared perhaps by the majority of my readership. I am a utilitarian, in the John Stuart Mill mode. I care as much about a stranger who lives in Africa or who has darker skin than mine as I do about a pasty-white stranger who lives in my hometown. I believe in science, in rationality, in the pursuit of truth. I support the rights of people to speak and think freely, to decide what to do with their own bodies, and to live their lives as they please without busybodies sticking their noses in. I value positive-sum interactions, as exemplified through the positive-sum interaction of trade. I desire the happiness and flourishing of all sentient beings.
Yesterday, the US people elected a president who is the repudiation of many of my most closely held values. A man with an ethnocentric view of the world, who leaves refugees to die and will not protect our allies unless they make it worth our while. A man with a poor understanding of scientific issues and an astonishing history of lying to the public. A man whose policies violate the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. A rent-seeker who earned his money through his skill at manipulating state force in zero-sum games, and who views a good deal as one where you’re crushing your trade partner to the ground and grinding every last dollar you can from their corpse, as opposed to one in which all parties benefit. Far than contributing to the happiness and flourishing of all beings, he runs an uncomfortably high risk of eliminating humanity– and thus nearly all good or value in the universe.
But if you share my values, remember: we are still winning.
Between 1990 and 2010, nearly a billion people were taken out of extreme poverty; the aim of halving global poverty by 2015 was reached five years early. The global average lifespan has more than doubled in the past century, rising from 32 in 1900 to over 70 today. We have not had a great-power war in seventy years. Catholics and Protestants live next to each other peacefully in much of the globe, when for hundreds of years they enthusiastically murdered each other whenever they got the chance. It appears we will continue our streak of twenty-nine peaceful changes of leadership, something that was unimaginable for most of history. The people who are calling Trump a Nazi need not fear execution or imprisonment for insulting their leader.
Famine is going through its death throes. We have shown it is possible to win against Pestilence, and not merely reduce harm. War is at bay, although the tide may turn any minute. Perhaps soon we shall turn and gird ourselves to face the greatest enemy… after all, in strange aeons, even Death may die.
We eked out victories even in this election. Four more states have legalized marijuana, and the majority of US states have legalized medical marijuana. The condescending and whorephobic Proposition 60 failed. Massachusetts has banned the sale of animal products from animals without enough room to move around, even from out of state. Small victories, to be sure; in some places, we just hold the line; but we must be grateful for the good as well.
I do not mean to say that we will win. An atheist does not have that sort of comfort; there is no rule, no law, that says that good things have to happen. The world is a place of absolute and exceptionless neutrality. If you fall off a cliff, you die, regardless of whether it is good or just or right or narratively satisfying. Good men die screaming and evil men live till eighty, surrounded by friends and family, their bellies full and their hearts at ease.
In particular, in spite of our many victories, there is still the one great failure: the strength we have acquired that allows us to heal the sick and feed the hungry has also given us the ability to destroy ourselves, through climate change, environmental damage, nuclear war, or risks from newly invented technology. The most grave aspect of President Trump’s election is that, compared to Hillary, he increases the risk that we will destroy ourselves before we ever visit the stars.
And yet… the victories do not go away when we have a setback. The billion people who have been fed and clothed are still fed and clothed; the decades of life– precious exquisite tragic beautiful life– that have been lived were lived; the few people on a few small parts of the globe who tasted freedom still tasted it, and it is sweet.
Make America Great Again.
An odd slogan, from my perspective.
One does wonder what on Earth Trump thought was great about America in the first place. If you don’t like that we’re a nation of immigrants, and you don’t like our freedoms, what is it you think made America great? Fireworks? Bald eagles? Tiny American flags?
America was founded with the statement that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This statement was written by a man who owned, assaulted, and raped human beings. I think this pretty much sums up America.
American’s origins lie in the genocide of one people and the enslavement of another. We created some very nice-sounding amendments protecting people’s freedoms, and promptly ignored all of them (except, to be fair, the Third). We are a nation of high ideals unfulfilled.
And yet… in the slowest, most switchbacky way possible, we are fulfilling them. We fought the Civil War to end slavery. We faced down dogs and firehoses for civil rights. We fought court cases to let Nazis march through Skokie, to let students protest war in schools, to grant poor people the right to a public defender, to protect women’s rights to use contraception.
Make America great again? No. America was never great, and is always great; we are not great, because of how we have failed, and we are always great, because for nearly two hundred and fifty years we have been trying to fail better.
I fear that Donald Trump does not hold to our ideals (so long cherished, so often betrayed) and, as such, is a traitor to the America I hold dear.
The normal way for moral issues to go is that they are very confusing, and you never know what side you should be on, and you’re powerless to do much of anything about it one way or the other anyway.
But there are some situations where that no longer holds, where moral issues become clear. Where the questions are more about strength, courage, the ability to put aside. The Holocaust, the AIDS crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Some people sheltered Jews from the Nazis at the risk of their own lives; others operated death camps. Some people took care of the dying at a time when they could do nothing and when they might have risked contracting the disease themselves, because it was wrong to allow people to die alone; others yell homophobic slurs at sick children. Some people risked nuclear war for the sake of national pride; Vasili Arkhipov saved us all.
I fear that Trump’s presidency will create a similar situation.
(Trump is an extraordinarily high-variance president. My range of possible outcomes for President Trump include everything from “better than Hillary Clinton would have been” to “human extinction via nuclear war.” I very much hope that he will turn out to be closer to the former than to the latter, and that in retrospect this entire blog post will seem unbearably melodramatic.)
The thing is that you can’t tell who’s going to rise above in a crisis like that. Oskar Schindler was a Nazi spy. C Everett Koop, who fought the Reagan administration to be able to educate the public about HIV, was a deeply conservative evangelical Christian who believed that gays were sinners. Larry Kramer, the founder of ACT UP, is a complete asshole who doesn’t even manage to come off well in his own roman a clef about the AIDS crisis which he wrote.
And at the same time… Ronald Reagan was, by all accounts, a kind-hearted and genuine man and loving father. He also let thousands of people die for his political gain. Being a nice person does not stop you from doing evil.
This scares me. I try to generally be a kind, thoughtful person who would never spy for Nazis, and it is terrifying that this is in no way a protective factor whatsoever.
I hope that if any person who reads this is put to the test, they will make the right choice.
Take care of yourself. You cannot help anyone if you are depressed or burned out. You matter as much as anyone else does, and probably quite a lot more to yourself.
I have been seeing a lot of strategizing about how our plans should change given a Trump presidency. Right now, the most important thing is thoughtful, rational, non-hysterical discussion about how to reduce the downside risk of Trump’s presidency, including both personal and political actions. I don’t want to put down any firm ideas yet about what we should do– I feel we are very much still in a brainstorming stage– but I appreciate the discussion that has happened so far and encourage people– particularly subject-area experts– to discuss it more.
We are not powerless. We do not have to watch as horrible things happen to our country. If there is one thing I have learned it is that as a person in the developed world, with all the wealth and power that implies, I have tremendous opportunities to do good. We don’t know what the right thing to do is yet, but we will find it. There are things you can do.
Several people I know have chosen to withdraw from political engagement and refocus on their own friendships, communities, and cause areas. I think this is a fine and honorable course. Trump doesn’t change everything; the courses of action that were good on November 7th continue to be good on the 9th. In particular, I think having strong communities that are a good source of support is going to be really important for getting the best outcomes in a whole host of different tail-risk situations. If, for you, politics is stressful and not the right choice, please do not feel obligated to be involved.
Despair is the enemy.
If we fail, everyone in the world will die, either slowly or all at once. If we succeed, a slow and asymptotic approach to utopia.
(Or a fast and sudden approach to utopia, for you FAI fans out there.)
We are, perhaps, more likely than not to fail. Our chances are, perhaps, worse today than they were when we woke up yesterday morning with Clinton in a comfortable lead.
But we must not despair. If we despair, we lose the chance we had.
Take comfort in the grim, exceptionless neutrality of the universe. It does not say that we must win. But it also does not say that we must lose.