One of the tasks of political philosophy, I imagine, is accounting for how it is possible for an entire people to be in denial. Emphasis must be placed on “how it is possible.” Critics can ask “What do you mean by an entire people?” and “What if they actually have the truth and you’re in denial?” More rigorous thinkers can charge this topic with being too broad. Topics which are too broad may lead to large, general statements which do no justice to the details of how people live or how things work.
The only trouble with denying my question—”How is it possible for an entire people to be in denial?”—is reality. I can truthfully say “it’s obvious racism is a problem but so hard for people to admit it,” to take one example. I submit the following, though, for your consideration. Our understanding of history depends in no small part on certain narratives. One of the key narratives is of this form: “X number of people made mistake Y because they believed Z.” Such an understanding could be problematic, but also stands essential to how anything at least initially is learned.
Thus, if I ask “How are we currently in denial?”, I have to ask about an understanding of history. How is it shared and communicated? How does it lead to seeing the world in specific ways? The question of possibility has been transformed from a matter of theory into one that is practical. To grasp the possibility of mass denial is to grasp how a people understand themselves.
But how is such a possibility engaged? I can’t just read a history textbook. Plenty do this and repeat the most basic facts out of context as if they were divine truths. Nor can I simply call for reflection, whatever that means. I have far too many examples in my life of people who thought too much, concluded they were right, and armed themselves with the ability to angrily argue with anyone who thought differently.
Graham Foust’s “The Only Poem” opens with a meditation on moral idealism and its limits. At this moment, in the midst of plague, neo-Nazis and white nationalists are marching on state capitals with guns in order to insist on their comfort at the expense of everyone else’s safety. These armed marchers accuse everyone else of being Hitler. I can see who they are, but it’s a lot harder for me to know whether I’m doing the work necessary to defeat their awful movement. Foust’s lines speak to the intersection of “doing the work,” “making a commitment,” and “still being in denial:” This is not a machine. It does not kill fascists. You’re pretending to see the light.
The Only Poem Graham Foust This is not a machine. It does not kill fascists. You're pretending to see the light. Winter. Some river, its claws of water stalled. You walk across, crossing this, it. You trust ice, the thermometer, and riotous loss. Even in danger, you're a writer, liar.
Some might think his first stanza defiantly apolitical, a turn to nature and away from man-made horror. His poem does not kill fascists, after all. It refuses to be a machine. But “You’re pretending to the see the light” combined with his last “you’re a writer, liar” can be taken as self-referential. I want to assume he’s speaking about the same problem I’m having. I can’t know exactly when I’m in denial, when I’m “pretending to see the light.” This makes commentary on society’s denial of large issues difficult. In the case of the neo-Nazis who are marching, the issue isn’t the Nazis as much as how their protests are treated with far more sympathy than an armed anti-government movement should get. I can see the problem, but do I see the true cause?
One might say the true cause is obvious, for anyone can see a violent lust for power masquerading as freedom. Again, though, that only addresses the marchers. What about everyone else who doesn’t care? A significant part of not taking Nazis seriously is racism in the body politic at large, but there may be a related problem at work. Perhaps people cannot admit they are wrong in any way. Perhaps they’re convinced freedom is their right to value belief over knowledge in any and all cases. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, cruelty to the disabled and a host of other inhuman attitudes are attempts to grab and hold power and also an existential crisis of sorts. It almost seems like people feel that merely thinking about others is a form of selflessness. (It can be, in specific circumstances.)
In which case, the outstanding question entails human completeness. I must wonder about who I’m becoming throughout time. Not only “Do I have a debased notion of freedom myself?” but also whether I am achieving fulfillment beyond conventional moral claims. Am I able to see myself in a natural way, a way which sees others as human but doesn’t deny my dignity? Foust introduces this series of considerations by bringing his persona to a winter walk. Winter. Some river, its claws of water stalled. You walk across, crossing this, it.
His image of a stalled river recalls “you can’t step in the same river twice.” “You can’t step in the same river twice” speaks to both a lack of certainty and the fluid nature of identity. I believe I can accept that I’m responding to things and changing while still being identifiable. But maybe I’m deluding myself when I say that. Maybe it is much easier to know who I am by assuming what I can stand on. Whatever moral notions I have are like frozen water–they assume a more or less similar set of circumstances to what I’ve experienced. It’s like time has been frozen so that I can walk… somewhere. It’s not clear how others are regarded, if they are given any consideration, when I’m walking upon ice.
It’s the trust in this crazy process Foust ultimately settles on as a defining problem. You trust ice, the thermometer, and riotous loss. Even in danger, you’re a writer, liar. Ice is trusted because of scientific knowledge imprecisely applied (thermometer) and a tragic outlook born of cynicism and experience. There’s no real knowledge in our frozen moral notions. I don’t know anything when I accuse my age of being in denial about the most important things. I’m merely “in danger,” “a writer,” “[a] liar.”
One might suspect this reflection is collapsing into a vicious relativism. But on a practical level, morality is fairly relative. Relativism is usually opposed because genocidal maniacs want to argue that no one is any better than they are or people want to argue that their extremely petty notion of right and wrong is what everything else stands upon. Even though I know fascism is absolutely wrong, my moral notions are far from complete. They haven’t seen everything. They have barely accounted for this life, let alone the lives of others. It’s honesty about the conglomerate which serves as moral knowledge for myself that enables a small step away from denial. And sometimes, a small step is all that’s needed. The people most sure about their crazy views of right and wrong are willing to brandish weapons in order to not wear a protective face mask. In assuming the world is their vision of it, they’ve denied the very space in which others could be valued or loved.