Garbage In, Garbage Out: A Lesson from the Plague Year

The year is almost over, friends, and I have yet to understand exactly what is happening. How about you?

I mean, sure, the COVID numbers, the unemployment figures, the police murders, the packed prisons — all of this can be quantified and at least on the level of sheer numbers, comprehended. But what boggles my mind is the vast cognitive dissonance between conventional wisdom and lived experience. How can it be bridged?

I have a slew of examples, but let’s focus on just one, the federal government. As endless historians have assured us, the framers of this nation’s government created a system of checks and balances designed to prevent the abuse of power. The separation of powers emerged in the 18th century as an Enlightenment idea, marked by the characteristic faith in rationality of that period. Logically, it makes sense. Just as a misguided congressional majority can be stopped by presidential veto from overturning foundational principles, a President can be stopped from behaving like mad King George III by Congress or the courts exercising their authority to prevent it.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the civics-lesson certainties drummed into my head in 1950s and 1960s public schools. It’s quite ironic that faith in the system’s genius was declared with straight faces just a few years after Senator Joseph McCarthy (whose swashbuckling way with lies can now be described as “Trumpian”) held the entire federal government in thrall by making it un-American to disagree with his fanciful tales of secret forces controlling government (now we could call him “QAnonian”). Speaking of a succession of Napoleons, Karl Marx famously said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” It’s a nice conceit, but it turns out there is no moratorium on corrupt rulers. Both McCarthy and Trump are farcical figures who led us into tragedy, the first a loss of democracy, freedom, and livelihood, the second all of that and a terrible loss of life.

Virtually all ideas about how government should work — from monarchy to anarcho-syndicalism — are premised on some modicum of honesty and goodwill in those exercising political power. History shows us that the most villainous leaders will eventually be stopped. McCarthy was monstrous and allowed to get away with it for far too long, but in the end he was shamed by a few people with the backbone and will to expose him. (I wrote about it in April if you’d like to know the story.) Nixon felt entitled to use the presidency to punish his enemies and conspire with his friends, but eventually he was made to step down. We are familiar with the parables that valorize courageous truth-telling. In every such story, in history or myth, if there is any sort of happy ending, it comes about because someone is aware and brave enough to point out the emperor’s nakedness.

But the success of our governmental structure, like any container, depends on how we fill it. Garbage in, garbage out is a phrase from the world of computers, meaning if you input bad data you cannot expect accurate or useful results. It would be hard to find a clearer case of garbage in, garbage out than the administration just ending. There is no system of governance that could protect the virtues of pluralism, participation, equity, and democracy from the likes of #IMPOTUS and his crew.

I doubt the framers foresaw a time when a decisive majority of persons vested with the power to stop terrible abuse of office would be so cowed, bought off, or morally feeble that they would not take a single step to stop it. I doubt they imagined someone so benighted, self-serving, and callous not only being elected President but once in office, holding all those who might prevent his damage in thrall, unwilling to act in defense of we the people.

There is a surfeit of end-of-year punditry speculating about the extent to which the damage #IMPOTUS has done to the structures of democracy will outlast him. George Packer has a straightforward accounting in The Atlantic that sums it up nicely.

So did our much-vaunted system of checks and balances come through in the end? No. With cowardly and incompetent Cabinet members, relentlessly toadying elected representatives, and a voraciously self-dealing First Family holding the reins of state, the critical missing ingredient was something the framers could not call into being: people with power whose integrity, compassion, and selflessness could put a brake on our mad King George. The system failed.

Some will argue that it did not. Legions of organizers and activists inspired people to vote in the November election, making use of the fallback system the founders introduced — vote them out! Thank God for that, but we can’t make the mistake of relaxing back into the faith in checks and balances my civics teachers tried to instill. Both Republican and Democratic turnout were sky-high in November. With tactics for voter suppression and attempts to overturn legitimate elections becoming more sophisticated each day, we can’t rely on elections alone to save us.

There is a countervailing myth that seems to fit our situation. I wrote about it a dozen years ago, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov’s parable of the tainted grain:

A king once told his prime minister, who was also his good friend: “I see in the stars that everyone who eats from this year’s grain harvest is going to go mad. What do you think we should do?”

The prime minister suggested they should put aside a stock of good grain so they would not have to eat from the tainted grain.

“But it will be impossible to set aside enough good grain for everyone,” the king objected. “And if we put away a stock for just the two of us, we will be the only ones who will be sane. Everyone else will be mad, and they will look at us and think that we are the mad ones.

“No. We too will have to eat from this year’s grain. But we will both put a sign on our heads. I will look at your forehead, and you will look at mine. And when we see the sign, at least we will remember that we are mad.”

I’m scared of what has happened here. There are plenty of reasons to conclude that forces work behind the scenes for their own profit and power at our expense, but instead of focusing on setting that right, millions of people believed some liberal politicians are running a clandestine child-abuse ring out of a pizza parlor. There’s tons of analysis trying to explain the 70 or so million who voted to re-elect #IMPOTUS, thereby empowering a coterie of greedheads who care little for voters’ well-being. We are told that they are driven by single-issue politics (e.g., reproductive choice versus banning abortion); by taking pleasure in the unrestrained expression of id in the Oval Office, watching #IMPOTUS ridicule scientists and actual public servants; or simply have been convinced by unrelenting Fox News that their votes would rescue the nation from a Soviet-style alternate reality.

Maybe so. But what’s to stop something like this — and worse — from happening again? #IMPOTUS was not a bad apple; he was the culmination of many years of choreography by right-wing strategists for dancers who hadn’t partnered before, fundamentalism and pliant credulity following the lead of capitalist oligarchs. Who’s to say their selective breeding can’t produce a new mad king?

What is the mark we can place on the forehead of the body politic to remind us that corruption, ego, indifference, self-regard, greed, and derangement have poisoned our daily fare? If the structures of government don’t protect us, what will?

I would really like to have a simple answer. If you know of one, please share. But I think the answer is complex, comprising multiple parts, including, for example, these few:

Artworks. When I think back to earlier moments in history in which a critical mass of people awakened to injustice, the pivotal wake-up call was so often a depiction either of the misery that was ignored in plain sight or the better world that was possible. Common Sense, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, Grapes of Wrath, Battle of Algiers, Feminist Mystique, The Color Purple, Handmaid’s Tale, Philadelphia, Schindler’s List, Selma, Black Panther, An Inconvenient Truth — these are just a few of the books and films that seized popular imagination, becoming best-sellers or box-office winners and consequently helping to shape the national conversation about the issues they exposed. A book like Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, published during the rise of fascism in Europe, awakened concern precisely because it showed how homegrown fascism could work. The stage version was performed simultaneously in 17 theaters as part of the Federal Theater Project. George Orwell’s 1945 fable Animal Farm was created to show the dangers of state control.

It’s not that artists aren’t making all sorts of work to call attention to our current predicament or align people with a vision of greater possibility. They always are. But showing a mass public the danger of surrendering to demagogues isn’t so much on the hot list right now, and that’s an impact we need.

Shadow Cabinet. This is a feature of British government that is transferable to the U.S. and could have a real impact here. In this model, the major party currently out of power names a cabinet following the pattern of the presidential cabinet: someone to oversee education, environment, housing, health, and so on. I see no reason there has to be just one shadow cabinet. Right now, the Democrats clearly comprise two parties, a neoliberal centrist wing and a progressive wing. Let them each assemble their own. I’m confident that the progressive shadow cabinet, at least, would be forthright in both critique and proposition, and find many times each year to assemble and communicate with the electorate. Under the administration just ending, they would have certainly called for invoking the 25th amendment to remove an executive clearly incompetent to serve. They could keep up a steady drumbeat for the opposition’s version of a just, kind, and fair society, offering people alternatives at every turn.

Medical attention. #IMPOTUS’s personal physician, who has consistently lied about the president’s health, is a hand-picked osteopath whose chief qualification seems to be his pliancy. Voters need an advocate for the public good overseeing the health of the chief executive — or perhaps a team, to avoid the hazard of vesting one individual with such an awesome responsibility. Perhaps the chief residents of major teaching hospitals could form that team. Countless professionals conversant with mental health diagnoses have provided the same diagnosis for #IMPOTUS that you and I have: narcissistic personality disorder. Lately I’ve seen the added qualifier “malignant.” This clearly disqualifies the sufferer from holding responsible positions, especially public office. The Present Occupant was allowed to conceal his health as successfully as he was able to conceal his finances until key leaks told the story earlier this year. Creating a public interest medical team accountable to Congress wouldn’t absolutely guarantee that no future president could fool the people as to his condition and capabilities, but it would make it much harder. And it would help to depersonalize the office by limiting the officeholder’s ability to lie.

To avoid another #IMPOTUS for the foreseeable, it isn’t necessary to win over everyone, just enough voters to prevail. People who study the demographics closely tell us that there is every reason to believe that — attempts to sabotage elections notwithstanding — a new majority of younger voters and voters of color is likely to prevail in coming elections. If that’s true, job one has got to be understanding that the checks and balances of separation of powers are insufficient to defeat truly ruthless enemies of democracy. What would you do to help that along?

Gil Scott-Heron, “Beginnings.”