Three Winters: Living the Pandemic of Covid and Trump

Introduction: Pandemic as Torpedo Fish

I have spent the last three years both newly retired and locked down in the Pandemic of Covid and Trump. Under shroud of pandemic, I have been able to write as a public intellectual, seeking to provide resources of interpretation insupport ofan emerging worldview and lifeway that could take us beyond the intersecting crises of late modernity. This effort, in an atmosphere of release from the sorrows and joys of ordinary life, has not been as idyllic as it might sound. Adding retirement on top of pandemic, I have had to endure — with the grace of some close friends, family, and colleagues — a double dose of the stunned isolation our time provides. What to do, who to be, and what to think have become open questions in this state. Some might describe the state as transformational or philosophical, even religious in nature.

Meanwhile, colleagues who are not retired press on with their front line work of supporting students in finding their way into the world. These faculty do so at great personal cost, with impossible workloads and the reality of “burnout.” This is especially the case on campuses dominated by administrators who have become oblivious to education as anything other than training, and profoundly disrespectful of faculty, even resentful, as though faculty still live in a world administrators have lost. These administrators are both caught up in and part of “management,” a craft that can be employed in any endeavor, and one that both expresses and generates a certain numbness on matters of application and care for humanity – as if under the nihilistic assumption that these don’t really matter. In the complexity of the times, management can be seen as the latest form of Western assertiveness and hegemony, at the same time it also carries the European will to chaos. Not that this orientation is new, but when the assumptions underlying managerialism impact university life, affecting those “canaries in the coal mine” that are faculty, we begin to wonder if a larger societal tipping point is near – or already in progress.

Turns out, I have written quite a lot during these three pandemic winters. I have discovered that what I have written is in a voice quite distinct from how I sounded before. The new writing seems to be more honest or “personal” somehow (certainly shorter), more fully informed by the facts of life as they confront us today, and more immediately practical as well. Perhaps I have learned to be more empathic with my reader. Maybe missing the vitality of students and the immediacy of the classroom has resulted in my learning to communicate with readers in a way that is analogous to what I learned to do with students. Hope so.   

To clarify, I think these “from pandemic” writings can be more effective than what I have written before, as a support for people struggling to live a life of integrity in tumultuous times. I write not from the podium of patriarchal authority, but in and through the mode of dialogue or friendship (some might say feminism or a process philosophy approach). Is this relational middle ground even possible in a culture that seems endlessly frozen in dichotomy between objective and subjective poles?

There are two basic propositions on which I hope we still agree: First that there are crucial matters in life –like love, justice, god, meaning — on all of which we all are free to decide for ourselves; and second, that the paradoxical genius of genuine education is the creative relationship which elicits and nourishes not agreement or conformity, but precisely that integrity I speak of above. In the fullness of education we often see the emergence of the real person from their earlier containment in ego and society. This developing relationship stands in radical contrast to both authority-responsiveness and the confusing and sometimes miserable isolation so many of us have come to know, sometimes while in the midst of others. Importantly, this isolation is very different from that more happy condition of solitude in which isolation is only a superficial description of someone who is “by themself.”

The essentially educational relationship is the womb in which human growth in the direction of the broader and deeper form of adulthood we so urgently need can be cultivated. It must be remembered that this most precious sense of possibility only comes to embodimentwhen it is grounded on radiant precedents in history, moments of imperfect actualization we can still draw on, those complex anchoring moments without which the energetic present is bound to swirl off into chaos. As part of the process of reappropriating elements of the past from which we have become estranged in the rush of modernity, remembering our failures is also crucial, lest we slip into a fantasy world. We need an honest and clear-eyed view of our flawed yet noble origins, as well as of who we are at our best in the particularity of the ever-pulsing present.

Democratizing the task of our each deciding what it means to become fully human needs both the vitality of the present and the rock of the past. The idea of “liberty and justice for all,” and the social-political-cultural struggles with which this phrase is associated, must continue to ring out and inspire. From a democratic perspective, here is the magnificent vision of E Pluribus Unum. It is important to note right at this point that the enlarged and deepened vision of democracy we experience today is the only available pluralistic alternative to autocracy

The writings in this volume are in the short essay genre, centering on the choice before us today, which turns out to be that between democracy and autocracy, and these in their intimate association with the more momentous though rarely stated choice between life and death (along with a very disturbing tendency to choose suicide, in both individual and group/cult forms, as well as slow and fast forms). The essays are oriented to providing not ideology but rather resources for people articulating their own interpretation or understanding of what is going on and what we each can do by way of life-affirmation. In short, clear, useful essays in a spirit of mutual aid and support – essays in a humanities mode.

Out of the separation and isolation of the multi-faceted infection we live with today, my hope is to contribute to a revival of that component of the democratic heritage which is the ongoing public conversation about our aspirations and their linkage to changing the world and ourselves. The conversation I seek to engage is about Justice, Goodness, Community, Individual, Equity, and Beauty — as the most intense (and thereby also most dangerous) form of appreciation. These non-material and ineffable entities on which our lives might well depend converge in the question: Why live in good faith with the world; why live with sincerity?

We have melted all previous senses of being at home on the Earth, all previous answers to this question. We have demythologized and deconstructed any shelter. So we now have no choice but to stand with this question in the opening we have created (or co-created?).

And my credentials for joining in this high-sounding task? In times when all it seems we share is a sinking boat, all credentials are immediately suspect. All claims are reduced and “canceled” (or lifted up), based on the claimant’s demography and/or power. We live in the rubble of ongoing culture wars, in which consumerism is unchecked, freedom is undisciplined, and together both have erased all senses of legitimacy apart from making money.  So titles, diplomas or awards, teaching, or previous books don’t count for much. This is a relief in some ways, a weight removed. But it also describes a condition of great instability and vulnerability for us all.

When there is nothing to stand behind, I/we have the opportunity to consider fresh what we/I take to be most important by way of “credential.” I will begin with telling you I take some comfort from Robert Frost, one of America’s greatest poets,  who described himself as having had “… a lover’s quarrel with the world.” He loved and lost and remained in love. It is, as most of us know, not at all easy to “keep the faith” in times like these (or perhaps ever on this planet). But living this way, as though our faith matters, seems utterly essential, not only to our own well-being but to the well-being of the planet and those around us. Living this way is radically different from those ways of distraction and self-censorship that amount to “whistling in the dark,” or saying that Nazis have free speech too.

Through my writing I seek to provide some useful description of this way, including how to grow it, recognize distractions, and communicate – in that open space beyond the dichotomy between “opinion” and “facts” – the democratic vision of well-being (Eudemonia, Xing Fu) in both word and deed, and in both individual and communal dimensions simultaneously.

I have been engaged in the attempt to elicit Frost’s love of the world, which Hannah Arendt articulated so well with the old term, Amor Mundi. I have pursued this vocationprimarilythrough teaching in the areas of philosophy, politics, and religion/culture at a public university I have had a hand in building. Though it has suffered greatly from the stunning of Pandemic, Grand Valley State University remains devoted to “integrating liberal and career education,” and “liberal education in a public context.”

For a half century, a time I have compared to the experience of riding through a Pacific typhoon in an old, over-heavy 747, I have been engaged in this adventure, both in the U.S. and internationally, especially in China and California, with teaching, lectures, dialogue events, and writing and responding to work on the challenges accompanying these practices. I have wrestled for decades with the moral and spiritual disease of late modernity, the phenomenon we currently recognize as Trumpism — in an environment of “identity politics,” with reductive  knowing of the other through nothing more than their ethnicity and other demographic features.     

But I have also enjoyed some ambitious and fruitful efforts toward an ecological or dialogical civilization, one which is distinguished by that most essential and developmentally challenging quality of being both democratic and pluralistic. I want to be clear: I have lived and worked in the midst of hope as well as despair, and advocate in the present for that which we must save as well as that which we must outgrow.

Last in the matter of credentials, I want to say that I have pursued the same discipline and art of writing that has been integral to my teaching (and my own education). Over the decades this has resulted in what is to me a surprising oeuvre. Out front I have three generalist books in my interdisciplinary field of social ethics (University of Chicago style): Leaving and Returning (1989), Rediscovering the West (1994), and Overcoming America/America Overcoming (2011, 2021). But, still in the midst of the tectonic upheavals of Pandemic, with one world order passing swiftly with extreme danger, while another is still fragile and threatened by barbarism and cults that are brewed up out of the chaos, these books seem clunky, too academic, from another time. They do, however, track a trajectory of efforts to provide resources of articulation to support the emergence of that new order, where “articulation” or developing a considered understanding is a necessary though not sufficient component of vision coming to embodiment.

Efforts toward an ecological or dialogical civilization seem impossible, sometimes just futile or absurd, and sometimes dangerous in a world of relativity, manipulation, and “might makes right.” For ours is not just incidentally but fundamentally a time of aporia, a time of not knowing. We live in the state of stunned perplexity Plato describes in the dialogue, “Meno.” He likens Socrates to a torpedo fish (80a-b), an electric fish that stings its prey into a disorientation which – at least among humans — is not altogether negative. Actually, that not-knowing state is essential to the transformative process Plato describes as a turning around, from the cave wall of ordinary sensation and ego opinion to the vastly more profound knowing that is like sunshine in comparison. He is pointing to that quality of “soul” where individual and universal dimensions of life coincide in the release of the most profoundly reliable source of inspiration.

The process of arriving at that place can be completely overwhelming, exhausting, frustrating, a condition that is likely familiar to those who have journeyed through these three pandemic winters, not really knowing what the journey was about, or how long it would be, or how dangerous it might be. Or they knew it only negatively, in terms of disease, loss, threat, and climate instability. Especially for children of the comparatively narrow, mechanistic, controlling worldview of Sixteenth Century European modernity, to suddenly be brought to the experience of Nothingness due to mysterious historical forces (whether via Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Wounded Knee, Selma, My Lai, or 9/11…) can be just too much, and result in collapse into an anti-culture of the sardonic gesture . Aporia is profoundly challenging to the human ego.

Arundhati Roy, the distinguished Indian writer and activist, is among those today who help illuminate the mysterious “not altogether negative” aporia condition. She does this in such a way that can support us in living through and beyond the initial shock of aporia’s onset, into a way of life in which – in the words of the great post-modern visionary, Alfred North Whitehead’s – experience of the void transitions “from God the enemy to God the companion.“ When speaking of pandemic, Roy adopts the metaphor of “portal,” an opening through which we can pass from a sad and unhealthy world, into a new order of life with each other on this planet. She’s not talking about space colonization, AI, or VR, but about us, right here, a portal which is already present for us to find and declare. She is speaking of something human beings are capable of doing, and that is our amazing ability to live beyond adversity and into renewed life.  All it takes is recognizing the portal in our lives, that opening through which we can both give and receive the gift of thriving, and taking the absurd leap of life-affirmation.

January 31, 2022

Grand Rapids, MI

I want to mention that in 2021 I published a second edition of Overcoming America / America Overcoming, now with the subtitle “Reinventing Culture and Being at Home in the Age of Pandemic.” The new edition takes the original 2011 book as an artifact, one that can give us some perspective on what happened in that crucial decade between editions. It is interspersed with “From Pandemic” pieces and “Conversational Asides” which contribute to the relational quality of the book.

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