As I write this, more than a quarter of the way around the world, Donald Trump’s presidency is penetrating the history books. There are no ways I can think of to condemn Trump that have not already been tried, no criticisms that have not been made manifold.
If we may cautiously poke whatever bright side exists on this rather tarnished moment in human history, it is in the return by necessity of a critical media. Shameful though it is that many publications and outlets deserted their posts in the warm glow of the election of first black president, the election of Trump seems to have brought at least some journalists back from their stupor.
That said, this also means a rise in pieces such as this one. There is a tendency among writers to portray political tumult as a clash between opposing forces. Inevitably the force with which the author sympathises is the light and its opponent the darkness. The twilight between them is the battlefield, the election campaign and so on.
Our arts are filled with this sort of imagery. It is easy and evocative. It appeals to our most primal instincts. We all know to be afraid of the dark. In its simplicity is its power.
But on this one instance I think it’s necessary to sheath Occam’s Razor for a moment and contemplate a seemingly more complex shorthand for good and evil.
There is a danger to our constant references to villainy of the dark. It separates ‘us’ from evil. There is now a good distance between us and evil; the twilight an effective barrier. When we denounce our foes as members of this shadow we condemn ourselves to the misapprehension of the righteous. We ignore the real origin of evil.
That is not to suggest that there no such thing as genuine darkness. In human terms that darkness is best described as a variety of nihilism(s). The absence of and opposition to the very idea of principle is impossible to combat without, well, combat. We see symptoms of this in those madmen who shoot into crowds in the US to whom political purpose cannot be attached. We see this in the ignorant jihadist, who doesn’t know why he kills, or for whom, only that he will be rewarded as a martyr. These darkness’ can only ever be fought and fought until its elimination.
To claim that the current surge of popular faith in authority, strength and rage is symptomatic of the same darkness is misguided at best and clearly false as an observation. At worst it blinds us to a very elementary truth. Good and evil are not binary. Darkness is not evil. Light is not good. To stretch a metaphor perhaps too far, if darkness is the domain of the madman then it must be us who occupy the fire. Us. Those who act with some (however misguided) moral purpose.
It is not often discussed how readily and drastically we romanticize humanity. Virtues are ‘human’ and the worst vice ‘inhuman’. Surely it would be a far more sensible claim that both are equally human. Doing so should not be taken as an endorsement of wrongdoing.
If we are to recognize the humanity of evil, then we must also recognize where darkness fails to explain evil. What we think of as evil today: Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China and perhaps Trump’s America, are not forces of darkness but of flame.
Like those revolutionaries and radicals currently in retreat around the world who pursue a variety of Utopias, Trump supporters are very easily spotted by their passion, their now palpable anger at the direction of recent history.
Perhaps then the danger is not in the darkness. Perhaps our future concern ought to be directed at the fire. Because the right (or in fact, wrong) demagogue can seize upon an unattended flame and burn all of our works to the ground. Everything must then be in moderation. Passion and fury are compelling fuels for justice and liberty and all the forces of good. But they can, at the drop of a pretense, fuel every goods opposite.
This acknowledgement is difficult. It requires that we stop demonizing our opposition and attempt to recognize our common humanity. Flawed primates that we are, we are certainly not the best candidates for a civil society, nor will the process of forming one be a peaceful or altogether calm affair. But we cannot abandon it now. We must keep the fires burning so that we may someday learn to control them.