November 30, 2017

Chaos: The New Normal


Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, “Plate 43 from ‘Los Caprichos’: The sleep of reason produces monsters (El sueño de la razon produce monstruos),” (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Lynn Sherr on why we need #ThisIsNotNormal


By Lynn Sherr / 11.14.2017


In life, just like closets, the enemy is chaos.

Even our most mundane mess — clumps of mismatched shoes on the floor, tangles of unworn shirts falling off hangers, layers of ancient bills on the desk, weeks of forgotten wanna-do’s in the corners of your mind — can be unsettling. Debilitating. Depressing. Thus, the success of super-organizer Marie Kondo, whose passion for housekeeping is existential, with its promise that tidying up can transform your spirit and get your life back on track. “I found the opposite of happiness is not sadness,” one of her newly freed followers explains. “It’s chaos.”

Which brings us to Donald Trump.

One year after the federal election process was upended by some combination of deluded voters and devious Russians; nearly 10 months after Trump turned the White House into a graveyard for truth, civility and intelligence; his ruinous romp through our institutions, our policies, our history, our freedom, our language and, yes, our souls, has littered the American landscape with far more than a messy wardrobe. Pick his most egregious slur — toward Muslims or Mexicans or members of the press, or women in general, or John McCain specifically; parse his most idiotic jumble of words; question his blatant corruption of democracy into kleptocracy. The hashtag on Twitter is #ThisIsNotNormal. The national anxiety level is trending upward. Because we are engulfed, in a phrase, in primordial chaos.

“It’s a void, a complete void, where nothing makes any sense,” explains classical scholar Mary Lefkowitz, Professor Emerita at Wellesley College, where she once taught me to cherish the words and wisdom of the ancient Greeks. I have turned to her for help in understanding this insidious phenomenon, an appeal to time-honored words and reason in an attempt to re-establish some order at this distinctly disordered time. She points me to Hesiod, the 8th-century BC poet whose mythic cosmology was the first, and most quoted, in that era.

“He was one of the main sources for understanding religion,” Lefkowitz tells me, citing Hesiod’s Theogony, where the word, and condition — “chaos” — appears for the first time. It’s the same root as “chasm,” because in the beginning, he is saying, there was an abyss of emptiness. The starkness is jolting; I appreciate, once again, the wisdom of the ancients in describing our worldly condition. The yawning gap of Hesiod’s cosmology precisely captures the mind of our president.

Hesiod goes on to chronicle the appearance of Zeus and his cronies, who magically appear to fill the void and then set up their own dysfunctional cosmos. Later, in another poem, “Works and Days,” Hesiod describes a time of human turmoil, when men “praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing.” When “Strength will be right, and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him.” And when “the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.”

“That seems like the kind of chaos we’re in now,” Lefkowitz says. “No justice, no order, no cure. It may be the end of humankind.”

I ask her why it matters what Hesiod wrote 2,800 years ago.

“Because the Greeks understood very clearly human frailties,” she says. “They understood the limits of understanding. And sometimes they’re right.”

Hesiod wasn’t the only one, of course, to warn us about Trump’s disruptive nature. Jeb Bush sounded the alarm in a December debate during the primary campaign, when he called Trump “a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president. He would not be the commander-in-chief to keep our country safe.”

Republican Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) buttoned the charge last month when he portrayed the president as a dim and dangerous force, saying only several members of Trump’s team “help separate our country from chaos.”

In fairness, anyone who didn’t get the message long before that was just not paying attention. Toxic Trump adviser Steve Bannon made no secret of his surprisingly Marxist-rooted desire to overturn the government, for the “creative destruction” of tearing down to rebuild. As in Trump’s eagerness to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. Problem is, he had nothing with which to replace it, or anything else — at least nothing either sensible or acceptable.

And never mind Chaos Theory — the scientific acceptance, over the past four decades, of a fuzzier cosmos than the orderliness and predictability of natural and human-made systems. It stands light years beyond the intellect or grasp of Donald Trump, for whom science is yet another alien language.

“He’s given chaos a bad name,” says author and science historian James Gleick, whose bestselling book Chaos describes the jolt to the scientific world when it started finding patterns in disorder. Suddenly, he tells me, “chaos became a kind of positive thing. There was something liberating, something freeing — it meant science could be comfortable with disorder, and with unpredictability. It led to all kinds of new things.”

But Trump?

“He’s the bull in the china shop,” Gleick explains. “He’s breaking rules, breaking norms, disregarding laws created by human society, and is there anything scientific to say about that? I don’t think so.”

I ask whether there is any parallel to Trump’s chaos and scientific breakthroughs. “Look, science stole the word because it’s kind of sexy and cool” Gleick says. “And the idea of a ‘science of chaos’ struck people as a contradiction in terms. But they found something hopeful in chaos, they found opportunity, creativity. They found something useful in being able to make the laws of science a bit more flexible, made them more powerful.

“Trump’s breaking all that. What he has done is return us to the abyss, to helter-skelter, disorder, turbulence, lawlessness, all of the things that made chaos something to be avoided.”

So our anxiety intensifies, as a litany of frustration grows under the hashtag #chaos on Twitter. Laurence Tribe, the distinguished Harvard Law School constitutional scholar, recently responded with a wry addition to the natural world: “The forces of chaos have an unfair advantage. It’s the fourth law of thermodynamics.”

There are really only three Laws of Thermodynamics. Chaos wrecks everything.

So the rivers continue to flow backward (ancient Greece again; this time from Euripides’ “Medea,” a relentless tragedy about the very darkest side of human nature), a sure sign of global chaos. And I keep trying to make sense of it all. In a recent and fine piece about a trauma surgeon treating the victims of the shootings in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the reporter described the injuries caused by high-velocity bullets. They “mimic an explosion,” she wrote, “sending powerful shock waves into surrounding tissue as they travel through the body. That’s war.”

I think that also perfectly captures the psychic fallout from chaos: endless anguish and angst in a civilization more attuned to rational arguments than unhinged blather.

Last year, reflecting on the fallout from Trump’s descent down the escalator into the first circle of the hell he would produce, I found a parallel to his demagoguery in the 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, where the struggle between order and chaos took place on an unnamed island, with a villainous cohort of English schoolboys.

The dark side won there, too.

Like many who hope for a brighter, or saner, or, at least, less chaotic future, I am cheered by the results of last Tuesday’s election, hopeful that there is, indeed, light at the end of this tunnel. I got my best sleep in a year that night.

And then I woke up, and Trump spread his poison in Asia. And we were reminded that nothing comes more directly from the Putin playbook than chaos and confusion.

This is not normal.

But we can plan. Marie Kondo tells those who want to clean up their closets, their homes, their ways of life, that they should surround themselves only with things that bring them joy. “Let me share with you the secret of success,” she concludes. “Start by discarding.”

Works for me.


Originally published by BillMoyers.com under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.

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