What does the dog see? Photo by David Taffet on Unsplash

What happened to the America I thought I lived in?

Grrrmp. Grrrr. Rrrrp. My dog, curled in his bed and completely swathed in a blanket, grumps at something without emerging or putting his full-volume bark into the project. I figure there’s a sound he can hear and I can’t, something he finds mildly threatening, but not enough to warrant leaving his comfortable cave. Garbage truck on a different street? A car door closing a few houses down? He thinks there’s something to complain about, but to me, the morning remains peaceful. Nothing strikes me as ominous or alarming. Is the danger he believes he’s perceiving real? Or is my sense that all’s right with our nearby world an accurate perception of reality?

The truth is harder to determine than you’d think. Although nothing cataclysmic turns out to be happening on this particular day, and the dog and I both go back to what we were doing (sleeping, reading), I know well enough that dogs hear and smell things that are simply imperceptible to humans. Their experience of reality is, in a way, sharper than mine. Dogs’ interpretation of sensory information is vastly different than mine, too, and that contributes to the disagreements that Rowlf and I have daily about the importance of sounds and smells, which direction we need to go on our walks, which pedestrians represent some sort of undefined threat. We live in the same world differently.

Determining what’s real and what’s not in America has come to be much more difficult than figuring out whether your dog’s anxiety about the stranger at your door is fake news or not.

Since even members of the same species experience the world and interpret it in wildly divergent ways depending on countless factors, from gender to culture to memory, the fact that humans have been able to form communities with shared, coherent cultures and values is pretty astonishing. Yet we’ve done it for a long time, and it’s something we rely on utterly in navigating the everyday demands of life.

Given the parameters of our human-canine relationship, Rowlf’s views about the world are easy enough to reconcile with mine (especially around dinnertime, when, it seems, everything is beautiful and all disagreement is forgotten), but if he were another human who could discuss his views with me, we might find ourselves in opposing philosophical camps. In (hypothetical) discussions about the validity of our interpretations of the world, we might end up confronting the question of whether our differing beliefs about the world actually represent different realities, and if so, whether those separate realities are bridgeable.

If that’s how it works, if my beliefs about the world create the reality I am, in some way, bound by, how can I reconcile my reality with that of others?

What if some majority of people around me believes in a very different sort of world than I do? I might, then, find the responses to and outcomes of the things I say and do to be surprising, unpredictable according to the structure of my own beliefs. What an alienating world that would be, and frightening, never knowing whether what seems logical to me will play out.

To avoid that alienation seems to be one of the primary functions of education, both academic and cultural. We gain much of our information about what is worth believing through our experiences, and through contact with other people. Thus, it makes sense that anyone who was socialized enough and taught a core of basic knowledge would understand how their community functioned. They would build, through childhood, a coherent sense of a shared reality, with largely consistent rules and values and expectations. They would feel as though they were looking out on the same world that their neighbors were, and while they’d expect to have some unique personal views and feelings regarding that reality, they’d also feel safe assuming that certain beliefs were common to everyone around them (background to this is a big chunk of Western philosophy, from Kant and Hegel to James and Dewey — start here for a brief overview).

But what if I woke up one day and found that what I thought were shared beliefs weren’t? Or weren’t anymore?

Now, with D***** T*****’s responses to the Mueller investigation and congressional testimony (among other things, he called it “a witch hunt” and a “ridiculous hoax”), his overtly racist verbal attacks on “the Squad,” and whatever BS he was spewing the day before that, all I can do is pinch myself. It’s not that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named-in-Chief is really doing anything different than he’s done since long before he was elected. It’s not that he isn’t doing very much what I would expect him to do: that is, the same as he has done, but even bolder, more damaging, and more damning. If that’s possible.

What feels different to me today, this week, and probably from now on, is that this behavior, this bad-faith betrayal of the fundamental, tacit agreement we humans enter into when we make a society out of our individual, separate selves, has gone on so long that it’s difficult to discern anymore what reality felt like when I trusted it more. The world in which a legitimate investigation is deemed a hoax and a witch hunt (and is effectively treated as such) because it serves the president who’s being investigated to say so, or in which elected representatives are treated as traitors to the republic by some portion of the electorate (“send her back”) simply because the swindler-in-chief blurts a sequence of unfounded assertions via Twitter is not a world I recognize.

I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna.

After all, my first memories of American politics, albeit dim and beyond my pre-school and elementary-school understanding, are associated with Nixon’s resignation, the Carter administration, and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. From Watergate to the Iran-Contra Affair, my early life was permeated by a sense of politics as immanently corrupt; it was always just a matter of time before the next fraudulent scheme or masterminding charlatan would be exposed. When I say I don’t recognize the current reality, I don’t mean that I’m surprised that people in power can lie or manipulate or abuse others successfully for quite some time before being discovered and brought to justice. I mean that I’m surprised that when such hustlers and con-artists are unmasked, they are lauded, cheered, and encouraged by the people they’ve snookered.

Hoaxes have been with us as long as culture has; when they’re revealed, they remind us how much we depend on each other to participate in a shared vision of reality without having to be forced in some way to do so. As William James put it in “The Will to Believe” (1896),

A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted.

Poet Kevin Young’s massive investigation of American hoaxes — Bunk: the rise of hoaxes, humbug, plagiarists, phonies, post-facts, and fake news (Graywolf Press, 2017) — points out the prevalence of what has recently been dubbed “fake news” throughout American history, and examines how frequently fraud is connected to race, whether the sleight of hand is blackface, fake foreigners banking on fabricated exoticism, or recently, Rachel Doleazel’s appropriation of black identity that went a bizarre step or two beyond blackface.

What I’m seeing in the daily news feels bewilderingly like a new and unfamiliar version of reality —

one in which a great many people aren’t interested in justice or fairness or equality, and instead seem deliriously happy at the prospect of a pantsing, mocking, humbugging, gloating, one-upping, lying, cheating, stealing, putting-the-losers-in-their-place kind of reality. But it could be that the world I thought I lived in derived from an interpretation of reality that was never as “normal” as I thought it was.

White supremacy, with all its attendant bigotries and hatreds, wasn’t buried fifty years ago and rediscovered by the current cohort of politicians like the ruins of an ancient sacrificial altar. It’s been right there, woven into the very structure of life in the U.S. all along, in our institutions and in our neighborhoods, in our language and literature and cinema. Cutthroat competition, vigilantism, misogyny, xenophobia, and the idea that violent might is the ultimate proof of righteousness have likewise been constant and pervasive features of American culture. Somehow, in my upbringing, I managed to believe in a version of reality in which those features were the disruptive, destructive forces that my rationally designed democratic republic was bent on containing, or, where possible, eliminating. I know I wasn’t the only person to take this message seriously. But I know now that it was not the only available interpretation of American reality, and that it might even have been a minority view.

The big question, the one I can’t answer yet, is what, if anything, can those of us who do not share the dream of a cruel, angry, violent, unjust, and inequitable society do to invite more people to participate in — to have faith in — something kinder, more inclusive, and less fearful?

When Rowlf-the-dog erupts in ear-splitting yodels at the doorbell, nothing, not even a treat nor my most calming tone of voice, can keep him from just barking it out until the “threat” is gone. At worst, it’s annoying.

America’s “barking it out” is a life-and-death matter. And I don’t know how to convince those who are sounding the alarm that the “threat” at the door, whether that’s immigrants, women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, or any other group or idea, won’t hurt us.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.