by Patrick Blanchfield
It’s OK to feel confused this time of year. Perhaps, depending on where you live, the weather seems a little disorienting, with spates of balmy sunshine upending your normal expectations of winter. Perhaps the displays and merchandise in stores in your area turned over to Christmas themes earlier than usual, or at odd intervals, resulting in a bewildering mishmash of cues as to which holidays Capitalism thinks everyone should be celebrating, or at least anticipating. Or perhaps Daylights Savings simply threw you for a loop you still haven’t gotten over. Our body clocks mark time not just by reference to the rising and setting of the sun, but by social cues scientists called zeitgebers – calendars, clocks, holidays, more. December in America, where temporality is attenuated by so many competing and overdetermined markers, is always a month when time can feel a little out of joint, a little dysphoric.
The signals coming from the bully pulpit of the highest office in the land aren’t helping. This past November’s National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony was the ninety-fifth Tree Lighting event since President Calvin Coolidge instituted the tradition. Yet to hear Trump tell it, the Presidential celebration of Christmas lapsed into obscurity long ago. As he told the Values Voters summit this past September, “You know, we’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore. They don’t use the word ‘Christmas’ because it’s not politically correct…Well, guess what? We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” Fulfilling his pledge of “stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values,” Trump, who says the Bible is his “favorite book” but has had a hard time saying anything specific about it (beyond that he likes the idea of an eye for an eye) officiated at what the White House’s press office described as “reviv[ing] the tradition’s religious spirit.” And he laid it on thick accordingly.
Of course, this is all nonsense – the only real faith at play here is bad. The narrative that previous administrations have been forces of anti-Christmas sentiment, like the idea of a “War on Christmas” itself, is a longstanding canard, just so much cheap culture war bait. Barack Obama, for one, wished Americans Merry Christmas all the time.
Trump’s particular fixation on his predecessor’s supposed lack of respect for the holiday has always been a transparent synecdoche for his broader program of insisting that America’s first black President was racially and religiously suspect. It’s never been subtle – as when, in 2011, Trump accused Obama of honoring Kwanzaa but ignoring Christmas (spoiler: Obama actually began his Christmas Tree Lighting that same year by wishing America Merry Christmas no less than two times in a row).
Who knows what Trump actually believes about Obama and Christmas. He’s still, it’s been reported, putting stock in birtherism (at least when talking to his confidants). But the paradox of Trump will always be that, for a man who appears to have no filters when it comes to broadcasting his internal monologue on Twitter, his actual interiority remains as impenetrable as the black box of an airplane wrecked miles beneath the ocean. His actions and beliefs will always exist in some indeterminate no-mans-land between grandiose self-delusion and cynical pandering. The more interesting question is what to make of the people whom he is pandering to, whose belief in an American Christianity under siege his fact-free utterances confirm and fuel, no matter how much fact-checking or even video tape evidence is provided to the contrary.
What’s at stake here is what the philosophers of science (drawing on the work of CS Peirce) would call the question of “fixation of belief” – the question, put crudely, of how we adjudicate evidence for our beliefs about the world, and how we decide what counts as evidence in the first place. Assessing the durable fixation of a belief (“Barack Obama Waged War on Christmas”) despite abundant evidence otherwise, two possible explanations suggest themselves (and they’re not mutually exclusive).
The first is to blame a poverty (or echo chamber) of evidence that is misleading or incomplete. Consuming “news” tailored to highly partisan audiences, this interpretation runs, people simply have never gotten the data about what Obama actually said or did. The matter, in other words, is about information silos, and a hermetic fracturing of information about a shared empirical world. In a moment of ever-more totalizing news market segmentation, this certainly is a problem.
But the more radical and more troubling prospect is that evidence really doesn’t matter – or rather, that what constitutes “evidence” is itself configured quite differently for people in different positions. What critics might offer as “evidence” to “correct” this putatively mistaken belief (that Obama ignored Christmas) takes the order of reasoning backwards. For some, Obama’s supposed anti-Christmas impiety isn’t a conclusion to be drawn from a stockpile of evidence; it is a conviction that evidence can only confirm, or that, at worst, exist as a supplement to. The evidence, in other words, merely proves the rule (“Obama didn’t celebrate Christmas, this video of him saying ‘Merry Christmas’ is just a sideshow”) or, even worse, underscores and expands it (“Obama didn’t celebrate Christmas, and this video of him saying it, when he clearly doesn’t mean it, is actually him disrespecting it even more”).
We enter here into a realm of what the Classicist and historian of Greek religion, Paul Veyne, would call “the realm of plural truths,” or “multiple truth-plans.” In his magisterial Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination, Veyne not only answers the eponymous question (yes, of course they did) but also unpacks the thornier question of how they believed in them. Veyne flags an obvious problem: the same Greeks whom Europeans so often praise as the inaugurators of Western Reason, the first creators of traditions of inquiry from geometry to philosophy to arithmetic, also seemed perfectly comfortable with talking, in a quite matter-of-fact way, about things that were decidedly unreasonable. And not just Zeus turning into a shower of gold to impregnate a princess, or a snake-haired Medusa transforming men into stone, but heroes – mortal men – standing ten feet tall, killing oxen with a single punch, and likewise. A Greek might admit that they had never seen Zeus or the Medusa, Veyne observes, and so could plead out of stipulating what might be plausible for their powers to entail, but they had certainly seen plenty of their fellow mortals, and knew from experience that none had powers such as these.
Rather than attributing to their belief in myths a merely figurative status, or seeing Greek authors as all hiding a secret skepticism, Veyne takes them at their word and postulates that, for the Greeks, their gods and superhuman heroes were real, as real as their everyday lives, but in way where those realities complemented and coexisted with each other rather than existing in contradictory tension. For the Greeks, Veyne writes:
[There existed] a horizon of collective memory a world that was even more beautiful than that of the good old days, too beautiful to be real. This mythical world was not empirical; it was noble. This is not to say that it incarnated or symbolized “values.” The heroic generations did not cultivate virtue any more than do the men of today, but they had more “value” than the men of today. A hero is more real than a man, just as, in Proust’s eyes, a duchess has more value than a bourgeoise.
Veyne, for his part, does not restrict this capacity for a fungible notion of reality to the Classical era; he sees it operating in his contemporaries in modern Europe. And with this in mind, we could also say that, for some Americans, a similar perspective holds. The “truth” of Obama’s failure to celebrate Christmas isn’t, for them, an empirical matter; it is an ignoble one. As a villain, he is more real than the person who appears in videos of him; he has more existential value and urgent meaning as an anti-Christian icon than he ever could as a flesh and blood man.
Our discourse does not, of course, like thinking about Americans’ perceptions of reality as being at once so straightforward and yet so alienated (and alienating). Suggesting the real-world, politically significant existence of simultaneous plural realities is the type of thing that gets one labeled a postmodern cultural relativist, a trainwreck of a label that will cause most people’s eyes to glaze over and a small, elite minority to go into conniptions.
The more common impulse is to, instead, speak in the quasi-pathologizing language of “derangement syndromes.” The conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer inaugurated this move back in 2003, describing what he called “Bush Derangement Syndrome.” Krauthammer defined Bush derangement syndrome as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency – nay – the very existence of George W. Bush.” One of the prominent Patient Zeros Krauthammer fingered as suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome was then-Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean, who had who had voiced (elliptically) an “interest” in supposed Saudi warnings to the Bush administration pre-9/11. Make what you will of Krauthammer’s mockery of Dean’s fuzzily conspiratorial suspicions, which crudely refracted what remains a murky chapter in US-Saudi relations. But Krauthammer also used the idea of Bush Derangement Syndrome to discredit, among others, journalists and commentators like Bill Moyers – a move which now looks transparently sleazy. Indeed, while in 2003 Krauthammer dismissed Moyers as “ranting,” events since then have proven Moyer’s skepticism about the Iraq war entirely justified, and his warnings about a “right-wing wrecking crew” now seem downright prescient. Krauthamer’s piece may not have aged well, but since it proved an effective rhetorical cudgel, the concept of a “derangement syndrome” stuck. Indeed, under the Obama years, takes about Obama derangement syndrome were ubiquitous, even though a running theme seemed to be trying to talk around how many Americans simply despised Obama because he was black. You can find “Trump Derangement Syndrome” takes around now, too – in no small part because, whatever its status as a nosological category, Trump himself seems to still suffer from an acute case. The hothouse ecology that is early twenty-first century American political life seems to be a petri dish for such maladies.
But glib diagnostics of “derangement syndromes” aside, the distressing problem of what to make of our coexistence in a nation of plural realities – some shared, some opposed, some complementary – abides. It is a queasy feeling to realize that, mutatis mutandis, your disgust or antipathy for the current President may be just as intense, as visceral, and as taxing as your political opponent’s feelings towards the previous one. Your hate may be the one that’s pure, as Alexander Cockburn would famously put it, but this is grim consolation when taken in context. Indeed, it may well be that the function of American politics now consists precisely in mobilizing such feelings of all-consuming intense partisan hatred in four-and-eight year cycles of triumph and exhaustion, the better to perpetuate an underlying state of affairs which we would rather not confront. Which suggests, beyond the debates and debunking, and beneath the seasonal and temporal dysphoria, a deeper consensus, and a longer-term trajectory. Because after the dust from this latest round of nonsense over the war on Christmas has settled, we will enter yet another year of an America at endless, and very real, war.
Political Feelings is about political affect and the politics of affect in America. You can read previous installments here.
Patrick Blanchfield was the 2016-2017 Henry R. Luce Initiative in Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Religion and Media at NYU. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com and is on Twitter as @patblanchfield.
Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.