Political Organisms

by Jason Tougaw

My ears perked up when I read that Barack Obama was talking to his daughters about what it means to think about humans (and voters) as organisms. New York Magazine‘s Gabriella Paiella asked him what he tells his daughters about the election of Donald Trump:

“What I say to them is that people are complicated,” Obama told me. “Societies and cultures are really complicated … This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop … You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”

It’s messy. I think what he’s saying is that our biology expresses itself in culture–and vice versa. We may all have “flare-ups of bigotry,” emerging from our bodies. We’re responsible for the flare-ups. We might have to vanquish them. Notice the President’s rhetorical stance here. His language suggests we’re all organisms, all part of the problem and the solution, culpable and redeemable. Sort of like characters in Jane Austen.

Or Ralph Ellison. In 2008, David Samuels wrote in the New Republic about the influence of  Ellison’s Invisible Man on The President. Interestingly, the novel opens with a description of its protagonist as a human organism:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

Ellison’s narrator is flesh, bone, fiber, and liquids–the materials of self. He is also a person with a mind others can’t see. They project images onto him. Some of the projections stick, particularly in a novel about the foundation of racism upon with the United States is built. President Obama is, like all of us, flesh, bone, fiber, and liquids. As our first African American President, he’s experienced his share of our projections times a zillion.

I think the President is talking about humans as organisms in order to ask us to check our projections–and to be a little forgiving of each other’s fiber and liquids. Voting in Donald Trump was a mistake, and now the President asks his daughters to take responsibility for that, to fight for kindness, respect, and understanding. The fight will take many forms, and those forms will depend on what happens in terms of policy. The rhetoric matters, but it can be really distracting.

I think The President is also asking us to consider how the rhetoric enfolds us. I think he’s reminding us of one of the lessons we university professors impress on our students: Avoid generalizations.

White workers feel neglected. Feminists failed Hilary Clinton. African Americans are disenchanted with the Democratic Party. Anybody who voted for Trump is racist. Millennials want revolution. Bernie Sanders supporters are naive. Latino voters will clinch it for Clinton. The media is biased (in whatever direction). Americans are worse than we thought. Americans are the greatest people on earth. 

Claims about groups of people–as monoliths–are swirling in American culture just now. They are headlines and topic sentences and tweets. They scare and dishearten. They compel people to project each other through mirrors of hard, distorting glass. I could reel off a dozen reasons I believe electing Donald Trump was a serious mistake, but you’ve heard these already. What I won’t do is hypothesize about why it happened. I don’t know. I do know that voters are organisms too. Organisms change in response to their environment. Human organisms recoil when they see projections of themselves that look like caricature. Recoiling is a pause in the preparation for battle. In the case of our current political divides, these are often petty, circular battles on social media.

I guess what I’m saying, following The President’s lead, is that we’re more likely to create an environment conducive to respect and understanding if we avoid the generalizations (and name calling). It’s hard for billions of people to figure out how to organize the world so we may live together with some semblance of justice. We don’t do a great job. Justice tends to elude us. When we achieve it, it’s partial–and often leads to new forms of injustice. The institutions in Invisible Man–schools, activist organizations, neighborhoods, factories–are all flawed. They are made by people (well, characters) who have at best partial understandings of the motives and actions that ooze from their fiber and liquid bodies, through their minds, and all over other people.

I don’t think we understand ourselves or the culture we share any better than the characters in Invisible Man do. But we are all narrating the culture, in our daily lives, through our work, on our social media. I think it’s worth seeing what happens if we resist generalizations and monolithic thinking. What might the culture become if we do?

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