Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Our American Podsnap

Since Trump captured the presidency of the United States (you could not say he won by any merit of his own, and in fact Hilary Clinton has now a significant lead in the popular vote), I've been wondering if there was a literary clue to the reasons for this mess.

Well, Dickens has a word for part of it: Podsnappery.

There are, of course, many reasons for this distressing loss, many of them deplorable: resurgent white nationalism, racism, misogyny, and plain bigotry, the failure of neoliberalism on the political left and right, and these things are deeply enmeshed. But given that the US electoral system gives undue weight to votes in certain states, we must surely look to the edge cases, the margins, to detect the reasons for the swings on both sides, and here Dickens presents us with Podsnappery.

I have wondered why voters in a democracy, furnished not just with the facts and opinion of the media, but with the candidate's own words, could make a decision so fatal to the interests of the nation, not to mention the world. Some of them, poor, white, not college educated and rural, mired in the slow decay of their living standards and education, weary of false hope, were yet grasping at political straws. But a good many were neither poor nor disadvantaged, and the question is how against all good reason they could vote for a less than competent property speculator, TV star, and populist, with a taste for commercial fraud, insults, sexual assault, and unrepentant lying. The answer is: Podsnappery.

Merriam-Webster helpfully defines Podsnappery as: "an attitude toward life marked by complacency and a refusal to recognize unpleasant facts."

So Dickens describes Mr. Podsnap, the namesake of this attitude:
Mr Podsnap was well to do, and stood very high in Mr Podsnap's opinion. Beginning with a good inheritance, he had married a good inheritance, and had thriven exceedingly in the Marine Insurance way, and was quite satisfied. He never could make out why everybody was not quite satisfied, and he felt conscious that he set a brilliant social example in being particularly well satisfied with most things, and, above all other things, with himself.
Thus happily acquainted with his own merit and importance, Mr Podsnap settled that whatever he put behind him he put out of existence. There was a dignified conclusiveness--not to add a grand convenience--in this way of getting rid of disagreeables which had done much towards establishing Mr Podsnap in his lofty place in Mr Podsnap's satisfaction. 'I don't want to know about it; I don't choose to discuss it; I don't admit it!' Mr Podsnap had even acquired a peculiar flourish of his right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems, by sweeping them behind him (and consequently sheer away) with those words and a flushed face. For they affronted him.
Here we have, I think, the refusal to recognize Trump for what he is, a serial liar, a privileged set of failures in search of validation. In the fortress of his (and her) satisfaction, the American Podsnap can safely ignore inconvenient facts, like Trump's contempt for facts, his shady dealings, his praise for tyrants, his promotion of cronies and bigots, the advantages his schemes will confer on the already wealthy, while forcing the nation further into debt. The American Podsnap can ignore sexism and racism. The American Podsnap can ignore the harms that Trump's position on taxes and healthcare will inflict on the poor.

Many have sought change in the American political system, but many of those in positions of privilege who nevertheless choose Trump are content to invoke change for it's own sake, with no thought of the consequences to the world, or others. The issues are swept behind them, so many exaggerations, mean words and tweets, the inconvenience of human rights, inequality and globalization, climate change, mere unpleasantries.
Mr Podsnap's world was not a very large world, morally; no, nor even geographically: seeing that although his business was sustained upon commerce with other countries, he considered other countries, with that important reservation, a mistake, and of their manners and customs would conclusively observe, 'Not English!' when, PRESTO! with a flourish of the arm, and a flush of the face, they were swept away.
It remains to be seen what else may be swept away in the wake of a Trump administration -- and what may be recovered afterwards. The last thing to do now is lose faith in democracy or the virtues of the republic. But what Dickens returned to, from Bleak House to Our Mutual Friend, is that society is not singular, and that the Podsnaps cannot isolate themselves in their small worlds from injustice or folly. Perhaps now we need the novelist's satire to pierce their complacency, before that reckoning is due.

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