Bad Faith

Jean Paul Sartre, an existentialist philosopher/playwright/novelist, wrote a rather large book titled Being and Nothingness — which pretty much covers everything. Much of the book is unreadable, but buried somewhere within he has a description of what he called “Bad Faith” which is truly brilliant. He asks us to imagine a waiter in a cafe holding the tray “just so” and dodging through the tables to wait on his customers. If we watch him carefully we will realize that he is playing  at being a waiter! That’s Bad faith, and Sartre was convinced that we all do it to one degree or another. Instead of being our authentic selves, we assume a role and the play it out.

Donald Trump is a case in point. In spades.  A blogger named Erik Hare who blogs under the name  “Barataria” is convinced that we are beginning to see signs that the man suffers from a serious mental illness, as demonstrated in a recent press conference:

After a press conference today the problem at hand should be obvious to absolutely everyone – the President has a severe mental illness. Nothing else matters at this point. There will be many sentences written, many hours of panel discussions, and hundreds of Facebook posts shared going around this simple and obvious fact. But like the vast majority of our politics, it will be irrelevant. . . .

It doesn’t take too much of the press conference to see the issue plainly. The most common quote which we will be hearing through the next few news cycles will resonate almost as well as Kelly Ann Conway’s infamous “alternative facts” statement.

“The leaks are absolutely real, the news is fake, because so much of the news is fake.”

How is this evidence of mental illness? It starts with the delivery of this line with a perfectly straight face. It runs through the follow-up which will last for days and days. Leaks, a feature of the paranoia of every President, are an understandable problem. What is different here is that they are interfering with an alternative reality that cannot be questioned in any way.. . .
Like many people with a severe mental illness, deep inside Trump understands there is a problem. The problem with leaks is not that they reveal his words or actions to the American people but that they reveal Donald Trump to Donald Trump.

According to Sartre the person himself or herself often doesn’t know they are playing a role. They  simply adopt a pose and carry on. When, in this case, a reality TV show host and self-proclaimed business tycoon gradually realizes he is playing a role and is in way over his head he may begin to panic. I suspect this is what is happening with Trump. He is simply unable to play the role he has fallen into (and I choose that phrase carefully as I don’t believe for a moment that he thought he would ever be elected. Neither did anyone else!).

The man’s attacks against the media, especially of late, are a clear sign that those folks are not giving him the positive feedback his fragile ego requires, the applause he expects or demands. His choices for cabinet positions also reflect his desire to have around him people of even lesser ability than himself, people who will give him the praise he requires, who will not upstage him, who will somehow allow him to continue to play the role he now finds himself in: the head of the most powerful nation on earth.

But, as Erik says, this man lives in an alternative reality. That’s what Bad Faith id all about: what is real and what is not. I am not a psychiatrist so I cannot predict what will probably or almost certainly happen. However, this is an extreme case of “Bad Faith” and I can easily imagine that he will show increasing signs of paranoia as he slowly realizes that he is not cut out to be president and the whole thing was a dreadful mistake. He is asked to play a role and simply doesn’t know his lines.

The Meaning of Life

Alexei Kirillov in Dostoevsky’s The Demons insists that people don’t commit suicide because of the fear of pain. I suspect the fear of the unknown plays a part as well. Dante, in strict accordance with Catholic dogma at the time, places the suicides in the seventh circle of his Hell where they take the form of thorny bushes tormented by Harpies who eat away at them, causing them untold pain. They have denied their bodily form in life and are therefore denied human form in Hell. Sartre somewhere says that the meaning of life consists in asking ourselves from time to time why we don’t commit suicide. Perhaps it is the fear — of pain, the unknown, or the possibility of becoming a thorny bush tormented by Harpies.

For my own part I am convinced that, given the unfettered greed and sheer stupidity of a significant portion of the human race, there is a large probability that one way or the other the planet on which we depend will not survive — a likelihood that increases daily with the crowding human population, the manufacture of every new nuclear bomb, the next outrageous comment from the mouth of a politician, the determination of so many of us to settle our differences through violence. I find myself, like Sisyphus, living in an absurd world in which we all move huge boulders up the hill only to have them roll to the bottom each time, demanding that we start again. Despite all this, (as Camus admonishes me to do ), I imagine Sisyphus  to be happy.

I am also happy in spite of the above absurdities and bleak prognostications, because I have determined in my old age that happiness does not consist in how much money one has, the power or status he or she may have achieved, but in the small things that surround us and invite our delight. I speak of the Monarch butterfly that miraculously finds its way to Central America each year, the white-tail deer that disappears in the distance, leaping effortlessly over the log, the returning smile of the little girl in the store as I smile and wave at her, the quiet moments with my wife of more than fifty years as we sit together in the evenings and watch British mysteries and play the “I know her” game — “wasn’t she the one….?”

Moreover, despite the fact that there are so many people that are, let us face it, wicked and self-serving — and stupid enough to think that a man bloated and blinded by his own self-love can save the world — there are good people who want to do the right thing. Each in his or her small way seeks to make a difference and face life’s uncertainties with optimism, hope, and inner strength. Some of these people write blogs and I read them and find myself also filled with hope. Others gather together and wave their fists at injustice and wickedness. Others quietly and out of view, take care of the sick and wounded, animals as well as humans. Yet others paint and sing to reveal to us the world around his that we have tried to shut out.

In a word, the meaning of life — to use that ponderous and even pompous phrase — consists in the small things that surround us, the things we ignore as we go about our daily business of increasing our security and our pleasure. It consists in hanging onto the thread of hope woven by the beauty and goodness that exists all around us — if only we take the time and trouble to pause, perceive, and reflect.

One Disturbed Texan

You really have to admire Steve Stockman’s enthusiasm even though you might want to question his knowledge of American history and the Constitution. Steve is a recently elected Republican member of the House of Representatives from the great state of Texas — you remember Texas? It wanted to secede from the Union after Barack Obama was reelected to the Presidency. The White House was required to respond to the petition and they said “No.” Pity! In any event now Steve wants to impeach the President because he has suggested that he might want to evoke executive privilege to curb violence in this country.

The story begins with Steve’s rant against the president’s outrageous suggestion:

“I will seek to thwart this action by any means necessary, including but not limited to eliminating funding for implementation, defunding the White House, and even filing articles of impeachment,” Stockman pledged. “The president’s actions are an existential threat to this nation. The right of the people to keep and bear arms is what has kept this nation free and secure for over 200 years. The very purpose of the Second Amendment is to stop the government from disallowing people the means to defend themselves against tyranny. Any proposal to abuse executive power and infringe upon gun rights must be repelled with the stiffest legislative force possible.”

Let’s take this slowly, pausing for breath — which is a pause Mr. Stockman apparently forgot to take. The President’s actions are said to be an “existential threat to this nation.” What, precisely, does that mean? It sounds like it might have come from Sartre or one of the other beat thinkers in the 1950s, but I doubt that Steve ever read those folks. He apparently hasn’t read his history either. In any event, I gather Steve thinks the country is endangered by the President’s threat to evoke executive privilege. He must be unaware that whatever steps President Obama takes to curb the violence in this country will be very small indeed, since it will require legislation to take giant steps and the Congress is the legislative body in this country — and not likely to do much of anything about gun control.

It’s not at all clear from what history I have read that the Second Amendment — which was adopted in 1791, fifteen years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted and almost ten years after the end of the revolutionary war — has been instrumental in “keeping this nation free for nearly 200 years.” I would have thought it was the Army, Navy, and Marines that did that, fighting wars on foreign soil with the loss of thousands of American lives, and not the militia at home with their muskets as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

It is true that the Founders were concerned about tyranny, but they saw that danger coming from across the pond, not from the head of our government here on this continent. And it is not clear how this president, or any president for that matter, could become a tyrant given the checks and balances that have been written into the Constitution. In fact, if you look at the list of nineteen things the president might do to curb violence in this country after the massacre at Sandy Hook, they seem fairly innocuous — and largely ineffective I dare say. And the President hasn’t even said he would take any of those steps. Steve seems to be overreacting.

One of the few steps the NRA and its Republican supporters are in favor of in the way of reducing violence in this country is better mental health coverage. This is an excellent idea and it is certainly something that people like Representative Stockman will want to take advantage of at their earliest convenience.

The Tebow Phonomenon

Jean Paul Sartre wrote a lot of nonsense, including some bad plays and novels; but every now and again he came up with a brilliant insight. The most brilliant, in my view, is his notion of mauvais foi, or “bad faith.” In Being and Nothingness he develops the idea in interesting ways, though in my view he overstates his case: We watch the waiter in the restaurant, the jaunty way he carries the tray, the way he greets the patrons with a smile, the way he sets the plates before them, etc. We suddenly become aware he is playing at being a waiter! That’s bad faith, it’s what we might call pretense, or playing a role. Sartre was convinced we all do it to hide from the fact that we are totally free (we are not waiters, or teachers, or bankers, or whatever: we are free, in fact defined  by our total freedom, and therefore responsible for all the evil in the world. As I say, I think he overstates his case). But the notion of bad faith is a seminal notion and one does become aware of it pretty much everywhere — even in one’s own behavior at times.

When one sees Tim Tebow (about whom way too much has been said and written, but here I go) one suspects right away he also exemplifies bad faith. He is playing a role: pretending to be a man of faith, posturing, leading players on both sides of the line of scrimmage in prayer, genuflecting after the game (which pundits say will henceforth be known as “Tebowing”), and the like. Kids around the country are imitating him. His every movement, when he is not actually playing the game of football, seems to be role-playing. His post-game interviews show him as uncomfortable in the spotlight, with an “aw-shucks” kind of innocence. Surely this is all staged? He’s too good to be true, or so it seems.

I have come to think not, however. I am put off by his in-your-face-faith, it’s a bit too much for my taste. But I do believe he is the real deal. Some of his charitable work also seems a bit staged — visits to churches, schools and prisons. But when the man gave away his signing bonus of $2.5 million to various charities worldwide focusing on genuine needs, such as famine, education, and home building, it was time to cast doubt aside, especially when so many wealthy athletes are spending their money on trinkets or getting another tattoo.

Because I think Tebow is the genuine article, I applaud him for it. It’s a rare commodity these days, and in a sport where so many players are given to violence on and off the field, and where there seems to be a felon hiding behind every goal post, it is refreshing to think there is a player, at least one, whose life is governed by love of his fellow man. I would even go so far as to hope that he is really the genuine article in the game itself: a real star. He certainly knows how to win. He sputters for three quarters and then seems to find a way to win (kind of reminds me of the old Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordon, though they didn’t sputter, they coasted). One cannot argue with his record at this point. And it would be good to see the talking heads on ESPN eat crow. They all, to a man, said he was flawed as a quarterback, his technique is all wrong, he can’t keep calling his own number because his body will not hold up, he makes bad reads, he’ll never make it in the NFL, etc. etc. Yet he keeps winning, and the nay-sayers are scrambling to find something else to say about him.

So, in the end, let’s hope he keeps winning (that his body does hold up, though that’s a good point) and that the “experts” will once again be proved wrong. There are many ways to play the game of football — as there are in any sport — and just because a man or a woman doesn’t fit the mold doesn’t mean they can’t be good at what they do. And Tebow, let’s face it, is good at what he does. He seems to be the genuine article, like it or not.