I use Feedly to aggregate stories from about 80 publications, ranging from The New Yorker to Neatorama. On any given day, I scan 200 or 300 stories from this news feed. I select 50 or 60 of these stories to “Read Later” and use IFTTT to post them automatically to the Reading Room of my Jeremiadus website. The website currently archives nearly 9,000 stories, on pretty much any subject you can imagine, under the broad umbrellas of politics, science, literature, philosophy, and culture.
One would think the breadth of this feed would extend even beyond the prehensile reach of Donald Trump. But one would be wrong. Of these 9,000 stories, nearly 3,000 reference Trump somewhere in the article. This Trump tilt is not the result of my own selection bias. If anything, my instinct is to choose stories that eschew, ignore, abrogate, elide, defenestrate, and abandon Donald Trump. And yet there he is.
Today, Feedly launched a “mute” feature, allowing users to filter any word or term from their news feed. I “muted” Donald Trump and Feedly “banned” 1,300 recent articles from the publications I track. My world instantly lightened.
Trump is batshit crazy. We know this. But the weight slipping from my shoulders and from my mind has little do with his deranged clown act. The political antics of the Keystone Cop Republicans aren’t really even the source of my distress. The problem is that any time a story invokes Trump and the creepy dementors he has unleashed upon us, we all become rubber-necking assholes craning our necks and bugging our eyes to get the best view possible of the carnage unfolding on the road beside us. We become vampiric, pustule-sucking warlocks, slurping the toxins, getting off on the whole sordid mess.
There is nothing redeemable about the situation. Trump dirties himself daily, but of course our tragedy as a nation is that he dirties all of us. He brings us to our knees. How are we to think about this?
In the 21st century, we lead accidental lives. We appreciate the randomness of existence, but succumb to this randomness, rather than making use of it. We are overwhelmed by noise and can locate no signal. We are awash in images and words, with no ability to parse their meaning, to source them to an underlying reality about which we can (mostly) agree (most of the time). These images and words themselves, recursively, constitute their own reality, a slipstream that pulls us further away from each other, and from ourselves, until our shouts are merely echoes, globules of emotion, randomly firing synapses, ejaculations of judgment.
Fuck you! … fuck you! … haha … haha …
Trump is obviously a fully accidental species of human, a cratering self-inebriate, careening from one random moment to the next. He is a walking, talking meme. Entirely noise. Entirely unparseable. He truly doesn’t matter, because he possesses no meaning beyond himself. If he were to disappear, we would never miss him, but in the meantime he is all we can think about. So I am thrilled to be able to mute this deranged, minimally human person from my life.
We don’t need to agree about what is true. We only need to agree about what is false.
Consider the drunken sailor of random walk fame, whose problematic journey home inspires the mathematics underlying basic probability and resolves itself empirically in the fibrillations we associate with Brownian motion. Our challenge politically – and it is always a challenge but one now amplified to the nth degree by the random behaviors and speech irruptions of Donald Trump – is our compulsion to locate agency, and causation, in the actions of individuals. We are responsible for ourselves, a truism that has become ontological – we only know we exist because we believe we have free will and that we can own, understand, and account for our thoughts and actions as individuals. Cogito ergo sum.
Leaving aside for the moment the internally dubious merits of this Cartesian formula, the 21st extension of its logic has led us to a place where what we know about ourselves as thinking, acting individuals presumes no access to or understanding of what others know about themselves. Which sticks us in the middle of the radically subjective shit storm that has allowed Donald Trump to commandeer the ship of state. We each travel alone, in darkness. Meaningless beyond ourselves. And so free to judge without standards and without consequence.
But randomness is not the problem. Randomness is, in fact, the solution. Because, of course, truth emerges probabilistically. Form is itself the product of thousands and millions of inebriate movements. Meaninglessness resolves itself into meaning via randomness. Truth and causation will always remain elusive, but with a focus on the actions, not of single individuals, but of thousands and millions of individuals, we can make sense of our policy choices less subjectively, less reactively, less reductively and with a more humble sense of our individual cogito-ing selves in relation to the transpersonal dynamics of populations and of ecosystems, which are forever contingent and in flux.
The current healthcare debate illustrates the choices and the stakes of the decision to embrace risk, uncertainty, and randomness – as the idea of insurance itself, and the much-maligned but indispensable discipline of actuarial science, tell us we must. The Republican health care legislation backed by Trump obviously has nothing to do with actuarial science and population health (which would make single-payer a no-brainer) and everything to do with crude Old Testament impulses to reward and punish according to the code of the vendetta and to extract the pound of flesh as one would the barrel of oil or the lump of coal.
Which returns us to the drunken sailor of yore, whose journey is poignantly asymptotic. On his own, we know from probability theory, the inebriate sailor’s odds of returning home may be slim to none. But with a population of thousands or millions of drunken sailors, we can reliably predict how many will find their homes again, and at what intervals, without knowing for sure which specific sailors they will be. A profound and soothing thought.
With my Feedly mute feature, I can erase Donald Trump, misanthropic carnival barker who cannot leave home. Public welfare issues that matter in politics remain for me to ponder, clarified and restored by his absence.