What happens when The Discourse loses its flavor?
The conservative Baptist church I grew up in had a little ceremony on a Sunday evening every summer when the students who had been in the junior high youth group moved up to the high school youth group. As part of the ceremony, each newly-minted high schooler received a Bible inscribed with a verse the youth group leaders had selected specifically for that student. No two students got the same verse; the leaders chose what they felt was uniquely applicable to each student.
Here’s the one they picked for me:
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
I often took this verse as a warning against failing to live out my Christian calling to contribute what I can to the world, a failure that would render me unfit for the kingdom of God.
Pondering the signs of the times and the kingdoms of this world, I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means when salt doesn’t taste like salt anymore.
While I have yet to come down with Covid, a couple of people in my extended family have gotten sick with what is now a routine cluster of symptoms: fever, aches, piercing headaches, chills, lingering cough, and—worst of all, by their reckoning—a loss of smell and taste. One must eat to live, of course, but eating without a sense of smell or taste became for them a chore at best and a revolting experience at worst. Without smell and taste, all that’s left is texture, and—per my relatives’ reports—eating foods that have no taste yet need some chewing (almost anything that isn’t pureed or melt-in-your-mouth soluble) was an unsettling experience that they sometimes literally could not stomach. Soups, juices, and gelatins, dutifully but joylessly consumed, were their go-to meals until their senses of taste and smell returned.
While I have so far been spared a trip through the uncanny valley of flavorless food, I have not been so lucky when it comes to journeying through The Discourse. In a development that seemed quite sudden but probably was not, I realized that everything I tried to consume as a reader had lost all flavor, that anything I tried to produce as a writer had lost all savor.
In a cultural moment shot through with existentially menacing crises—a concerted effort by some right-wing groups in the United States to subvert democratic processes, rising political violence, burgeoning ethnonationalism here and abroad, a major land war in Europe that could go nuclear, a disastrous climate crisis spawning calamitous storms and droughts, a global pandemic—the takes all suffer from a bland, zestless sameness.
Have I come down with something? Is it simply an individual case of immobilizing despair that has turned every contestation in the public square into a completely flavorless performance where the usual discussants (myself included) seem to respond to current events by reiterating ad nauseam the thoughts they have all already offered on a hundred different topics?
Whatever the topic, all the momentous occurrences on which people opine are flattened into a generic Occasion for people to repeat their unaltered and unaltering set of talking points. There are no surprises. There are no epiphanies. It is all as flat and flavorless as food without savor.
Am I sick of soul—am I salt without savor–or is there something amiss with The Discourse?
Well, as the kids say, why not both?
I lost my job for words I put out into the world. For a while I had a great deal to say about that experience, and great motivation to say it. I was fighting the good fight, speaking up against the single greatest danger to free expression, free thought, free inquiry: the petty tyranny of local officials leveraging government power to stifle citizens’ speech. But what is there now to say? What is the point? There will always be fatuous village moralists on the school board or the college board in towns across the United States who will abuse every ounce of their meager power to persecute and punish those who dare to read, think, speak, or write something that contradicts the priors of petty functionaries. There will always be “local political leaders” afraid that some citizen might possibly have the opportunity to consider an idea or exercise a choice beyond the ideas or choices such leaders already approve. The village moralists will always have their pitchforks and torches handy. And they will prevail. They always do.
So what possible use is it for me to sound the alarm, again, about the importance of robustly defending the protections of the 14th Amendment? (That’s the one that says that your rights as citizens of the United States don’t depend on the whims of the local officials where you happen to live, but are instead the same no matter where you live.) What good can it possibly do at this point? It’s just saying what I’ve already said, repeating my priors, and only those who already agree with me will care that I’ve said it. I know what I think, everyone who has ever read anything else I’ve written knows what I think. So why bother saying it again?
That basic sentiment—“why bother?”—is one of resignation. It’s a variant on “You can’t fight City Hall,” a saying that itself reveals the extraordinary coercive power of local officials and the ultimate futility of trying to resist their power. Resignation is a way of facing defeat. Nobody needs to be resigned to victory. But when I think of the future of free expression in the United States, tied as it is to the future of free and fair elections and the willingness of the federal government to robustly defend citizens’ equal protection under the law, I feel defeat. I feel despair. The mean of mind and stingy of imagination shall inherit the earth.
If this despair were my offering to The Discourse, I have a pretty good idea of how The Discourse would respond, if it responded at all. Some possibilities:
“Reactionaries win by making us feel powerless so that we do not use the power we do have. Don’t despair; organize.”
“Despair is a luxury for those whose lives have not been a constant struggle for liberation.”
“Yes, that’s right, local officials should have the power to formulate and enforce standards of morality within their own communities and should not be forced by the federal government to give free rein to ideas and values they see as hostile to the values of their own community.”
“A concern for protecting rights is a liberal conceit; liberalism functions only to forestall revolution.”
“Religious and social conservatives are the real victims of persecution in America.”
Oh, and, of course, “something something cancel culture.” Can never quite rule out The Discourse invoking that one.
Am I wrong? Is there a Take—about anything at all—that hasn’t already been taken?
What is the point of entering into a conversation where the response to any particular situation has already been scripted according to the respondent’s general priors? Why not just play Bejeweled Blitz and Angry Birds and leave The Discourse to its futile charades?
And that’s exactly how I’ve been spending my time of late: on Bejeweled Blitz, Angry Birds, and binge-watching one historical drama after another, from Borgia to Barbarians, from The Medici to The Spanish Princess, from Becoming Elizabeth to The Serpent Queen. I have immersed myself in deliciously bad history as good storytelling. Could I work up an essay about this and put it into conversation with recent episides from The Discourse about historical accuracy (or lack thereof) in Hollywood films, the 1619 Project, and whether or not the president of The American Historical Association was a perpetrator or victim of cancel culture? I could. For a while I thought I would. But then I realized that I would just rather enjoy my stories. The Discourse is a machine that will run of itself, and run itself into the ground, without any help from me.
So that’s where I’ve been.
But where am I now?
Back at Arc Digital, as a columnist this time. Because despite the nihilistic tinge of my ruminations on The Discourse, despite the fact that this entry absolutely can be read as meta-discourse about the pointlessness of discourse, another realization—a sense of duty—nudges me forward.
Salt can’t lose its saltiness; that’s what makes it salt. Maybe that’s what my youth group leaders were trying to tell me, so many years ago, when they picked that particular verse: this is who you are, you wordy nerdy unrelentingly thinking-out-loud kid. That’s your duty: bring to the world who you are. I don’t fully know what that would mean, but I know that I’m salty, by nature, and—I don’t know—maybe The Discourse could use some salt.