Well, here goes 2016.
Last night, I finally got around to watching Being There, with Peter Sellers, from which comes the character Chauncey Gardner, who has often been cited as a sample of a cipher for others’ desires in the fashion of Barack Obama. Another classic reference that was oft on people’s minds in 2015 was Gas Light, from which derives the term “gaslighting,” a form of mental abuse representing what powerful people have been perpetrating against our society.
The two references point to similar phenomenon. In the first, a few powerful people choose to interpret the often-irrelevant statements of a man who clearly isn’t all there as if they are stoic wisdom, and once those few persuade themselves, others become more likely to follow along. In the second, a criminal manipulates a woman, wooing her into marriage and then hiding things in an effort to make her think she’s going crazy so that she won’t believe evidence of his activities, notably the fading gas lights in their home as he searches for something.
If we are suffering from such abuse, how do we push back? Populist progressives of the Bernie Sanders mold want to use the levers of power in government to force a realignment to the benefit of the people, but that’s clearly mistaken. In politics, masses are too disorganized without focus and therefore easily misdirected by powerful people who focus them. Consolidating power through established channels in order to use it against those who control that channel truly is lunacy.
For their part, libertarians have tended to hope for a John Galt movement, in which the people simply stop performing their roles and let the otherwise-useless ne’er-do-wells in the establishment languish and starve. The problem with this approach is that the people perform their roles for a reason. Few have the resources or the temperament to forsake the life they know and from which they derive meaning.
In both Being There and Gas Light, the crucial factor is the desire of the dupes to go along. In Being There, the first powerful people want to see Chauncey as they interpret him to be, and thereafter, others want to believe that the system ensures that there’s some reason the powerful get to where they are — that they’ve been vetted. In Gas Light, the wife wants to believe in the reality of her marriage.
Yesterday, I happened upon an essay by David Hunt that points to a similar scene in A Guide for the Married Man, in which a husband manipulates his wife into distrusting reality, in large part by simply denying something that is clearly happening. When she walks in on him in a compromising position with another woman, he simply denies that the woman is there or that his wife saw what she saw, as the other woman dresses and quietly leaves the house. The wife wants to believe that the husband is faithful, but deeper than that, she wants to believe that he’ll treat her as a fellow human being — that he would respond to her obvious statements of fact.
The answer is to demand some return of the affection. In the scene from A Guide for the Married Man, the wife never puts the onus on the husband to prove the non-existence of the woman in order to avoid consequences; she let’s her leave and the husband go about his day. In Gas Light, the wife never independently investigates the lights or figures out a way to test or overcome her supposed forgetfulness. And in Being There, others never demand that Chauncey stop being cryptic for long enough to prove the wisdom that they attribute to him.
We’re not so far gone, in our society, that we lack the means to impose the onus, investigate the mystery, or demand the proof. As we enter another year of civic debate, with the culmination of a presidential election, we should insist that the powerful acknowledge the world as we are experiencing it, with its pain and its dangers, not simply rely on glitzy PR, divisive identity politics, and cynical manipulation to convince us that handing power to anybody but them would be madness.