Uncertainty Ain’t What It Used To Be

It used to be that if you were uncertain about something, you weren’t sure which way it would go. It could go up, it could go down. It could be on, it could be off. You waited for the outcome and then dealt with it when it arrived. It wasn’t the end of the world.

For instance, one morning not long ago I went to a bakery on Arthur Avenue for cranberry scones, but by the time I got there they had sold out. Then, one of the nice ladies at the counter offered to bake another batch. So, one moment I was down, the next I was up. That’s how uncertainty worked. It was out there, hovering like a rain cloud, but people didn’t pay much attention to it. The future was uncertain, but other than death and taxes, what wasn’t?

Uncertainty no longer hovers. It has plopped its bony behind right down beside us. Now, everything is uncertain: the economy, the market, jobs, investments, pensions, housing, interest rates, the Middle East, Russia, China, the military, vaccines, the weather, higher education, lower education, news reports, news reporters, social media, relationships, bananas, tofu, and bottled water. What is the immediate cause of all this uncertainty?

Donald Trump. That’s if you believe the mainstream media. Since the election they have been peddling uncertainty as if they were unloading Florida swampland. But consider this. More people are being treated for the effects of uncertainty such as depression and anxiety than ever before. More youth are on prescription drugs than at any other time in our history, because they can’t deal with the stress of daily life. Even young children now suffer from clinical depression.

To be fair, this is not Donald Trump’s fault. This situation developed over decades of social engineering gone awry (or, as some believe, according to plan). What’s different now is that Trump has become the scapegoat for the collective anxiety and fears of not just the nation but, judging from the Women’s March, the world. The hatred and vitriol spewed at him, his cabinet, and his followers have been shocking. This tells me that as a public figure and symbol of a populist movement, Trump has hit a nerve. And not just because of his arrogance or crudeness, although both contribute.


Which nerve? The one that makes people shoot the messenger, because they don’t like the message. It is the same one that causes them to react violently whenever someone gets close to the truth. Which truth? The one that exposes the failures of globalization as planned by corporate elite on one hand and the deliberate undermining of civil society on the other. When faced with the reality behind both of these, people become enraged. The truth does not fit their understanding of the world and their place in it. Trump’s election and inauguration have forced them to face a disturbing reality.

This is not simply about resistance to change. It’s about the transformation of our collective psyche. What people thought they knew isn’t true. And each time Trump succeeds, whether through the market, a trade deal, or diplomatically, it will be harder to hate him. The irony is that this was exactly what Barack Obama was expected to do but didn’t, relying instead on personality and ideology to see him through eight years. And soon, of course, he’ll have book deals.

With Trump, there will be plenty to worry about like nuclear war and climate change. Although he is not the hawk Hillary is and has insisted that he wants peace with Russia and an end to the policy of regime change, he has surrounded himself with ex-military men, including James Mattis, Michael Flynn, and John Kelly. The last time there was this kind of military presence in the White House was during the Reagan years, which saw several close calls during war games.

Climate change, as people as diverse as Noam Chomsky and Pope Francis have pointed out, is an urgent matter that should not be politicized. Any uncertainty surrounding it ought to be channeled into action, not hand wringing and attacking Trump on Twitter, as appealing as that may be.

So, I am calling for a return to reasoned uncertainty, for a time when we remained calm and kept uncertainty at bay. If that sounds crazy, compare it with uncertainty today as expressed by Kristin Forbes of the Bank of England. She lamented in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that, “There is much uncertainty about uncertainty.” Really. It just ain’t what it used to be.

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  1. Yes, novelty, change, shock and liminality—so often a zone of uncertainty—are the engine of character and story development and story structure parallels life structure. Did you get my email with some links to writings about Trump? I think we are both recognizing, though from different sides, that Trump is an avatar of the collective unconscious both channeling and serving as a focal point for archetypal projections. When you talk about Trump as “scapegoat” you are choosing to emphasize the role he plays for many as an awesome target for shadow projection (and you’ve got to admit that there’s a huge hook in him for that projection). It’s legitimate to point out the scapegoat aspect, and writing from New York it’s reasonable for you to compensate for the prevailing bias against Trump, but you don’t, at least in this particular blog, account for Trump’s epic history of being the scapegoater-in-chief more than an unfair object of others’s scapegoating. What about, amongst numerous examples, Trump spearheading the birther thing, questioning the citizenship of our first African-American president with added remarks that “no one knew him in school” and “you can’t believe what my investigators are turning up!” He also scapegoated Ted Cruz and HRC (and plenty of hook in them) for ties to Goldman Sachs and now, at last count, has hired 5 Goldman Sachs folks to top posts.
    Where I am trying to incorporate the uncertainty principle is to not fully collapse the wave function of what effect I think Trump will have. Shocks to systems often cause both damage and benefit, like the punctuated equilibria of evolution. Despite his past history, he may very well have some good intentions and may create some good results. But when you are talking about scapegoating and refer to Obama as “a corporate tool who was allowed to fashion a Marxist social agenda based on his personal ideology. And soon he’ll have book deals. It was a great gig for eight years.” I see a bit of scapegoating. He’s both corporate and Marxist somehow. And you make the inevitable, lucrative book deals (I suspect both of us would want those too) as though he was just an opportunist cashing in. Any sort of objective look at Trump’s history, and the striking relative cleanness of Obama’s, has got to reveal a striking contrast. Obama had personal ambition but was, whatever you think of his ideology, working in the public sphere in ways he thought would benefit society. Meanwhile Trump created Trump University and was endlessly screwing over contractors, using the funds of The Trump Foundation to purchase giant portraits of himself, etc. From his branded Towers, many of which he did nothing to build, to his self-branding, to his referring to himself so often in the third-person (the classic sign that someone has created a persona that acts as an autonomous complex) he has set himself up to be a GIANT PROJECTION TARGET. Of course he will be scapegoated and idealized. Sorry, didn’t mean to write a comment as long as your blog, (I’m as long winded and confrontational as ever and maybe that’s why we haven’t talked in 39 years or so) but the present uncertainty carries quite an emotional charge for nearly all of us.

    A couple more points: Donald Trump is the world’s most successful and famous reality television star. When did the modern reality television era begin? It began with the first season of Survivor which played out in the year 2000, the year we were supposed to get an apocalyptic revelation. Who of the sixteen member tribe won the first season of Survivor? The colorful, manipulative, man-you-love-to-hate, immoral asshole Richard Hatch. Get it? This is why Trump has said so often, “All publicity is good publicity.” You can’t unfairly scapegoat someone who has created a giant disco ball of a public persona meant to reflect and dazzle with all the reflected, polarized projections it can possibly draw upon itself. I see no comparison between Trump and Hitler except that both relate to a point made by Jung when people would ask him how Hitler “hypnotized” the German people. “Hitler didn’t hypnotize the German people,” Jung would reply, “He WAS the German people.” Trump is the personification as collective avatar and projection screen of a very large part of the American psyche and the American psyche is of very uncertain character—well intended at times, innovative, in love with center stage, wildly ambitious, bold, greedy, exploitive (and we could keep populating the list) —a highly uncertain character with schizoid impulses and inner conflicts. And this isn’t an anti-American sentiment because so many nations have characters far, far darker and none has one so dynamic and interesting. If or collective character were darker, our situation would be more certain. One of my principles is that an intensification of novelty means the outer edge of light and dark will both intensify and between those comes a greater amplitude of uncertainty. American is the great engine of novelty nationstate and it is the epic uncertainty of our character that makes that possible. Besides the stoic acceptance of life’s uncertainty, the uncertainty most needed, and on every side, is a wise degree of uncertainty about our evaluations of such highly charged content.

    1. Jonathan, thank you for this. I don’t mind a response as long as my blog. To date, I have been easy on Trump, preferring to focus on policy rather than personality. Trump’s proposed policies are not beyond the pale, particularly with the economy and infrastructure. For instance, what has been labelled as “protectionism” is simply treating China as an equal partner rather than a nascent economy. China has moved beyond the manufacturing phase of development and is now entering the service dimension of growth. It should be treated as such, and I think Trump’s instincts are right on that. But the real problem, as you sensed, is that policy can’t be divorced from personality, not entirely, and not with a man whose greatest liability is his unpredictability. That may also be a strength, but his is not an unpredictability that is measured or studied, at least that’s not the sense I get. His is impulsive and emotional. Self-control, which I wrote about earlier, can keep that in check, but who’s going to make Trump control himself? A 70+ year-old should have some degree of self-control already. Hopefully, the White House staff, the Vice President, and Congress can apply the brakes. As for scapegoating and projection, I am not explaining, defending, or justifying his past. I am trying to figure out the reason for the current anti-Trump fever, which has been as irrational as anything I have seen. Regarding Obama, I think many people have bought the brand rather than the reality.

      1. Many reasonable points, and you made a good point in an earlier blog about emotivism. But this statement has me puzzled: “I am trying to figure out the reason for the current anti-Trump fever, which has been as irrational as anything I have seen.” OK, I’ll try not to make this a lengthy as my last comment. (failed) This shouldn’t be hard to figure out, and if you haven’t seen anything more irrational than anti-Trump fever you must live in a much more rational world than I do! Some conservative pundits are acting like it is this most peculiar and odd American left wing psychopathology. 2016 was a big travel year for me—25 countries—and wherever I went there was outrage and disbelief that Americans were crazy enough to even think about voting for Trump (pre-November) and then greater outrage and disbelief after he actually got election. (to be fair I didn’t visit Russia except for an extremely uneasy layover in a Russian airport) Sure, this was hardly a scientific sampling, but look at some of the things that mainstream Republican leaders like Lindsey Graham said about Trump pre-nomination. Anti-Trumpism is not some leftwing irrationalism. Trump has baited so many individuals and groups. If I woke up tomorrow and found newspaper headlines: “Trump in a twitter war with Make-a-Wish Foundation Kids” I would be OK, whatever…. Think of all the groups he’s gone after. We’re both from NYC, I had a visceral dislike for Trump’s vulgar egoism in the early 80s, never even dreaming that he would run for political office. Riffing off your “feverish” adjective —a fever is a normal, often necessary immunological reaction to a pathogen, and Trump has said so many things to make a rational person perceive him as a pathogenic personality. But, to be fair, not all of his policies, thankfully, are as pathogenic as his words.

        Irrational antipathies of feverish intensity have been part of American politics for a very long time. It’s been most virulent toward high-profile democrats. See my article: http://realitysandwich.com/320412/demonizing-of-high-profile-democrats-a-same-oldsame-old-shadow-projection/ When JFK arrived in Dallas in 1962 the city was plastered with handbills (see article) with mugshots of Kennedy that read “Wanted for Treason.” There were full-page ads in the newspapers saying that Kennedy was “Anti-Christian and Pro-Communist” Before JFK, FDR was a “traitor to his class.” Now the same folks who demonized Obama, the Clintons, et al. are shocked, shocked that people have hatred for an in-your-face, shock-jock talkin’, pathological narcissist who has spewed insults at nearly every group except Trump supporters. I spent election night eve hanging out with millennials in Austin, Texas. They all seemed to have solid reasons to be anti-Trump but especially a young woman from Mexico here with a student visa who felt personally violated by many of Trump’s remarks. Come to think of the fever and immunological theme a woman I know who is an extremely successful functional nutritionist specializing in auto-immune disorders told me recently that she felt physically ill for days after the inaugural. Like not a few women, she had an early childhood history of being sexually abused by loud-talking, egoistic male types. Not hard to figure out why she, and many other women would be anti-Trump if only for his remarks to Billy Bush. On the other side, though, I will say that it is entirely reasonable to criticize the irrational antipathies that often beset people on the left. I talk more about that, because the irrational antipathies of people on the right are more commented on and I hang out with more left of center folk. Political correctness deserves dissing and is essentially a template of which shadow projections are allowed and which aren’t. All darkness derives from the U.S., Israel and globalizing corporations. Exotic cultures aren’t capable of original sin. If they do evil, it is merely reactive to something far worse done by one of the evil three, etc. But of the stupefying and surreal array of irrationalities and unwarranted, unreasonable antipathies happening in our world, being anti-Trump does not even make it into the top billion.

        1. Years ago, I was confronted by a young Spaniard in El Salvador about the invasion of Iraq and our imperial ambitions. I thought it ironic that he was challenging me about empire when he came from a country that had colonized half the Western hemisphere. Still, I let it slide. Trump may be egotistical and vulgar, as you say, but I take him at his word when he says he has no imperial ambitions. Hillary certainly did. In that regard he is more like Sanders. In fact, I was hoping for some kind of alignment or reconciliation between Trump and Sanders. I even thought Trump might invite him into his administration, which would have been a smart move. Many of us said anyone but Clinton or Bush. Well, we got what we wanted, so now we have to work with it. As Winston Churchill said about Americans, “They may be crazy, but they’re the only Americans we’ve got.”

  2. “What’s different now is that Trump has become the scapegoat for the collective anxiety and fears of not just the nation but, judging from the Women’s March, the world.”

    And finally a symptom to cure, instead of those darned causes– so once we impeach the world will be fine, as it ever was. This is known as “clarity of purpose,” and everyone adores it.

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