Need-to-believe

(E)motion is energy in motion. I sense it, radiate it, motivate and navigate with it. Emotion tells me what to do and how to be.

I vibrate, pulse, and receive. I broadcast, match, and adjust. I assemble a reality from waves cascading into me, aligning and informing me; from feelings, sounds, visions, and words.

From emotional elasticity positions form gradually. Perceptions cohere and conceptions constellate. Ratios of rationality radiate and return; projecting out patterns that separate and reduce; receiving patterns that stabilize and confirm.

I absorb my environment and refine my responses; learning to sit, move, talk, and name. My first memorable conversation, in 1970, shifts me into gear:

I am sitting on a carpet, watching a black and white television. Dark silhouettes of soldiers stride through villages across the background glare of burning huts. Thumping machine guns, crackling flames, and barking orders echo through my living room. Wild, shrieking peasants flee at full speed.

People are terrified. Something is wrong here.

“Daddy? What’s Vietnam?”

“The place men go to kill.”

I do not know how to ask for more information, but the sound of his words, the look on his face, and the posture of his body intensify my interest. Civilization is coming into focus; its methods and operations; what it does to people and how it does it. I observe it in the scenes displayed for me, feel it in the reactions in my body, and hear it in my father’s response.

Here on the carpet a project of decades begins; witnessing choreographed cruelty and monetized misery; recognizing the sorcery of technology conjuring virtual reality; deducing patterns and giving them names.

My initial question is really several:

What is Vietnam—another place or another planet?

What are we doing there—helping or hurting people?

Why is someone showing this to me—is there something I am supposed to do about it?

And that man carrying the bundle beneath his arm, who ran out of the hut that was probably his home as it bloomed with flames: Will anyone give that man a new house?

My questions stay stuck together and unspoken, so my father resumes what he was doing. He is a conscientious objector. We are Quakers. We are living in Louisville, Kentucky, so he can do his alternative service in a clinic for the medically underserved.

It happens most nights for years: the war leaks into my living room, people are terrified, and I am disturbed. Rigid, cunning men in suits assault me with words and images on a show-and-tell program called the news; a program teaching the appropriate way to imagine reality.

I eventually voice my questions about the war to adults and get answers. Both their bodies and words are revealing. Faces harden to masks, words fall from mouths like carelessly chewed food, and eyes make sidelong glances. People are terrified. Something is wrong here.

Respondents with hardening faces give the same answers the news suits do. The news suits and their mode of operating are known to me. They are like card players who never show what they are really feeling. The hardening faces of my respondents are like dough cut by cookie cutters: built on the news suits’ template of experts and authorities.

The networks have installed these archetypes of meaningful people with important things to say in our brains, and we mimic them when it is time to talk about serious things. We have watched the faces thousands of times, flickering at the edge of grimacing, serving slogans like we are fighting communism as surrogates for explanations, and we know how to reproduce the appropriate behavior.

Believe the slogans and what we are doing makes sense. Doubt them and it does not. At first I believe. When month after month no evidence is forthcoming, connecting activity with asserted intention, I doubt and dissect:

Communism, the idea, is traded like a baseball card; handed over like something with established and recognized value. But is this old piece of cardboard with the right picture, name, and numbers on it—Ruth, 1914—worth $695,000? Is it so important? Does it explain and justify so much?

To me communism is a hypothesis; an untested theory. When told that we are fighting communism I want to ask:

Is Vietnam communism? Communism is about community, right? About putting the needs of the community first? Is that what we are fighting for, or what we are fighting?

But the smirks on the hardening faces are a second message:

That was the end of the discussion. You will accept my answer. If you ask more about it, and reveal that I do not really understand what I am talking about, I will hurt you.

The news suits–Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and Roger Mudd–have already given me this message. I know the signal and what I am supposed to do with it:

Listen. Shut up. Believe. Obey.

Meeting other faces pressed from their template, using similar diction, and wearing similar postures, I instantly recognize the scene and script: They have been programmed by the news and are mimicking its characters; playing authorities on world affairs.

These amateur performances lack elements that would substantiate their authenticity—just as the professional ones do. They are no more convincing than actors in suits smirking smugly at cameras; unconvincingly pretending they understand history and have the last word on what current events mean.  They have established neither their status as experts, nor their trustworthiness as witnesses. They are just bullies asserting perspectives and demanding confirmation with cocked fists:

I am a good guy, right?

We are the good guys, right?

America is Democracy, right?

Communists are bad, right?

It is clear that they need to believe what they are saying. But neither why they believe it, why they have to believe it, nor why I should believe it are apparent. Will they deliver on their threat of violence? Should I believe because they might? Need-to-believe becomes the first of many sea monsters I watch for and avoid in my odyssey through civilized narrative.

I do give the news bullies the chance, thousands of times, to demonstrate that they know what they are talking about; to demonstrate the command of facts and astuteness of discernment that authorizes them to discard this and give credence to that; but no such activity is forthcoming. They are like a pie with no filling, a package with no contents, these experts with no answers.

Their smiles have no joy. Their slogans and certainties have no discernible foundation beyond need-to-believe. For years I witness them reciting their beliefs, possessed with dull, persistent, impotent fervor. I expectantly await the climax of substantiation but that liberating catharsis never arrives. I eventually recognize the particular mania of the need-to-believes, and their words no longer arouse me.

I will later deal with religious fundamentalists. The scenario is identical: They see a convincing meaning I do not. Arriving at the end of a complex preparatory story, their faces light up:

This is what makes us the chosen ones! This is what makes us the good people and authorizes us to kill: The Vietnamese buy things from the Russians. The Russians are evil. They shake hands with the Russians. Those that touch evil become evil. There is only good and evil, and if the Russians are evil, we must be good. Whatever we do to the Vietnamese is justified.

But I do not see it. I see through it. It does not matter if politics drives religion, or religion drives politics; need-to-believe is at the center of it, and the circuit does not complete. No energy is transmitted. It is all sophistry  rationalizing brutality; making the arbitrary and unjustifiable seem sensical through semantic self-hypnosis.

Keep your rhetoric. Keep your religion. Keep your need-to-believe. Keep your maniacal insistence on a story that makes you feel good about yourself. I do not know why you need it, but it does not persuade me of anything beyond your insanity.

The news suits and their rigid, insistent grins are like an album cover. Their big words leading nowhere spin on the record player incessantly. Listening to the words compulsively, trying to absorb a deep truth, sickened and dispirited by the cul-de-sac of repetition, I eventually burn out. I file the suits’ stories as terminally incomplete, take off the record, and listen to Free to be you and me.

But the news is always on; I have to pay attention to it. I cannot completely dismiss it when all the adults around me are treating it as reality. So, I study the process instead of the product—how it is made, which elements are present and which are missing—and investigate the infection of need-to-believe. How does the news enchant people? What magical symbols does it use to trigger mechanisms of viewers’ imaginations to turn simplistic and incomplete threads into a fabric of reality perceived as whole?

From those I personally interrogate about the war, words falling from mouths like carelessly chewed food is the most common answer. The faces leaking these words seem to say:

I do not know things I feel I should, and I am ashamed of my ignorance. I am making up a story I intuit should be the right answer, because you seem to want a story from me. I will continue telling it and acting as if I care about it because I know the expected behavior is to have a story and pretend to believe in and care about it. But I do not feel anything about the story. I do not know what it means, believe in it, or care about it.

I want to console them:

You do not watch the news suits, do you? Or you do, but are confused by the way they say one thing one week, and the opposite the next; never explaining the slogans they trade?

It is okay. You are okay. You are still a good person.

The least common response comes from those who seem sensitive. Their eyes make sidelong glances, revealing conflict and fear.

Their faces seem to say:

I notice uncomfortable things. I notice many smiles are unreal and many explanations empty and self-serving. I notice we are not the happy and nice people we often pretend to be. I notice that televized reality is a lie—there is something wrong with it. I do not know exactly how that lie is being told, but I am sure of it. And I do not want to publicly own my insight and risk being ostracized.

This trap I too am in; hesitating to reveal my intelligence even to myself; fearing dreadful consequences.

Watching these faces wrestle with words, I imagine a place too cold and slippery for thinking; a big icy parking lot where ratios of rationality get no grip and thinkers spin out helplessly. My questions about the war transport us to this place, strip us of the clothes of our stories, then recede into the dim distance, leaving us alone in uncanny silence and frigid immediacy.

There is nothing left to look at but ourselves. The thin thong of rationalizations we try to put on to hide our naked feelings beneath comforting ideas seems ridiculous. 

I realize that adults’ responses to my questions about the ware are more important than the answers I think I want:

If adults cannot talk or think about events impacting our lives, are we really rational people? Are we really confronting the issues involved in our survival? Are we really safe?

People are terrified. Something is wrong here. §