Why: An Ode to Richard Feynman

“Toes on the line!”

She was oddly emphatic for a yoga instructor, almost religious in her fervor. For some reason, she considered it crucial for us place our tootsies on a line of white tape, six feet behind another line of white tape, and so on across the room. Line after line of white tape, which – for some mysterious reason – it was important to line up on.

Except I didn’t do it. I couldn’t see any reason for, or benefit of, lining up on a strip of white tape to do half-moon pose. Why? I was plenty far away from my nearest yogi, and in no danger of crimping their standing-head-to-knee poses. What need was there to line up with military exactness? It was yoga, not the marine corps. If yoga isn’t about celebrating our whole-grain individuality, what is?

So I didn’t line up. I deliberately defied the yoga teacher and her lust for conformity, obstinately standing several inches behind the white line, much to the chagrin of my wife, yoguing next to me.

“Why couldn’t you just do it?!” she groused afterward.

Micro-aggression v.s. Micro-conformity

I thought about it for a second. Why not? It’s a micro-conformity, and one which – for some reason – the teacher considered important for all students to observe. What’s the harm in indulging someone, even if the reason behind the request is small or invisible? Why does anyone need to be an individual 24/7?

I only needed to think for a second before answering, but I did so under my breath to minimize further marital friction: “Why would I?”

“Why?” is a powerful word. It’s audacious. It bucks conformity. It keeps us honest. It’s insurance against mindlessness.

Some of the greatest minds in history were renowned for asking why. Newton asked why an apple falls from a tree. Einstein asked why light and matter behave the way they do. Another brilliant scientist – although less of a household name – made a career out of relentlessly asking “Why?”

The Sage from Long Island

Richard Feynman was a Nobel-prize-winning physicist. He was also a New York wiseass, with a Queens / Long Island accent thick as a brick, who brooked no B.S. He was renowned for his no-nonsense approach to everything from explaining science to investigating the Challenger disaster. His common sense was relentless and much of it focused on asking, “Why?”

Whenever someone tells me I’m being stubborn or obstreperous, I think of Dick Feynman and his shameless pursuit of “Why?” Whenever anyone wants me to conform for no good reason, I think of the brilliant, simple, irreverent genius from Long Island, and his unrepentant individualism, and I ask myself why more people don’t ask “why?” Here was a signal intelligence that gave us insights into sub-atomic particles, who had his paintings hang in galleries, acted, played percussion, wrote best-selling books, and – most importantly – educated (literally) millions. All of it was based on a relentless individualism that bucked authority, probed beneath the surface of phenomena, and relentlessy, shamelessly asked, “Why?”

Why should I believe you? Why are you saying that about those people? Why is that true? Why do want me to do that?

As anyone with a two- or three-year-old knows, there comes a time when asking “Why?” becomes tiresome. Luckily, most adults don’t even come close to asking “Why?” that many times.

Trump, Russia and the Power of “Why?”

In 2018, asking “Why?” is becoming crucial. In a Trump era of creeping authoritarianism, we’re being asked to swallow falsehoods, lies and half-truths without question. Fake news and foreign propaganda increasingly inundate us. “Alternative facts” have become standard. Now, more than ever, we need to ask “Why?” and not just do what we’re told.

As if that weren’t enough, it seems that every week we hear new accusations of cults brainwashing people. One of the defining aspects of cults is an intolerance for questions about the activities of the cult or its leader. In other words, they’re allergic to “Why?” That should tell you all you need to know about the power of that one little word.

My wife still rolls her eyes when I don’t do what the yoga teacher says, whether it’s toeing the line or adjusting my posture (no, holding my leg that way isn’t going to magically unlock my chakra energy; I’m reasonably confident of that.) But my behaviour is more than obstinacy or stubbornness. It’s an assertion, however small, that I’m not going to mindlessly do what I’m told. That starts with questioning and resisting the smallest things.

Unless you can answer the question, “Why?”

American Democracy Just Lost the World

Much has been made over the last two years of how firmly and repeatedly Donald Trump’s presidency has kicked American democracy in its nether regions. Instead of a government, the U.S. now has a kleptocracy governed by a man-child with a demonstrated inability to keep his member in his pants or hide the fact that he can’t keep his member in his pants.

Meanwhile, Trump and company are doing their level best to dismantle the system of checks and balances on which the U.S. government is built, while dismantling the global order two hundred years of American foreign policy has built up.

All this is happening while an opioid epidemic ravages the nation, social programs are being ripped to shreds and partisan machinations look ready to seize the gears of government.

Contrast this with what is happening in China:

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the functionality of the Chinese  model is its capacity for sustained and effective planning. While the U.S. lurches from one partisan regime to another – systematically reversing the policies of the previous one – China appears to be a model of functionality and stability.

China’s success no longer casts shade on the value of western democracy: it’s proving to be the saner system.

The one area the U.S. could traditionally lord over China in terms of civilization and development was human rights. That’s getting harder to swallow as the U.S. continues to turn a blind eye to systemic and entrenched racism and resugent white supremacy. To claim any moral high ground in this arena, U.S. human rights would have to be moving forward, not in reverse.

Trump has effectively made a mockery of western democracy and highlighted its Achilles heel: the potential for populism and self-interest (aided and abetted by easily co-opted media) to put an individual manifestly unsuited to running a steak distributor – let alone the most powerful nation on earth – in charge.

With that degree of failure, the conversation becomes simple: who’s making greater advances for its people (economically or otherwise) and propelling their nation toward greater international stability, standing and influence?

At this point, the answer would have to be China.

Being Trump Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Pundits are convinced Donald Trump is set to fail, now that he has to cash the cheques his mouth has been writing for the last year. This underestimates and misunderstands the power of narrative: the Donald will talk his way out of his failures indefinitely.

President Trump (Yes, you have to use those words now) has a long, rich history of making things up. Most recently it was at his inauguration, where a crowd of 250,000 (the lowest in recent history) magically transformed into “a million, million and a half people.” Such shenanigans are nothing new for The Donald, whose penchant for pulling numbers and facts out his derriere has been rigorously documented.

Pundits far and wide are convinced that now that The Great Pumpkin has to walk the talk, he’s in trouble, given that most of what he says is impossible to achieve, including increasing prosperity by killing trade, making another country pay for a wall the U.S. builds, and more.

This assumption that Trump’s about to hoist himself on his own petard ignores both how Trump got into office and how people like him get away with murder: the power of narrative.

Trump swept to power not on the strength of any truth in his cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs policies, but on the narrative he sold people:

  • I’m going to make life better for you.
  • I’m going to make our country great again.
  • I’m going to get your jobs back.

These narratives got someone with four bankruptcies and serial business flops elected on a campaign of somehow being an ace businessman, which tells you all you need to know: narrative trumps facts every time. Because of that, Donald Trump will be able to wiggle his way indefinitely out of failures to deliver on his promises.

He’s already wiggled his way out of his claim that Mexico will pay for the wall he wants to build: they’ll just pay for it later. Remember how he was going to lock up Hillary Clinton? Turns out the country “owes her a debt of gratitude” and she can roam free for now.

This is how Trump can avoid paying the piper indefinitely: change the narrative.

  • Factory jobs not flowing back to America? Expect to hear that it’s thanks to foreigners cheating on trade, not because homegrown automation is eliminating the need for people on production lines.
  • ISIS still around in 2021? Certainly not because you can’t bomb an ideology into submission; instead, wait for a narrative about how local governments are aiding and abetting the terrorists. Expect bombs to start falling on said governments shortly thereafter.
  • Gays still marrying gays? Not through any failure of Donald’s stated policy, but because the homo-loving Supreme Court opposes the will of the American people, or a narrative to that effect.

The belief that truth will ride in on its big white horse and kick Trump’s ass once he takes office is comforting, but naive: narrative rarely fails to trump facts, and this will continue for the foreseeable future.

Learning from Trump

The hand-wringing on the left post-Trump has produced a great whining sound, like an eight-year-old learning violin, bow grating across the strings, not unlike a cat getting a prostate exam. Amidst the soul-searching, blaming and latte-gazing, a great lamentation has kicked off across the land:

  • “They’re racist.”
  • “They’re sexist.”
  • “They’re stupid.”
  • “They’re fascist.”
  • “They’re <<insert epithet here>>.”

From The Daily Show to Hillary Clinton, Trump’s detractors have called his supporters everything from “racist” to “deplorable.” The allegations against the roughly 50% of the U.S. electorate that voted for Trump are not only legion, but dangerous.

Reducing the biggest electoral upset since 1948, to the equivalent of the Beverley Hillbillies stuffing the ballot box is blinkered, and ignores a fundamental truth: voting isn’t a personal endorsement of a candidate. A vote for Trump was a vote against Clinton as much as an endorsement of the Great Pumpkin himself or any of his heinous policies and prejudices. If a vote for Trump is an endorsement of racism, sexism and Islamophobia, does that make a vote for Clinton an endorsement of murdering civilians and the Iraq war? In a two-party system (please don’t argue that someone who can’t name a world leader and another who thinks vaccines are health threats are viable alternatives) despising one candidate doesn’t equal a personal endorsement of the other, no matter how stupid their rhetoric.

A large chunk of the American electorate voted for Trump, and it wasn’t because each one of them assessed and agreed with his misogyny, racism, prejudice and stupidity. Trump sold desperate people a story they’d believe, a better story than the other candidate did: vote for me and you get your jobs back. Falling for that doesn’t make someone hateful; it makes them dupes. Can you fault Trump’s supporters for voting in someone racist, sexist and everything else? Yes. Does that automatically make them racist, sexist and everything else? No.

Tarring Trumpians might salve liberal America’s burns because
A) it means the left didn’t lose the election because of any action or inaction on their part, but because the electorate are idiots, and
B) “You’re all a bunch of racists” is a simpler, more satisfying narrative than “Our candidate was less palatable than a hate-filled reality show star with a four-word platform.”
Neither Trump’s narrative nor the ensuing liberal whitewashing of theirs has much objective reality. As we’ll see in our next post, narrative is everything.

Image: Michael Vadon, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Trump#/media/File:Donald_Trump_August_19,2015(cropped).jpg