That Tick-ing Sound

I went to an event in Atlanta recently that was kind of an installation-immersive-performance art thing. Part of it was called 29 Questions, and it was like speed dating for the asexual set. You sit across from a stranger, put your hands on a glowing orb, stare into each other’s eyes for 30 painful seconds (why would anyone ever want to do that, voluntarily?), and then ask each other questions from a stack of cards, such as “When are you most present?” and “What do you like most about yourself?”

I somehow found myself sitting across from a woman who suffered from Chronic Lyme Disease. All of her answers to questions, no matter how random or banal, came back to that subject. An ideé fixe. Doctors and scientists are doubtful about whether Chronic Lyme Disease is really a thing, but a large community of sufferers believes that it is. Once upon a time, I even lived in the attic of a house owned by a lecherous old perv who claimed to have it, to explain his senior moments (among, ahem, other things).

Medical science is hardly the last word on anything, almost by definition. People suffered with Multiple Sclerosis for years before the underlying etiology of the disease was discovered — dismissed as lazy bums and malingerers despite a very real, very felt debilitation. Now it’s recognized as a “legitimate” form of suffering. The same could happen for Chronic Lyme Disease, or it could not.

Why all this musing on our tiny friends, the Lymey bastards? Reports came out this week that the US government might have experimented with using ticks as vectors for biological warfare, perhaps inadvertently leading to our Lyme Disease crisis. The powers-that-be deny everything, but institutions such as the NIH and CDC have been notably obtuse when addressing thorny questions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the past. There is at least a considered indifference at work.

These are times that try men and women’s epistemology. Part of the evil genius of Trumpism, and the far-right movement in general, is to undermine the formerly taken-for-granted framework of assumptions that makes claims minimally intelligible. Is the US Census accurate? Are the results of an election legitimate, or did millions of “illegals” vote (according to one school of so-called thought) or did the evil Russians rig everything (according to another), thanks to some prodigy-level blackguard brilliance? Did Hillary Clinton run a child sex slavery ring out of the back of a DC pizza restaurant? Did Epstein? Was he murdered? Who left my cake out in the rain?

The process of learning, the progression of science, the move from confusion to clarity all require a recognition of things we don’t know (whatever subject is up for debate) as well as what we do know (generally agreed upon premises). When everything is in the first category and nothing is in the latter, everything goes upside down and sideways.

As Bob Dylan once said, “Now everything’s a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped; what’s good is bad, what’s bad is good. You’ll find out when you’ve reached the top, you’re on the bottom.”

Dylan was describing the moral fallout of the 1960s counterculture, which questioned many home truths, and the 1970s malaise that offered nothing in their place. Watergate and Vietnam shook Americans’ confidence in institutions, and the New Right’s assiduous critique of the Liberal Media, the Gay Agenda, and “Science” undermined any further hold many people had on a shared ground of truth.

If everything is true, then nothing is true, one might say. By the same token, if everything is possible, then perhaps nothing is possible. This is Trumpian nihilism.

Yet the answer is not an impulsive double-down on epistemological certainty either. Pragmatism’s equivocal understanding of truth (we don’t know what’s right, but we kind of, you know, know, based on whatever works) is fatally weak tea. And the grand daddy Charles Sanders Peirce did no one any favors with his intuitive understanding of which black waiter on his cruise stole his watch. Great white-male minds at work.

In the absence of mutually recognized authority or the appearance of incontrovertibly empirical fact, people turn to mythic explanations to make sense out of chaos — hence the very loony (QAnon), the perennially pernicious and insane (anti-Semitism), the naively dangerous (anti-vaxxism), and the genuinely ambiguous (Chronic Lyme Disease).

One thing the woman said during sexless speed dating that didn’t, at least directly, have to do with Lyme Disease was this: the thing she liked most about herself was kindness. At the end of the day, any truth claim is up for debate — but we know what kindness and mercy are, on a visceral level (contrived philosophical scenarios like the Trolley Problem aside).

Kindness is a lodestar we can trust. Take the extraordinary display of integrity by Naomi Osaka in the aftermath of her fairly crushing defeat of the fifteen-year-old phenom Coco Gauff. Osaka is a ripe old 21, and she wears her years lightly on her shoulder. But she fully understood the pain and frustration and disappointment her younger opponent — herself, not very long ago — felt by failing in front of a large portion of the entire world. She showed grace and dignity that most people could do well to work into their daily lives. And almost everyone can recognize it when they see it.

This week we have a roundup of hot takes, to hotly take your mind off the mindless cruelty and inveterate human folly currently boiling the world.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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