“My people go into exile for lack of knowledge.” -Isaiah 5:13
“Therefore be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” –Matthew 10:16
I began this blog with a couple of very post-2016 intentions. One was to question the media, specifically the nature of my increasingly mediated experience—my participation in media and its effect on me even without my choice or knowledge. The other was to make my America more than Donald Trump. This last intention I attempted largely through evasion of his name, which, after all, has become such a buzzword that it drones us out of other topics. And for a time it was easy enough to explore the contradictions and deeper resources of myself and my society as I saw it by using a healthy-minded skepticism. I was able to operate under the illusion (perhaps then-useful) that I was at least on a personal level outdoing the Internet by bringing my books to it, by filling my negligent corner of cyberspace with mile-long sentences and more timeless (or merely interminable) thoughts. I was writing essays in the magnanimity of Montaigne, not blog entries with the animus of a talking head. The many platforms might be ever-flattening themselves and their users, but as for me and myself, we would fill our souls.
I was, at times, really that unrealistic.
But over the past few months I have seen what I think are the limits of my attempted healthy-mindedness. With its zero-tolerance immigration policy, I have found it no longer viable to ignore the current administration even in my meditations. And with his most recent truth-claims and –denials, I have found it impossible to avoid thinking and writing specifically about Trump.
I have always known, primarily on a conceptual level, that healthy-mindedness has its limits. My Christianity tells me that skepticism must be twice-born in the grace that goes beyond human knowledge if we are ever going to know and be known really and truly. There is a knowledge-in-the-ultimate-sense to the Christian: behind and above and around the “I” is always God. I saw that this was true out of the corner of my mind’s eye, but recent events have turned my fuller attention to this truth that transcends magnanimous knowledge and its disappointment.
When Trump or some other pundit with less power speaks of “fake news,” what does the Good News say in response? When one person claims categorically to represent the truth, what do we Christians proclaim, we who follow the one who is the truth?
To answer this, I still think we need to go back to the books—and thankfully I know something about that.
What Do I Know? Skepticism Then
The word “skepticism” is often equated with disbelief. When someone is called a “skeptic,” he or she is meant to be a non-believer. Often such a person is understood to bear a certain level of hostility toward a particular faith or movement. But in the traditional humanities, skepticism has been a generous and often genial discipline, responsible for amassing a wealth of affirmations about human existence. Skepticism, at least of the humanistic sort, questions in order to clear up—frequently, those vanities that are crowding one’s thought, or the prejudicial customs that keep one from accepting limitation, and thus from acquiring a more lasting form of happiness or humble contentment. In its disbelief of tacit assumptions and easy answers, it still believes the truth is out there, but deeper down and larger than we usually think. Such skepticism is thus more spacious than it is reductive. Think Hamlet over Hitchens. But most of all, think Montaigne.
What do I know? This is the great question that Michel de Montaigne poses for himself in his once-canonical Essays. For Montaigne, such questioning is a way of getting past faulty or frilly truths to the real heart of the matter. There is such a thing as false knowledge to Montaigne. But underlying this claim is his understanding of human nature as paradoxical: we are too limited and multiform to be too purely the things we pretend to be.
Thus, Montaigne’s vision is an ironist’s—and yet his approach is clear and direct. He is maybe the most helpful ironist in Western literature. In his musings, he seeks to be a mediator between human contradictions and the truer self. Seeking to evade the authorial pretension of objectivity, he speaks first and foremost from and about himself. But in unmasking himself, he finds certain shared fashions hiding a deeper shared nature. For Montaigne, the individual is bound in “body” (those things corporate and superficial) and primed with “soul” (those things profound and lasting), and his goal is to explode the outer with the inner.
Thus, much of Montaigne’s skepticism is meant to free the self from the constrictions of falsehood. Arguably the deepest falsehood for him is the taking of knowledge at secondhand: “We take the opinions and the knowledge of others into our keeping, and that is all. We must make them our own.” Through the coercion of custom, individuals follow the ingrained habits of their society instead of the logic of their own innate reason. “Habituation,” he points out, “puts to sleep the eye of our judgment.” From an early age this enculturation creates a noetic dependency in each person: “Human reason is a tincture infused in about equal strength in all our opinions and ways, whatever their form: infinite in substance, infinite in diversity.” So much of what we think we know we have been told to know. Thus, to borrow from Montaigne’s metaphor, so much of human argument is sleep-talking.
Many of Montaigne’s most memorable meditations are about the myriad casual vanities of society. He questions ultimate veracity of status symbols (he who wears a sword still has to take it off to go to the toilet), and perfume (smelling “good” is just a preferred form of stinking), and even the highest rank (on the highest throne, the king still sits on his ass).
But some of his most useful inquiries delve into matters of opinion and morality. Under Montaigne’s lens, so much of the socialized world thinks and operates on a purely perfunctory level. So much of our “common sense” is particular. Our judgments about deviance are the pronouncements of our place and time.
In one of his most famous essays, “Of Cannibals,” Montaigne flouts the accepted wisdom of his time as a conditioned prejudice. No matter the specific national or ethnic clothing it may wear, a false sense of superiority is fairly universal:
“[E]ach man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in. There is always the perfect religion, the perfect government, the perfect and accomplished manners in all things. Those people are wild . . .”
For Montaigne, himself an avid reader, even books can be a form of pomp. “We dignify our stupidities when we put them in print.” He sees in people a susceptibility to the illusion of magisterial officialism and permanence that comes with font. Behind each letter is still an imperfect hand.
Standard forms of communication themselves are often vexing to Montaigne. The interpersonal knowledge they give often amounts to little more than shallow gossip: “[W]e do nothing but write glosses about each other. The world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great scarcity.”
Thus it is not surprising that Montaigne holds fame, and even the highest nobility, in such low esteem. He writes from a time and place of almost frenzied known-ness. To be “noble” in the Renaissance meant to be “known,” specifically as the person who owned the land that other persons used. Private influence very literally absorbed public life. And so it is not hard to see how easily this known-ability could run away with itself. As a noble-man himself, Montaigne had known plenty knowns. For such self-focused and socially privileged individuals, prestige and power seemed to be their God-given rights and in line with the laws of nature.
Under Montaigne’s scrutiny, however, even the total praise of the people cannot defend oneself from the deeper truth:
“A man who does everything for honor and glory, what does he think to gain by presenting himself to the world in a mask, concealing his true being from public knowledge? . . . If you are a coward and people honor you for a valiant man, is it you they are talking about? They take you for another.”
This is what skepticism looks like for Montaigne. His questioning can indeed reduce many vaunted estates to a lower station—and sometimes with seeming crassness: “Both kings and philosophers defecate, and ladies too.” But beneath his hard truth-telling is a firm belief in the individual’s ability to know itself and others better, and perhaps in knowing better to be better too.
Well, What Do You Know? Skepticism Now
The Vanities of Social Media
To some degree, I think Montaigne is more necessary now than ever. From his Essays issue what I think are still some of our most sanguine examples of how to be skeptical. By reading Montaigne, I believe we can learn a gregarious questioning of ourselves, both individually and collectively. We can see in him how, during times of pretension and conceit, disagreement just might be the best form of interest, because at bottom of it abides a belief in a deeper truth, entirely acknowledgeable if only we took the time.
No doubt Montaigne’s What do I know? is still of great aid in this era of “fake news” and fake news claiming—if used properly. I find that an alarming number of the populace have prematurely answered this question—most often in a matter of seconds—with an I don’t know that or, more accurately, an I know that’s not true, and all before any real thinking’s begun. I know I share in this sin of selective skepticism, that willful distrust of anything or –one that does not come from my own prejudicial sources. I have seen in myself that at bottom of this habitual denial is also a tacit affirmation, a predetermined knowledge of the world and of my knowingness itself.
We are certainly determined by the customs of our mass-mediated time. Our world is suffocated with commentaries. The ways we have to give vain reaction to a removed event have so multiplied and accelerated that we do not realize how often we are drawn along by secondhand knowledge and shallow experience. Our bodies of opinions are more primed than anything resembling Montaigne’s “soul.”
But today there are worse falsehoods than the contradiction of “digital literacy” looking more like digital gossip. Through social media we can now participate in up-to-the-minute “stories”; but this has made our discourse come to resemble a series of headlines. In times of controversy, our comments rush ahead of our thoughts in an attempt to keep up with the pace. We could talk endlessly about the latest scandals, if we had the time, because they are new just about every second.
Some of this comes from a very twenty-first century vanity: the presumption that we can continually keep ourselves informed. But information, in the unchecked growth and increasing speed of our technology, has come to replace thought. Yet still we “follow” the threads as much as we can, led on by a fear that we will fail to be known by ourselves and others as knowledgeable person. In a sense, it’s one of the latest forms of nobility.
As a result, we are less reflective than we are referential. We may know less about where we side on a single issue and why than on where someone else does.
But what I think has fueled so much of our latest runaway news-race is a deeper and darker impulse. Since the 2016 presidential election, we have seen our society strikingly marked by an enmity far exceeding past cultural or political competition. To use a term of recent currency, information has been “weaponized.” It is indeed a news-race instead of an arms-race, a constant dash to get ahead of the other side’s story and catch everyone in the proper commentary.
Commentary indeed seems to be our current custom—but commentary of a cursory and cutting sort. If I am any indication, many people are less knowledgeable than they are opinionated. Many are less skeptical than they are cynical. They humanize less than they demonize. In our virulent urge to be utterly unlike our rivals in perspective, many have come to think and speak and behave in ways diametrically opposed to but intimately dependent upon the opposition. In their quest to create the starkest contrast, they seek to know without any sense of irony. They want to be so right that they will be completely incapable of contradiction. This is the vanity that they can be absolutely right in their views and can somehow win with information or opinion.
These vanities have led us to some very questionable ways of behaving. When it comes to communicating, many of us employ only partial civility. We fail to see the in-group favoritism behind our selective silence: an epithet is not as false if we think the point is true; rudeness gets a pass when we agree.
And these same vanities have led us to some highly specious ways of knowing. When it comes to gathering information about any current event or issue, many of us practice a kind of secular antinomianism. There is, for some of us, only one trusted news source, and this single authority serves its audience as the living truth in a world of lies. Alarming as this may (or really should) sound, this is the narrative structure that many Americans have begun to operate under. What scares me about this trend is that it seems to point not only to a shift away from healthy skepticism, but also to a veering toward unhealthy belief, specifically belief in media. For some this belief may in fact invest itself in a generic “brand” or “type” of news source. Many see the media for what so much of it really is: a virtual marketplace where the consumer can choose which news outlets he or she wants to view or read or listen to. Many individuals thus rather knowingly select their news according to their own “leanings.” For many others, however, I have found this belief in media to be invested in a specific channel. The reasoning behind this selectivity, as I have heard it, tends to be either that said channel “tells both sides of the story” or that it “tells it like it really is.” With either rationale, such viewers seem to hold to a naïve cultural fundamentalism in which the television network has the capability, if not the consistency, of being morally “trustworthy”; for all practical concerns, the reports from this source are completely inerrant and universally true.
Whether one practices the savvier approach to the media or the more singular supersessionism, both I think subscribe to certain surprisingly sincere assumptions about the media’s “truthiness” and moral dependability. Whether one leans left or right, both sides seem to me to be united by sentimental or uncritical trust in a supposed un-self-interestedness behind the page, the screen, or the speaker. Both share an innate cultural amnesia about the big business behind being “fair and balanced.” Both also forget about the complicity of the self as a consumer of “information.” Often one is left only quantitatively more informed after choosing to read or watch or listen to a specific source of news. Whether one engages in active confirmation bias or the passive “spoon-feeding” of media, the logic behind the narrative of one’s life remains in truth a tautology, a story whose conclusion is already essentially decided. Morally speaking, this means that one’s agency is never held very responsible for the knowledge it acquires, just as one’s opinions are never in danger of being proven wrong, both of which mean that one’s character is never in a position to be improved. Personally speaking, this means that one’s beliefs and actions (i.e. values and voting habits) gradually come to resemble one’s preferred form of media.
And this is true of both sides—or rather true of two sides. For just this past summer studies have come out showing that media preference has become perhaps the greatest indicator of many people’s political identities. (And I would also wager, to some extent, religious identities as well.) Instead of “Democrat or “Republican,” or even the more general “liberal” and “conservative,” alliances have been drawn between two channels: CNN and Fox News.
The dreadful irony here is that the initial benefit of choice has become a detrimental illusion. When knowledge, packaged as “news,” becomes a commodity, information turns into a kind of food. When this food becomes fast, and when the need for it becomes fear-based, ingestion of it becomes a kind of mental gorging. Just as we enjoy it to the point of bloating, we are afraid to starve ourselves of it for a second. Meanwhile, the only ones who grow truly healthy, who increase in strength and power according to their nature, are the media juggernauts we once chose to create. We the consumers are largely consumed.
Trump: Representative Man
But this picture of post-2016 election media is really incomplete without a proper image of Trump. No other topic has proven more discussed or divisive than his presidency. No other figure’s words have been more referenced or reacted to than his. No one has shown himself to be a better representative of the vanities of our present media than him. And thus he is deserving of considerable skepticism.
Perhaps the single greatest proof of this is his Twitter account. Indeed, his activities on this platform alone have been so copious as to warrant a book-length collection. Through Twitter in particular Trump has used media to exacerbate the vanities of presumptuous knowledge, arrogant opinion, and illusory authority. There seems to be no limit to the topics that he feels licensed to react to and pronounce his opinion upon. Whether it’s to do with the most sensitive matters of state—his sudden firing of James Comey, say, or the intentionally private preview he was given of the monthly US jobs report, or blaming a member of his own cabinet for a supposedly “Rigged Witch Hunt” against him—or with nation-wide cultural issues—the low quality of the news or certain TV shows, the NFL protests, the innovation and potential sale of 3D guns—Trump is a thorough participant in media whose obsession and position of power help to perpetuate the attention-machine.
In fact, the “power” in his position to some degree more closely resembles that of “fame” or infamy than proper political prestige. His approach to the presidency appears to come directly out of marketing; his embrace of controversy shows that in his mind any publicity is good publicity. He has spent a considerable amount of official time and statement denouncing those outlets that criticize or lampoon him. (He has, for instance, considered it entirely right and proper that the American people know just how low he thinks the quality of SNL is.)
Indeed, Trump’s sense of influence as a leading figure in social media has only led him to incite more controversy and incivility. His Tweets have become their own brand of click-bait. He is, in this case, far removed from the example of Lincoln, whose words were meant to preserve the Union even as they espoused and implemented changes that many Americans found strange, untrue, or threatening. Trump, as we have seen over and over again, has no problem, and indeed seems to relish, the espousal and implementation of the strange, the untrue, and the threatening. Here I think we see the difference between the former lawyer and the continued businessman. The one never gave up his attempt to persuade; the other will not let go of his monopoly in the market. In his tenacious drive to be at the center of the media fray, he is less a president than a provocateur.
This is not a complete surprise. After all, for some time now, much if not most of Trump’s market has been the media. He is and continues to be a media personality. What we are seeing is thus what many have right termed his “reality-star approach to the real world.” In his constant commentaries on other leaders alone, calling even foreign allies “weak,” he is less a president than a competitor.
Of course this is not to present Trump as an isolated case. No matter how big an individual he may think himself to be, he is intimately connected with the greater culture. He would not be the faulty known quantity that he is were it not for the faulty forms of knowledge that he operates within. Thus he reinforces the vanities whose pretense his self-image is dependent upon.
He feeds the reductive tendencies of mass-communication through labels and epithets. In his constant denigrations of his enemies—calling James Comey a “slime ball” and Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog”—he demonstrates his internal commitment to representing the bellicose self-promotion of the media over the plural identities of the United States.
He sharpens the schisms between parties, whether political, cultural, or religious, through arrogant, aggressive, and absolutizing claims. In giving spiteful partisan comments that he knows will get a negative response from the opposition—“So much for the big Blue Wave, it may be a big Red Wave”—he shows himself an exploiter of the woefully unproductive culture of schadenfreude in contemporary politics. Unsurprisingly, he reserves his greatest vanities for his own supporters:
“My supporters are the smartest, strongest, most hard working and most loyal that we have seen in our countries history. It is a beautiful thing to watch as we win elections and gather support from all over the country. As we get stronger, so does our country. Best numbers ever!”
In Tweets like this one I think we see just how absorbed Trump is in the shallowest forms of socially mediated knowledge. His communication here betrays a level of thinking so general and superficial that it completely avoids nuance or fact. So sloppily pompous is the quality of its language, so impossibly superlative are its claims, that it is hard to see anyone taking it seriously. In its haste and casualness, in its entirely uncritical self-indulgence, it reads more like a negligible entry in a comments section than anything from the desk of a president.
But herein lies the truly troubling fact of Donald Trump’s media participation: he is not merely a persona; he is the president. His words have consequences. His thoughts and opinions have actual effects in the real world. His reactions to current events have influence on his supporters and his detractors. It should not be only the Department of Justice that considers his Tweets to be official statements. As a president he is a public servant of the entire United States. To some very real degree, what he says and does represents the rest of us.
But what Trump really represents about us is our consumption of and by the media. The narrative by which he knows the world is highly selective and utterly self-privileging. In calling his own public detractors “losers and haters,” he reveals his opportunistic understanding of “the American people.” He does not know the dimensions of American life that do not agree with him, nor does he wish to. Like many of us, he would like the world to be as he knows it, which is to say wants it, to be.
The real danger of Trump is his treatment of the political dimension of his position in society with social media’s dominant conflict-custom. In his frequent antagonism with “Fake News,” especially his statements about the press being “the enemy of the American people,” he demonstrates his desire to own a monopoly on truth. Indeed, this topic is arguably his greatest obsession. Unlike previous presidents, he cannot let bad press go undenied. This, I believe, is because Trump overwhelmingly embodies our vain belief that truth is a commodity. The kind of truth that Trump sells is the most impressive truth there is. It is absolute, it is complete, it is solid and strong and supreme. Thus, Trump treats his performance as the president as a kind of competition.
As a person, Trump represents our vain attempt to dictate the news. As a president, he resembles a dictator denying conflicting reports: as he brazenly told a recent assembly of veterans, “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Like many of our more vociferous citizens, his is a false and overweening skepticism, thrusting the preferred truths that he holds to into the views of others. But as the executive politician of our democracy, his words have the impact of actions. When he treats information as both subservient to the self and authoritative over other selves, he threatens to enforce a faulty narrative onto other perspectives. In other words, his fight against “the Fake News Media,” as much as it is complicit with and conditioned by the media, nevertheless goes beyond the personal illusions of selective news.
This has become dangerously true of Trump’s constant conflict with intelligence agencies and the justice system (whose authenticity he has often liked to undermine in quotation marks). In his presidency Trump has gone well beyond breaking bureaucratic decorum—he has sought to obliterate his responsibility to outside checks and balances. He has treated conflicting intelligence as competing interest, gradually rebranding the evidence of eight different agencies under one ignominious label, that specter the “deep state.” This narrative further promotes his image as the lone renegade out to clean up the corrupt old town. The problem is that Trump is not alone, and his image is only advertising. It is not true for the world outside his will and whim.
Indeed, in his mercenary yet cavalier approach to political leadership, Trump has shown just how little knowledge he has of the greater moral casualties that can and have come out of his publicity battles. By attempting to sever his connections to the other two branches of government, he has done more than campaign after a monopoly of trust: he has also twisted the already skewed political hermeneutic of many Americans toward the level of contemptuous conspiracy theorizing, and he has established for himself and his allies a pernicious pattern of absolute self-authorization and abject disbelief toward outside arbitration.
This pattern has become appallingly actualized in the Trump administration’s practices. Trump’s presidency has created a culture of competition and distrust that values surprise as an administrative strategy. This has meant that policies can strike with little or no warning, depending on how close the concerned party may be to the executive. Both the “travel ban” and the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy had just this effect. But the unseen consequence of this Big-Business approach to government was that it “sowed confusion and anger” among contingents, further solidifying competitors who should have been collaborators.
And as we saw just this summer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have continued the President’s trend of categorically dismissing responsive criticism and conflicting facts: not only do illegal immigrants have no validity for asylum—domestic abuse and gang violence being apparently unworthy of or dishonest about any credible fear—but the government itself has the most ultimate authority of all (being “very biblical”).
This zero-tolerance of other verities has reached well into Trump’s major alliances in the media. What many medical authorities (and really anyone with imaginative sympathy) took to be the birth of a potentially lifelong trauma for immigrant children Laura Ingraham dared to call “essentially summer camps.” Most galling of all is perhaps Sean Hannity, the so-called “shadow chief of staff” whose mendacity apes and aids the President’s own. In his responses to the egregious separation of approximately 2,000 immigrant children from their parents, Hannity attempted to shift the blame from Trump to Congress. When Trump, facing widespread criticism, eventually reneged, Hannity spun this backing down as Trump’s intentional correction of the flawed system: “Another president signed it, but he fixed it.” Hannity employed a thorough web of falsehood in defending Trump’s ignorance of good government, whether of the proper protocol for implementing legal change or of the full ramifications of his totalizing policy. His allegiance to his ideology has completely ruled his reason.
But this only brings us back full circle. Because like Trump, Hannity is representative of a greater problem. As a newsman, he is the news. As media users, we are the media. We are, at this point, self-perpetuating. Both Trump and Hannity would not have acquired or at least kept the power they have were there not people who support them. They are representatives of what drives so many of us.
So what is it exactly that drives us? What at bottom compels us to know and be known in faulty knowledge?
Perhaps in this Donald Trump can serve us once more as somewhat representative. As in most things, his significance will be that of exaggeration, but there may be some slighter truth inside.
In a now-famous interview recorded with the New York Times, Trump displayed a rare lapse into self-reflection—even as he denied its viability for himself. “I don’t analyze myself because I might not like what I see,” he told the reporter. He went on to talk about a small variety of topics, such as his heroes (“I don’t have heroes”), his history (“I don’t like talking about the past”), and his respect for others (“For the most part . . . you can’t respect people because most people aren’t worthy of respect”). But later on, when asked if it bothered him to get all the attention that he draws, his answer was I think rather telling: “No,” he said, “I think what would unnerve me is if it didn’t happen.”
As the Times article acutely shows, Trump sees knowledge only in terms of status. This misconstrual may seem to make him an exceptional case, but status is really a symbol of a deeper state: power. And behind power is pride—what some of us secularly call “self-interest.” It is not enough for Trump to own things—he must own attentions. The irony of this power is that in growing large it cannot stand, for it has rejected any notion of outside support. The irony of this self-interest is that it fails to know itself, for it wills to forget its origins and its limits.
Perhaps there is an implicit vanity in the adage that “knowledge is power”—the prideful belief that we can know something, anything, well enough to have control over it. Perhaps it’s what has led us to confuse power with knowledge. Perhaps in our wolfing facts we really hunger to be certain. We want less to know, than to be known, even if it is to be known as knowing.
What Don’t I know? The Limits of Vanity
To Montaigne, the search for knowledge eventually leads to the understanding that any ultimate knowledge is vain. It is oneself that one finds in the attempt to master truth. So much of what we see is our own shadow. Honesty admits a big enough picture to see this. Hubris, for all its bigness, has far too small a view.
Like us, Montaigne lived at a time of intense debates. Many had to do with the nature of the human being (the material body, the immaterial soul) and the human society (the government, the church). Through his skepticism, he saw that any complete agreement would be impossible on this side of things. The sides were too many the conceits were too heated to be hospitable to unity. As he saw it, much of the conflict came from overconfidence:
“[People] do not know the natural infirmity of their mind: it does nothing but ferret and quest, and keeps incessantly whirling around, building up and becoming entangled in its own work.”
Everyone knew, and knew that they knew, and knew that they knew better than the others who knew. But even if everyone knew that they did not—even if they, like the skeptics, knew that so much of their knowing was thinking—even still, Montaigne avers the limits of knowledge as an end-in-itself.
“In truth, knowledge is a great and very useful quality . . . But yet I do not set its value at that extreme measure some attribute to it . . . That I do not believe, nor what others have said, that knowledge is the mother of all virtue, and that all vice is produced by ignorance. If that is true, it is subject to a long interpretation.”
In Montaigne’s view, the point of skepticism’s deeper knowledge is humility. As one scholar has put it, his philosophy is a really an “ethics of judgment”: he prefers “to exert his ‘natural judgment’ to displaying his erudition.” Beneath this judgment are deep beliefs about the human creature, because a creature it is in Montaigne’s Hellenistic-Christian mind. The true source of our being lies in some profound sense outside of ourselves. This same source is also the source of true knowledge.
Thus, beneath all of Montaigne’s questioning is an acknowledgment: that only God needs no improving. The rest of us—the human race—must not forget that capacity for correction and fulfillment which has been imparted to us, that old thing called the “soul.” “[W]e hang on to the branches and abandon the trunk.” For Montaigne, our purpose is not to be right but to live well. Not to kid ourselves as absolute, but to accept ourselves as processes. Not being true, nor even true to ourselves, but being truer to our truer selves.
The God’s Truth
I continue to find Montaigne inspiring, but I know he has his limits. For as useful as he continues to be, some of his baseline beliefs about humanity are in fact more Hellenistic than Christian. His basic attitude of reservation—that impressive rhetorical repose that informs so much of his writing—owes much more to Socrates than Christ. His understanding of human contradiction comes from the Socratic paradox and not the Christological. He is more concerned with knowledge than love.
In the Christian’s eyes, Montaigne’s humanism may be too optimistic. For anyone who takes the traditions around Genesis 3 seriously, the human tree of knowledge is not a little weedlike. Like Montaigne, such a Christian will likely affirm the ultimate dependency of human knowledge on God and its final defeat in death. But they will also probably want to claim the serious obstacles to soulful improvement and the ability of love to go beyond them.
By now I believe that we are caught inside a vicious cycle: we make ourselves in the likeness of our devices, just as our devices bear the image of our pride. It is a slowly dehumanizing genesis where our tools, far from stewarding our better impulses, greatly accelerate the cultivation of our egotism. But the garden of humanity will dry up to a very narrow patch under the shadow of our knowingness. No individual can truly survive without his or her roots, and no society can stand that separates itself from the greater resources that ground it.
To my eyes we are practically overrun with vanities. Conceit has certainly spread well into our conversations, whether private or public, personal or national. What we think we know we know, while all along we believe that our knowledge is power. No wonder so many contrarians and cynics have found a voice. When the discourse is so choked with airs, no wonder only the most cutting words work.
Added to this more universal sin—the general tendency toward falsehood to the image of God in everyone—is the more relative injustice being done in our context—the special falsehood committed against the image of God by some. With the Trump presidency, not only truth, but also corruption has taken on a highly selective meaning within an alarming amount of the populace. Polls have consistently shown that Trump’s most ardent supporters do not view him as being in anyway untrue, either to facts or to morals or to law, largely because their view of what America should be privileges what America supposedly used to be—a myth for which Trump has claimed forcefully and repeatedly to stand. In this hermeneutic, “traditional identity” trumps all other forms of identity. The greatest perceived threat to this traditional identity, and thus the most in need of being decried, is the infringement of the myriad and wildly divergent identity politics of “the Left.” Of the many faces this corruption has had, that of the immigrant is of course one of the most heinous. But muddying this exclusionist Americanism are the facade of party loyalty and the proprietary righteousness of pro-life politics, both of which habitually ignore the often multiple and glaring wrongs of their candidates in favor of total opposition toward a singular evil. For many, it seems, the image of “America” has grown so enormous and solid that it has fashioned an ossified social sensibility around it. It appears that opinion has become epistemology. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any constructive talk about unconscious bias coming off as anything other than attack.
And so how on earth are we practice a healthy skepticism nowadays? Currently Montaigne seems to me a rather rarefied case in his naïve attempt to speak his mind to others “in good faith.” How are we to question ourselves, when we won’t give each other any quarter? How to be understood, when to reflect is to be seen as lengthy and thus to be almost immediately overlooked; when to question someone merely confirms what he or she already thought we were: an enemy?
One plausible approach is to be sharper skeptics—to work harder with one’s questions, and firmer with one’s facts. The time of Montaignean repose is over. The time of active reading and assiduous fact-checking is here.
This is no doubt necessarily true, but I believe it is not sufficiently true. To my lights such a posture will have to be balanced with humility if the vanity of proof is to be avoided. For those of us who are Christians, we are called to be as wise as serpents, yes, but also as harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16). How do we seek out higher truth without lording our knowledge of it over others? How to we know without convincing ourselves of control of the matter?
There is another kind of knowledge, almost unknown to us by now, that I think we sorely need to relearn. It is the Hebrew Bible’s understanding of knowledge. The word “to know” in Hebrew has many meanings. In fact, the definition and variants of yada (ידע) cover over two pages in the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon. Thus, to know in Hebrew can also mean to learn, indicate, announce, narrate, perceive, observe, discern, distinguish, experience, or consider; to be acquainted, physical, or intimate with; and to be skillful or to be wise. As many scholars have noted, the book of Genesis uses this term as loosely synonymous with “had experience of” or “cohabited with,” but with the “legitimate possession” of love. Still, the plenary comprehension of this word is far richer, far more capacious in what it can look like.
By the time it gets to Isaiah, yada has come to mean the knowledge that God has of humanity, which is that fullest form of intimacy, being simultaneously understanding and love. This is why the lack of it is so atrocious to the prophet: “Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3); “They do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of his hands” (5:12). The people in their conceited knowledge have come no longer to know each other as known (yada) by God. They have even denied this kind of knowledge to “the innocent” by invalidating their “rights” (23). In a deep sense, the violent separation of social ties that Israel experiences through injustice is the logical consequence of self-arrogating wisdom: “Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight!” (22). And thus Isaiah intends the full import of yada when he says, “My people go into exile for lack of knowledge” (5:13).
(The prophet Isaiah in all his humble humanity; wood engraving by Barry Moser.)
Even the highest human knowledge can fail to know in the most vital sense. According to the Bible this failure is in fact the norm: in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Human wisdom and understanding have failed to save [humanity] from pride, presumption, and arrogance.” For us today the Book remains far deeper than the screen.
It seems to me that our situation cries out for a certain mysticism. We must find time to retreat from our idolatrous patterns, which have grown so golden—so hard and fast and godlike—that our minds may fail to soften toward forgiveness from any error, whether on behalf of ourselves or on behalf of others. We need to find a space and time beyond the news, so that we might return to that wider world before our knowledge. This is what Heschel calls “radical amazement,” that “knowledge by inacquaintance,” that childlike insight that we did not create the things we see. Because in the grander scheme the world is never ours to know to the fullest extent, but rather to live in within our growing limits.
It is by re-cultivating this kind of reflection that we might come to see in our gaping limits our close connectedness. We might see in our createdness the createdness of other things, including, of course, other persons. By recognizing our limits, we might know more fully the God for whom there is no limit. Instead of being driven about by our own conceits, we might find ourselves filled with prophetic sympathy. This form of knowledge reaches to “the heights of religious consciousness of transcendent spirituality.” Such knowledge “knows no bounds within the horizontally human”; it sees with “[t]he assurance of worth, the religious legitimization of feeling and affection, [which] spring from the vertical dimension within which [divine] pathos moves.” By coming back to common life, we might be better able to communicate.
As a Christian person, I believe the communion of Christ is really a continuation of prophetic sympathy. The yada of Isaiah becomes the agape of Jesus. Indeed, in Jesus we see true words become true flesh, true knowledge become true action. We see love. This is why it has been so distressing to me to see so many “Christian” people fighting the many inforwars with such digital sympathy, because they seem to be battling too often for the god that is their truth. But the truth as the Christian scripture claims it, the God’s truth, is that Christ does not care about rightness as we currently know it. Scandalously—both for his contemporary Jewish and Hellenistic society and for our own socially mediated age—he sets truth itself at a subservient level. He does not say “God is truth”; he says God is love (1 John 4:7-21). He does not say “truth is knowledge,” but rather truth is me—my way, my life (John 14:6). And finally, as if his knowledge did not turn our wisdom enough on its head, he says, And I am most of all the least of these (Matt. 25:40-5). Truth has never been a king, and truth is certainly not a president. Truth is a helpless child, a worthless pauper, an absolute nobody.
The kind of knowledge I am calling for cannot come solely from technology. It comes from what many still know as “spiritual practice.” It is understanding turned into doing, contemplation fulfilling action. It is also knowledge for the long-term, because, after all, we will still be human beings even after Trump. Though many may be feeling to the contrary, this current administration will not last much longer, in the grand scheme of things; but it seems safe to say that our technological society will only continue to grow indefinitely. We must not let these fractious times shape us for the future. We must keep to our knowledge of what is true in any time.
Write the Bird
So, what do I know? At the end of the day, what do I know despite what I do not know and no matter what I know is not? What do I know despite what others may know?
I know that while we chase the words of one man the minds of many thousands of children are sinking into senescence. I know that as I cultivate my personal outrage over political infractions I am complicit in a number of “scandalous slow-motion disasters” in the private and public lives of young people.
I know that when I subbed in a high school study hall last year, I could tell just by their handwriting which of the students on my sign-in sheet were from a low-income background. Having been an early childhood educator, I could see in the crookedness of their letters the marks of an unstable and therefore technically “improper” grip on the pencil. I could easily imagine how a grown-up of more privilege might see their script as merely “bad.” A teacher might call it “illegible.” A boss would likely think it “messy.” But I knew that behind their hands were their childhood fingers, struggling mostly alone to keep a hold on this thing that they knew for some reason they would need for their lives, scratching the shapes that already bore such an intimidating character over their identity. To any passerby, having only a surface-level knowledge of them, their writing would have looked weak or childlike. To me, having known so many children who have had adult help along the way of shaping their letters and thus forming their minds, their names looked stunted, but set, crooked only as if from a fight with an invisible hand trying to keep them still.
I know that these students are far from exceptions. I know that many students in this country do not get the appropriate care and education they so sorely need at the earliest age. Indeed, I know that the first stages of a child’s development are so expansive and malleable that a healthy or a harmful change in their environment can have the effect of a blessing or a curse for the rest of their life. The least knowable brains by adult standards are actually the greatest growing. It is an incredible irony that we of the narrow, arrested mindsets have such a profound responsibility to them.
And in fact I know that it is for just this kind of irresponsibility that the gentle Jew from Nazareth reserved his most damning invectives (Matt. 18:6). We must change our course of systemically leading the little ones astray; we must redeem the generations we have abandoned to an ignominy of our making.
How are we supposed to do this on such a grand scale? I honestly don’t know. But on the smaller scale I have some thoughts. They come from a true story.
A friend of mine teaches art in inner-city schools. She is an itinerant teacher—“portable” or “mobile” is how I think her district spins it—and so she goes about visiting different schools on her schedule. Many of the classrooms she goes into have students that are taking art for the very first time. In one of these classrooms, she was in the middle of giving instruction for representational drawing, showing the kids a photo of a bird and modeling which shapes they might want to think of when they made their own version—when a child interrupted her and asked, “Can I write the bird?” Many teachers I know would have been caught up in the interruption. And many adults I know would have been quick to correct the child: “Raise a quiet hand . . . You mean, can I draw the bird . . .” But my friend knew more about the child than either of these parties of grown-ups. She knew that he did not say “write” because the child did not have access to the word “draw.” She knew that if the child didn’t have access to the word “draw,” then that child probably didn’t have access to drawing itself, let alone to an environment that looks at birds simply for the experience of looking at them. And thus she knew that what the child was really hoping to know with that question was whether or not he could know, finally and for real, a world so different and distant from his own. The child wanted to know if he could truly belong to a world of fuller beauty and life. The child wanted to know yes.
To know in this way, you have to know more than your usual knowingness. You have to go beyond your terms to someone else’s, seeing with the window of innocence and not the mirror of rightness. You have to peer through the useful illusions of your maturity and once again spy the world wide like a child. You have to make the smallest thing into a being of massive importance. You have to realize that only the dove will save you from your serpentine shrewdness. In other words, you have to write the bird.
 As in Christopher.
 On Montaigne’s “overwhelming directness,” see Harold Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, p. 119-21.
 “Of Pedantry,” p. 122.
 Montaigne, “Of Custom,” in The Complete Works, translated by Donald Frame, p. 96.
 “Of Sumptuary Laws,” p. 239.
 “Of Smells,” p. 277.
 “Of Experience,” p. 1044
 From his famous “Of Cannibals,” p. 185; second emphasis mine.
 “Of Experience, p. 1009.
 “Of Experience,” p. 996.
 “On Some Verses of Virgil,” p. 780.
 “Of Experience,” p. 1013.
 @realDonaldTrump, Jun 9, 2018.
 Ibid., 7:17 AM – Apr 13, 2018 and 6:31 – Aug 14, 2018, respectively.
 Ibid., 9:12 AM – 16 Jun 2018.
 Although, interestingly, in his frequent use of all-caps in other tweets he also represents an old-timey newspaper.
 Ibid., 6:04 PM – 11 Jun 2018.
 Ibid., 4:48 PM – Feb 17, 2017; later redacted.
 From the New York Times’ coverage of the “Trump tapes” interviews: Michael Barbaro, “What Drives Donald Trump? Fear of Losing Status, Tapes Show.”
 “Of Experience,” p. 995.
 Apology for Raymond Sebond, p. 387.
 “Of Presumption,” p. 581.
 “To the Reader,” p. 2.
 See Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, p. 29, n.1.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, p. 118.
 Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, p. 131.
 Heschel, The Prophets, p. 397.
 See Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter, Ch. 9.