The Art of the Possible

Detail from “The Effects of Good and Bad Government,” Caleb Ives Bach (1985).

What is “reality”? One answer: If I punch the wall, I hurt myself; if I step out the window, I fall. These are the principles I can accommodate myself to or manipulate or (for a short, inglorious period) choose to defy for some doomed reason or another.

Another answer comes from the first: Reality sets the bounds of the possible, the terms of debate, the imaginative limits we need to work under. Thus for politics, that art of the possible, reality says that there are winners and losers, that on certain issues, maybe all issues, we’re dealing with a zero sum game; your health or theirs, your safety or theirs, your children or theirs. There’s only so much space, so many chairs, so much goodwill to go around. Everybody’s hands are tied, no one is ever really responsible.

I’ll admit, in this second sense, I find I’m tired of reality, a shifting and twisting declaration of what cannot be argued with or challenged that comes down to things are as good as they can be, they stand to get worse if you agitate about that fact too much, and perceived reality is the only reality worth discussing (if you feel your hands are tied, does it matter whether or not they are?). Leibniz proposes in his Theodicy that the best of all possible worlds requires some of us to do evil, to fail, and to struggle. In the grandest understanding of space and time, if all could be encompassed and understood, that might be true enough. Politically, however, it’s a little much to swallow.

A zero sum reality, in which every win is someone else’s loss, exists in a constant state of crisis, and those who want to push back end up having no language other than the language of crisis to use, pitting one kind of existential threat against another. Immigration is a case in point: It threatens our sense of having limited, and dwindling, resources and space. This sense of crisis in turn justifies any means to contain immigration, with the principle being, as the president said recently, “I’m sorry, you can’t come in.” Sure, you have to separate families now, but that’s the price of doing business.

Challenges to this position can either accept the essential terms (“yes, this is an existential threat, or at any rate feels like one”) but try to implement the solutions more humanely (“#JailFamiliesTogether”). Or they will escalate the level on which the crisis occurs, making the creation of a border crisis a move in a larger, national crisis. Invoking crisis tries to draw attention to the ways in which our political reality is artificial, and can be changed, but only by representing that as an existential threat.

But because every crisis is existential, life-or-death, the capacity for political attention shrinks to just one struggle. And indeed, many of these issues are life or death, but not for the main players, for whom the struggle often about capturing attention and setting the rules. Whenever an issue is exhausted, or some minor victory is achieved, the next crisis starts.

The above is mostly an attempt to articulate—albeit in an abstract way—something that’s nagging at me as I watch one political battle after another take place. I take most of the issues at stake here quite seriously; I don’t believe it’s a waste of time to dedicate attention, money, or thought to them. I don’t decry the idea of politicization or polarization as such—it all depends, after all, on what the politics are, where the poles sit.

But what I resent about “reality,” and the constant crisis generated thereby, is its foreclosing of imaginative possibility. The nature of a crisis is that you don’t have the ability to think outside it, you just want to survive. The nature of reality is that you can’t think outside it except in explicitly fantastical terms. And yet many of our imaginative attempts to do so (a few shows on HBO come to mind) just seem to recapitulate our own reality of rape, war, and brutality, in the name, again, of realism. Reality, it seems, is only ever ugly. Strange.

The wild optimism of Leibniz’s reality—in which every action we take somehow contributes to the perfection of this world—has become, for us, mere cynicism: Things are what they are; they can be tweaked, but not improved. The suffering of the poor, the weak, and the dispossessed is just how things are, and no one’s responsible for it, because no one can help them; because no one can help them, no one cares about them. They will be made to suffer, but not by human hands or through human means.

Maybe it’s passé to think a better world is possible, but we could at least try our hand at imagining one. I spent much of my formative years reading writers formed by the Cold War who were skeptical of Utopia; perhaps political ideals led inevitably, they worried, to dehumanization of opponents, to justified atrocity. Their skepticism was well-earned. But I wish I could go back and tell them that people are equally capable of brutality for no ideals whatsoever.

B.D. McClay is senior editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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