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Testimony of the Senses
by Jonathan Lethem
I come (partly) from a large Midwestern family. My uncle Walt, my father’s eldest brother, was a lawyer, and an executive of a major oil corporation. He lived in the Chicago suburbs and was a big, hale, jocular fellow. When I visited he wanted to take me to a Cubs game and I wanted to go to a White Sox game instead (because they’d traded for my boyhood hero, Tom Seaver). He thought I was crazy, but he took me to a White Sox game. Later, when he’d retired, he showed me the splendor of the golf courses and water features of his expensive retirement village in Bella Vista, Arkansas by driving me around in his gigantic plush Oldsmobile with a tumbler full of good scotch in plain sight in the cupholder between us.
Walt and his wife raised three remarkable children, one of whom helped found a famous intentional community on hundreds of acres in rural Indiana, another of whom married an Egyptian political scientist and has spent her life in Cairo, working in international development and on issues of population. While I’ve never confronted them with this directly, I can only imagine how starkly my cousins must have differed from their father in their political views. If Walt had lived long enough for me to have a political talk with him, and if I’d had the courage to be even halfway candid as to my own beliefs, it would have been an awfully uncomfortable, even disarranging talk.
Yet Walt generated a field of gentleness and care from deep in his person. I, in turn, loved and trusted him innately, by means of animal senses located deep in my body. This is a conundrum worthy of long consideration, longer than my occasion here. I don’t claim it as unique. Millions of people face it on a regular basis, at much closer proximity, in their own families. What I’m interested in here just now is the somatic sense of Walt’s goodness, his aura of love. I’m interested in this because I want to specify its utter and absolute opposite.
We’re meant not to judge people by their outsides, by their appearances and vibes and auras. Yet we do it all the time. What’s treacherous about doing so is its categorical use, its tendency to mix with the treacherous and unstable facts of difference and otherness. Social scientists, with strong methodologies, have shown us how in matters we believe have to do with individual judgment we’re instead under the sway of categorical or ideological bias, and of xenophobic fear — with disastrous results for our societies.
Still, today, I choose to rely on the testimony of my body and senses. I’m, after all, one outer borough–raised New York white male of relative privilege (I here use privilege in the wide historical view — nobody left me $14 million!) contemplating a person more similar to me than different in his basic outlines. I want to report my somatic fight-or-flight revulsion of Donald Trump, accumulated over four decades of witnessing his career amid his fellow humans. What my childhood senses told me about Uncle Walt, they’ve informed me in reverse here.
My senses tell me Donald Trump is a creature of rage and vengeance, awash with unreconciled lizard-brain reactivity, and who therefore radiates a message to my own lizard brain: danger, pity, wariness. If he weren’t a famous man, if I only knew him because we happened to walk our dogs on the same sidewalk (and if you find it hard to imagine Donald Trump doing that, let your resistance to the image inform your judgment), I’d quietly advise the neighborhood kids to stay away from him and his house. I’d no more trust him with a nephew than I’d trust him with a kitten, let alone a fragile, deeply flawed but still urgent historical experiment in mass collective freedom and diversity.
“Three things in human life are important,” said Henry James: “the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
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Jonathan Lethem is a novelist and short story writer. His eleventh novel, The Feral Detective, will be published this fall.