Judith Goldstein Reflects on Vision and Current Affairs

April 03, 2018

April 2, 2018 –

I have been thinking a great deal about ‘seeing’ in both the physical and metaphoric senses. Eight months ago, I went for an annual visit to the ophthalmologist in Maine. All went well; no changes in the prescription glasses. She made light mention of cataracts, but nothing of concern. In the fall, I noticed that reading print on a screen was a bit blurry. Assuming this was temporary fatigue and part of getting older, I accommodated. Although I had stopped going to museum exhibitions because viewing brought little pleasure, I never thought to ask why that was the case.

In December, I dropped by the optometrist to tighten the screws on my glasses. She said the frames were shot and suggested new ones. I said that was not necessary. She said the glasses were four years old. I was ordered to read the wall chart with letters. Glasses on, I got through the top three lines and stopped. I was both surprised since the expert in Maine had said all was fine. I was also not surprised since I had the feeling—but not the self-acknowledgement—that something wasn’t right. The optometrist sent me to a new ophthalmologist who advised cataract surgery for both eyes as soon as possible.

The post-operative results are stunning: clarity and precise vision of lines, rich colors, textures, shapes and miles into the distance. The city is now endlessly detailed. The doctor maintains that my sight has not been as sharp and colors as strong since I was five years old. I feel enthralled by things that I once thought I was seeing in their fullness. In fact, they were clouded indications or permutations of the visual world up close or at a distance. 

Now, I keep thinking about the politically-charged metaphorical meanings of clarity versus the inclination to accommodate to the slow deterioration of observation and knowledge. In this time of continuous shocks to civic life and liberal democracy, we are running out of useful adjectives to describe what we are experiencing: sordid, sleazy, squalid, to name a few. There is a tendency among some to turn away because the deterioration of liberal democratic norms and policies is unrelenting. Some people want to turn off as those in power, especially the President, are taking down the state—and too many others along with ours—as we have known it. The strategy mixes sheer venality with willful incompetence and ignorance. 

In thinking about the metaphor, I searched in anthologies for literary depictions of declining vision. I tried topics such as vision, observation, and, ultimately, blindness. Friends recommended reading José Saramago’s novel Blindness. It is brilliant in its depiction of a dystopian world of a fast-spreading epidemic of blindness. His characters confront a new reality as their eyes, in the matter of seconds, show nothing but a totally-blurred, white world. His layers of meaning—real and symbolic—are endless and scary. He wrote another novel, Seeing, which is no less confounding. 

In Blindness, Saramago switches from clear sight to darkness, as the white curtain suddenly engulfs his characters. The novel doesn’t provide a metaphor for the insidious slow adaptation to poor sight, which is why this is a state that seems applicable to what we are experiencing today. We adjust. We get used to the ongoing diminution of policies and practices aimed to undermine social equity. Playing to the well-to-do, majority-white population comes from every sector of the present Administration—the VA, housing, environment, education, justice et al. The erosion of progressive ideals took place for years—before our clouded eyes—as we looked elsewhere to the Obama White House and urban redoubts. The anti-government regressive forces controlled the Congress and numerous state governments. We failed to see the counterforces. We failed to measure their impact.

In a column in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman recounted the story of a Bedouin chief who lost his turkey. “He called his sons together and told them: ‘Boys, we are in great danger now. My turkey’s been stolen. Find my turkey.’ His boys just laughed and said, ‘Father, what do you need that turkey for?’ and they ignored him. A few weeks later the Bedouin chief’s camel was stolen. His sons went to him and said, ‘Father, your camel has been stolen. What should we do?’ And the chief answered, ‘Find my turkey.’ A few weeks later the chief’s horse was stolen, and again his sons asked what they should do. ‘Find my turkey,’ the chief said. Finally, a few weeks later his daughter was abducted, at which point he gathered his sons and told them: ‘It’s all because of the turkey! When they saw that they could take my turkey, we lost everything.’”

This is what is happening in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and the United States. For the moment, the Hungarian example is the most advanced, as Prime Minister Viktor Orban retreats from liberal democracy to autocratic leadership. He and his party lord over an ethnic, Christian, nationalistic democracy of the people. No one else belongs. No one else is welcome. “For the past eight years,” Patrick Kingsley reported in the New York Times, “Mr. Orban has waged a systemic assault on the hardware of Hungary’s democracy — rewriting the national Constitution, reshaping the judiciary and tweaking the electoral system to favor his Fidesz party. Less conspicuously, Mr. Orban is also trying to recode the software of Hungary’s democracy — its cultural sphere, civil society and education system.” The mechanisms are in full sight, Kingsley wrote.  “His party’s appointees or supporters dominate many artistic institutions and universities. A growing number of plays and exhibitions have had nationalist or anti-Western undertones. Religious groups and nongovernment organizations critical of Fidesz have seen funding dry up. He has especially vilified pro-democracy organizations funded by the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros.” Orban is crushing the opposition through the power of hatred towards others. 

Under Trump and his sycophants and Republican loyalists, America’s liberal democracy is in retreat. But it is not beyond repair. We could, out of frustration and weariness, simply adjust to the losses sustained so far, in a slow retreat from clarity. We could narrow our vision of our responsibility to protect American ideals of social equity—however flawed throughout our history. But we can also give strength and clarity to the forces that resist the Trump-induced madness. Our Polish friend and activist Konstanty Gebert has said it best: we aren’t succeeding but we aren’t failing yet; opportunities can still emerge from responsibilities.  

For solace, the American historian Jon Meacham recently turned to the writings of Barbara Tuchman, another terrific historian. (See article.) In 1984, she wrote The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. “Why did the Trojans allow the Greek horse within the gates?,” Tuchman asked. “How did the Renaissance papacy so badly misjudge the moment, accelerating the Protestant Reformation? What could the British ruling class have done differently to keep the American colonies within London’s reach? Who, if anyone, could have prevented Washington’s tragic misadventure in Vietnam?” And then Meacham asked the obvious question: how did we enable Trump to dominate our world and create an injurious state of affairs that might match the follies of the past? Tuchman opined about what we can learn from history: “To manage better next time is within our means; to anticipate does not seem to be.” 

But to try to see clearly might help! 

To cope better let me suggest the following. 

Films Series:

For two minutes of sheer fun:

Reading: 

Delicious and spicy insights:

 

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Judith Goldstein
Founder and Executive Director
Humanity in Action

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