The Shallow State

When The New York Times first adopted its motto, “All The News That’s Fit to Print” in 1897, I’d wager that its owner, Adolph S. Ochs, could never have predicted a day when anyone would argue that “fake news” had a (proud!) right to see print. Recently, The Washington Post chose its own new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

This blog doesn’t have a motto per se, although words are basically all I have to fight with, but words can wound, even kill—and also heal. So I hope the Post won’t mind my adapting their motto here, at least for now and with a tweak: Democracy Dies in Silence. Words really do matter.

The latest phrase being bandied about is the “Deep State.” It was originally used to describe a cabal or core of powerful men—civilian, military, or both—operating secretly within another state run by (aware or unaware) puppets. The purported aim of this coterie was to control the visible state or, if and when deemed desirable, to sabotage it. Steve Bannon, Trump’s Rasputin in more ways than one, resurrected the phrase “Deep State” from its previous usage in describing pockets of power in the former USSR, China, Turkey, and other authoritarian societies. It’s Bannon—of the potbelly and the crumpled pants, the unshaved chin and alcoholic’s red nose—Bannon, with his pseudo-intellectual pretensions, who now wields the phrase.

He uses it to condemn Congress, the judiciary, the press, and our other democratic institutions—along with feminists, environmentalists, civil rights leaders, and grass-roots activists—as if all these comprised a secret society conspiring to wield evil power against the innocent Trumpian regime. He especially hurls the charge at career diplomats, statisticians, and principled public servants in cabinet departments and government agencies, some of whom who are risking their jobs and safety to dare leak evidence of what Trump, under Bannon’s stated agenda, is doing, illegally, to our government.

True, Bannon has read a few books—which in Trumpworld makes him not only an intellectual but a genius. He knows, for example, that “deconstruction” is a concept pushed by Derrida, Lacan, and a few other Frenchmen enamored of abstraction and apparently fearful of the much simpler synonym, “analysis.” Deconstruction became chic in some American academic circles, and Bannon thinks he’s brainy by dropping the word, which passes for brilliance since to Donald Trump “deconstruction” is what happens when one of his real-estate deals falls through. So, sorry, but nothing about Bannon impresses me as intelligent: a slick Wall Street operator, a B-movie producer of right-wing films, a wife beater, gossip peddler, white-ethno-nationalist, and right-wing-tabloid peddler—nah, Bannon is not someone I would describe as a profound thinker.

But I would describe him as a shrewd, grasping proponent of the shallow state—a fitting description of the Trump regime.

The White House is suffering through chaos at the headquarters, with a ripple effect shuddering out to thousands of unstaffed posts throughout the entire government, plus no articulated serious policies, no clear chain of command, and competing factions worthy of a Medici court. But I’ll say this for Bannon: he keeps his word. Trump’s shallow state is the epitome of what Bannon openly pledged to install in place of the so-called Deep State that threatens them both.

Now, well might you ask, “Since when, apart from the beach, is shallowness a virtue?”

Yet it’s this shallow state, this superficial state, over which Trump presides. It has photo ops but no real press conferences. It has meetings with foreign leaders that are content-free from past or present U.S. policy forged by a State Department founded by Thomas Jefferson but now run by a corrupt oil CEO. It has meet-and-greets that grant more time to Harley Davidson execs and their motorcycles on the White House lawn than to heads of historically black colleges who’d been invited to the Oval Office for Trump to have a “listening session” that somehow shrank to another 10-minute photo op. Meanwhile, instead of playing its Constitutional checks-and-balances role as one of the three branches of government, a right-wing-controlled Congress is trying to piggyback its own agenda on Trump’s diminishing popularity with an extremist base before that vanishes.

The shallow state is, from its patriotism to its press releases, fake—so it naturally produces fake news, a reversal of the real. If you want to know what Trump is doing, pay close attention to what he accuses others of doing.

The fake state promises fake freedoms (see the GOP repeal-and-replace “health care” bill), because it’s necessary to project a surface image of accomplishment—to hide and protect the bedlam boiling beneath. Those creating this chaos call it “freedom”—and for them it is, since in the absence of democratically agreed on rules, it’s the powerful, the strongest, who prosper.

Here’s some personal proof from back when I was a young feminist in a consciousness-raising group. Once a month, we sat in a circle on the floor of our different apartments and each woman in turn talked about her life as vulnerably and honestly as she could. It wasn’t easy. Then, in turn, we each responded to what she’d said, and when we’d gone all around the circle so everyone had “testified” and been responded to, we would analyze the similarities, differences, patterns, how race and age and class and sexuality and upbringing factored in, etc. From this process came the phrase “The personal is political.” But in that analysis, we encountered a problem. Some women spoke very little, while others held forth quite a lot. (Later, Jo Freeman wrote a memorable essay about this, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness“.)

So we devised a formula for balance. Each woman would start out with a certain number—five or ten depending on the size of the group—of stones. You could use poker chips or playing cards or toothpicks, anything handy. We used stones or pebbles. The point was that every time you spoke after your initial “testimony,” you had to spend a stone, putting it in the middle of the circle. Once you had spent all your stones, you couldn’t speak again until everyone had exhausted all of their pebbles. Shy women were encouraged by this process to spend their stones—because it was as unacceptable to wind up with your pile intact as to have spent it all too soon.

Well, this formula produced various humorous results until we got the hang of it. Some women blithely spent all their pebbles in the first half hour or so and then had to sit silently, frustrated, cooling their heels. Others hoarded their stones so as to get the last word. Gradually, the process became part of the communication itself. For me, spending those stones presented the opportunity—reluctantly accepted at first, I confess—to really listen.

We are none of us humans born fair. I think that we may, oddly enough, be born with a sense of what’s not fair, though. But we have to learn how to practice the skill of fairness, learn how to wait, how to listen, how to recognize each other. Without that skill, our diversity shatters into hypocrisy, our solidarity settles for uniformity. Without that skill, we lack depth perception—and we lack depth.

But what if instead we redefined the Deep State? What if we understood it as the place where what has been forcibly repressed, hidden, disempowered, is lodged?

This Deep State is composed of women the world over, whose unpaid work—through reproduction alone, not even counting all the other free labor—enables the existence of every other kind of work, of society itself. This Deep State consists of people trying to break through a deliberately inflicted amnesia about enslavement, sexual and labor, both in 18th- and 19th-century America and in today’s 21st-century world. This Deep State is populated by artists, scientists, and philosophers who can’t or won’t let a day pass without committing the subversive act of noticing.

Bannon is quite right to fear this Deep State, because the invisible and indivisible ones here are now clustering together. The disabled. The indigenous. The poor. The illiterate. The dark-skinned. The old. Children. Refugees. The sick. Beaten and prostituted and raped women. The disenfranchised. The forgotten. The unheard. This is a deep, Deep State.

In an even deeper state, unlistened to, are the 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird, and mammal that go extinct every 24 hours. In the deepest state of all, trees defoliate in revolt and the soil parches into sand while the icecaps melt and the seas rise.

This Deep State is now massing. It’s goal is to, yes, sabotage the shallow state—even if by the simplest means: by keeping each other alive long enough so all of us can spend our pebbles; by keeping our species alive long enough to evolve into something less primitive, perhaps, than the current version of humanity; by listening to what the speechless are saying.

Democracy dies in silence. This Deep State is a state of being, of existing unafraid of profound depth. This Deep State is around us and inside us. It’s our own.