It is the end of May, 2020. The United States is confronting a grim future and a brutal past simultaneously. It feels like a culmination of something, and also like a repeat. I want to give it a name here to set a boundary, to describe a limit with the hope of marking an end of an era. Let’s call it the Era of Bad Faith.
In 1920, a name for the previous half-century or so in America began to coalesce: The Gilded Age. That time spanning post-civil war reconstruction created immense wealth as the United States built a rail network that catalyzed industrial growth and Westward expansion. Robber barons built massive new organizational structures — trusts — that verticalized whole segments of the economy. The result was galloping disparity and generational inequality that defines the U.S. social landscape still today.
The Gilded Age was also a time when social inequalities began to be codified into law as formerly enslaved people and new groups of immigrants, twenty million of them, sought to live free. But under this veneer of economic prosperity and the promise of a life of liberty, deep inequity had taken root. From it the strange fruit of lynching would grow amidst the worst period of anti-black racism in the nation’s history. We would pass Jim Crow laws, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and continue the enduring cruelty of colonial expansion with Native assimilation policies, boarding schools, and reservations created by the Indian Reorganization Act.
There is a note of deliberate sarcasm in the name the Gilded Age, and that is not a surprise coming as it does from the satirical novel by Mark Twain & Charles Dudley Warner. But with every enduring bon mot, there is always a measure of truth. The golden era of American expansion after the Civil War was an illusion. What was sold to the public as a new foundation for the expansion of freedom was, in reality, a superficial layer of prosperity that would benefit just a few — Rockefellers, Carnegies — at the expense of millions, including many who had already endured lives of hardship and suffering.
It took a few watershed events to break what, in hindsight, was a widely-shared delusion about this period in our history as a country. What ended the fever dream and allowed the truth of Gatsby’s party to be revealed? A world war. A pandemic. The collapse of the financial system.
Historians might be quick to point out that, by most accounts, the Gilded Age didn’t last until 1920, so my claim about what ended the illusion could be misunderstood. I’m not talking about when the period ended, but rather when the name for that time and the damage wrought became real in the public consciousness. Prior to the 1920’s, it did not have a name. One fifth of the new century had passed. And it was only after World War I and a devastating new normal ushered in by a disease called ‘Spanish’ Flu due to a coordinated program of disinformation that the scales began to fall from our collective eyes. A Great Depression would finish the job. We would, eventually, come to understand what had to be done to fix the rot that lay under the gilding: massive reforms to unwind industrial trusts and build a social welfare system to protect the vulnerable.
It is May, 2020. A fifth of the new century has passed. As I write, we are witnessing unprecedented unemployment and another impending collapse of the financial system. A global pandemic — COVID-19 — has disrupted modern habits of living, working, learning. Rising authoritarianism in the U.S. has stoked racial conflict and emboldened a new kind of toxic nationalism that aspires to a new narrative of American greatness. This one doesn’t turn the eyes of Americans forward, toward the Progressive Era values that defined the turn of the last century. It turns them, instead, to a strange and contradictory image of American leadership that has a basis neither in truth, nor in history, a state of American greatness that is, at once, defined by grievance, fear, and isolation. It is a story borne of bad faith.
In 2020, our social order is defined by massive inequality, in wealth, in access to power and privilege, and in representation. It was in the first years of the current century when we started to hear about the 1%, a small group of people whose wealth is exponentially greater than the average American’s and, combined, makes up a shocking amount of the total wealth in the U.S. In the 1% we see, still with us today, the legacy of the Gilded Age. Along with a few more layers on top.
In the last century, as with the railroads, we built more networks with government money and fueled economic expansion each time — a grid of electricity to provide centralized power, telephone, interstate highways, and the Internet. The pattern is a stable one. Public funding with a national security rationale works to create the infrastructure. Later, as commercial opportunity grows, there are cries for deregulation, and with it the compound interest of the public is captured by powerful corporate structures. Each time, a project promised to contribute to a vision of freedom drives inequality.
If the pattern repeats each time with such stability, why do we fall for it? This is the defining question of the Era of Bad Faith.
Bad faith, according to Sartre, requires a state of self-delusion, a mind living at odds with what the skin and bones know to be real and true. Bad faith, de Beauvoir reminds us, goes hand in glove with ressentiment — the abhorrent feeling that accompanies shame and failure, a sense that one has been wronged, and the subsequent projection of that feeling onto another who, surely, must be to blame.
It is a toxic pair of feelings to harbor. Corrosive to the soul. And yet somehow reasonable in the face of devastating failure. An alternative to guilt. A salve for shame. The very opposite of accountability.
As the 20th century turned, two defining moments shook the self-confidence of the American psyche. First, a mysterious computer bug known as Y2K, threatened to undermine decades of technological progress that had brought us to the brink of a new era of connectivity via the Information Superhighway. Could it really be that we failed to see the year 2000 coming and, in so doing, left a whole society vulnerable to financial ruin, power grid failure, air traffic catastrophe, and even nuclear calamity?
And then in 2001, an attack on targets chosen to be emblematic of American strength, an attack in which the weapons were themselves instruments of American economic prosperity, exposed what Y2K had hinted at: a crack in the American foundation. Faced with the chance to own our vulnerability, we descended into ressentiment…pointing fingers and bombers at a new enemy created for the new 24 hour news cycle. A permanent war. A war on terror. The stories of mobilization in prior wars had depended on an enemy, personified and demonized, to rally support. But war with an abstraction — fear — presented no such stable adversary. One had to be cast. A new one for each season. And story arcs written. Aluminum tubes and yellow cake uranium. Jihadists training on monkey bars. A writers room for bad faith.
Bad faith substitutes for policy. It is a remarkably easy fit. Step 1: Create a story so compelling it is unAmerican not to believe in it. Write dialogue for your characters.
“The public must be won over, even if the means are questionable, General Powell.”
In the end, when we have prevailed, the truth will be unimportant. Step 2: confront failure with blame, deflection, projection. Old prejudices work best, but new ones will do too. With enough repetition, bad faith is remarkably effective. It feels better than telling the truth when facing reality also means owning responsibility, acknowledging failure, making amends.
This pattern of bad faith, I know many of my colleagues would point out, is anything but new. If my earlier capsule history is accurate, the American meta-narrative of freedom and progress is itself an instance of self-delusion, a denial of one terrific atrocity piled atop another for hundreds of years.
So what makes this time the era of bad faith? And what are its boundaries?
The answer to the first question is the Internet. The network we built to preserve command and control in the event of a nuclear holocaust and that has become a vast system of commerce and surveillance, along with other miscellaneous enterprises. The answer to the second question is…less clear.
In many of the prior cycles, a disruptive technology obviates the one built just prior. Canals replaced by railroads. Automobiles on highways displacing trains. Some cycles are longer. Some are still going. But the internet is different for its audacity. It aspires, it seems, to make all the others obsolete. Is this hubris? Certainly. Do we remember Enron? But on the internet we can work, learn, shop…we need not even leave the house. The prospect of that last thought feels all the more ominous in the teeth of a pandemic for which social distancing is the only evidence-based intervention. But if we do leave the house, there is a network of cell towers listening, several generations worth, wherever we go. The Internet’s advantage over its predecessors isn’t in its quality or robustness. It is speed. The ability to cycle faster, fail and reset and go again and again.
On the internet, bad faith grows like kudzu. My colleague Donnie Johnson Sackey taught me that it is another act of racist ressentiment to call kudzu an invasive plant. It was, after all, invited. But the environs of the American South were too amenable. Its rate of growth and reproduction quickly exceed expectations. It wears out its welcome.
The internet is a perfect home for bad faith. Too good. Avoidance is only a click away. Here, where nobody knows you are a dog, there are biochemical rewards for making another into a target. Old prejudices work best, but new ones will do too. The internet is a place where you never have to be wrong because someone else already is. And they are more wrong in more awful ways than we are. If you agree, please like and subscribe.
Bad faith breeds hatred for others, inevitably, as shame builds and builds. Self-loathing and self-delusion have their limits and someone must pay. There are only two choices: self-destruction is one. If not that, then there must be destruction of another.
A World War, a pandemic, a financial collapse. That is what it took to see the gold veneer begin to peel back from the Gilded Age. In May 2020, the order is different. A pandemic. A financial collapse. Will we see the pattern and take a different path before it is too late?