His Frown


First Person

The Yale Institute of Charts.

The other day, an Uber driver asked me to come join his church. I told him I was relatively busy being a nonpracticing Jew but that I’d think about it. He said, You don’t need to do anything. You just need faith.

And my first thought was, Well, that sounds pretty swell.

And then I thought, Hold on, WTF? 

Similarly, a few hundred times these past weeks, I’ve heard people say, Look at his face. Look at the face of our President-elect … Doesn’t he look bummed?

And my first thought is, Ha, yeah totally.

And then I think, Wait, hold on.

Is ours the reaction of the disappointed? “Maybe he’s disappointed, too!” A kind of losing team’s Schadenfreude: at least the winner isn’t happy about it. At least I’m not alone in my pain.

There’s something familiar about this. After Brexit, there was a certain smugness in the aftermath, also on the losing side. It went like this: lots of people wish they could take it back. Then, it was Leavers against Remainers; and the knee-jerk source of comfort was the idea that the side that won was actually full of people who were bummed. Now, we go after just the man at the top, the named winner, as if to cut the head off the winning team (or at least paint a sad face on it). Or to elevate ourselves back up to the seat of power.

To say “he’s bummed” is really to attempt to say he feels what I feel. Which—after his seventy years on this planet, and however many of yours, and probably none of them together—is a pretty silly thing to assume after just eleven seconds with a couple of pictures from a dark hallway and a press conference.

And yet I can’t help but feel like I do know what’s happening behind the glaze. Fleeing his press corps seemed to prove it: he was panicking that they’re going to take his freedoms away. (But, in finding out that he’s immune to punishment, he’s rediscovering those freedoms.)

As my grandmother used to say, You know what happens when you assume?

And I’d say, No, Grandma, what happens when I assume …

And she’d say, You run the risk of systematically disenfranchising the population by reinforcing the narrative that nothing is out of place.

Now, my grandma is not your average grandma. But what she lacks in adages, she makes up for in adages.

That is to say: holy shit, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble if our appetite for speaking truth to power is deflected by the silly suggestion that power has heard all the truth it needs.

Of course, neither Grandma nor I would say that we have shown our true colors just because we needed to let off a little steam Trump Dumping.

This is something that resonates for supporters on all sides of all the aisles, as much as ever before: we do not know what our politicians are thinking. We are still parsing an actor’s words as bonafide speech—like processing a joke as if its jokeness were entirely inconsequential. If you look for the President-elect in his speeches, you will find him somewhere deep inside his face, his foot on a lever that lets all those well-worn words slip out. And then we wonder, What did he mean? As if meaning had anything to do with it, and as if he was the one making it.

He’s a human derivative. If all the waveforms of every American sound bite (and only the sound bites, mind you) were smushed together—he’s the guy reading that Rorschach blot.

I never read the Gospels in the Hebrew school I never went to, but in the car with that Uber driver, I remembered what it says in James 2:17 (that is, it was familiar enough to guess within the margin-of-Google):

… faith, if it hath not works, is dead.

I Googled fast, and I asked the driver about that, and he said no, no, deeds didn’t matter, and long story short I’m still Jewish. But really, something else was going on.

What may be true for the reward of an eternal afterlife is certainly true for the reward of good governance. That is to say: if we only have faith that our government is listening, but we do not make them listen, then we’ve got nothing. If we do not work for it, our faith is nothing but comfort we’re whispering into each other’s ears as we grow more and more desperate for others to whisper into ours.

Adam Valen Levinson is a sociologist at Yale University and the author of adventure travelogue The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah (2017).  He does stand up in New York City and Shanghai, and his TV show in the works is a closely guarded secret.