Beware the Self-Defeating Prophecy

Yesterday I saw a link to a set of well-wisher cards intended to be sent to people with serious illness, like cancer. Some were unusually blunt (“happy last day of chemo, let’s eat anything that doesn’t seem gross”) or brutally honest (“I’m sorry I’ve been out of touch, I didn’t know what to say.”) But the last one really resonated with me: “Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.” I think most people who have had something really shitty happen to them or to a loved one can relate.

Few of us are explicitly Calvinists anymore, willing to sign on out loud to pre-destination to heaven or hell, and earthly wealth being the signs of godly favor. And yet “everything happens for a reason” is essentially a watered down version of that, even if phrased in new agey terms about the universe working in mysterious ways and doors closing so others can open. In these worlds there is a plan, and your only agency is to fight it or go along with it. I feel like many of us can vacillate between that and the other extreme—the American “ideal” of total free will that ignores history, systems, communities, different starting conditions, and shitty random luck and says anything is possible and you are nothing more than the sum of your choices.

Both of these ideas are comforting and repugnant, scary and obviously not always true. That may be why it’s so easy to flip flop between them according to circumstance. Maybe it’s even appropriate to match the right sentiment to the right circumstance.

I have been reading a lot of fantasy books out loud with my kids lately—Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Harry Potter, The Dark Is Rising series. They all have a complicated relationship with agency, predestination, and free will. They all have prophecies, and as we know, prophecies always come true, even if you’re not sure exactly what they mean, and even if the stories leave open the sense that their main characters are still making choices that are somehow important.

I wonder if in the face of forces that feel far too daunting for our individual free wills to handle, we are apt to hear what people expect to happen subconsciously as prophecies, which increases the feeling that it would be foolish to fight them. If there’s any hope, it’s just that we just need to watch for a small moment to play our little part, and as long as we go with our best instincts it’ll come out as intended. Or it won’t. Because fate. (Sounds like a relief to me at times, I’ll admit.)

Is that what happens when people who would desperately love him to govern write off a presidential candidate like Bernie Sanders—someone with extensive experience in governing and in winning grassroots campaigns and a solid, serious platform? Foolish mortals to think you could resist the ordained coming of Hillary!

This is not to say that I would pretend Sanders doesn’t have long odds and a lot of challenges and system-based hurdles. But I also remember the complete derision with which the idea that someone whose name was Barack Hussein could be president in the foreseeable future was met not that long ago.

Similarly, there’s money and elections. Progressives have argued vociferously and urgently against the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, arguing that massive tidal waves of cash from corporations, who are neither voters nor represent an organized membership of voters, corrupts our democracy. And I think it absolutely does. A billion dollars can pull off a roar of propaganda above which it is hard to hear anything else, and it can support an infrastructure that undergirds a strong and disciplined party, sustained and focused over time on an unwavering agenda. In a country this large it’s hard to reach an audience without any.

But that can all be true without meaning that campaign spending is predestination. No prophecy has confirmed that we shall be led through the age of the rising seas and warming-induced storms by the leader who hath amassed the most gold. In fact, even recent history shows that’s in fact often not the case. Take the ouster of Eric Cantor as an example.

It takes subtlety, but you can be against Citizen’s United and yet not turn your back on the best candidate because Wall Street is likely to do so. (Um, guys, that’s a positive?) Let’s not suddenly buy into the idea that because we’re fighting excessive money in politics that money raised actually is the most important measure of a “credible” candidate.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on May 7, 2015.)

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