Right now, the American media is dominated by discussion of Michael Wolff’s forthcoming book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Towards the end of the incendiary excerpt published in New York Magazine, Katie Walsh, Deputy Chief Staff until March, 2017, is quoted saying that working with the president was “‘like trying to figure out what a child wants.’”
She would certainly not be the first person to characterize him in this way. Even Trump’s closest confidantes have repeatedly remarked how impetuous he can be, seemingly unmoved by the concern for decorum exhibited by most people with power and influence. In a passage that seemingly paraphrases Walsh’s reflections, Wolff writes that, “He was often confident, but he was just as often paralyzed, less a savant than a figure of sputtering and dangerous insecurities, whose instinctive response was to lash out and behave as if his gut, however confused, was in fact in some clear and forceful way telling him what to do.”
It’s not surprising that Trump has responded to news of the book’s imminent release with rage. Nothing in this description of him is meant to be taken positively. For members of the political establishment, any behaviour that seems childish is problematic. Although the Republican Party leadership continues to go along with the White House, because Trump’s priorities largely align with theirs, they wish he would display more maturity. Every time he throws a tantrum, they nervously ponder the electoral calendar, wondering whether a bloodbath in the midterm elections can still be avoided.
Curiously, though, the president’s seeming refusal to grow up inspires a different response in many of his supporters. His boyishness is taken for proof of his honesty. Whereas career politicians spend most of their time trying to conceal their true feelings, Trump seemingly communicates them with little hesitation. To them, he is like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, refusing to be deceived by appearances.
Although I may be personally disgusted by everything Donald Trump presently stands for, I think these radically different responses to his immaturity deserve a closer look. They originate deep within the American psyche. Indeed, it can be plausibly argued that they constitute its foundational conflict. Although grown-ups generally condescend to children, they also express admiration for them. And these mixed feelings extend to the ways in which they perceive their own youth. No matter how glad we may be for the wisdom of experience, part of us remains nostalgic for a time when we hadn’t yet learned to steer clear of trouble.
We don’t let our children vote until they are mature. That’s how we rationalize their disenfranchisement, anyway. But I wonder whether the real truth might be very different: we don’t let them vote until they have learned to lie effectively, first to others and then, more importantly, to themselves. Do eighteen-year-olds really act that much more maturely than twelve-year-olds? For that matter, do their parents?
Maturity seems to consist largely of learning how to hide one’s immaturity. Grown-ups still have tantrums when they’re tired. They still turn on their friends for reasons they can’t fully articulate. They still resent sharing their own prized possessions – money, power, loves – even as they seek to partake of other people’s. The difference is that there’s no underpaid, overly patient teacher to call them on their transgressions. Sure, they have to apologise from time to time. But how often does someone actually say to an adult, “Look, I know you’re hungry and didn’t sleep enough last night, but you should not have said that mean thing to your colleague. Look at me. Use your words. Tell me why you did it.”
People think it’s adorable when small children come up with simple answer to complex problems. A good portion of the humour that wends its way through social networks consists of the darling things kids say. This patronising attitude works the same way it did when European explorers described the “natural” ways of the natives they encountered on their imperialist adventures. To be sure, it’s a lot more socially acceptable to condescend to children than it is to condescend to grown men and women. But does that make it right?
Many years ago, when my daughter was attending pre-school at our city’s Jewish Community Center, she participated in a series of special events honouring everyone who had died while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Although the curriculum made minimal mention of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, she eventually intuited enough to ask me questions about it. I tried to explain the history of the dispute as bloodlessly as possible. She thought for a bit, then said, “The only way they can solve the problem is by talking together until they compromise. They have to learn to share.”
It’s perfectly obvious to a five-year-old that the guidelines for social interaction in a pre-school should also be the guidelines for political interaction in the real world. We grown-ups, on the other hand, find all sorts of reasons why it’s appropriate to act in ways that would get our children sent to the office. And we call this sort of rationalization “maturity” and “wisdom.” It makes us feel better. Whether it makes us live better, however, is doubtful.
Like most parents, her mother and I tried to instill a sense of idealism in our daughter when she was little, even though our own perspective on world affairs frequently arises from a place of disillusionment. We wanted her to have hope, even when we felt hopeless ourselves. At the same time, though, we weren’t willing to reduce the complexity of modern life to the breadth of a Hallmark card. Nor did we wish to fall into the habit of always saying, “Wait until you’re older.” Children deserve to know when the problems they confront at home or school are shared by people around the world. Otherwise, they might blame themselves. The last thing we desired was for her to believe that her happiness or sadness is her responsibility alone.
Americans, unfortunately, tend to believe in the importance of self-reliance even when they understand intellectually that the self they must rely on is rarely as independent as they would like. Although they probably won’t resist if someone tries to do something nice for them, they are far more likely to feel comfortable with achievements that can be attributed to the do-it-yourself ideology that underpins everything in this country from religion to popular music.
Children, of course, realize that they aren’t permitted to do certain things by themselves and look forward to a time when the restrictions on their liberty will fall away like the stake that helps a sapling grow strong and true. But that time never really comes. Unless, that is, they achieve the peculiar sort of double-consciousness that makes it possible for them to act with the confidence of children temporarily freed from external restraints, while still convincing themselves that they possess the wisdom of grown-ups.
There’s a paradox, though. Like the lakes that shimmer on the horizon of a parched desert landscape, this divided self is the product of a delusion. Instead of acting with confidence, most adults are plagued by doubt. The future they once aspired to, in which they would finally be emancipated, starts to look like a purgatory of perpetual bondage. No matter how many responsibilities they take on, they still don’t feel that they have the purview to act independently. Yet they compensate for this lack of autonomy by restricting the freedom of young people.
This isn’t going to change anytime soon, surely. But we would do well to acknowledge that the binary opposition between child and grown-up is an interminable construction project, like earthquake retrofitting along a major fault line. The barrier shored up one minute can crumble to dust in the next. Thinking about democracy from our children’s perspective might remind us of its value. Because, whatever the imperfections of its implementation, democracy is the best word we have for sharing, the means of redefining self-reliance as a mutual reliance on each other. If that sounds like the statement of purpose for a really good pre-school, so be it.
It’s tempting to blame Ralph Waldo Emerson for the persistence of the do-it-yourself mentality. After all, he did write the famous essay titled Self-Reliance, in which he distilled the dimly intuited convictions of ordinary Americans into a philosophical program. As anyone who reads Emerson carefully can tell you, though, his prose takes away with one hand what it gives with the other. He promotes independence, while repeatedly underscoring the ways in which we are interdependent. His work consistently calls the boundaries of the modern self into question.
Sadly, however, even well-read Americans are more likely to remember Emerson’s sallies against conformity than his recognition that the singularity of the non-conformist derives from something we all have in common. But even in “Self-Reliance” Emerson makes the self seem less than solid. Advising his readers not to worry about the consistency of their actions, he notes that, “the voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks”, but adds that, “this is only microscopic criticism. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency”.
Given Emerson’s emphasis on the role that time plays in our perception of the self, it is telling that his most compelling example of true self-reliance is not the grown adventurer, inventor, or fearless leader, but a child. “The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. How is a boy the master of society; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits.”
Did Barack Obama seem too much like a grown-up? While liberals make fun of our current President for behaving like an overindulged boy, their counterparts on the Right long focused their energy on portraying Obama — like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Al Gore before him — as indecisive. At first glance, these strategies seems to be operating on different planes. But Emerson’s description of the boy who is “master of society”, not in spite of the fact that he is “irresponsible” but precisely because he is, suggests that Democrats and Republicans might be contesting the same ideological terrain after all.
This might explain, for example, why Democratic Party propagandists of the past two decades have expended so much money setting up photo ops in which its otherwise rather stiff-seeming standard bearers have been shown indulging their inner child: visiting rural fairs, shooting guns, professing their love for the simple pleasures that working-class Americans aspire to achieve. Even as liberals mock Donald Trump for being a boy who keeps convincing himself that the plans of his grown-up advisors are actually his own invention, they seem to recognize that Americans distrust politicians who have lost the facility for irresponsibility.
In this regard, it’s telling that two of the most popular Democractic politicians of the post-World War II era, both in the United States and around the world, were famous for their “boyish” indiscretions: John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Maybe we need to spend more time thinking about the appeal of immaturity.
In the opening sentences of his famous essay What Is Enlightenment? Immanuel Kant regards immaturity as an impediment to progress. “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” With this formulation, Kant ties progress to a developmental narrative. People need to “grow up”. The question is whether the metaphor of immaturity overlaps with immaturity in a strictly biological sense. Does wisdom come with age?
A little later in the essay, Kant harshly critiques leaders who increase their own power at their followers’ expense. “Having first infatuated their domesticated animals and carefully prevented the docile creatures from daring to take a single step without the leading-strings to which they are tied, they next show them the danger which threatens them if they try to walk unaided. Now this danger is not in fact so very great, for they would learn to walk eventually after a few falls. But an example of this kind is intimidating, and usually frightens them off from further attempts.”
By using the metaphor of a baby learning to walk, Kant reinforces the narrative of development already implicit in the metaphor of immaturity. “Progress,” after all, is a stepping forward. If children must be allowed to fall in order for them to become masters of their own bodies, they presumably require the same permission in order to become masters of their own minds. Although Kant’s prose is constrained by the political circumstances of his time – he was living in the kingdom of Prussia – his ultimate point seems to be that true freedom can only be achieved in the absence of paternalism.
Nothing in “What Is Enlightenment?” suggests that Kant wants people do harm to their political parents: he clearly has no taste for bloody revolution. What he seems to advocate, rather, is that they learn to parent themselves. This requires them to overcome their dependence on authority. “Immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding.” Maturity means risk-taking, not restraint. And it is therefore incompatible with a state that holds minds in bondage.
But what does this mean for children, who are disenfranchised on the basis of their age alone? Kant’s metaphor reinforces the idea that children can only master a task – in this case, learning to walk – if they are given the opportunity to undertake it on their own. Presumably, however, he regards paternalism directed towards children differently than paternalism directed towards adults. Kant wants to separate literal immaturity from metaphoric immaturity, not collapse them together.
That’s what makes the example of the free-thinking boy in “Self-Reliance” so interesting. Emerson was the most prominent representative of American Transcendentalism, a movement that took its name from Kant’s philosophy. He clearly owed Kant a great debt. But Emerson did not share Kant’s conception of progress. Where Kant focused on forward motion towards specific social and political goals – the road to enlightenment – Emerson foregrounded the cyclical dimension to time. Although he acknowledges the importance of pursuing definite ends, he also suggests that they can be found at the beginning. In a circle, the same point can serve as both start and finish.
“Infancy conforms to nobody; all conform to it; so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it.” The most dependent human beings are, paradoxically, the most independent. A boy of five, six, or seven may lack the gravitational pull of a baby, but adds the power of speech and reason. He retains enough “infancy” to ward off society’s power to infantilize. “He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests; he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him; he does not court you.”
A man, by contrast, is “clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with éclat he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutral, godlike independence!” Unfortunately, that’s one circle that human beings cannot really complete. But Emerson’s reference to the river of forgetting implies that they do have hope.
Emerson’s example complicates the idea of progress. The boy who is his own master precisely because he has not achieved self-mastery – it’s worth thinking of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn here – cannot be neatly packed inside a developmental narrative. The self that can be relied on absolutely is the self that precedes self-doubt. But, since self-doubt is the foundation of modern subjectivity – what do I know and how do I know it? – the boy who is not subject to second guessing stands outside its confines.
By drawing our attention to the conformity to which self-control can lead, Emerson urges us not to forget the little boy – or girl, one would hope – in our past who didn’t let fear strangle the drive for free expression. Here he reprises Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dictum that we are “born free,” but held captive by the bonds forged in our schooling. Emerson advocates a return to the wilderness of youth where the will has not yet been trained to expend its resources on self-policing.
It’s important to underscore the point that this “youth” does not refer to actually existing youths, but to the perception people have of a self that preceded their domestication. Like all visions of a “Golden Age,” its connection to lived experience is tenuous. While most grown-ups remember feeling freer as children than they do now, it’s unlikely that they were conscious of that freedom at the time. On the contrary, children mirror adults in focusing, not on what they are permitted, but what they are denied.
A forty-year-old laments her inability to sit for hours playing with toys “without a care in the world”. But a four-year-old longs for the time when she can drive a car just like her parents: “I’m in me mum’s car, broom broom.” Returning to the boy of Emerson’s example, the chances are extremely good that the real boy he had in mind – probably his own son — was a lot more careful in his speech than he is given credit for being. Although he might have declared opinions that the adults around him were afraid to utter, his dependency on those adults for sustenance would surely have put constraints on his freedom of speech. The grass is always greener on the other side of the stream. What matters here is not the reality, however, but the ideal: the belief that we were once free and can be again.
Progressives have a hard time understanding how Donald Trump, like George W. Bush before him, can appeal to anyone, despite the laboriously documented record of his Administration’s missteps. But maybe this stumbling – exemplified in his much-mocked public speaking – strikes many Americans, as a sign, not of his incompetence, but of his freedom. Indeed, it’s possible to take a dim view of most of the current White House’s policy decisions and still admire its most famous occupant’s refusal to play by the rules.
The more we examine the distinction between child and grown-up, the more paradoxes come into view. Because we don’t hold children accountable for their actions, their opinion on politics doesn’t count. No one polls eight-year-olds on their preferences in a presidential campaign. But, following in Emerson’s footsteps, we hold on to a fantasy of childhood honesty that should make that opinion valuable to us. We mourn the disappearance of formal instruction in civics, even though a minority of voters are willing to vote for the tax increases that might fund its revival. And we write the word “we” – as I’ve been doing throughout this essay – in a manner that excludes children, even when we are critiquing the tendency to regard them as a different species.
When I think back on the elections they used to hold in my daughter’s pre-school class, I have a hard time pinpointing the differences between them and the sort grown-ups participate in. In theory, voters are supposed to have informed themselves on the issues before going to the polling station. How many of them, however, know something definitive about all the positions and propositions they vote on? I probably read more about politics than most people I know, but I still find myself staring in confusion at the ballot’s “undercard”.
Do I have a clear sense of why Mr. X would be a better judge than Mr. Y? Do I understand the most pressing issues confronting the county sheriff’s office? Do I grasp the implications of this bond measure? I wish I could answer, “Yes,” but the truth is more depressing. When I have the benefit of a candidate’s party affiliation, I can at least make a decent guess: I vote against the Republican. For those non-partisan office that are the bread-and-butter of government, though, I have to vote blind from time to time. I would have been better prepared to vote on whether a pre-school class should study sharks or horses the following week.
While extending the franchise to children would pose enormous challenges – who would explain the issues to them? – contemplating the prospect is a rewarding exercise, for it lays bare the dubious foundations of our political system. We don’t let kids vote because we believe that they would vote on the basis of inadequate information. They would not understand the complexity of the issues. Or they might vote because they liked a candidate’s smile or hair.
Sounds to me like they would fit right into the American electorate. The truth of the matter is that we bar children from voting in order to make ourselves feel like grown-ups. Were it not for the opportunity to talk gravely with them about our responsibility as citizens, we might lose whatever sense of purpose still accompanies us into the voting booth. We need someone to patronize. And with people of color and women theoretically excluded from the realm of possibility – though not always in practice — the responsibility of being society’s irresponsible substrate falls on children, immigrants, and those grown-ups who have lost their right to vote because they are convicted felons.
The irony is that we prevent people in these categories from voting because we regard them as excessively free. Children are free of responsibility. Immigrants are free of the burdens of their homeland and have not served enough time in the United States to take on the weight of American history. Criminals are in prison because they gave free reign to their baser urges. As I noted earlier, this is all a matter of perspective. If you ask someone doing ten years for armed robbery whether he felt free during the crime, you are likely to hear a tale of bondage, be it financial, political or psychological. What matters is that we project the freedom denied to us – the freedom, more often than not, we have been schooled to deny ourselves – onto people we can control.
So what does this tell us about the present conjuncture? If ever there were a human being who is “sure of a dinner,” with ketchup on it, it’s Donald Trump. Perhaps he is entering the phase of life when senility grants us a second innocence. More likely, though, he is just continuing a pattern of behavior that began when he was very young. My now-teenage daughter frequently says that he must have been terribly mistreated as a child, since the extreme narcissism he demonstrates is almost always the result of physical or psychological abuse. Despite a wealth of material advantages, something held him back.
I’m tempted, as someone vigorously opposed to the White House agenda, to make a wisecrack here, like “Donald Trump has been failing third grade for decades and now we’re all in detention as a consequence.” But the truth is that, despite my political convictions, I am starting to understand better why his supporters take him seriously. Emerson’s free-speaking boy may not be very well informed. But his very willingness to speak freely suggests that, like the slave-holding gentry of ancient Athenian democracy, he is speaking for himself.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.