Saturday night here in Vancouver I went to a screening of the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with live electro-hypnotic-avant-garde accompaniment by the Oliver-Film Ensemble, conducted by Mark Oliver, a grandson of one of the film’s producers. It was excellent. I encourage you, if the Ensemble ever brings its act to your neighbourhood arthouse, to check it out.
Oliver introduced Caligari as the story of a sideshow barker who hypnotizes people to perform wicked acts against their will. He proposed that it remains eerily relevant today – particularly, he added, in light of the events of the past week. It was an overwhelmingly lefty-artistic crowd so he didn’t need to stage-whisper Caligari is Donald Trump for us to get his drift.
At the risk of spoiling the ending of a film that’s closing in on its hundredth birthday, Oliver’s synopsis was a little incomplete. In the final moments we discover that the narrator is an inmate in an insane asylum, and that the nightmarish tale he’s just finished telling us is a delusion into which he’s woven his fellow patients and the hospital staff, with the head doctor in the role of the sinister puppetmaster Caligari. 
I can’t have been the only one thinking, as Mark Oliver returned to the podium for the post-show Q&A, Hang on, doesn’t that ending kind of invert the moral of your Trump analogy? But I wasn’t about to risk the crowd’s wrath by suggesting a different parallel between Caligari and our anxious post-election mood – the possibility that progressives have been kicking and spitting at an enemy partly of their own invention.
We’re all in cocoons. Some of our cocoons are tight and cozy, while others are roomy enough to permit a degree of shouting back and forth. But all of them muffle and distort outside voices.
We couldn’t stay sane uncocooned. The amount of data in the world is overwhelming. State elections in India, minor disasters in Africa, run-of-the-mill atrocities just one town over – our cocoons filter out all this useless information. We’re aware, dimly, that the five or ten or twenty stories being talked about inside the cocoon are only a tiny sample of all the events that have occurred outside in the last few weeks. But we believe they’re a meaningful sample.
When we run into those weirdos from the next cocoon over, it’s hard to get a conversation going. Inside our cocoon we all share the same basic beliefs, so we can compress a lot into a few words. You and I know what we mean by justice. We don’t have to trace the philosophical threads all the way back to Plato. When we talk to outsiders all our certainties are set adrift. Justice? Diversity? Progress? You can spend all night trying to figure out where your definitions diverged, before you can even begin to argue about how those concepts apply to the latest celebrity tweet crisis.
It’s less stressful to simply avoid awkward conversations with outsiders. And they’re easy to avoid these days, when you can build an ever more exclusive cocoon with far-flung people you meet on the internet. Our cocoons are getting ever cozier, their walls ever thicker. With a little effort, we need never go anywhere there’s a chance of having to converse with someone who doesn’t share our beliefs.
But we still have to share our countries with them. And when they win elections, and threaten to impose policies we think are deranged because we’ve never heard them objectively let alone sympathetically described – it’s terrifying.
You sometimes hear progressives arguing that speech isn’t just a right, it’s a responsibility. They say conservatives shouldn’t go around making reckless and dishonest claims and then yelling “Freedom of speech!” when they’re challenged.
I agree one shouldn’t make reckless and dishonest claims. But if everyone agreed on the definition of recklessness and dishonesty there would be no need for speech protections. Person A thinks it’s irresponsible to talk about illegal immigrant rapists and drug dealers; Person B thinks it’s irresponsible to euphemize illegal immigrants as “undocumented citizens”. Okay, each side started out thinking the other was wrong, and all we’ve added with this irrelevant talk of “responsibility” is that each side can now accuse the other of being illegitimate, not even worth listening to. The slim chance of mutual understanding, therefore of intelligent argument, has been made even slimmer.
However, maybe there’s another responsibility that free speech entails – the responsibility to try, wherever possible, to increase understanding. And it occurs to me that, during the just-ended U.S. election, those of us in the broad middle-of-the-road – those of us whose cocoons overlapped supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – shirked that responsibility.
Take my own case. Along with a plurality of anti-Trump opinions ranging from the right to the centre-left, my cocoon takes in a handful of pro-Trump voices of the centre (Mickey Kaus, Scott Adams) and the right (Mark Steyn, Steve Sailer). Which means that I’ve seen some of the more simplistic anti-Trump narratives challenged. And I’ve been exposed to some anti-Clinton narratives that my left-cocooned friends have been shielded from. But most importantly, I got a more accurate picture of what Trump support looked like than most of my friends, who could dismiss it as a remote upwelling of inarticulate white male resentment unlikely to be present in any intelligent lifeform they’d encounter. I learned more about the mood of America from occasionally skimming the comments on Sailer’s blog than I ever did from reading the National Post‘s editorial page – but, primed by the media to regard those commenters as uncouth barbarians who’d soon be slouching back to their wattle-and-daub huts beyond the Rhine, I gave their observations less weight than they deserved.
So I kept my mouth shut even when I heard my progressive friends denounce Trump and his base in ways that struck me as, in either sense of the word, unbalanced. I figured, Ah, what does it matter – he’s gonna lose anyway – why make stress by arguing.
My influence is infinitesimal. I never had the power to sway a single vote. I’m not even American. But there must have been millions of Americans – undecideds and independents and miscellaneouses like me – who felt there was something off about the media’s election coverage, who found themselves questioning the non-stop Madman Trump narrative, and who chose to remain aloof. In retrospect, that was irresponsible of us. In the role of neutral envoys we might have insinuated a few Trump-sympathetic messages into our progressive friends’ awareness, helping to disabuse them of the smug belief that their cocoon encompassed all thinking people. Which might have forced their candidate to come up with a more compelling argument than “Fall in line, losers”.
1. Apparently Caligari’s writers protested the insertion of the framing story, which they felt negated the film’s anti-authoritarian message. They had a point – but without that last-minute twist, their one-note plot would scarcely have held filmgoers’ attention for ninety-odd years.
In a post last year I discussed Bertrand Russell’s and G.K. Chesterton’s constrasting takes on ideological cocooning.