Paddling Point Nemo

There it is. The middle ground. Enjoy.

I like to think that I’m a pretty easy-going sort of person.

I have strong opinions about a lot of things, but they don’t get in the way of my being able to talk to just about anybody, about just about anything, and I try to be courteous to, and considerate of, the people I deal with in my day-to-day life – regardless of who they are, and who I am. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I think it’s important to give it my best shot.

I’m not afraid of the middle ground. I spend a lot of my time there: I’m not religious, but I keep the Bible and the Koran on my desk, and I’ve read ’em both cover to cover; I don’t have kids, but I generally like the little monsters, and I have great respect for the people who dedicate themselves to raising them; I’m a pacifist who studies military history, and whose parents were both Air Force veterans; the music I love best is that of composers like Martinu and Poulenc but I enthusiastically join in with our neighborhood music group every weekend noodling around on songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Eagles.

I live with cats, but hey – I like dogs, too.

The thing about the middle ground, though, is that it’s defined by the two extremes. When you’re meeting someone halfway between West Palm Beach and Miami, you’ll be lunching somewhere around Fort Lauderdale. The Floridian Diner may not have been the first choice for either of you, but it’ll do, and you’ll each have traveled about the same distance, made the same sacrifice in time and gas and convenience. You might both have preferred something closer to home, more familiar, but the compromise distributes the disruption evenly between you, and you’ll be equally comfortable and equally uncomfortable. No winners, no losers, but everybody gets lunch.

If you’re meeting someone halfway between West Palm Beach and Shanghai, on the other hand, you’re going to end up treading water mid-Pacific. You’ll get wet, and the sharks will be the only ones dining.

Suppose we’re having a discussion about healthcare reform. I advocate for a single-payer system, equal care for all citizens, regardless of income. You prefer a market-driven approach. I’m concerned that your system will favor the interests of stockholders and investors over those of patients, ultimately excluding all but the affluent; you’re worried that my system will end up stifling innovation and crushing patients under a burden of bureaucratic inefficiency.

Point Nemo, at coordinates 48°52.6′ south, 123°23.6′ west, in the Pacific Ocean, is the furthest point from any land on the planet: in a very real sense, it’s the “halfway point” between everywhere and everywhere else. The name “Nemo”, used by Jules Verne for the mysterious submarine captain in his 1870 novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, is from the Latin: it means “nobody”. It is very likely that that is exactly who has ever actually visited Point Nemo: nobody.

We can’t both be right, obviously, but are we both wrong?

We can each present rational cases, based on real-world data, to support our respective views. At the same time, because our objections are specific and reasoned, they are also addressable: I can look for ways to introduce market forces into my universal system, counterbalancing the inertia and inefficiency of government bureaucracy; you can accept some regulatory oversight in your free-market approach, guaranteeing equitable treatment regardless of income. Neither of us gets everything the way we want it, but we each leave the table with something. We meet halfway. We lunch on Las Olas Boulevard, and we both get a decent meal.

Let’s try another one.

I’m Emmett Louis Till, and I’m down from Chicago visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. I’m fourteen years old, and I’m black. You’re Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, and you really, really hate black people. Not for any particular reason, but just because you are who you are, and they aren’t.

I’m from the big city, and I’ve never been away from home before. I like wearing a tie and a grownup hat and going out and strutting my bad self down Main Street and buying little doodads to take back to my mom in Chi-town. You were born and raised in the Mississippi delta, and have never been anywhere else, or wanted to go. You think all black people should be forced to live as slaves, or livestock, or not be permitted to live at all.

The middle ground? Perhaps Milam and Bryant could have crushed only one of Emmett’s testicles and only halfway gouged out his eye before halfway strangling him with a length of barbed wire, halfway shooting him, and throwing his body halfway into the Tallahatchie river. That would be about halfway between leaving him alone and doing what they ultimately did do, right? Emmett may or may not have whistled at Bryant’s lovely twenty-one-year-old wife in a store (Carolyn Bryant, now 82, has recently admitted that Emmett did nothing to her to trigger the retribution), but the attack was apparently motivated mostly by the desire to inflict as much suffering as possible on a young boy, simply because he was black and all-too-visible; the victim was small, vulnerable, an out-of-towner, a target of opportunity. Emmett wanted to enjoy the summer vacation and then go home to his mom; Bryant and Milam wanted to torture and kill. So, again, how should Emmett have met Bryant and Milam halfway?

Any time you have more than one person in a room, you’re going to have differences. I’m tall, you’re not. I pronounce the word for the sister of one of my parents “ahnt”, while you make it sound exactly like the name of a tiny insect. I have a beard because I think it makes me look scholarly; you think beards are nothing but crumb-catcher bibs for messy eaters of a certain age. Despite these differences, we still get along, because we have made some rational decisions about what really matters and what can be overlooked in the interest of consensus and coexistence.

Looking for the middle ground in a disagreement makes sense if both of us are working from a rational, logically defensible point of view — but if one of us is clinging to a position that is irrational, that defies all reasonable evidence, or that denies the very humanity of the other, even perhaps that person’s right to exist at all, compromise ceases to be a possibility. After all, if what you really want, when all is said and done, is to obliterate me and everyone like me, I can’t become halfway dead in order to meet you in that middle ground.

* * *

I don’t like conflict. I let people overcharge me in stores, I allow other drivers to cut me off in traffic, I accept condescension and phony “tolerance” from people who see me as something only marginally different from a criminal or a lunatic, all because I prefer to avoid confrontation wherever I can.

At the same time, while I deeply appreciate the good intentions of those who say: “Must we fight? Can’t we meet halfway?” I know that the halfway point between violent, irrational hatred and ordinary human dignity is still nothing but deep water and sharks, and it’s not a place I ever want to be.

Really and truly.

Uh, oh. This can’t be good.

Many years ago, during a visit to my family in my hometown of Boaz, Alabama, I got the notion to prepare a really fabulous meal for everybody.

On the face of it, this would seem like a nice gesture, but don’t fool yourself. I was thirty years old, and my snobbery knew no limits. I was from Boaz, but not of Boaz; I had gone away and become part of a wider world, and a fancy meal was just another way to prove my superiority. (I suppose all escapees from small towns go through that phase somewhere down the line. We’re Truman Capote or Andy Warhol: We go away for a few years, then come back to visit, proudly bearing suitcases full of Robert Rauschenberg and Igor Stravinsky and W. H. Auden and chicken recipes in Italian.)

At that time there were two grocery stores of any size and scope in the town, a Piggly Wiggly and an A&P. Since our family had patronized the Piggly Wiggly since time immemorial, that’s where I went to gather the materials for the feast I was planning. Spinach. Chicken breasts. Feta. Nutmeg (and something to grate it with). Butter. Balsamic vinegar.

My scheme was, of course, doomed from the beginning. The month was December. Spinach was available only as little green bricks packed in torn cardboard, crusted with ice that smelled faintly of cat urine; the chicken breasts were gray and exhausted, having been frozen and thawed more often than Great Bear Lake; the only cheese available – apart from Kraft “cheese food products” – was a rubbery orange material that claimed to have been manufactured with, but not of, real milk; and there was no butter, only margarine. Nutmeg was there, yes, but pre-ground in a tiny red-capped plastic jar, with a sell-by date some three years previous to that of my visit. Vinegar was limited to cider and distilled white, in half-gallon jugs.

I made do, but I also made a fuss. After all, my true purpose – had I been willing to admit it – was to display my superior savoir-faire before the benighted locals, and this could be served just as easily by a spectacular failure that spotlighted the shortcomings of the local supermarket as by a successful dining experience.

Predictably, dinner was a flop, nobody enjoyed themselves – and I found myself even more frustrated and unhappy than I had been at the beginning of the process.

In retrospect, the problem is easy to see. I was desperately anxious to prove that I was so ill-adapted to the pond that had spawned me not because there was something wrong with me, but because I was in fact not a fish or a frog at all: I was a rabbit or a raccoon, not damaged or inadequate, just a critter meant for a completely different environment.

I refused to look honestly at what I was doing and why, and as a result went to a lot of trouble and expense only to make myself and everyone around me miserable.

* * *

Back in 1546, English poet and playwright John Heywood noted that “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” Heywood understood the difference between ignorance derived from a lack of information, and stupidity, in which the individual has the facts in front of him but chooses to deny them out of weakness, or laziness, or to protect prejudices or comfortable misconceptions.

Philosophers and theologians have struggled since the dawn of time with the question of objective truth: Is anything true in a universal, abstract sense, or is all information contingent, dependent on our perceptions and our ability to process the data? In 1637 René Descartes decided that nothing could be trusted but the fact that we were asking the question in the first place; while his “cogito ergo sum” makes a great bumper sticker, it unfortunately doesn’t give us much to work with. Gravity happens: if I step off the edge of the roof, I’m going to slam into the ground a split-second later. I can refuse to accept the existence of gravity as an objective truth, but I’m still going to bust my head every time I perform the experiment. We have to lay down some basic ground rules and agree that some things are “real”, regardless of ideology, or we don’t survive.

In the science of decision theory, there is a principle called “minimax/maximin”. Here, absolutes are irrelevant. The goal is to minimize the possible bad outcomes of a decision, while maximizing the possible good outcomes. In his “Pensees”, Blaise Pascal (1623-62) stated his argument for believing in God: “If I bet that God DOES exist, and he does, I win everything, and if I lose, I lose nothing. If I bet that God DOES NOT exist, and I win, I win nothing, but if I lose? I lose everything.” Truth becomes a question of calculation.

We all want certain things to be true, and others to be false. We can, to some degree, even behave according to those desires: believing that Santa Claus lives in a vast factory complex at the north pole, churning out billions of brand-name consumer items that he will then distribute – at no cost to anyone, anywhere – during a single twenty-four hour period each December … Well, it’s a lovely idea, and I think we’d all like to be able to embrace it, but if we plan our holiday budgeting around that premise there’s going to be trouble.

* * *

Pretending that six hundred thousand people is a vastly larger crowd than one-point-eight million people is not “alternative facts”, it’s just foolishness; especially when the issue in question is not even of any real importance. “Spinning” information – presenting data in such a way as to support a particular objective —  is a tried and true component of our politics, our marketing, our advertising, and always will be, but even when we’re selling toothpaste or movie tickets or smartphones – or inaugural crowds, or border fences, or oil pipelines – we have to be able to discern the objective reality for ourselves. We can lie to everyone else, but the essence of a useful lie is that the liar knows that it’s a lie, and can act on the basis of the truth, regardless of what sort of fiction he or she is promoting to the crowd. I may convince you that gravity is a hoax, and that it’s perfectly safe for you to walk off the roof of a four-story building, but that scheme only works as long as I know that I’m lying to you: if I believe my own “alternative facts”, and I walk off the roof myself, then the game is over.

My relationship to my origins is still pretty complicated, but I have, over time, come to realize that the best thing for everybody involved is to simply face the facts: it’s useless to try to manage that relationship on the basis of what I think should be true, or what I wish were true, or what I have believed in the past to be true. I need to try to assess the facts, dispassionately and objectively, to the best of my ability. If I want to make things work, I have to be honest about what I’m trying to do, and about what the circumstances are – honest with others, yes, but most importantly, honest with myself.

Voltaire pointed out in 1733 that “The interest I have in believing a thing is not a proof of the existence of that thing.” We may not all agree as to what the facts are, but we can agree that the facts matter, that there is such a thing as objective reality, and that we should refer to it when we make the important decisions for ourselves and for those who depend on us. As soon as we start telling ourselves that the truth is nothing but an ideological construct, to be invented or destroyed or ignored at will, we’re only one step away from that long dive off the roof.