It’s easy to see the appeal of the concept: who doesn’t consider what might have been if only a few small (or big) things had been different? Everyone has their own personal “sliding door” moment, where you’ll always wonder what might have happened if you had just resent that email, or left work a little early, or wrote your phone number on that receipt. But as mind-blowing as the multiverse can be with its literally endless possibilities, it can also be limiting. When “change” is defined by a physics-defying dimensional leap, the incremental steps toward progress available in our own world begin to pale in comparison.
No critic wants to be the moral rebuke. (Well, maybe some do. Once in a while.) But I have a duty to inform readers of this magazine: America’s cultural obsession with the multiverse is destroying civic and social bonds. that hold this republic together – or at least reflect our stunted imagination and limited curiosity about the real world we actually inhabit. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in our politics. The real implications of messy, slow-moving governance are obscured by conflicting visions of starkly different Americas — or multiverses, if you will. This makes the situation all the more shocking when the reality arises, as was the case with the Supreme Court’s decision roe deer draft opinion.
What inspired a perfect example of this phenomenon: In response to a petty cultural projection Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz on pro-abortion protesters, the Washington Postit is Dave Weigel tweeted: “[Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D.] Vance was a pioneer at this; the idea is that libs are basically disgruntled, over-medicated crackpots who will die on their own. The offer: Get pounded MAGA, start a family, be happy. »
It’s a neat encapsulation of how culture war politics limits our understanding of reality. In the Gaetz-Vanceian imagination, there is an America of smiling, happy, pro-life families with manicured lawns, like in a Bush-era car ad. And then there is another America, that of seething liberals who cling to their convoluted, anti-American ideology as a way to deal with their personal unhappiness. And then in the middle there is our unhappy and divided reality, where life in this country would be It’s okay if only the other side admitted its folly – or better yet, simply ceased to exist.
None of this even remotely resembles how the real world works. People start families, or don’t, and choose where and how to live, for a range of incredibly complex and intimate reasons. But instead of seeking to understand those reasons, we project about them based on assumptions drawn from more superficial forms of media. This is the fundamental principle underlying the politics of Gaetz and Vance, who imagine a world of concurrently existing but mutually exclusive Americas.
The enduring appeal of these policies is one of the results of the steady brutalization of America’s media diet over the past half-century. Since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts has periodically surveyed American readership of novels and short stories, the art forms most naturally fueled by small-scale, granular individual empathy. In its first year, the share of Americans who said they had read novels, short stories, poetry, or plays in the past year was nearly 57%; in the most recent study using data from 2017, 42% said they read novels or short stories. A more recent report from Gallup also indicates a decline in overall readership.
Blue America’s political multiverse rests on a different mistake. Let’s use last week’s news again as a starting point: roe deer would be safe if only the Senate had confirmed Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination, or if the Senate filibuster didn’t exist, or if there were 60 pro-abortion senators, or 60 Biden-appointed justices, or any number of other hypotheticals that range from impossible to insignificant. In this imagination, there is is a world where a number of these things have happened, and they would have been here if it weren’t for the recklessness of institutional Democrats, or the basic structural advantages enjoyed by conservatives in the US government.
There is a fine distinction to be made here: all of these things are, in a sense, possible. But there’s a huge chasm between possibility and reality, best summed up by Max Weber’s description of politics as “the hard, slow-moving boredom of hard boards.” This is not a lecture or an extension of the tedious debate around “incrementalism”. But consider how conservatives won their impending court victory over half a century of legal activism, institution-building, good luck and political cruelty. The multiverse fallacy of liberal politics has geospatial coordinates similar to those on the right: over there, it’s the good world, where the Democrats have guts, over there, it’s the post-apocalyptic hell of the right-wing domination that is always around the corner, and here we are forced to live in a spongy, centrist purgatory.
Of course, “politics” is different from “governance”; there are dozens of hardworking and diligent public servants across the political spectrum doing the work of building the alternate universe they hope to see in ours. Rhetoric is powerful, however, and for reasons beyond the scope of this column, the most successful form of political discourse in recent history is one that assumes the impossibility of cooperation and incremental change – and therefore denies the fundamental reality of his political enemies. and the need to coexist with them.
Which brings us back to our national break with literature: Flannery O’Connor wrote in a 1969 essay that “hopeless people not only don’t write novels, but what’s more, they don’t read them.” The sentiment carries a particularly grim omen in our rhetorically apocalyptic political climate. (All O’Connor and his contemporaries had to worry about was, you know, a real apocalypse.) The aphorism matches the sentiment of the country: a recent poll shows that, although a slim majority of Americans are generally optimistic about “the future”, they predict that income inequality, environmental problems and the political status quo will all worsen in the years to come.
So how could it be surprising that the multiverse reigns supreme in our cultural imagination, when the core concept is one that treats aspiration as pure fantasy? The solutions offered by the loudest politicians today that could bridge this gap are often themselves little better than science fiction.
Eighteenth-century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz attempted to grapple with the dilemma of the multiverse a few centuries before Doctor Strange and his ilk. He postulated that although a benevolent God could design many universes, only one can exist – and therefore, due to God’s benevolence, we must live in the best of all possible worlds. Depending on one’s perspective, this can be a hopeful statement or a deeply depressing one. Other worlds are indeed possible. But each of them first requires anchoring oneself in the unpredictable and unsatisfying reality of it.