Beware the Merchant of Certainty

We live in uncertain times. Our governing institutions are rusty and corrupted. Our workforce is going through a painful transition from a manufacturing economy to one based on services and information. As our media expands to welcome voices it once unjustly excluded, our national culture is fracturing. While our real-world communities wither, our millions of screens display disparate messages and no moral leader has emerged to break through the white noise and point the way towards national solidarity. Given these circumstances, it’s no surprise that our politics has left us disoriented and bewildered.

This uncertainty is uncomfortable. The slow and staggered death of old ideas and the fits and starts of new ones, the scripted choruses of outrage and the disappointments of failed prophets can wear a people down. For many, the consequences of our uncertain times spill out beyond the dizzying screenscape to cause real human pain: children imprisoned by fear-mongering policies, livelihoods lost in changing industries, and neighborhoods cored out by corporations that paid the watchmen to look the other way.

This discomfort and pain leaves us susceptible to fear. Specifically, it leaves us susceptible to the fear of what will happen if we do not escape our uncertainty soon, if we do not grasp for some quick and certain resolution to the day’s tough questions.

This fear creates a market for merchants of certainty. Like the cosmetics shills who tell you why you are ugly to sell you makeup, these con men also sell the problem and the solution in the same pitch: why you should be afraid and how you will be protected if you only follow them.

Many a nation have fell victim to this pattern: uncertainty leading to discomfort leading to fear leading to a successful con by a merchant of certainty. When at our best, America is a nation specifically built to avoid this fate. We have baked into our being a democratic faith that places our hopes not in heroic strongmen at the center of power but rather in extraordinary ordinary citizens spread out across the land. Trusting in the strength and kindness and wisdom of our citizens and communities, we have aspired to be an open nation, trading traditional dogmas and central planners for a government and economy and culture that welcome anyone’s participation, no matter their background.

But this American idea – of a strong people and an open nation, of a democratic faith in ordinary citizens – only works if we ceaselessly reject fear. This is why the last President to chart a course out of gravely uncertain times told us that the only thing Americans have to fear is fear, itself.

The latest merchant of certainty is running the same old con: selling us on fear and its antidote in one pitch; telling us we have no voice and that only he can be our voice; telling us we cannot fix the system and that only he can fix the system. He says he ran for President so that “the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves.”

But he’s wrong. We can defend ourselves. We can fix the system. We can have a voice. We can have more faith in our neighbors than he does. We can let that covenant from the Book of Isaiah seep deep down in our souls:

“Do not be afraid. I am with you.”
“Do not be afraid. I am with you.”
“Do not be afraid. I am with you.”

We live in uncertain times. But what has made America great has been our ability to muster the strength and openness to hold on through the tension of uncertainty without resorting to the quick and easy fix. What has made America great has been those generations who took the long and hard way out of each moment of uncertainty: those who devoted their lives to solving a tough problem or building a robust system or hosting a difficult conversation or growing a loving community. What has made America great has been our rejection of fear. As this year’s merchant of certainty inches frighteningly closer to sealing his biggest and darkest of deals, I can’t help but think that our only hope — to stop not only today’s menace but tomorrow’s as well — is to make America great again.

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