Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.
Let’s say there’s a holocaust. No, not a nuclear one, nothing as fancy as all that. A regular selectively genocidal one. And let’s say you’re one of the select genus upon which the laws of genocide are brought to bear. And let’s say you survive past the end of the genocide.
If I gather to memory all I’ve read of the narratives of survivors and what they tell me about what it’s like, one thing I’ve learned is about survivor’s guilt. It’s like the ghosts of everyone you loved, and anyone at all, who died in the genocide, haunting you. The author Primo Levi struggled with it all his post-Auschwitz life. He finally succumbed in 1987, committing suicide, although that interpretation of his fatal fall in a stairwell is certainly debatable.
He also struggled against survivor bias: coming to selective conclusions based only on the survivors’ input, because those who didn’t survive aren’t there to chime in. It’s the feeling that you’re more than lucky. The feeling that in some way you deserve your good fortune because of some merit or virtue within you. The thesis of one of Levi’s books, “The Drowned and the Saved,” is that it was through no quality, but by pure chance, that anyone who was caught up as a victim in the genocide against various categories of humans during the second World War survived beyond the fall of the European Axis regimes. Levi was useful to the Germans because of his knowledge of chemistry, but he attributes his survival to a series of moments when he happened to be in right place at the right time.
Consciously, overtly, on the surface, Levi was willing to indulge in survivor’s guilt and determined to repudiate survivor bias.
I have an interpretation of survivor bias, which Levi himself may have arrived at in his unconscious, as he pitted bias against guilt, and goes like this: “I’m not unique, I’m a normal person, but somehow I’ve survived, whereas others haven’t. If I’m normal, it’s normal to have survived. Therefore, my survival is the norm, even as extraordinary as it might seem.”
That is, my good luck is no better than anyone else’s good luck. And, though I’m aware that there are all kinds of luck, anyone can find themselves blessed with my kind, the good kind.
That means that survival must not be as rare a result of my people’s tribulations as it seems to my guilt-ridden identity. Maybe I can forgive myself for surviving what others didn’t.
It takes a complicated mind to contain such a cosmic storm of processes as Primo Levi’s did. In the end he didn’t survive the attempts his mind made toward synthesis.
There’s something I need to tell you all at this point. The universe wants to kill you. Perhaps even more than it wanted to bring you to life. Now that you’re alive, the universe wants to maim you, erode you, and finally extinguish you, and it will have its way one day.
Every moment you find yourself alive, you have survived the universe’s many attempts to assassinate you.
Think of the universe as one all-encompassing genocidal regime. Just do it for me, indulge me. Pretend it’s trying to exterminate us all.
But the extermination game is rigged. Just like everything else humans have a hand in. No mistake, there are people collaborating with the universe to try to destroy you, hoping thereby to increase their own chances of survival. And the degree and quality of their collaboration depends on who they are as much as who you are.
To me the big question is not how people can tolerate the stress of oppression – it is incredible, but people are strong, it’s actually hard to kill them, which is why the whole universe has to put in an effort – nor how people can be so evil as to put others in that position of stress, where the universe has a better opportunity to crush them – people can be cruel and greedy and uncaring when it comes to securing their own survival, rewards, and social status.
My big question is, how can so many people who derive little to no protection from the universe’s vendetta against them, nevertheless line up to be complicit in the victimizers’ schemes? The victimizer – in my example let’s make him a “him,” and let’s make that “him” a grotesque demagogical gargoyle of vanity and self-interest, a grotesque over-inflated CHUD, a bloated bag of subcutaneous, fermenting chicken ala king – this vile victimizer gives his CHUDlings not a crumb from his table, just words to play upon their petty bigotries and fears. Why can they not see through him? Furthermore, why don’t they despise him? He thinks they’re idiots he can command at his caprice. He lies to them, makes promises he’s too incompetent to make good on, he puts his CHUDlings at risk of death from disease, yet he plays his little butt pipe and they dance to his tune.
And, no, I’m not talking about centrist Democrats and Biden. Their relationship bears a strong resemblance to King Chud and his Chudlings, but theirs is much more detached, less overtly emotional. I mean, come on, he’s Biden, how in thrall can anyone get? And, more to the point, Biden’s not currently shifting leadership around at the Pentagon in what seems like preparation for a military coup d'état.
Some of you might be saying to yourselves, or to someone else, or to your dog or cat or guinea pig, “Jeff, what can this possibly have to do with survivor’s bias? Isn’t this a simple case of Stockholm syndrome, or manipulative grievance politics? These CHUDlings see themselves as victims of elites who are forcing non-white, non-Christian, non-capitalist values down their innocent throats. How can people see themselves as both victims and survivors simultaneously?”
The answer, as you and your dog and guinea pig have probably guessed, is that each self-image is separated from the other in compartments in the same shrunken CHUDling head.
In one compartment, the CHUDlings feel under siege. They talk about themselves as victims of big government; of men disguised as women apt to assault everyone who’s in the Ladies Room legitimately; shiftless Black slackers and vandals who want everything for free and refuse to behave in a civilized manner, forcing police to kill them; owls and squirrels and frogs who want to crush the economy by protecting the environment with their feelings; little children who insist on being killed in school shootings, putting the CHUDlings’ gun rights in jeopardy, or even worse – surviving the shooting spree and speaking out about it like Bolsheviks; Latinas who mock them for wearing hoop earrings; Black people, always the Black people, making fun of the CHUDlings’ flavorless potato salad they brought to the cookout; academics who’ve made telling jokes a shunning offense; anarchists terrorizing everyone including themselves.
But in another compartment, like a guinea pig cage, separate but porous, the CHUDling, and really anyone who’s been indoctrinated into capitalism and is surviving in comfort, to some degree feels like, hey, I’m doing okay. I sure don’t want to end up as big a victim as I’m pretending to be. America is moving in that direction, but in a universe that’s constantly trying to kill me, I’m surviving just fine. And that’s because I do what’s right. I work for my place. Let the people who don’t work for their place know their place. I’ll tell them where that is, and maybe they’ll figure out that to be like me, and survive reasonably well, you have to be as good as me. And if you were as good as me, you’d be in my place, instead of envying my place.
These two views of the self, the survivor and the victim, and probably more, battle each other in the CHUDlings’ minds. The contradictions are at war. The victim and survivor are at war with each other, and it’s unclear if there will be a resolution. A war has collateral casualties. It doesn’t matter if this or that CHUDling doesn’t kidnap a governor, shoot a couple of protesters or a Black church congregation, blow up a building, kill someone he pulls over for a traffic stop, or purchase influence in this or that political party.
The collateral casualties of the war between the mental victim and the mental survivor are the people who have to live in the poverty their King CHUD’s client corporations create, the poverty the CHUDling has never given a damn about whether it was enabled under a Democrat or Republican regime. The collateral casualties are the people who die from covid-19, or in the 100- year weather events thanks to climate change denial, which CHUDlings parrot while they reject the rights of climate victims to call on their government for disaster aid. It’s the many species dying off at an accelerating rate as the CHUDlings vote for mindless industries to thwart attempts to mitigate the damage they’re causing.
And yes, you and your dog and guinea pig are correct, most of us have a survivor and a victim at war within ourselves. Those around us, and those even distantly connected to us, suffer because of it, with and without our knowledge. Any of us who is doing okay, even if we’re a little precarious, sometimes even a lot precarious, we all have something inside us that gives our fear and guilt a free pass and makes us say, “there’s no military coup being plotted against the people of the USA, that only happens in other countries. Things will always go on as normal here.”
Somewhere on the spectrum between victim identity and survivor identity, between rationalization and self-effacement, there’s a citizen of the world, who knows their worth but doesn’t see themselves as more or less worthy than anyone else, who takes responsibility and lives up to responsibility, who takes account of both the misery and the blessings of the world with clarity. I know some of these people, they’re pretty great. Sometimes I get tired of them, because they make me ashamed, not that they mean to. And sometimes I’m a little bit like them, and then I get ashamed of how much I secrely congratulate myself.
Short version: we get comfortable with the fact we exist, and the quality of our existence, while those who no longer exist, or exist in far worse conditions, seem like aberrations, although we can see they vastly outnumber us. As if it weren’t difficult enough to get a well-intentioned mass group of people to participate in activities that alleviate suffering, the survivor bias, even when confronted, does not easily loosen its grip.
And meanwhile, with and without the help of the rulers, the universe just keeps picking us off, no matter what we do or how unified our psyches are. One by one.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!