Disbelief, Belief and the Perils of Pandemic Re-opening

Photograph Source: Becker1999 – CC BY 2.0

The dominant authorities in our lives are destructive; they lack nurturance – the love which sustains others…But the trap of rejecting them is more than a matter of hoping finally to get them to care…This [rejecting] imagination is wholly under the aegis of the existing order. It disbelieves, but only to dream of someone else, not of a different way of life.

– Richard Sennett, Authority

The believing game… invites the individual to listen and take seriously her own experience and point of view–even if it looks crazy–and not feel that one must subordinate one’s perceptions or experience or thinking to that of the group….It invites an individual who looks crazy to others to say, “Stop arguing with me and just listen for a while. In fact please help me make my position clearer and better.”

– Peter Elbow, The Believing Game-Methodological Believing

…I know that I have imagination; that is what my illness consists of. And more than that: I know that it is I a wonderful illness—one does not want to be cured, simply does not want to!

– Eugene Zamiatin, We

As a business owner, I ought to be all over the re-opening going on in full swing now in NYS. My daughter tells us customers have been clamoring for weeks about returning to “normalcy.” For Orin and me, the decision has layers of complication, including the fact that the Cafe’s finances are precarious, and that our daughter, understandably, is tiring of the burden of helping us keep a small (“quirky” as Google calls it) business going. We’re tired, too, and fearful as we see the spikes in coronavirus in states that re-opened “too soon,” where there’s no pandemic leadership alternative to the federal government (Trump). No leadership leaves a space for mindless anti-authoritarianism, a “cowboy” mentality that exists here too: the divisiveness and chaos it engenders, in turn, means there’s no end in sight to the disaster for local businesses on the frontline for re-opening.

This purposeless anti-authoritarianism that has no object beyond rejection and negation, is at the bottom of the politicization of the pandemic which should, as Gov. Cuomo often pointed out, have nothing to do with politics. Even in New York State’s re-opening, the “no-one can-tell-me-what-to-do-or-what-I-should-believe” attitude, even at the expense of personal health, is in evidence – though not as blatantly as in Florida or Texas. The great insoluble quandary for liberal society today, the lethal consequences of which now are plain to see, is how to regain the capacity to recognize and to trust in legitimate authority. Without discovering some way to believe, and not only disbelieve, we will not end our obedience to the illegitimate, but nameless and faceless authority that today runs the show unchecked.

At times when Orin and I feel beset by the challenge of keeping our business alive, we castigate ourselves: if we could have just managed to go with the flow of consensus business smarts, if we’d made friends with capitalism years earlier and expanded our business to other locations we wouldn’t be under the constant stress of the skin-of-our-teeth existence of one shop, one location. If we’d accepted the terms of the “Second Industrial Revolution,” making friends with the technology instead of continuing on in our little put-put boat! We do understand we make it unnecessarily hard on ourselves. The norms of capitalist business strategy, including the people-eliminating technology, are a way of life to which we must adapt or be left for buzzard food on the settler trail. There’ll be no tears shed for stubborn bastards who just can’t get with the drumbeat of progress.

But there’s a reason we balk at getting in step with “progress:” We serve a different authority than corporate capitalism. The very existence of the “quirky” cafe is resistance to the ongoing erasure of human-scale, face-to-face, stable, community-committed life; it’s an incubator (we like to think) for insurgent soul life. A sign for others, perhaps, from behind the Green Wall of Zamiatin’s We, of the messier, funkier, more nurturing reality that accommodates to human beings rather than to corporatized and commodified priorities. Because the Cafe’s stubborn stand on behalf of preserving endangered humanity speaks to their (subordinated, discredited) imaginations, rather than to the dominant priorities of industrial consumer society to which they are obedient, people love it more sentimentally than fiercely, not fully realizing what they love, nor seeing the authority behind it.

In the vacuum left by liberal society’s collective mistrust of authority, the re-opening process stirs up the dangerous hornet’s nest of “unresolved authority issues” residing in almost every American breast. As the 3-month-long restrictions are lifted, it has let out of the box the defiant fear-driven attitudes of people who are throwing caution and their masks to the wind in order to get back to “normal.” Such defiance makes disturbingly evident the angry resentful hair-trigger rage and divisiveness that’s been exacerbated under 3 years of mad Trumpian rule. Though for the moment the “liberal” media presents to us a country seemingly united in its horror at racist police abuse, it’s difficult, anymore, to believe that unifying people for the good of all is possible. I make no claim that compliance with mask-wearing is a sure sign of love for people. On the other hand, many people – not only Trumpians – have lost their will to act on behalf of the good for all, without which a thuggish police force should surprise no one. Police serve the vacuum left by the disbelief in legitimate authority.

In my world in Utica, few overtly challenge this disturbing divisive reality; few dream of “a different way of life,” and not merely of “someone else” to replace the authority we don’t like. No wonder my strong positive response, during the earlier days of the pandemic closing, to leadership from NY’s governor calling highly diverse New Yorkers to “unity” in stopping the contagion, a sense of purpose I no longer experience in public life. My response was to feel safe, not per se from the virus, but from the chaos – the moral vacuum – when one cannot trust that leadership is acting on behalf of our common good. In the light in which he cast it (i.e., the good for all – an appeal to the great invisible of “the brotherhood of man”) compliance made not just “science” sense, but sense to my heart. Whether the message had been carefully honed and worded with help from a team of “experts,” in order to hit the right note with the populace, doesn’t matter. I agreed with its humane goal: to persuade people to comply with an extremely unpopular demand in order to save as many lives as possible. By appealing to an inclusive, interdependent common good, to “love,” he signaled to ordinary people like me he was not indifferent to us; I was included. This too might be by design; if so, it was, as Cuomo likes to say, “smart.”

Those of us trained in disbelief, in holding authority in mistrust, are hyper-aware that such clever speech-fashioning can have devious motives. Back in settler days in upstate New York white European treaty negotiators with the Five Haudenausanee Nations used such imaginative ploys, i.e., referring to “the Great Father,” first in England, later in Washington, perhaps sometimes sincerely, sometimes cynically, in order to wrest from them millions of acres of this vast, rich-soiled, awesomely beautiful upstate land.

However, my point here is not to argue for the legitimacy of Cuomo’s authority. It is to make a case for the reality of legitimate authority itself, which must be found again if we are to transcend this disturbing background constant of divisiveness, massive mistrust, moral nihilism (every argument is valid! Present both sides! Fake news!) all of which work in favor of someone like Trump. My suggestion is, one’s heartfelt response to a message that invokes the common good, the interdependence of everyone, including the most vulnerable may be trusted as a clue to the reality of legitimate authority (though not to its legitimacy in any particular instance). Yes, its the same message the Indians fell for “hook line and sinker” as we say. But they did so not because they were stupid but because in their elders’ wisdom they knew, vis-a-vis the white European settlers, they were vulnerable, even doomed. This is far more than most of us are willing to know about our own situation, for the perfectly natural reason that we are afraid to know it. Without the capacity to believe in legitimate authority (i.e., the Good Father in Washington who is concerned for the needs and well-being of his red children) we can only be afraid.

The Indians, insofar as they trusted the deceitful words of the white negotiators, were making a last-ditch effort as believers, as they were raised to be. There was no inherent problem with their simple “child-like” faith in the goodness of others who, though so different, shared participation in a spiritual order. In fact, those of us who tremble now before the approaching environmental apocalypse (for which only that imaginative word captures the full horror), admire indigenous faith. But we cannot attain it because we can neither accept our vulnerability, nor our human need for dependence upon legitimate authority (i.e., that serves the good for all.)

Existential vulnerability doesn’t “go” with the reality of dominance we’ve been trained to. Dominance obscures the fact that we, men and women, in our basic humanity, are the vulnerable, the storm-tossed, the wretched refuse, etc. who must depend upon others’ kindness, largeness of being and capacity to love. Though western consciousness requires our disbelieving what we know in our hearts, our vulnerability is real. That is, the heart that connects us with others, is vulnerable. It is to our vulnerability that legitimate authority appeals and for which its protective strength is needed. As long as we are at war with our vulnerability we will mistrust legitimate authority – including in ourselves – and misread its strength.

The great gift of enlightenment thinking has provided a powerful obstacle to our capacity to recognize, let alone to heed, legitimate authority. It has habituated us to the dominant way of thinking that depends upon doubting (i.e., think Descartes) and rejects believing as a means to arrive at truth. In the early 2000’s, I came across the essay by Peter Elbow that first presented this idea to me, in a graduate English course. While Elbow acknowledged the validity of critical, scientific thinking that has led to the wondrous advancements of western civilization, he dared to posit another valid approach to knowledge testing than that of systematic doubting. He called it the “believing game,” a test for knowledge that allows – nay, requires – imagination. The timing, for me, was perfect: I was still recovering after a crisis with mental illness that had violently jolted me out of the one reality I knew, the one based in “doubting.” Not only does that reality say nothing is real except materiality, it also, conveniently for egoic supremacy, provides a wall against vulnerability and belief. It’s fair to say that only by means of crisis was I able to“discover” in myself the alternative reality which unifies, connects, animates, ideates – i.e., the authority that is imagination-based and which requires belief.

In health, my soul that had been sick clearly preferred the imaginative authority to the old “doubting” one, making me a believer. That “imagination base” became the authority behind the birth of our quixotic coffeeshop, with its community-oriented small-business, and place-based values, and its vulnerability. Our Cafe, thus, is a form of art. The reality behind it is imaginative, based in an archetype that is the subjective, non-verifiable source of its authority. Because it is original and personal it can be loved personally, rather than the way the reliable sameness of a Starbucks or a Dunkin Donuts backed by billions of corporate dollars is “loved.” Those places are “loved” precisely in the way a person “loves” her smart phone – because she needs the device and its virtual connection to keep her place in the dominant reality, to maintain the wall against her human vulnerability. In contrast, and against the zeitgeist, the Cafe dares to be vulnerable. It’s possible going to a coffeeshop like ours is the closest experience many secular people who would never dream of going to church will have of “going to church.” It’s the closest many people who reject “belief” will come to connecting with the higher, spiritual “unitivity” that animates by means of the imaginative faculty. On our part, the Cafe is an act of slyness; people get a taste of sacred reality with their coffee without their knowing what hit ’em. I’m never ambivalent about its existence, about the importance, even the necessity for its being here in Utica, and for our sacrifices on its behalf. I believe in it and I tremble for it in this world.

Running such a little heart-authorized business it is impossible not to notice the “competition” – the dominant corporate chain-store consumer reality all around us in Utica that controls the “consumer choices” of the masses. As it must have been for the Iroquois people in 17th and 18th century Upstate NY, eying the relentlessly increasing numbers, the fire-power, and the “killer” energy of the white settlers, the context dis-heartens. One learns not to look at the drive-thru lines circling for coffee around the McDonalds and the Dunkin Donuts, but to remain believers: Our Cafe is an alternative locus of authority, based in the most intimately local place of all – i.e., the alive imagination that can believe, and not only disbelieve. We’re tiny, we’re vulnerable, but, like our traditionalist Haudenasaunee neighbors, we’re not wrong for being believers. If, like their ancestors, we lose the fight, we may still, like them, retain our preferred reality that can be neither verified nor disproved.


Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.