Last weekend I read an excellent novel about an Iraq War hero who is invited to officiate at the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day Half-Time show. By turns hilarious and tragic (in the classical sense), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is perfect metaphor for our time. I thought about it all week; go read it. This quote is about George W. Bush but could have been written about this week:
“At some point Billy realized he was expecting the president to act, well, embarrassed? Ashamed? For how fucked up everything obviously was. But the commander-in-chief seemed well pleased with the state of things.”
If you had any concern about my frequent assertions over the last few months (and years, if you count my book) that America is a failed state, the events of this last week should put any doubts to rest. With ample notice from online chatter and the President’s own tweets — not to mention a muscular Capitol Police — we were unable to protect the seat of our government. There still has been no press conference explaining what happened, or what is happening now. Details dribble out piecemeal, fueled by social media photos and videos. Meanwhile, a third of Congress continues to insist Biden didn’t win the election even while urging the rest of us to forget the attack on the Capitol in the name of unity. And did I mention our government seems utterly incapable of dealing with the cascading coronavirus crisis? Given the exponential growth of both fatalities and infections, we’re only a handful of weeks away from 50,000 Americans dying of coronavirus every single week.
Folks, it’s getting crazier, and I’m sad to say there’s no end in sight. The incentives — for everyone — point in all the wrong directions and have been building for a long time. In 2008, Matt Taibbi wrote “The Great Derangement” about his travels around a post-9/11 United States and the desire of Americans to believe anything except the truth of their own responsibility for the state of the country: “To be robbed and betrayed by a fiendish underground conspiracy, or by the earthly agents of Satan, is at least a romantic sort of plight — it suggests at least a grand Hollywood-ready confrontation between good and evil.”
Beyond being an apt description for the present, The Great Derangement is also the title of a more recent book by Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh’s book is very, very different from Taibbi’s. This time the derangement is the near-total absence of climate change in popular culture, media, and art. He argues that a few decades from now, we will look back on this era with incredulity: “how did they so completely ignore climate change?”
This week, I saw two Great Derangements at work. The first one is mostly (but not entirely) on the right side of the political spectrum: the misinformation and conspiracy theories that shape our present politics. This vast fog of information pollution is the great firmament on top of which the Neverending Story infinitely builds to a distant crescendo. The Neverending Story demands the “romantic sort of plight” Taibbi references; it is preferable to the truth. Earlier this year I wrote:
How did we get here? The world is screwed up and facing big problems. But instead of tackling these problems — which are hard and will require a lot of change — we ignore them and seek alternative narratives. Our leaders, political and otherwise, are complicit. The one institution that is supposed to keep us focused on the truth — the news media — is (a) almost dead at the local level; (b) incentivized towards pointless petty stuff at the national level; and © believes that telling an inspiring story about solutions might violate some outmoded standard of journalism. And then into this mess drops social media, where integrity is wholly absent and the technology is explicitly designed to capture as much mental attention as possible, regardless of the ethics or consequences.
While a significant portion of the country dwells in a fantasy that includes a stolen 2020 election, another large chunk of the nation dwells in the other Great Derangement: the idea that this is all some temporary Trumpian interlude and the madness will soon subside. I just don’t see any evidence that is the case; instead I see us at the beginning of a brutal and challenging decade.
This second blindness is (mostly) generational rather than ideological. For everyone under 30, the very idea of “a return to sanity” is inaccessible; our present craziness is normal. Today’s New York Times has a long and worthwhile essay by Timothy Snyder whose final paragraph begins: “America will not survive the big lie just because a liar is separated from power. It will need a thoughtful repluralization of media and a commitment to facts as a public good.” It’s hard to find much evidence of “a commitment to facts as a public good” in my adult lifetime, and this isn’t just about social media: “weapons of mass destruction” anyone? The longest war in America’s history is still running; good luck finding it in the news.
Adults 18 to 30 years old are the largest generation in America, and the country’s descent into “carnage” started before they were born. Donald Trump has dominated the culture — from Home Alone to The Apprentice to the White House — for their entire life. Metastasizing lunacy is the state of the nation. How else can you understand the news that Kentucky Fried Chicken has introduced a video game console that doubles as a fried chicken warmer? Talk about the American Abyss! At the heart of it (as I wrote a few weeks ago) is greed.
I have obsessed for weeks now: where do we go from here? What is the antidote to greed? Amitav Ghosh starts to open up a path to a solution:
“At exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike.”
Community can save us — nothing cheezy about it. I am reminded of the greatest political advertisement of all time: Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad. At the end of the ad, a sitting President of the United States summons the poet W. H. Auden: “We must either love each other, or we must die”. The culture needs a shift to what we can do together. Although the two Georgia Senate races were microcosms of the country (50/50, with narrow victory at the margins, and you know how I feel about that) the success of Stacey Abrams’ community-organizing approach to politics, rooted in local civic infrastructure, is a hopeful sign.
We’ll hear the nervous calls for unity from leaders who have at best said nothing and at worst thrown fuel on the fire of our fantasies and divisions and, well… beware the false prophet. Instead, manifest the personal courage, sound nerves, and stark beauty we will all need to brave the days ahead, not to mention the coming decade. With a bit of luck, we’ll survive this and come out on a path towards a future that is absolutely fantastic.
With all my love —
PS. For those of you who made it to the very end of my last email and saw that PS, I have an update on the “stark beauty” front. After months of lobbying, my wife agreed to a German Shepherd puppy. I am ecstatic. But, in true 2021 style, I slipped on the ice minutes after putting the puppy in the car to take her home and managed to break my ankle. My beloved spouse is very long-suffering; my incapacitation was not part of the mid-life-crisis-puppy agreement. She is the singular, stark beauty that inspires me. She is also very famous: listen to Guy Raz interview her on NPR’s How I Built This.