Happy new year, everyone. Did you all have a good New Year’s Eve? Stephanie and I celebrated by ordering pizza and watching Don’t Look Up on Netflix—a film that is at once simultaneously so hilarious and so depressing that I found myself wondering whether watching it on the last day of 2021 was a terrible idea or entirely appropriate … though I suppose it could be both.
I hate New Year’s Eve as a night of celebration, and I always have—even when I was younger and more disposed to party like it’s 1999. A good friend of mine had the perfect summary of why NYE is so terrible. There are two days a year, he said, when you feel the most societal pressure to enjoy yourself: your birthday and NYE. Provided you have friends and/or family who love you, birthdays are great fun because they’re all about you. On New Year’s Eve, by contrast, it’s everybody’s birthday. Which is possibly why the more excessive the celebrations, the more they smack of desperation.
Normally I would have prepared a nice meal as a reluctant nod to mark the day, but I just got back from my parents’ place in Ontario five days ago, which means I’ve been quarantining. Which also means I can’t leave the house until tomorrow and buy groceries, and while we don’t lack for the basics, there isn’t much with which to make anything more then, well, the basics.
So, pizza. Which, given my antipathy to this particular holiday, seemed even more appropriate than anything requiring effort on my part. It might have to become the new custom.
I’ve been seeing a lot of 2021-related memes on social media, most of which involved (1) WTF? And (2) warnings not to jinx the coming year with high expectations, which we did at the start of 2021. But when you think about it, we’ve been exiting the year with a snarl and a backward-facing middle finger since … well, 2016, haven’t we? Which makes many of us want to blame Donald Trump for this series of successively sucky years, but if we haven’t yet collectively understood that he’s not the architect of our societal woes, just the bellwether, then things are gonna keep sliding downhill.
I mean … they probably will anyway, but the big reason for 2021’s unreasonably high expectations was the tacit assumption that with Trump out of office, things would inevitably get better.
And for a time, it looked like they were! And then … well, I was about to say that reality reasserted itself, but that wasn’t the biggest problem with this past year, was it? It would be more accurate to say that unreality reasserted itself. The Big Lie, anti-vaxxers, the hysteria over “critical race theory” and other bogus culture war non-issues, January 6 trutherism, and of course the ongoing state of climate-change denial. Reality has never been the problem, except insofar as accessing it without having to run a gauntlet of disinformation is now more or less impossible.
This profound sense of frustration and disconnect is why Don’t Look Up has landed so hard on its viewers. I laughed throughout the film, because it’s hard not to—it is comedy, based in the wilful obliviousness and ignorance of people so self-interested, so elementally selfish, that they are congenitally incapable of recognizing the very idea of a collective good. Many times through the film, I found myself thinking, “Wow, this is unsubtle.” But then … so is Tucker Carlson. So is QAnon. So is Donald J. Trump, and so are his legions of enablers and imitators. We live, sad to say, in profoundly unsubtle times.
Or as Stephanie put it midway through the movie, “It’s really depressing when there’s no daylight between satire and the thing it’s satirizing.”
Wow, it’s been a minute. Four months and no posts is … well, as my hiatuses from this blog go, it’s fairly standard.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about science fiction, which I suppose is hardly unusual for me. To be more specific, I’ve found that my SF thoughts have been squaring up of late with contemporary events and situations, enough so that I’ve been writing them down so as to try to make sense of my inchoate thoughts in a significant way. This post, which is very long, is one of two I’ve been pecking away at for about two weeks.
And again—this is quite long, but I didn’t want to lop it up. I have however divided it into sections, so maybe read it in stages if you don’t feel like slogging through it all at once.
The Books that Shape Us
An internet sage once said: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
I’ve wondered on occasion about the cult of Ayn Rand among those whom she most venerated, billionaires and multi-millionaires (and the politicians who have built careers catering to the needs of the über-wealthy); I wonder if it was reading Rand’s odes to selfishness as “bookish fourteen-year olds” that set them on the path of rapacious capitalist accumulation, or whether Atlas Shrugged came, post-facto, to provide a useful pseudo-intellectual justification for why they should have vast wealth while 99%+ of people do not.
The question is rhetorical, of course, even perhaps somewhat disingenuous: while I have little doubt that some people did in fact find their life’s mission revealed to them in the pages of Rand’s writing at an early age (Ted Cruz springs to mind as an obvious candidate), the people at the extremes of that opposition are probably few and far between. I know a significant number of people who devoured The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as teens, who later discovered that what they found compelling about the novels when they were young was completely out of step with their adult sensibilities. That of course is not an uncommon experience with certain works of literature more generally: I read The Catcher in the Rye at the age of sixteen; given that Salinger’s novel is scientifically calibrated to resonate with angsty teenage boys, I read it in a single feverish sitting, but doubt I could tolerate Holden Caulfield for more than a few pages today. By contrast, I was a bookish twelve-year old when I read The Lord of the Rings, and it did indeed change my life—it remains a core text in my life, as evidenced by the fact that I am currently teaching my department’s Tolkien course for the third time.1
I recently shared an anecdote from Neil Gaiman with my first-year English students. In a lecture delivered at The Reading Agency in 2013, Gaiman said,
I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed? It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.
To be clear, reading SF when you’re young doesn’t necessarily translate into becoming a tech genius or innovator (sometimes it means you become an English professor); what Gaiman is advocating in his lecture is reading promiscuously, and especially making available for children as wide a range of reading options as possible: “The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.” He cites the story from his participation in the SF/F convention in China not to suggest that SF makes you innovative, but that the kind of creative imagination exemplified by SF and a multiplicity of other genres—which facilitates an imaginative engagement with the impossible and the unreal—is a precondition for inventiveness.
As with Rand’s objectivist fiction, however, there’s always a danger in reading stuff prescriptively. I’ve been thinking about this story of Gaiman’s a lot lately, though not so much in terms of the positive sense of it I communicated to my students. I have, rather, been watching as a trio of billionaires seem stuck in what I can only characterize as a sort of arrested development corresponding to certain eras of SF—two of them speaking confidently about colonizing Mars and the third apparently determined to build cyberspace—and none of them seem to have truly understood the SF paradigms they’re trying to make real.
Let’s take them in turn. Both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have been quite enthusiastic about the prospect of settling humans on other planets, starting with Mars. (I’m leaving Richard Branson out of this consideration for that reason: his spacefaring ambitions seem more in the line of having the coolest, fastest new vehicle, something made obvious by the sleek aesthetics of Virgin Galactic’s Unity spacecraft vs. Blue Origin’s phallic homage to Dr. Evil’s rocket).
Musk recently tweeted that his ultimate intention is “to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness.”
Bezos is also ultimately determined to make it to Mars (though he’s asserted that returning to the moon is a necessary first step), and has reportedly been fascinated by space travel all his life—as valedictorian in high school, he ended his address with the line “Space: the final frontier. Meet me there.” His love of Star Trek, as evidenced in those words, is something he’s frequently expressed, most recently when he shot ninety-year-old William Shatner into space.
It’s hardly unusual for people to love works of art that articulate values at odds with their own—as much as I love LOTR, for example, I’m hardly down with Tolkien’s conservative Catholicism as it emerges in the novel’s pages—but sometimes the dissonance can be jarring. Consider, for example, when former Republican Speaker of the House and Ayn Rand enthusiast Paul Ryan named Rage Against the Machine as his favourite band (which always begs the question: against which machine did you think Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello were raging, Paul? Spoiler alert, it’s you). It’s unsurprising that a tech guy like Bezos would love Star Trek, but it’s also hard not to see a comparable dissonance between Gene Rodenberry’s utopian, egalitarian vision of the future and the rapacious business ethos embodied by Amazon.
It makes me wonder what the Trek-loving Bezos made of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which the Enterprise comes across a 21st century satellite (somehow dislodged from Earth’s orbit and adrift in deep space) containing cryonically frozen people with terminal illnesses. They are unfrozen and their illnesses cured with 24th century medical technology, which of course had been the point of being frozen, kept in stasis until the day they could be treated. One of the unfrozen people is a stereotypical Wall Street douchenozzle who initially gloats over the success of his plan to cheat death—only possible, he notes, because of his considerable wealth—but is horrified to learn that the long-term investments he’d expected to cash in on would now be nonexistent. Captain Picard tells him, “A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy” (ep. 1.25, “The Neutral Zone”).
Even in its grittier iterations, Star Trek always retains the germ of Rodenberry’s utopianism, born in the American mid-century before postwar optimism would truly start to fracture under the repeated shocks of political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the cynical politics of the Nixon administration. “The final frontier” was a specific echo of John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” rhetoric; and while there is no lack of cynicism or dystopian predictions in the SF of the 1950s and 60s, the broader trends were more hopeful: one reads the SF of that period and finds, if not always optimism necessarily, then certainly a prevalent sense of the possibilities created by advanced technology … and, as with Star Trek, a not-uncommon faith that such technological advances will be matched by humanity’s moral maturation.
Undoubtedly, apologists for the Musk/Bezos space race would tell me that just because the billionaires are the contemporary embodiment of being “obsessed with the accumulation of things,” it doesn’t obviate the altruism of their visionary space-faring ambitions; that the groundwork laid by these early, seemingly trivial joyrides to the edge of space will be crucial for future larger-scale space travel; that governments have failed in such endeavours, so it falls to the billionaire class to carry humanity into the next stage of our development; almost certainly the Musk/Bezos devotees (especially the Muskovites) would tell me I’m a small-minded person resentful and jealous of their genius as manifested in their vast wealth. Possibly Bezos himself would say something to the effect of how he loves the utopianism of Star Trek and hopes for such a future, but to bring it about he needs to play by the rules of the world as it is today.
It’s possible that some of these things might end up being true; I suppose it’s even possible that my conviction that the very fact of billionaires’ existence in societies where children go hungry is a moral obscenity simply masks my own true desire to accumulate wealth on a cosmic scale. Possible, but unlikely; it strikes me that Bezos and Musk and their cheering sections might have science-fictional enthusiasms about colonizing space, but don’t seem to have paid much attention to the transformations in SF’s preoccupations. While we don’t lack for contemporary SF depicting the spread of humanity through space and the colonization of far-flung planets, the utopian spirit and assumptions of the mid-century has diminished rather dramatically. SF has become darker in its outlook—dystopian figurations are more pervasive, especially those imagining post-apocalyptic futures; increasingly, visions of the future have become tempered by the current environmental realities of the climate crisis and the Anthropocene; and even those imagined futures featuring the colonization of other planets largely eschew such tacit utopian assumptions like those of Star Trek, in which humanity’s expansion into the solar system and beyond entails progressing beyond the factious politics of the present. More and more, space-focused SF grapples specifically with the stubborn realities not just of the vast distances involved in space travel, but of human nature as well (I’m also currently writing a longish post about how, in the present moment, the most unbelievable aspect of much SF is the idea that any given planet could have one-government rule, never mind a galaxy-spanning empire or federation). A good example of this the Expanse novels by James S.A. Corey, which have been adapted into an excellent television series—ironically enough—by Amazon. In the future envisioned by The Expanse, humanity has colonized the Moon, Mars, and a bunch of moons and asteroids collectively known as “the Belt.” One of the things both the novels and the series does well is convey the sense of scale, the enormous distances involved just in our local solar system. Space travel is punishing, inflicting potentially stroke inducing Gs on travelers; people born and raised in the low gravity of Mars or the even lower gravity of the Belt cannot endure the gravity of Earth; and resentments, hatreds, and regional prejudices mark the attitudes of Earther, Martians, and Belters to each other and Earth’s imperial history plays out again in its exploitation of the Belt’s resources. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The impossible-to-comprehend vastness of space is central to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, about a generation ship’s three-century journey to the nearest possibly, hopefully, hospitable planet (spoiler alert: it isn’t). More germane to Musk and Bezos’ Mars ambitions is Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, popularized by the film adaptation starring Matt Damon. When botanist Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, his only way to survive is—in the now-famous line—“to science the shit out of this.” And as he notes, his margin for error is nonexistent: “If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the hab[itat] breaches, I’ll just kind of implode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.”
The novels of Robinson and Weir are exemplars of “extrapolative” SF, which is to say: SF that is scrupulous in its science, hewing closely to the possible and plausible. What is interesting in the context of what I’m talking about is a shift in focus—The Martian isn’t a trenchant argument against space exploration, but it also eschews an imaginative leap ahead to a Mars in the early stages of terraforming, with safe habitats for thousands of colonists to live, instead focusing on the granular problems involved with even beginning to think about such a project Again, the Musk/Bezos contingent would certainly say that of course we’d have to start small, that it would be harsh and difficult for a long time, but that the billionaire visionaries are the ones laying the groundwork.
To which I say: read the room. Or better yet, read the SF of the past twenty years. Really, just scan the spines in the SF section of a decent bookstore and count the number of novels from the past two decades that are dystopian, post-apocalyptic, or which, like John Scalzi’s recent “Interdependency” trilogy (The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, The Last Emperox) are essentially allegories about the current climate crisis. Then do a quick calculation and see how much of SF’s current market share comprises such narratives. Because it’s not as though dystopian stories and post-apocalyptic SF are at all new;2 they’re just more prevalent than ever,3 reflecting a zeitgeist more preoccupied with the depredations of modernity and technology than with their capacity for continued expansion.
All of which is by way of saying, if you want the TL;DR: this planet is our home and it would be great to fix the problems we have with it before seriously thinking of colonizing others—not least because the colonization of Mars, even if it proves possible, is the work not of years but centuries, centuries we simply don’t have. The resources Musk and Bezos are bringing to bear on their respective dreams of space travel would be much more profitably devoted to developing, among other things, green energy. Mars ain’t going anywhere.
But then, even billionaires are mortal. It’s possible to see their current competition less as mere dick-measuring (though it is that, to be certain) than as a race to satisfy their dreams of space travel while they still draw breath (in this respect, one wonders if sending ninety-year old William Shatner into space was not just an homage to Bezos’ favourite SF, but a cynical calculation on the part of the fifty-seven-year old billionaire to reassure himself he’s still got at least three decades of space faring years). Elon Musk has said he wants to die on Mars; as with many of his pronouncements, it’s not at all obvious if he’s serious or just taking the piss, but it does cast his ostensible determination, as quoted above, “to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness,” in a somewhat more fatalistic light—it seems to suggest that the “light of consciousness” isn’t likely to survive on Earth, and must therefore be seeded elsewhere. It’s difficult not to interpret these words in the context of the broader trend of doomsday prepping among the super-rich that has seen multi-millionaires and billionaires buying remote property on which to build bunkers, and stockpiling food, supplies, guns, and ammunition against the anticipated collapse of civilization. At the time of writing, Elon Musk was accounted the wealthiest man in the world, with his fortune exceeding $300B; it makes a sort of perverse sense that, as status-bunkers go, having one on an entirely different planet would win the game.
I am still stumped, however, by how Musk means “light of consciousness.” Is it him? Does he mean to be found, eons from now, cryonically frozen like the people on The Next Generation by an alien species, the last remaining human? Because it seems to me that the light of human consciousness is best carried into the future by teeming billions living on a planet saved by their collective effort. Sending the light of consciousness to Mars is more akin to the final words of Margaret Atwood’s short fiction “Time Capsule Found on a Dead Planet”: “You who have come here from some distant world, to this dry lakeshore and this cairn, and to this cylinder of brass, in which on the last day of all our recorded days I place our final words: Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.”
… or, from outer space to inner space.
I tried to watch Mark Zuckerberg’s ninety-minute infomercial in which he announced the launch of the “metaverse” and Facebook’s rebranding as “Meta,” and lasted all of about five minutes. I had no expectation of getting through the entire thing—nor of seriously attempting to—but you’d have thought I could have endured more. But apparently not … I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe, so I did a fair bit of both. It was just so damned earnest, and it baffled me how this putative tech genius could talk so enthusiastically and unironically about this new utopian virtuality, with no acknowledgment of (1) the dystopian shitshow that is the current state of social media generally and Facebook specifically, and (2) the fact that there has yet to be a depiction of virtual reality in fiction that is not even more dystopian than Facebook IRL.
The word “disingenuous” doesn’t even scratch the surface. “Sociopathically delusional” might be closer to the mark.
The next day I subjected my long-suffering first-year students to an impromptu rant about how SF authors in the 80s and 90s had anticipated all of this—specifically, a digital reality embedded in a broader condition in which massive transnational corporations have more power than most nation-states, wealth disparity is a vast and unbridgeable chasm, industry has irrevocably poisoned the environment, and the broader populace is distracted with the soporific of digital entertainment and misinformation—and this was why everybody needed to take more English courses (don’t ever tell me I don’t shill for my own department). I noted that the very term “metaverse” was used by SF writer Neal Stephenson to describe the online virtual environment in his 1992 novel Snow Crash; I also noted that depictions of virtual reality appeared long before computers were ubiquitous, such as in Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik, and that William Gibson wrote Neuromancer (1983), which became the definitive cyberpunk novel, on a manual typewriter without ever having owned a personal computer.
And I emphasized the point I made above: that in no instance were any of these depictions anything other than dystopian.
But then, it’s sadly unsurprising that the man who not only invented Facebook, but who for all intents and purposes is Facebook, should forge ahead with the arrogant certainty that he knows better than all the people who envisioned the metaverse long before it was a technical possibility. If Musk and Bezos’ arrested development is stuck sometime in the SF of the 1960s, Zuckerberg’s is in the 80s—but with apparently even less understanding of the material than his billionaire bros.
I could go on with all the elements of cyberpunk Zuckerberg obviously doesn’t get, but I think you get the point … and besides which, my main concern here is with the way in which the choice to rebrand Facebook as “Meta” is perfectly emblematic of Zuckerberg’s apparently congenital inability to engage in self-reflection. It is also, not to put too fine a point on it, what irritates me so profoundly: I have what you might characterize as a professional beef with this rebranding, as it entails the flagrant misuse of a prefix that is crucial to contemporary, and especially postmodernist, literature and culture.
What is “meta-“? Notably, in his infomercial and the letter posted to Facebook announcing the rebranding, Zuckerberg says that “meta” is from the Greek and means “beyond.” This much is true: the second entry in the OED’s definition of meta- is “beyond, above, at a higher level.” Zuckerberg goes on to say that, for him, it “symbolizes that there is always more to build, and there is always a next chapter to the story.” Except that that is entirely not the sense in which meta- is used, not even colloquially. It is not uncommon to hear people say things like “that’s so meta!” or “can we get meta about this?” In both cases, what is meant is not a sense of taking things further, but of reflection and reconsideration. “That’s so meta!” is precisely the kind of thing you might expect to hear from someone watching a movie like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a noirish murder mystery that constantly draws attention to the tropes, conventions, and clichés of noirish murder mystery, and which further features Robert Downey Jr.’s character frequently breaking the fourth wall to remind us that, yes, we’re watching a noirish murder mystery movie. The suggestion “can we get meta about this?” usually precedes a discussion not of the issue at hand, but rather things surrounding, informing, framing, or giving rise to the issue at hand.
In other words, as the next line in the OED definition tells us, meta- is typically “prefixed to the name of a subject or discipline to denote another which deals with ulterior issues in the same field, or which raises questions about the nature of the original discipline and its methods, procedures, and assumptions.” Hence, metafiction is fiction about fiction, metacriticism is criticism about criticism, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—whose title is taken from a disparaging comment by film critic Pauline Kael about what audiences want from movies—is metacinema (or metanoir, if you want to be more specific). And while the practice of being endlessly self-referential can grow tiresome,5 my point is more that meta- is, literally by definition, introspective.
Something Mark Zuckerberg manifestly is not. To be meta- about “Meta” would not involve plunging forward with a tone-deaf and bloody-minded ninety-minute infomercial promising to double down on Facebook’s putative mission of “bringing people together.” Rather, one might reflect upon the assertion that “We’re still the company that designs technology around people,” and wonder instead if all the internal studies establishing that Instagram is toxic to adolescent girls’ body-image and that Facebook facilitates atrocities and props up dictatorships are perhaps more indicative of technology shaping people’s behaviour. Perhaps all that SF from the 80s and 90s might help in this process?
1. I didn’t read anything by Ayn Rand until I was in grad school. When I finally did read her, it was in part out of curiosity, but more significantly because by then I’d had the basic tenets of objectivism explained to me in some detail; I found the entire philosophy abhorrent, as you might imagine, but also figured that were I ever to find myself in argument with a libertarian about the relative merits of her fiction, I should at least know more precisely what I was talking about. So first I read The Fountainhead, which was a fairly quick read and the more engaging of her two most notable novels. I completely understood its appeal to adolescent readers, especially precocious teens convinced of their own rightness and unsparing in their hatred of anything reeking of compromise and “selling out.” (Thinking about the novel now, it strikes me as possessing a notably modernist sensibility, if not style: architect Howard Roark’s ultimate determination to demolish his building rather than allow “lesser” architectural minds to taint the putative genius of his design reminds me of little else than the unfortunately common tendency among scholars of modernism to express categorical disdain for anything they consider unworthy of study).
Atlas Shrugged was more of a slog, and I often wondered as I read it (in fits and starts over several weeks) at how feverishly its devotees tore through its 1000+ pages, and then obsessively reread it over and over. It’s not that it’s a difficult read—it’s certainly not particularly complex, nor is the prose dense or opaque—I just had difficulty caring about the characters and their stories. I’ve nodded sympathetically many, many times when people have confessed to me that Tolkien’s digressions into the history of Middle-earth lost them, but the purplest of passages in LOTR ain’t got nothin’ on John Galt’s sixty-page-long paean to the moral virtues of selfishness and greed.
A number of years ago, as Breaking Bad was airing its final episodes, I hit on an idea for an article about how that series functioned in part as a sustained and trenchant critique of Ayn Rand. I was fairly deep into drafting it when I hit a wall—specifically, the resigned realization that, if I was going to make a serious run at writing it, I’d have to reread Atlas Shrugged. And, well, that was a bridge too far … though I did write a blog post sketching out the general argument.
2. The critical consensus is that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) was the first SF novel, and Frankenstein’s nothing if not a dystopian warning about the unthinking and unethical use of technology. Eight years later she published The Last Man, a post-apocalyptic story set in the midst of a deadly pandemic, so it’s safe to say she was ahead of her time.
3. The corollary to this upswing in post-apocalyptic SF is the proliferation post-apocalyptic narratives that don’t quite classify as SF, with the biggest and most obvious example being the critical mass of zombie apocalypse in fiction, film, television, and games. The corollary of this corollary is the concomitant prevalence of fantasy, with which zombie apocalypse shares DNA insofar as it posits a return to a premodern state of existence. If much SF is dystopian and articulates a bleak outlook, the zombies and the dragons are a kind of nostalgia for a world stripped of the modernity that went so very wrong.
4. Yes, yes, it was Facebook’s “virtual connect” conference … but really, it was an infomercial. A long, tedious, cringeworthy infomercial.
5. I recently watched the new Netflix film Red Notice, which was entirely forgettable, in part because of just how meta- it was. The biggest eye-roll for me was a scene in which the FBI agent and the master thief played, respectively, by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, are searching an arms dealer’s antiquities collection for a certain ancient Egyptian treasure that precipitates the action of the film. “Where is it?” mutters The Rock, to which Reynolds responds, “Check for a box labelled ‘MacGuffin’.”
Yesterday was a salve to the soul—seeing the footage of Donald Trump leaving the White House for the last time, watching Joe Biden take the oath of office, and finally turning the page on four years of cruelty and spite—all while, thanks to Twitter’s belated enforcing of their terms of service, we heard nothing from the outgoing President. Good riddance to bad rubbish, as my grandmother would say. But of the many questions worrying those of us who loathe Donald Trump and everything his presidency represented, possibly the most concerning is: will there be another Trump? Who is waiting in the wings to don his mantle and lead the MAGA hordes next? And is it even possible for someone to be the next Trump, or was he sui generis this entire time?
I have spent way too much brain power running counter-factuals these past four years, especially as we approached what mercifully proved to be the end of Trump’s tenure. Adam Serwer, who has been one of my lodestones in this era, posted a characteristically astute essay in The Atlantic yesterday, whose title was, helpfully, the thesis of the piece: “An Incompetent Authoritarian is Still a Catastrophe.” In it, he details the number of times pundits and political commenters have waved away Trump’s threat, under the aegis of “Oh, he’s too incompetent to really do any damage.” And then Serwer proceeds to detail all the ways in which Trump, incompetent boob that he is, managed to do grievous damage to the nation that had elected him president.
And yet. I have had many occasions to marvel at Trump’s ability to miss the most obvious opportunities. In hindsight, the nightmare scenario was a Trump who actually carried out some of his promises. Imagine a Trump who didn’t just gesture at “infrastructure week,” but actually devoted serious money to it? Or who followed through on his pledge to tax the rich? Or got real on health care? The X factor here, of course, is whether the GOP would have had his back—there’s a real possibility that this counter-factual would have entailed the invocation of the twenty-fifth amendment before the end of 2017; but would also have entailed a Trump Administration that hamstrung the Democrats by, on one hand, putting forward a critical mass of policies with which they could not argue, while simultaneous enacting the cruelest and most divisive immigration policies in American history. And four years on, instead of conspiracist fantasies, his fan base could point to genuine accomplishments, while all those ambivalent suburban voters who defected to Biden could reassure themselves that Trump wasn’t just a nativist reactionary.
But now, in the hours and days after Trump’s sad and pathetic skulk out of the White House in the early hours of January 20th, we know better. We know that such strategic thinking was never in Trump’s wheelhouse. That he was and is a man of sheer compulsion without the capacity for a sober second thought—or for that matter, sober thought to start with. That even those people around him who might have thought themselves clever manipulators who could use this blunt instrument to their own ends—Steve Bannon leaps to mind—found themselves ousted the moment Trump perceived them as less than absolutely subservient. That even those staffers with altruistic intentions were tainted by their connection to him. And that, in the end, it was only the most lunatic and fanatical of his true believers whom he tolerated to have in his presence.
At the risk of people calling down Godwin’s Law on my head, I would point out that Trump desperately wants to be a fascist, but never learned the first lesson laid down by Mussolini and Hitler: get shit done. Make the trains run on time, as the saying goes. Contra Adam Serwer’s otherwise spot-on article, a halfway competent Trump would have been a catastrophe and a half.
And yet. Would even a moderately competent Trump have commanded the same authority over his base? This is the problem with counter-factual musings—they tend to assume a parallel set of circumstances with a few changed variables, but there’s no way to predict how those changes would affect the base circumstances. Trump was always something of a black swan event, even though the cultural forces he unleashed—white grievance, anti-feminist backlash, the reignition of Confederate sympathies, among others—were always present and predictable. As I said in my previous post, that a preening, vain, pompadoured New York billionaire would become the object of adulation of a segment of America wedded to guns, pickup trucks, and a nativist conception of Jesus, remains a matter of some bewilderment.
At this point, I am several years past any desire to seek empathy with the MAGA crowd. I see no reason to ameliorate my evaluation of their intellects, or, more specifically, the lack thereof. They are idiots. Deluded, pernicious idiots. And in a delicious irony—considering their sub-literate tendency to throw the label “communist” around—they are useful idiots. Useful to Trump in particular, though they may well prove too unruly for Trump’s would-be successors. It is entirely possible that Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz or Mike Pompeo might saddle this particular tiger for their ever-so-obvious presidential 2024 ambitions … but do any of them seem like a likely successor to Trump? Perhaps I’m missing something important, but I cannot see it—it seems highly improbable that any of them, or any other would-be MAGA leader, would be able to capture lightning in a bottle in the mode of Trump. The irony, in my reading, is that Hawley, Cruz et al are too nakedly ambitious; as David Von Drehle observed in the Washington Post, Trump’s adherents aren’t impressed by Joh Hawley:
Hawley believes that there exists in America a “Trump vote” somehow distinct from President Trump himself. But Trumpism is not a philosophical torch that can be passed from one runner to the next; Trumpism is nothing more or less than the star power of Trump. The senator compounds that mistake by failing to see that Trump’s star draws much of its power from the humiliation of people exactly like Josh Hawley.
Let us not forget, Drehle points out, that Trump’s rise “was built on the serial destruction of ambitious men and women with distinguished résumés, flattering suits and neat haircuts,” whom he brought low one after the other during the Republican primary—Bush, Rubio, Graham, and the rest of the clown car. Of all his conquests, only John Kasich retained something resembling dignity; Jeb Bush simply disappeared. And while it looked for a brief moment that Ted Cruz would remain a Trump antagonist—earning boos at the convention when he implored Republicans to “vote your conscience”—it wasn’t long after that that Cruz was phonebanking for the man who (fairly) labelled him “Lyin’ Ted,” as well as mocking his wife’s appearance and suggesting that his father had a hand in JFK’s assassination. I have little doubt that the spectacle of ambitious Republicans yoking their tiny wagons to Trump’s nova was a matter of deep satisfaction to Trump’s base. If there is a “new” Trump to step into his role—assuming that he’s too emburdened and embattled by lawsuits and prosecutions in the coming years to run again in 2024, which is by no means a sure thing—it will almost certainly not be somebody who has subjugated themselves to him these past few years.
My hope in the current moment is that Trump’s ignominious departure, acceding meekly in the end to the reality of his loss, his social media voice silenced, will break the spell. I’m cautiously optimistic: the Proud Boys are now disavowing and mocking him, calling him “weak” (an epithet almost as bad as “loser” in the Trump lexicon); the fact that Biden’s inauguration went ahead without a hitch rather than culminating in arrests and executions and the continuation of Trump’s presidency caused consternation among QAnon adherents; and there is a general sense of Trump’s diminishment—without the presidential bully pulpit, and without Twitter, he can no longer be a squatter in our mental real estate to the same extent.
Which is not to say we’re out of the woods: Hawley and Cruz et al will do their misguided best to vie for the love of Trump’s base, and those forces of reaction and hate that Trump cultivated and unleashed aren’t likely to just fade into the woodwork. On the other hand, I was struck by the diversity of the groups storming the Capitol two weeks ago—not diversity of race, creed, or ethnicity, but the coalition of hate and reaction represented by Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, neo-confederates, neo-Nazis, Tea Partiers, and the broad range of paramilitary and MAGA cosplayers. Granted, they all share a set of grievances (some real, mostly imagined), but the one person who served to galvanize them into a bloodthirsty mob proved not to be the god-emperor in whom they had invested their devotion.
Perhaps Trump stages a comeback. Perhaps Don Jr. will step into his father’s shoes, but he lacks the unerring cruelty of his father that so animated the MAGA crowd (he tries, bless his socks, but he’s even dumber than his dad). And perhaps there is someone waiting in the wings we haven’t anticipated.
But yesterday I saw a president speak in complete sentences and speak honest, hard truths to a nation in crisis. And after four years of cruelty, mendacity, and narcissism, that will buoy my spirit for some time to come.
So, five days into 2021, I’m about halfway through Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land; my partner and I just yesterday finished watching season four of The Crown; and we’re all (that is to say, everyone I know) watching with varying degrees of incredulity what we can only hope is the final phase of Donald Trump’s post-election meltdown.
While these three things might seem at best tenuously connected—I suppose they’re all about leadership in troubled times, one way or another—they comprise in my mind an oddly serendipitous trifecta. This feeling of serendipity is a product of my own idiosyncratic thought processes, to be certain, not least because I’ve found myself musing at various points over the past few years about the irony that America’s Founding Fathers, in their antipathy to kings, tyrants, and demagogues, created a system that, 227 years later, facilitated the election of a demagogic king-wannabe with a tyrannical temperament. And in the determination to create a republican rather than a parliamentary democracy, they and those who followed them introduced certain rigidities that circumscribed a presidential term of office in ways that are anathema to a parliamentary system: the absolute scheduling of elections and inaugurations, for one thing, but also, more significantly, the designation of the President as somehow different in kind from other officeholders. While a prime minister is “first among equals,” the U.S. President inhabits a dual identity—the person himself (or hopefully sometime soon, herself), coterminous with the Office of the President. Again, considering the Founders’ aversion to kings, the relationship between the president and the Office is weirdly not unlike the principle of the King’s Two Bodies, a bit of medieval legalese designed to account for how a person supposedly divinely sanctioned to rule could also be lascivious, cruel, or just generally sinful. The principle distinguishes between the corporeal, temporal, and corruptible person of the monarch, and the monarch’s eternal, divine role as God’s Anointed (if you’ve ever wondered why British kings and queens refer to themselves as “we,” this is why—they’re speaking for their two bodies).
Both conceptions entail a logic of succession: upon the death of the monarch, the title then passes to the heir; and as we’ve heard many, many times over the past several weeks, the moment Joe Biden takes the oath of office on January 20 is the very instant in which Donald Trump ceases to be President—and, if he has thus far refused to exit the White House, the same moment he becomes a trespasser to be frog-marched out of the building by the Secret Service (fingers crossed).
When I think of the logic of succession, I can’t help but think of a passage from Terry Pratchett’s novel Mort:
The only thing known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy, according to the philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle. He reasoned like this: you can’t have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir instantaneously. Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles—kingons, or possibly queons—that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expanded because, at that point, the bar closed.
Except that, in the case of the U.S. constitution, the “republicon” particle repurposes the instantaneous transmission of monarchy for its own uses.
For all of the very self-consciously constructed philosophical and political distance between republicanism and monarchy, I find it oddly amusing to find such vestiges of the latter embedded in the former. While we Canadians might still constitutionally have the British Crown as our head of state—and while that might irk and chafe a good number of us—on the whole we don’t tend to think of it as that big of a deal, given the purely ceremonial nature the Queen plays. And there is something comforting in the fact of the “first among equals” principle, that we don’t invest the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with the same sort of eternal, enduring quality as the office of the President (indeed, references in the media to the PMO figure it for what it is—a political communications shop).
But to be fair to the American system, it has largely functioned well, lo its relatively short life. Watching Trump wreak havoc on norms and behavioural expectations has been a disturbing object lesson in just how many things we assumed were matters of law were in fact just norms and behavioural expectations. In some ways, it’s remarkable that it’s taken this long for a president to test the boundaries of presidential power and privilege in such egregious ways. Even Richard Nixon treated the office with a measure of respect that is simply alien to Trump. But then, Nixon was also a career politician and, for all his faults, an intelligent man who understood the history of the U.S. republic and its laws—which is likely why he went to such length to hide his crimes, whereas Trump consistently says the quiet part out loud. In the end, however “swampy” Trump proved to be, he did ultimately prove, in this respect, his status as an outsider: an inveterate grifter, he is also simply ignorant of history and tradition and, more significantly, has no use for it. (Perhaps at their base, the most elemental characteristics of the loathed “elites” and “establishment” are a grasp of political history and a sense of that knowledge’s worth).
It is then perhaps ironic that, even as we were shocked to discover what we assumed to be laws were just norms, it was constitutionally circumscribed law that made Trump more or less untouchable for these long four years. To be certain, he was enabled by a craven and opportunistic Republican congress; but even if the G.O.P. had been inclined to stifle his more extreme behaviour, what in a parliamentary system could be resolved with a vote of no confidence is subject to a much higher bar: either the invocation of the twenty-fifth amendment, or impeachment and removal. The twenty-fifth, presumably, is still a possibility should Trump truly go off the deep end in the next two weeks, but it was never a viable option with his sycophantic cabinet and VP (two-thirds of the former and consent of the latter are required to invoke the amendment). And of course he was impeached, but a two-thirds vote in the Senate for conviction was never in the cards … as it hasn’t been historically.
All of which conspired to give Trump a level of impunity we associate with monarchs. In the words of John Mulaney, “I don’t remember that from Hamilton!”
For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I’ve been thinking these past several days about mad kings, both fictional and historical.
It started with a Facebook post, alluding to George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire—which some will know better by the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones—in which I said “We could really use a young Jaime Lannister in the White House right about now.” The allusion, which anyone who has read the novels and/or watched the series, will know, is to a key backstory plot point in which the Mad King, Aerys II, was murdered by Jaime Lannister, a member of his sworn Kingsguard—clearing the way for the usurpation of the Iron Throne by Robert Baratheon.
Martin, a keen student of history, loosely based the conflict animating the first few novels on the Wars of the Roses, the English civil wars that convulsed the nation for the better part of the fifteenth century; indeed, the two principal warring families of his series, the Starks and the Lannisters, bear more than a passing resemblance (phonetically, at any rate) with the Yorks and the Lancasters. But the Mad King himself—glimpsed only secondhand in various characters’ accounts of Robert Baratheon’s rebellion—bears a closer resemblance to the handful of lunatic Roman emperors who populated the empire’s declining years: Caligula with his murderous licentiousness, Nero’s narcissistic self-regard, and so forth. Nero was declared a public enemy by the Senate and killed himself in exile; Caligula was murdered by the Praetorian Guard. Martin borrows from a raft of such histories, which also include the killing of England’s Edward II and Richard II.
The other figure Martin’s Mad King resembles is the more contemporary dictator, reduced to paranoid, delusional ranting, surrounded by toadies and sycophants because he has banished or killed everybody who dares voice the slightest dissent. It was only a matter of time (probably minutes) before somebody did a Trump version of the much-memed bunker scene from Downfall.
The mad king—or tyrant, or dictator—is a compelling character for much the same reason that car crashes are fascinating: whether it’s Hitler in his bunker or Lear on the heath, we’re witness to the unspooling of a formerly powerful, formerly charismatic person’s mind. What has been remarkable about the Trump presidency these past few weeks is how public the unspooling has been. Historically, infirmity in the highest of offices has been hidden, as much as possible, from the public view (the examples of certain Roman emperors notwithstanding). Only a handful of royal handlers were witness to the madness of George III. When Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke late into his second term, his wife and aides kept it quiet; ditto for Ronald Reagan’s latter-day dementia. We only found out about Richard Nixon’s drunken conversations with the portraits of former presidents in the final days before his resignation years after the fact.
But then again, Trump has arguably always been unhinged—that quality of mercurial unpredictability and volcanic temper is central to reality television, after all, and it was through The Apprentice that Trump was able to reforge his public persona in such a way as to delude a critical mass of Americans into believing that he was a brilliant and canny businessman and dealmaker. I’ve lost count of how many op-eds and think pieces have made the observation that his presidency has essentially unfolded like an exhausting four years (five, counting the campaign) of reality television conventions and tropes. He is himself not unaware of this fact; it is an open question of whether his tendency to do or say something outrageous when news unflattering to him breaks is a deliberate distraction strategy, or simply Trump being jealous of the spotlight.
But now we’re in the endgame. True to form, he’s playing a character, however inadvertently: sequestered in the White House, his general avoidance of the public eye speaks about as loudly as his all-caps tweets. Structurally, it is a bizarre situation, by which I mean the mad king in his labyrinth would normally be invisible to all but his closest advisors, some of whom would trot out to podiums every so often to offer anodyne updates. But of course this White House, as my mother would say, leaks like a chimney (as opposed to smoking like a sieve), and so we have frequent reports of Trump brooding, and details of the argument within his inner circle about whether to convince him to concede or keep fighting. But even without such leaks, we still have the logorrhea of Trump’s Twitter feed to keep us abreast of his downward spiral into increasingly deranged conspiracy theories about George Soros and Dominion Software voting machines. And of course we also have his devoted sycophants, like Rudy Giuliani and Lindsey Graham, taking every possible opportunity to go on television and propagate his paranoid maunderings.
The one bright spot in all of this is that at least there’s an expiration date: January 20, 2021, obviates the need for a Jaime Lannister or a Praetorian Guard. Which is fortunate for Trump.
For an embarrassingly long time, I assumed the expression “hoisted on his own petard” had something to do with someone being strung up on a flagpole, and that “petard” was an archaic term for flag or pennant. As is often the case with colloquialisms, I didn’t examine it too closely—if I had, I might have noticed that the general sense of the expression (i.e. one of poetic justice) did not quite square with a flag-raiser somehow hoisting themself along with the flag. It was only when I took a graduate class on Shakespeare that I learned he coined the expression, that it was from a textual variant of Hamlet, and that the expression is “hoist with his own petard.”
I further learned that a petard was a crude bomb used in late-medieval siege warfare, at a time when gunpowder had been developed, but reliably safe delivery systems had not. A petard was a bell-shaped bomb with a wooden base, which was attached to the gate of a castle or fortified town, or placed underneath the wall. Then the bombardier lit the fuse and ran like hell. Thing was, these bombs weren’t particularly reliable, and often blew up the bombers as well. Shakespeare uses “hoist” to mean “lift,” or as we might express it, blowed up real good.
I’ve seen this expression being used a lot these past few days—both correctly and incorrectly—for reasons that should probably be obvious.
I lost a day of work last Friday. As has so often happened during the Trump presidency, a specific news item effectively blotted out all other thought and left me stewing in anger and worry, trying to put my thoughts into some kind of order. What ultimately resulted was a long Facebook post, which read as follows:
I am so. Fucking. Angry right now.
I hate the fact that my instinctive reaction to the news of Trump’s diagnosis was a kind of schadenfreudistc glee, a smug satisfaction at poetic justice. It angers me that I feel this way, because it means that, in one small sense, he has won—he has infected me, albeit minimally, with the spite and cruelty that is his only mode of being.
And it infuriates me that, no matter what the outcome, he will have again succeeded in making a bad situation worse. If it proves to be a mild case from which he recovers quickly—which is probably the best scenario here—he will use that as vindication for his claim that COVID is no big deal; that his opponents have been making mountains out of molehills all this time; and it will encourage his supporters to flout masks and social distancing even more than they do now. And there will be others whose genuine fears about the disease will be falsely alleviated.
If his case proves more serious and he has to be hospitalized up to or past election day, the kind of violence and unrest we’ve been dreading will likely be worse than anticipated. His most ardent followers will take to the streets demanding that the election be cancelled or postponed, and if he loses they will call it illegitimate. If Trump survives, he will join that chorus and amp it up even more. His Congressional sycophants will do the same. Perhaps this is a situation in which more moderate Republicans will finally grow a spine, but I think that is entirely dependent on whether Mitch McConnell sees himself keeping the Senate majority or not—if he does, he’ll probably be happy to see Trump’s exit, but if not, expect him to want a do-over too. A do-over if we’re lucky, as that scenario assumes that Republicans don’t seize the opportunity to simply annul the election result and call for martial law.
And if Trump dies, he will have won. I don’t want him dead—I want him standing on his own two feet as he’s delivered a humiliating electoral defeat, I want to see him return to a private life with fraud indictments waiting and a massive amount of debt coming due. I want him to be alive for all of the revelations that will come in the aftermath of his tenure as president. If he dies now, he becomes a martyr and a rallying-cry for white supremacists, neo-nazis, and all of the people who found his brand of cruelty inspiring rather than repellent. If he dies now, he never has to face any consequences for the catastrophic mess he’s gleefully caused.
All of this because he’s too narcissistic and self-obsessed to grasp that the office of the president is one of public service, and that him contracting COVID-19 has such dire implications for everyone else. All of this because he’s too narcissistic and self-obsessed to model good behaviour, to wear a mask, to take a once-in-a-century pandemic seriously for reasons beyond his own self-interests. That he has been afflicted with a disease he’s spent eight months dismissing, downplaying, and ignoring isn’t poetic justice, it’s a potential catastrophe for the nation he took an oath to serve.
So, yeah … last Friday was a weird day.
I made the post public, and it was shared over ninety times—which is as close as I’ve ever come to going viral. Apparently I articulated a lot of other people’s inchoate thoughts, or, as some responses indicated, presented possible scenarios that hadn’t occurred to them.
I’m feeling rather a lot better now. I’m even feeling cautiously … what’s the word? Optimistic? Is optimism even a thing anymore? It’s a strange sensation.
I am still dreading what happens November 3rd and afterward. Even if this election turns into a Biden landslide, there is still a lot of potential for Trump, along with his enablers and ardent followers, to make mischief. But my sense at the moment is that the mood has shifted—that Trump, in catching COVID, has been hoist with his own petard. When I posted my thoughts last Friday, an old friend of mine pushed back in the comments, suggesting that I was overestimating the devotion of Trump’s base—that these were people who, having gone all-in on the façade of Trump as strongman, would fall away from him at any perception of weakness … which, in their minds, would entail admitting to an illness their idol had spent eight months dismissing and downplaying. I replied to my friend that I hoped he was right, but that he might be underestimating the conspiracism of his base—that if Trump were to get gravely ill or die, it would all be characterized as a nefarious plot by the Deep State.
It was interesting, then, that the initial conspiratorial thinking came from the anti-Trump side. A not-insignificant number of people were immediately skeptical, seeing the diagnosis as a ploy to (1) elicit sympathy for Trump; (2) distract the news media from his disastrous debate performance, the revelations about his taxes, and the release of recordings of Melania saying vile things; (3) allow Trump mouthpieces to point at the inevitable schadenfreude as proof of the Left’s hatefulness; and (4) most importantly, allow Trump to emerge after a few days looking hale and healthy as proof that the coronavirus was never the big deal Trump’s opponents made it out to be.
Well … Trump et al are certainly trying to make hay out of #4, but they’re not quite sticking the landing, and those voicing skepticism have mostly fallen silent. For one thing, it becomes more difficult to believe it’s all a fake when there is obvious confusion within the White House as to how to communicate a coherent message—something made more difficult by the contradictory reports emerging from Trump’s medical team. One assumes that if this was all a conspiracy to fake an illness, the messaging would be more consistent (that being said, however, we should never underestimate the incompetence of this White House to do anything). Also, the ever-increasing number of Republican senators, Trump’s inner circle, White House aides, and (most infuriatingly) White House staff, that have been infected, at once makes it less likely that they’re all in on the con, and also makes the virulence of this virus painfully evident.
And finally, there is the fact of Trump’s behaviour itself, which makes it difficult to believe that he would ever agree to a plan that would make him look weak (and as my friend also said, saying “I got sick with the hoax” is just bad branding). His little joyride in a hermetically sealed SUV so he could wave to his supporters was just twenty kinds of pathetic, more so when it was leaked that Trump chose to put the Secret Service agents who had to ride with him, who now have to quarantine, in danger because he was “bored.” And then there was the sight of him, upon returning to the White House, obviously struggling for breath.
I’m cautiously optimistic that this might be the moment when some Trump devotees start seeing through the con. Because I think my friend was right: if your entire brand is bound up in a particular conception of strength and manliness, any chinks in that façade can be deadly. The bluster and bullying that so many of us find repellent, his absolute refusal to ever admit error or give ground even in the face of overwhelming evidence—indeed, his constant doubling-down on his mendacity—has always been integral to the Trumpian projection of strength. Such niceties as facts, science, evidence, and reason don’t matter to his most ardent supporters, because the point has always been the illusion of Trump as vanquisher of the Establishment, the snowflakes and SJWs, the libtards, the Deep State. Anything that might contradict this illusion is obviously a confection of a confederacy of the aforementioned enemies.
But when the Man Himself admits to getting sick with something he has roundly dismissed, that becomes problematic. That Trump knows as much is obvious from his recent posturing, as he claims that catching the virus is a demonstration of his courage; but he is also obviously flailing, tweeting and calling into Fox News to revisit his greatest hits about Hillary’s emails, “Obamagate,” and the FBI spying on his campaign. Desperate to hold rallies again, he has declared himself “cured,” in defiance of everything we know about the coronavirus.
Perhaps this will work for him, but it feels like the golden toilet is starting to shed its gilt.
When I was young and first watched The Empire Strikes Back, I was, as you might imagine, enthralled. But there was one part of Yoda’s now-notorious dictum that always unsettled me: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” I got the anger–>hate–>suffering equation; but I was agnostic about fear as the root of it all. I was, I should admit, an easily frightened child; I grew up into an easily frightened adult, especially where scary films are concerned. So the idea that fear could lead me to the dark side was more than just vaguely disturbing. Wait, I thought—I’m afraid of sharks. That could make me a Sith? I spent much of my childhood being afraid of the dark, and slept under my covers for longer than I care to admit. And it seemed to me utterly unreasonable that Luke Skywalker should not be terrified of facing the many threats before him, not least of which was the implacable evil of Darth Vader himself. Given that I had it on good authority (i.e. my parents) that courage and bravery was not about not being afraid, but being afraid and doing the scary thing anyway, I wondered if perhaps Yoda wasn’t asking rather a lot.
I suppose this says something about the difference between children’s and adults’ understanding of fear, and the way they experience it: I would of course later understand that Yoda wasn’t speaking of specific, circumstantial fear, which is the kind of fear we tend to experience as children—the monster under the bed, things that go bump in the night—but rather the more existential fears that have to do with who we are and how we see ourselves, and how we might continue on in the world.
It occurs to me that the bizarre arms race that gender reveal parties have become hews fairly neatly to Yoda’s dictum. The original idea, which involved making cakes with pink or blue interiors, was somewhat twee and painfully white-suburban from the start, but at least it was inoffensive—an excuse for a weekend afternoon of chardonnay and canapes. How that escalated into using alligators, go-karts, and explosives, is perhaps a question best addressed by sociologists, but let me offer a thought: at a moment in which the binarisms of gender are more and more eroded by the visibility of trans and non-binary people, and the language of trans rights becomes more ubiquitous (along with that of such detractors as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro), the militant assertion of birth-bestowed gender is an unfortunate but not unforeseeable reaction. Were it to remain in the realm of cakes and balloons it would be innocuous, but as wildfires in Arizona and California attest, there is a not-insignificant number of people who want to assert their unborn child’s gender by literally blowing shit up.
The fear here is not difficult to grasp: the apparent upending of what has been for most people the most elemental feature of identity we have known. Gender has long been the easiest binary, and the most disconcerting one to have troubled. The thing is, anger isn’t the next inevitable step; but then, fear is not itself inevitable, unless one finds their sense of identity threatened. Then, anger is more likely, and at a moment when Facebook and YouTube algorithms will likely connect you to other angry people (like the aforementioned transphobic asshats), hatred can be a short trip. All of which might well convince you that making an explosive box filled with Schrödinger’s gender powder and setting it off in a place that hasn’t had rain in half a year is a good idea—because that’ll show those SJW snowflakes.
And suffering? Well …
The fear of which Yoda spoke was the same conception of fear invoked by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural speech (and yes, I did just mention Yoda and FDR in the same sentence—life goals!). “There is nothing to fear but fear itself” is another dictum my young self found questionable, because sharks. But of course, FDR was talking about the same nebulous societal and cultural fear as Yoda, fear born of ignorance. Fear, after all, can be galvanizing—it can inspire courage and solidarity. But when we are uncertain of what we’re afraid of, and only know that we are in fact afraid, that is when reason gives way to anger and hate. Doris Kearns Goodwin has recently pointed out that the oft-quoted “fear itself” line of FDR’s speech is really only comprehensible in the context of a line immediately preceding it: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” It was in speaking truth about the hardships facing the nation, and the difficult road ahead, Roosevelt asserted, that the blight of fear could be obviated.
And as Jill Lepore observes in These Truths, her magisterial history of the U.S., FDR employed the relatively new medium of radio to unite a nation with his Sunday evening “fireside chats”—in which he would explain what his government was doing; why it was doing it; and how it would affect ordinary Americans. In this way, Roosevelt talked the nation through the worst of the Great Depression, and was its anchor through the Second World War.
Which is why it was acutely galling to read that, in the wake of the revelations made by Bob Woodward this week, Fox News host and Trump’s putative shadow chief of staff, Sean Hannity, compared Trump’s handling of the coronavirus to FDR’s tenure as president:
Did President Roosevelt fan the flames of misery? Did he call for panic and anxiety? No, he actually rallied a nation in a time of need. He focused on making Americans stronger by staying positive, and he got to work and he rolled up his sleeves. During World War II, with the country on the brink, FDR proclaimed, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Well, those were brutally tough times. Did the media attack him? Of course not … The president’s job is to maintain order, and by the way, right the ship during and after a crisis, not spread panic, not spreading fear among the population. Let’s make one thing perfectly clear, President Trump has never misled or distorted the truth about this deadly disease.
This, it should be pointed out, was in defense of Trump’s comments to Bob Woodward that he deliberately downplayed the severity of the coronavirus so as to avoid a panic. Leaving aside the fact that there hasn’t been a panic Trump didn’t gleefully inflame, let’s recall two points I made just a moment ago: first, FDR spoke of “fear itself” in reference to the Great Depression, not WWII (which might seem a persnickety quibble, were it not for the fact that Hannity’s historical error came during a bit titled “Hannity’s History Lesson”); second, FDR espoused radical honesty. His very first fireside chat was about the week-long “bank holiday,” in which banks across the nation were closed so that the government could instantiate federal deposit insurance in the interim. Banks had been closing all across the U.S. since the crash of 1929, with millions of people losing their savings (remember that scene from It’s A Wonderful Life?); having the president talk the sixty million people listening through the rationale for the bank holiday not only soothed their fears, it enlisted them in FDR’s project.
The best responses to any national crisis always proceed from honesty. The greatest insult proceeding from Trump’s ostensible concern about “panic” is how profoundly it condescends to the electorate.
The thing is, aside from getting the timing of FDR’s “fear itself” line wrong, Hannity wasn’t wrong about anything else—until he says, “President Trump has never misled or distorted the truth about this deadly disease.” I don’t know if we can even call this gaslighting, as gaslighting at least entails a measure of subtlety. This is simple, outright lying, mendacity directed at an audience that doesn’t need to be gaslit. Which makes me think that Yoda possibly needed a prefatory condition for fear: ignorance.
I learned a new term this morning as I listened to the most recent episode of “Pod Save the World,” one of the many excellent podcasts by Crooked Media. It is hosted by Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes, both of whom worked for Barack Obama’s foreign policy team, Vietor as the National Security Spokesman, Rhodes as Obama’s head foreign policy speechwriter (Rhodes’ memoir of his time in the Obama Administration, The World as it Is, is an excellent read). Speaking of recent reporting that Trump and his lackeys are pressuring intelligence officials to find evidence that COVID-19 was produced in the oft-mentioned infectious diseases lab in Wuhan, China, Vietor called this “conclusion shopping,” which describes an effort find—or, ultimately, manufacture—evidence that will support an already-assumed conclusion. They offered the example of, say, the conclusion being that Iraq must be invaded … or in this case, the conclusion that the novel coronavirus was entirely China’s fault, and quite probably not accidental.
One of the things I find particularly depressing about the present moment generally, and about this issue specifically, is that Trump et al are making absolutely no pretense about this: Trump needs an enemy he can berate and point to and tell his base they’re the reason your life sucks, and he does it with all the subtlety of a carnival barker because he knows that Fox News and the rest of the conservative noise machine will take up the refrain and that a rump of the American population—his MAGA-hat wearing base—will unquestioningly believe him over anyone whose job it is to know better. Conclusion-shopping is easier when your supporters will accept your conclusion unquestioningly, and be indifferent to whatever evidence you present, except as talking-points to be shouted. The Bush Administration at least attempted subterfuge, using the trauma of 9/11 to paper over the inconsistencies in the charge that Saddam Hussein was involved, and planting stories that were picked up by useful idiots like Judith Miller at the New York Times, creating a narrative that did not hold together if you looked closely, but which was convincing enough that a plurality of Democrats in Congress—including Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden—voted in favour of invading Iraq.
It didn’t take long for the subterfuge to be exposed, but by then the die was cast, and Bush and his people were singularly unapologetic. At the time I was fond of being ironically nostalgic for Watergate and Iran-Contra, in which Nixon and Reagan’s elaborate cover-ups at least hinted at a measure of shame. Never in a million years could I have imagined a presidential administration that would be more shameless than Bush et al … but here we are.
(Also, as an aside: as much as I appreciate the sentiment of George W. Bush’s recent paean to solidarity in the face of adversity, let’s not get nostalgic for a president whose deliberate, calculated mendacity not only precipitated a disastrous and unnecessary war, but whose tactics in doing so laid the groundwork for where we are now. By all means, enjoy the schadenfreude of Trump’s unhinged Twitter response to Bush’s anodyne call for unity, but don’t for a second let Bush off the hook for being at least partially responsible for where we are now).
The problem Trump has now in bashing an enemy is that it is difficult to fit his usual suspects—the media, the elites, the Establishment, immigrants—with the black hat, because not only does a virus not discriminate in who it infects, its effects are plainly visible and cannot be spun. Nor, for that matter, can the incoherent ramblings of his press briefings and his painfully obvious lack of empathy. Until now, red states have been spared the worst of the pandemic, but that is changing as governors like Brian Kemp of Georgia and Ron DeSantis of Florida charge onward to re-open their states well ahead of the advice of medical experts.
So Trump needs a new enemy, and has signaled that it will be China. I don’t for a moment want to be an apologist for Xi Jinping and his dictatorial regime, nor do I want to downplay the unavoidable fact that the regime’s reflexively secretive and oppressive tendencies exacerbated an outbreak that more an honest and transparent response would have, at very least, ameliorated. But then, criticism of Xi’s regime isn’t the ultimate point of Trump’s current conclusion-shopping; if it was, we might have a more nuanced discussion about authoritarian versus democratic responses to such a crisis. The ultimate point isn’t to place blame on a system of governance, but a non-white ethnicity—which is why you’re likely to see a confusion of conspiracy theories about the collective malevolence of a technocratic dictatorship conflated with racist depictions of backward, bat-eating Chinese peasantry. The fact that these two elements are obviously at odds hasn’t mattered, nor will it going forward. The narrative, such as it is, given Trump &co.’s utter shamelessness, is painfully predictable: China is America’s implacable enemy, and ruthless, so the virus was almost certainly created in this Wuhan lab and released to cause a debilitating global pandemic; also, Chinese people are culturally other, and have backward social practices (they eat bats! At “wet markets” no less, and doesn’t that just sound disgusting?); then, Joe Biden will be hammered in ad after ad, and Fox News piece after Fox News piece, for being “soft” on China, and Hunter Biden’s questionable financial dealings in China will be held up as evidence of his and his father’s corruption. Ad nauseum.
Of course, this all isn’t a prediction: it had already happened, it is still happening, and it will continue to happen, with the only difference being the volume as we go forward.
As with any conspiracy theory, none of this needs corroboration or even a logical through-line. Already there have been countless conservative op-eds and think pieces attacking liberal objections to this narrative, characterizing the response as mealy-mouthed political correctness and identity politics more concerned with ostensible racism than the hard facts on the ground. Why shouldn’t Mike Pompeo insist on calling it the “Wuhan virus”? That is where it originated, after all! China has been the epicenter of many outbreaks! You libtards are more worried about offending people than with solving problems! … and so on.
One of the key reasons for objecting to designating COVID-19 as a “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus isn’t because it didn’t originate there—because of course it manifestly did—but because such characterizations are (a) counterproductive in the diplomatic realm, where China, like it or not, is a key player—especially now, with a feckless and incompetent U.S. president who has effectively abdicated America from its usual role in global crisis management—and (b) because those making the objection are doing so in recognition that the designation is, more often than not, being made in bad faith by individuals more interested in assigning blame than finding solutions. Did the virus originate in China? Yes. Does that implicate Chinese (and thus by extension in the white imagination, all Asian) people? Of course not. But that is what happens, as we have seen in the uptick of anti-Asian hate crimes perpetrated in the U.S. and elsewhere.
One of the ironies at work here is that a scenario in which a tech at the Wuhan lab got infected, or there was an error made in the disposal of hazardous waste, is entirely plausible. (Trust me when I say you do not want to, even casually, look up info on human error in research labs, not if you want to sleep well). Thus far, intelligence officials and medical investigators have said this was unlikely, that the outbreak probably did occur because of zoonotic transmission. But if the outbreak did occur because of human error? Well, blame the error, and perhaps safety protocols. This is why medical research of this nature and pandemic prevention tends to be international in character—to have as many expert eyes on things as possible, something denuded by the Trump Administration’s firing of their representative in Beijing. The problem with Trump’s conclusion-shopping is that it is basically conspiracy-shopping—all he needs is the slightest hint that it may have been the lab’s fault for his enablers and supporters to go all in on the assumption that the virus was specifically manufactured as a bio-weapon.
And hey, did you hear? Joe Biden is in league with them.
One of the attractions of teaching a pandemic fiction course in the Fall is that it will be interesting to teach speculative fiction that doesn’t really require much speculation, given what we’re living through in the present moment.
A fairly standard bit of furniture in dystopian fiction is the dissolution of the nation-state as we know it, with whatever country in which the story takes place still possessing vestigial elements of its old self, but otherwise re-shaped by war, political upheaval, environmental catastrophe, pandemic, or all of the above. In the most extreme cases, as with The Road by Cormac McCarthy, all has been erased (including identifiable landscapes) and survivors must negotiate the Hobbesian lawlessness as best they can. In Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, there is no nation, just an archipelago of self-governing settlements. This latter vision, as I mentioned in a previous post, is where The Walking Dead has arrived. I also wrote at length about how a key narrative and thematic element of Max Brooks’ World War Z was imagining how a certain idea of America might persist through an apocalyptic catastrophe.
In other cases where there is no catastrophe per se, the dissolution of the nation-state is often depicted as an inevitability proceeding from contemporary circumstances. This, indeed, is a favourite consideration in much cyberpunk, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash—in both cases, the stories take place (at least partially) in a political entity still known as the United States, but in which civic government has effectively been displaced by massive transnational corporations.
And then there is the figuration of the fracturing of a former civic entity into regions of distinct character and governance. America is a useful country for this particular futurism, considering the size and regional distinctiveness of the continental U.S., to say nothing of the fraught history of federalism and those several years in the nineteenth century when the country literally broke in two.
Richard K. Morgan’s novel Black Man envisions a future in which the U.S. has fractured into three political entities: the U.N. States, which is a loose transatlantic confederation of northeastern states, part of eastern Canada, and the U.K; the Rim States, which as the name suggests comprises the Pacific Rim, itself also a post-national confederation including part of British Columbia. And finally there is “the Republic,” the middle swath of the country that has laid claim to white Christian identity as the basis of America and which is essentially an economically depressed theocracy (to those in the other two regions, it is frequently identified by the derisive nickname “Jesusland”). The three regions all bear characteristic familiar to the present moment, with the Rim driven by technology and the sort of Randian faith in disruption that currently marks Silicon Valley; the U.N. States are identified by their cosmopolitanism and transnationalism, such that the priority isn’t national identity but economic alliances; and the Republic is revanchist, anti-science, and resentful of its economic backwardness while still viewing itself as the “authentic” America.
Since I first read the novel eleven years ago (I wrote about it at some length on my previous blog), Morgan’s future America has seemed more and more of an actual possibility. And lately it’s been on my mind an awful lot as I keep seeing maps like these in the news:
One of the central tensions in the United States since even before its founding has been the argument between having a strong central government versus a weaker one that would leave most of the governing up to the individual states. The original argument was embodied by Alexander Hamilton on one hand and Thomas Jefferson on the other, and today pretty much falls along the axis of Democrats and Republicans, with the former advocating for a larger government and the latter frequently quoting Ronald Reagan’s famous line that government isn’t the solution to the problem, government is the problem, and doing their best to reduce its size to the point where, per Grover Norquist, it can be drowned in a bathtub.
Which is what makes what’s going on now kind of fascinating from the perspective of political history. On one hand, you have a Republican executive and Senate, in an effort to staunch the economic hemorrhaging caused by the coronavirus, spending like drunken sailors on shore leave—over twice as much money as Obama’s 2009 stimulus, which they howled about at the time. On the other hand, the utter incompetence of Donald J. Trump and all of the hacks he has running the show has meant that, at a time when one ideally wants a strong central government, we’re witnessing the effective abdication of federal power, ceding it to the states.
There’s a truism about Republicans, which is that they inveigh against big government when they are out of power, and when they are in power they cut budgets and funding and reduce the size of every governmental department except the Department of Defense. When the federal government then, not unpredictably, struggles to perform its basic functions, Republicans point to that as evidence of government’s innate incompetence.
Not that this sort of thing is limited to the U.S.—it’s been part of the Right’s basic playbook since the Reagan/Thatcher years, but the 21st century has escalated it by a magnitude with the antagonism to expertise and science and the elevation of, say, a horse breeder to the directorship of FEMA just in time for one of the most devasting hurricanes to ever strike the Gulf Coast. But Bush’s appointment of Michael “Heckuva job, Brownie!” Brown to FEMA was just a hint of things to come as the Tea Party stormed the halls of Congress in 2010 with people whose entire purpose was to bring government to a screeching halt. And then with Trump’s election, we have seen the elevation of the most spectacularly unqualified, semi-literate, narcissistic incompetent to the most powerful office in the world; and along with him he brought an army of hacks and enablers who haven’t the faintest idea of how to govern in the best of times. It’s not for nothing that the “adults in the room” at this point are all career bureaucrats, people like Dr. Anthony Fauci who have spent long and distinguished careers in public service—the very people Steve Bannon had in mind when he fulminated against “the Deep State” and avowed that his principal goal was “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”
At the rate we’re going, he may get his wish. I have read a number of think-pieces that have speculated that the current state of affairs, in which state governors have entered into loose regional coalitions to manage their pandemic responses, essentially giving up on any meaningful assistance from the White House, might ironically end up being a spectacular vindication of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of federalism. Alexander Hamilton’s legacy, by contrast, will have to be satisfied with Broadway box office returns and a raft of Tony awards: Donald Trump is precisely the corrupt and incompetent man of low manners he argued that the Electoral College would guard against.
That didn’t really work out so well. And it might be that Trump’s own most indelible legacy will be the fracturing of America into regional coalitions that will be resistant to kowtowing to the federal government in the future. Though I somehow doubt Thomas Jefferson would feel particularly edified to have his philosophy of governance realized by a subliterate cretin.
I had an odd thought yesterday morning, apropos of what I’m about to write about in this post, but I thought it was funny enough in the weird connection it makes to lead off with it.
The musicals Hamilton and Rent don’t have very much in common besides being huge Broadway hits and featuring generally attractive, youthful casts. But they do both focus on ensembles of people who fancy themselves revolutionaries: in the first case, the ardent young men who become the United States’ founding fathers; in the second, a ragtag group of bohemian would-be artists who rebel against the suffocating strictures of mainstream culture. The title song of Rent signals their first act of resistance upon receiving an eviction notice. The song agonizes over how they’re “gonna pay last year’s rent,” but by the end resolves:
When they act tough—you call their bluff
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
Last year’s rent
This year’s rent
Next year’s rent
Rent rent rent rent rent
We’re not gonna pay rent
Whenever I think of Rent or hear its music, it always puts me in mind of the late great David Rakoff’s eviscerating critique of the musical (which you can listen to here), in which he points out that none of the play’s would-be artists seem ever to want to do the work of being artists. But his key bone of contention is: “Well … why won’t you pay your rent?” At the very end of his essay, he recounts, of his agonistic 20s:
There were days when it hardly seemed worth it to live in a horrible part of town just so that I could go daily to a stupid, soul-crushing, low-paying job, especially since, as deeply as I yearned to be creative, for years and years I was too scared to even try. So I did nothing. But here’s something that I did do. I paid my fucking rent.
It occurs to me, perhaps uncharitably, that the Revolutionary War part of Hamilton is basically the founding fathers chanting “We’re not gonna pay rent!—albeit with better songs and a somewhat more nuanced rationale for why they’re not gonna pay rent than their bohemian counterparts.
I had this weird thought after reading a column by Bret Stephens, one of the New York Times representative conservatives, titled “Robespierre’s America.” Happily, the TL;DR is in the subtitle: “We need to reclaim the spirit of 1776, not the certitudes of 1789.”
If you’re at all familiar with Stephens’ columns, you probably know what’s coming: an invective against the woke sanctimony of the politically correct left, compared unfavourably with the reason and rationality of the Enlightenment principles on which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were based. He enumerates a series of excesses—starting with his own victimization at the hands of a Twitter mob for calling Reza Aslan stupid—mostly recounted in the abstract, referring to professors afraid to offend students and publishers dropping books at the first whiff of controversy, comparing the ideological rigidity of the woke left to that of the Jacobins:
“Armed with the ‘truth,’ Jacobins could brand any individuals who dared to disagree with them traitors or fanatics,” historian Susan Dunn wrote of the French Revolution. “Any distinction between their own political adversaries and the people’s ‘enemies’ was obliterated.”
Leaving aside the egregious comparison of Twitter warriors with people who literally decapitated thousands, let’s address the implicit comparison Stephens makes between the American Revolution and the French—implicit, because he never explains what he means by the “spirit of 1776.” One assumes he’s citing the tacit understanding of America’s founding as rooted in and emerging from Enlightenment principles of reason, rationality, and spirited public debate—the very understanding, indeed, that made it possible for Lin-Manuel Miranda to write compelling rap battles about the creation of a national bank and the wisdom of carrying a national debt. Certainly, that’s the implied contrast with the ideological fanaticism of Robespierre and his murderous Jacobin thugs.
Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t bother me overmuch—I find Bret Stephens’ columns annoying, but predictable and forgettable—but given that yesterday was the Fourth of July, I found myself in a headspace to think about 1776 and the American Revolution, so to me the most glaring aspect of “Robespierre’s America” is the way it so perfectly recapitulates—albeit implicitly—certain fallacies not just about the American Revolution, but revolutions generally.
I tend to be leery of revolutions, given that history teaches us that, the more extreme they are, the more they tend to turn into versions of their own worst selves. Hence, the French Revolution devolves into the Terror; the Russian Revolution turns into Stalinism. The fact that the American Revolution did not transform into something equally pernicious has been cited as evidence of American Exceptionalism, which is at least partially true; but I would argue that the principal reason the American Revolution had a relatively placid aftermath (yes, a lot of Loyalists were persecuted, often egregiously, but that hardly compares to 1790s Paris) is that nothing really changed. The radicalism of 1776 wasn’t that of material effect, but of promise—not what actually changed on the ground, but what could possibly change in the future.
For all intents and purposes, there were no upheavals in American life after the Declaration of Independence (well, aside from the war itself), by which I mean that the people in charge stayed in charge, and the power structures of the new United States were not appreciably different from the power structures of the Colonies. The King was not beheaded; the King was not even dethroned. George III basically had his status as absentee landlord revoked.
Hence my thought about Hamilton and Rent: the Boston Tea Party was basically a defiant gesture saying “We’re not gonna pay rent! Rent rent rent rent rent!”, as was the conflict that followed, and that defiant gesture is celebrated today as it was then. But after turfing the Brits, you bloody well better believe you’re paying your rent to the new owners.
By contrast, the French Revolution was about the radical overthrow of extant power, power so rooted in history, religion, and tradition that it went by the name of the ancien regime. And because of the weight of that history, it took decades to stabilize, something exacerbated by the fact that the rest of Europe was undergoing similar political upheavals. Is it any wonder that, mere years after guillotining the king, France had an Emperor?
(All of this is very broad strokes and probably has my historian friends pulling their hair out.)
As I said above, the true radicalism of 1776 wasn’t about the founding fathers’ present moment, but about the future—about what the principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights could and can do when they become uncomfortably unavoidable. I’d argue that the true American Revolution—which is to say, the truly revolutionary moment in American history—wasn’t 1776 and the aftermath, but the Civil War. The confederates might have been the rebels, but Lincoln was the revolutionary, insofar as that the abolition of slavery overturned a foundational basis of American society. No such upending occurred in 1776, and the principle of revolutions turning into their worst selves has been painfully present in the U.S. since Andrew Johnson reversed all of the provisions made for newly freed slaves during Reconstruction, and white people in the South embarked on a sustained campaign of terror against them.
(To say nothing of everything that has happened since then, which I can’t do justice to here. If you haven’t already, read Ta-Nehisi Coates landmark essay “The Case for Reparations”).
Stephens’ opposition of “the spirit of 1776” to “the certitudes of 1789” completely glosses the material circumstances of both. The Revolutionary era of America comprises one of the most astounding argumentative ferments of history, with the debates over democracy, individual rights, proper governance, the best ways to defy and prevent tyranny, and myriad other considerations, taking place in taverns, drawing-rooms, the streets, and, most importantly, in print, with pamphlets and newspapers flying back and forth in paper fusillades. It was a period that evinced precisely the kind of civic engagement to which we should aspire, but always with one crucial caveat in mind: it was the provenance of what we today call privilege, and it has largely remained so ever since. The irony of Stephens’ longing for the “spirit of 1776” as inspired by having been savaged on Twitter, is that had the spirit of that era been as inclusive in practice as it was in principle, we might not be experiencing quite the same polarization today. Stephens’ Twitter Jacobins aren’t analogous to Robespierre, but to the citizens who stormed the Bastille: people finding a voice, voice which had previously been denied to them, through newly available means.
Speaking of revolutions that turn into their worst selves: the tech and digital revolution, specifically the rise of the internet, was heralded by many in the early-mid 1990s as a utopian shift in human connection and collective knowledge; quarter of a century later, we can see clearly how, even where some aspects of that dream have been realized, the benefits are ambivalent at best. But one key element of digital culture is that it has eroded the prominence of traditional gatekeepers of public discourse in print and visual media, allowing for a host of other platforms online or in social media. These platforms give voice to people who long went unheard, and it should not come as a huge shock that a lot of these voices are angry. It is difficult to try and make the case for “the spirit of 1776” to groups of people for whom, historically, that place within spirited public debate was never an option.
I have to believe, however, that that particular spirit isn’t dead, and if the Bret Stephens of the world would pay closer attention to the nuanced and thoughtful arguments unfolding both in “legacy” media and the new, insurgent spaces (and less attention to Twitter), they might be less convinced that there’s a tumbrel waiting for them. Of course, that’s likely a futile suggestion: more likely, it is precisely the growing presence of previously marginalized voices that threatens them and gives rise to the spectre of a guillotine with their name on it.