The wave of euphoria that hit me after they called the election on Saturday was not exactly one of relief. It was slightly weirder than that, but better, too, for its honesty. We’ve lived under the weight of two perpetually shifting unknowns—the identity of the next president and the end of the pandemic—for almost eight months now. An interval of uncertainty that’s long enough to grow accustomed to. The resolution of one unknown was prolonged a bit by the other, crystallizing and amplifying everything that’s been so hard about both of them.
On Saturday, as my neighbors descended to the streets, cheering, I was reminded of the last time I felt this kind of weightless neutrality: the feeling when you win the hurricane aftermath lottery. The private luck, the perverse gratification you get when you drive down a road of wrecked houses to find yours still standing. Even if there is a jet ski wedged in the branches of the live oak in your front yard, and the bulk of your earthly treasures are irreparably waterlogged, you made out fine. It would be vile to brag about it, but you get to sleep soundly.
With one uncertainty closed off, everything else starts to resettle in the vacancy it leaves behind. Life moves on. America is a big, messy place and I’m not sure where I belong in it. I think a lot of artists feel that way about the places they live and the things they experience, and that’s why we make things. To try and find out, to report from the ground. Glorious as it is to dodge creeping authoritarianism at the last possible second, painting this moment as some kind of victory of our better angels feels a little too indulgent, because when you get right down to it, we really have none. “American exceptionalism” is, perhaps, the most insane, dramatic, and longest running piece of performance art there is. It’s an elegant avatar for the things we really want, which are less exciting but more practical: material comfort and stability and perhaps a little good entertainment. Enough of us managed to do the right thing this time around; we got lucky, that’s all.
Andrew Singleton at McSweeney’s put it thusly:
Does anyone know? Does anyone have the answer to how a nation whose most popular sport involves watching men give each other brain damage can so reject intellect? How a country that gave birth to the planet’s biggest multi-level-marketing companies fails to see when they’re being conned? How a populace in which 34 percent of adults don’t believe in evolution supports a candidate who so consistently denigrates science? Or how could a country where OJ Simpson has 925,000 Twitter followers so egregiously fails to be a good judge of character? Or how our great, shining city on a hill that made a man world-famous for being an asshole to his employees on television fails to show even the most basic compassion and empathy?
How was this election so close?
I’ll never understand it.
On Friday, I saw a video of a man who waited nine years to become a U.S. citizen, being congratulated by his friends after voting in this, his very first election. Nine years. Nine years during which he served as a translator for our military during one of our ongoing forever wars. Citizenship was his reward, presumably the only incentive that might compel somebody to devote a decade of his life to somebody else’s cause. There are thousands of people like him waiting in line to get their citizenship, too: people who aided our military in the desperate hope of getting out of the forever wars forced upon their soil, so that they could come to live here, in a different kind of forever war.
A few days before the election, David Corn at Mother Jones wrote a very thoughtful and well-researched article about whether or not democracies that flirt this deeply with authoritarianism can truly recover. I read it around the same time I noticed an article by Anil Ananthaswamy in Scientific American about ongoing research into whether or not we’re really just living in a simulation. Perhaps it won’t surprise you that Ananthaswamy’s conclusions were very similar to Corn’s. They both determined that there may indeed be answers to these questions, but that they are so deeply rooted in the hypothetical that it’s almost pointless to search for them. All we can do in either case, it seems, is wait and see what turns out to be true.
Life goes on.
I’ve also been thinking about this absolutely batshit book review I read in The New Republic. It’s about a libertarian effort to emancipate a small New Hampshire town and how that resulted, more or less, in a complete disintegration of society:
And so the Free Towners spent years pursuing an aggressive program of governmental takeover and delegitimation, their appetite for litigation matched only by their enthusiasm for cutting public services. They slashed the town’s already tiny yearly budget of $1 million by 30 percent, obliged the town to fight legal test case after test case, and staged absurd, standoffish encounters with the sheriff to rack up YouTube hits. Grafton was a poor town to begin with, but with tax revenue dropping even as its population expanded, things got steadily worse. Potholes multiplied, domestic disputes proliferated, violent crime spiked, and town workers started going without heat. “Despite several promising efforts,” Hongoltz-Hetling dryly notes, “a robust Randian private sector failed to emerge to replace public services.” Instead, Grafton, “a haven for miserable people,” became a town gone “feral.” Enter the bears, stage right.
If you’re waiting for me to reach a conclusion about all of this, I simply can’t. Followers of this blog since its inception will understand that while I am not a passive observer of our doomsday problems, I also accept that almost all of our doomsday problems are doomsday problems in large part because they are too messy to be deciphered by even the most well-meaning individual mind. The only people arrogant enough to think they can truly make sense of America today are cable news personalities and digital media pundits—the sort of folks who are overwhelmingly white and well-off and perhaps only a notch above child molesters when it comes to viewing the world with a nuanced and compassionate eye.
And anyway, if I could tell you what it all meant, would it really matter? Who am I to get the in the way of your creative process? Politics are generally terrible, and only really approach goodness when they’re local. A town in Kentucky elected a French bulldog to be their mayor (a thing they routinely do) because the truth is that, simulation or not, our nature is fundamentally one that’s inclined toward weirdness. Even with the vast resources and empirical data at our disposal, with our taste for the absurd and contrarian, our collective odds of unfucking this thing in short order remain slim to none. Perhaps enough of us will do the right thing and we’ll get lucky again when the next calamity approaches. But who can know what tomorrow will bring? We are hominids in a dangerous time. Societies rise up, collapse, and rise again, in the desperate hope of doing it better than the last one did, despite our propensity to learn things the hard way.
All we can do is wait and see what turns out to be true.
It feels good, in this moment, to breathe.