I said there would be a podcast coming, right? I think I meant that about 60 percent seriously. Well guess what! A podcast I declared, and a podcast I have made. After a few frustrating stabs at a more “professional” sounding audio product, I opted to go for something more personal and informal. So the new Near-Earth Object podcast was recorded, audio and video, from a bench beside a river. I kind of like how it turned out, and who knows where I might record the next one.
The audio podcast is making its way through the various tubes of several podcast apps and services, (here it is at Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Podbean, to start) but I presume it will be widely available by the time you read this. I hope you like it.
I’m thinking about normalcy. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the abnormality of the crisis-buffet from which we are being force-fed, the so-called “new normal,” does not seem to be causing some kind of great awakening, but rather the “old normal” is clawing its way back.
But then the president got the coronavirus. And it dawned on me, well, of course he did. And the fact that he got it (along with all the other folks who got it with or from him) just meant that things operating, well, normally. The times aren’t normal, but the way humans react to the abnormal times, and the way natural phenomenon like viruses behave, are normal.
And even though none of this means that things are just fine, or that things will get meaningfully better, it is, weirdly, comforting. Read the whole thing.
In other news, I’ve rewatched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time in many, many years in preparation for checking out the new Netflix show Ratched. Some quick thoughts:
Go watch Cuckoo’s Nest, whether you’ve seen it before or not, and just revel in the masterful acting work being done by this ensemble without parallel.
Watching Cuckoo’s Nest will in no way prepare you for the show Ratched. Four episodes in, the only connection between the movie and the TV show is the fact that it’s about a stern psychiatric nurse with the same name in the time just before the events of the movie. The Nurse Ratched as excellently performed by Sarah Paulson in the TV show seems, at this stage, to have nothing to do with the character as so exquisitely performed by Louise Fletcher in 1975. Don’t try to square that circle. It’s just something else.
All that said, I still can’t tell if Ratched is brilliant, ridiculous, overindulgent, insipid, visionary, a curious novelty, or some mixture of all of that. But the fact that I still don’t know must say something good about it.
Of course they’re all infected. Honestly, how could we have expected anything else? If you deny the severity of a viciously infectious disease, if you delight in flouting all measures to prevent its spread, and you spend each day interacting with hundreds of people — all of whom agree heartily with your denial and flouting — of course you’re going to get the goddamned virus.
In the course of just a handful of weeks, we’ve had all these “bombshells,” and I know I have been unable to withstand the psychological and emotional shellacking of it all. Less than a month ago, we learned that Trump knew — and personally accepted the fact — that the coronavirus was deadly serious. A few days later, Ruth Badger Ginsburg died, followed by the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace her. A few days after that, the New York Times released its major story on Trump’s taxes, where we learned about his avoidance of taxes and his gobsmacking financial losses and debts. A few days after that, we endured the 90-minute trauma that was the presidential debate, where we learned that Trump was absolutely not going to concede the election if he lost, and that he was encouraging white supremacist violence. A few days after that, we learned that he, his wife, several of people on his staff and in his campaign, two U.S. senators, and others who had been in contact with him, had been infected.
All this we learned. All this shocked us, roiled us, and caused varying degrees of anxiety, horror, and panic.
But I am just now realizing, really, we have learned nothing. And nothing has changed.
Let’s jump back to 2016. You know, how all the polls were wrong and Trump pulled out a surprise victory? The polls weren’t wrong. The results of that election were absolutely in line with what the polls were showing. Nothing weird happened. Voters who leaned Republican voted for the Republican, voters who leaned Democratic voted for the Democrat, and the results for each state more or less wound up well within the margin of error. In terms of consequences, the election of 2016 was monumental. In terms of probabilities, it was unremarkable.
Trump himself is figure of unprecedented abnormality for his position. So his behavior has roiled the collective psyche of the nation, pummeling us all out of any sense of time or orientation. But he is not magic.
The polls for the 2020 presidential election have been almost freakishly stable. For months, Biden has polled just above 50 percent, and Trump just around 42 or so. Even after the aforementioned events of September beat us all about the head, the polls remained eerily static. Why?
It’s pretty easy. It’s really obvious who Trump is now. After four years of him being president, you didn’t need to think too hard about whether you liked how it was going or not. He made it really easy. He faced his most important test in having to deal with a pandemic, and there was no getting around it, so if you were at all on the fence about him, his handling of COVID-19 probably gave you your last push. There’s nothing new to learn. People have settled on their preferences.
But what about this crazy month? Well, no one really thought that Trump didn’t believe the virus was serious. It’s news that he was stupid enough to say so to a journalist while being recorded, but it’s not surprising. Everyone already knew that Trump is a cheat, and that he’s avoided paying taxes. Indeed, he’s boasted about his ability to evade them. It’s also well known that he’s been a colossal failure as a businessman. He’s been siding with white supremacists for ages, publicly. He threatened to contest the election of 2016 if he didn’t win. None of this is new.
And now, he gets COVID-19. It’s “shocking” in the sense that it’s the President of the United States, and that’s just a de facto big-goddamn-deal. But, you know, come on. Of course he was going to get it.
After four years of Mussolini-But-Dumber, people know what they got. If they love it, they love it, and that’s all there is to that. The rest of us — most of us — don’t, and we’re going to vote him out of office. There’s nothing weird about that, either.
We may feel as a nation that we’ve been batted about like a cat toy, but it’s the same cat. It acts like a cat. It doesn’t grow wings or breathe fire.
Just like the 2016 election, the 2020 election just might be (and I can’t believe I’m about to type this) a normal election with an abnormal candidate. A majority of voters will reject the president because he’s done an obviously shitty job and is an obviously shitty person. We know this because this is what the polls say is by far the most likely outcome. 2016 polls showed that Trump’s upset victory was entirely plausible. This time, he could still plausibly win, and it wouldn’t be a miracle if he did, but it’s just not where things are. Putting aside malfeasance, manipulation, or a mustering of forces to hold onto power (and I don’t necessarily doubt those things), this election is, in a way, like any other. It will revert to the mean.
Water seeks its own level. Viruses infect people who put themselves in a position to get infected. People in a shitty situation will choose to get out of it. Trump’s behavior, and now his health, are dangerous unknown factors. But everything else is, I am realizing, obvious.
Here’s a way for me to talk about my response to last night’s debate.
In the parking lot at the grocery store today, I saw a man, who appeared to be in his 60s, returning to his car with his groceries. He was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Trump campaign logo on the front and “No Basement Joe” on the back.
Adjusting my face mask before walking into the store and catching sight of this fellow, my mind immediately recalled the depravity displayed by Donald Trump the night before at that horror-show of a debate. For a brief moment, my brain struggled to comprehend how anyone—including a presumably sane, sentient human being like the man in the parking lot—could witness the trauma Trump had inflicted on us all and still support him. Worse yet, this man was proudly advertising his continued devotion to the president the fascism-for-idiots he personified on that stage.
And in that moment, I felt hate for that man. To be clear: this was not okay. I know nothing about this person. Merely presuming that this man understands what Trump is and what he represents, I could come to no other conclusion that this man must be evil.
Of course, I have no idea if that’s so. I have no idea what this man is like. I have no idea what he knows and does not know. I know nothing of his life story beyond what could be gleaned by a few seconds passing in a parking lot.
It scares me, that I felt that way. But in noticing that sudden shock of hate in myself, I then considered how deeply and fiercely Trump and his cult have driven their followers to hate, and I became doubly frightened. I experienced a moment of hate, of indignant rage at the moral vacuum I assumed to reside in this stranger’s heart. Just imagine, then, the cauldrons of hate, like geological quantities of magma, seething within those who feel represented by Donald Trump.
For the few seconds that I burned, I struggled to come up with some imaginary scenario in which I might confront this fellow and set him straight. Absurd, of course.
But what about the millions of people, bubbling with hate, and being told to expect their enemies to deny their leader his power—and therefore, in their minds, their power.
I’m very worried about what scenarios they are imagining. I’ve very worried about that.
What I’m also thinking about:
How not to think about everything going on. M.G. Ziegler says, “I think in many ways we can only live through times like these by not stopping to think about them.” I don’t feel like I have that luxury.
So go easy on yourself. Try not to think about the future. Instead, think about the present. How can you win the next hour, the next day? How can you be of most value — to yourself, to your family, to your community, and to the earth itself? You still have the incorruptible capacity to create joy, and catalyze change. No one can take that away from you, no matter how dark they dim the lights.
That’s true. But while one’s capacity might be incorruptible, it is not inexhaustible. And I’m pretty exhausted.
I would ask you, dear reader, to remember the next-to-last thing that social media taught you to be outraged about. I bet you can remember only the last one. …
You can readily see, I suspect, how information overload and social acceleration work together to create a paralyzing feedback loop, pressing us to practice continually [informational] triage … forcing our judgments about what to pay attention to, what to think about, to become ever more peremptory and irreversible. … And all this has the further effect of locking us into the present moment. There’s no time to think about anything else than the Now, and the not-Now increasingly takes on the character of an unwelcome and, in its otherness, even befouling imposition.
Never weep, never weep. With clear eyes explore the pit.
Sometime at the last gasp comes peace To every soul. Never to mine until I find out and speak The things that I know.
Welcome to Near-Earth Object, a website, newsletter, and podcast (coming soon!) by me, Paul Fidalgo. These are the falling years.
First, an introduction.
This is a project through which I, an odd duck, work through the problem of how to be a person in the world. That’s it. Through written and spoken words, my own and those of others, I try to figure out what to think, what to believe, and how to feel. And then I publish it for the public, which is frankly the most dubious part of this whole enterprise.
As I hope you’ve guessed, the name Near-Earth Object is not about things that float in space. It’s about the experience of being part of something — be it a family, a society, or a species — while also being slightly outside of it. It’s about being part of a cosmic system, but in an erratic orbit.
This newsletter is intended to serve as a regular conduit between me and whoever else out there who might find value in watching this process unfold. I’ll certainly highlight my own work and happily direct you to it, but it will also be an opportunity for me to share thoughts and ideas I’ve collected from other sources, old and new. The format is known as a “newsletter,” but it will not be “newsy.” While commentary and reflection on current events is unavoidable, my hope is that any edition of this publication could be read by someone in the far future and found as worthy of their time and attention as it would be the day it was published.
Speaking of these times…
The tagline of this project, “These are the falling years,” and the lines — that appear at this newsletter’s opening — I read at the show’s opening, all come from a poem by Robinson Jeffers written around 1940 titled “For Una.” In it, Jeffers writes about a stone tower he had built for his wife, a place of solitude and sanctuary for the two of them and an expression of his love for her. But he is writing while processing the apocalyptic horrors of the Second World War, which at the time must truly have felt like the end of all things.
I’m beginning this project in the autumn of 2020, the Lost Year. This is my personal creative endeavor, and it’s happening against the backdrop of the anxiety, fear, disappointment, disillusionment, and despair of our current age, and there’s no getting away from that. These truly are falling years.
And though I am an odd duck, I am not a young one. According to actuarial tables, I’ve just kicked off the second half of my life, meaning I have fewer days ahead of me than I do before. I am a near-Earth object in a descending orbit. These are *my* falling years, too.
“Never weep, never weep,” wrote Robinson Jeffers. Well, I certainly won’t tell you not to weep. But there is much to see and much to say in between the tears.
Thanks for taking the time. If you’re still interested, read on.
Oh, and, of course, subscribe. Please. And then tell everybody to do the same.
“If we’ve learned nothing else from the past decade,” I wrote, “it’s that if Republicans can’t win through persuasion, they’ll simply rewrite the rules. They are eternally controlling Boardwalk and Park Place. It’s written right on the inside of the box, that they shall eternally passeth Go, over and over, forever and ever, amen.”
What I didn’t foresee — and really should have — was how overt the repeal of democracy would be. I think I imagined that most of the foul dealings would happen behind the scenes, in ways that politicos understood, but didn’t penetrate the national consciousness. Even the hypocrisy of the Republican Senate’s position on appointing a successor to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while obvious, I suspect remains below the radar, and outside the realm of interest, to most Americans. I assume they see it as just another example of politicians being politicians.
But the President of the United States now says that any election that he doesn’t win is invalid. The election itself is moot, and he will use what influence he wields to ensure it. If he needs to use the Department of Justice to challenge the validity of mail-in ballots, he’ll do that. If he needs to disappear voters through the use of secret police, he’ll do it. If he needs to dispatch his cult of gun-toting fanatical ignoramuses to literally block the entrances to polling places, he’ll do it. If he needs to strongarm Republican governors and state legislators into disqualifying unfavorable slates of electors, he’ll do it. For each one of these actions, he has either already announced his intention to carry them out, or his minions have informed the press of the plan. Some of it already has happened.
It’s not a secret conspiracy. It’s out in the open. He intends no transfer of power, of any kind, at any time. Not in January of 2021, and almost certainly not in January of 2025 either.
In that same 2018 piece, I wrote that those who are really paying attention could sense what felt like an emergency. “It is an emergency. I do believe that people are waking up to that simple fact. Many millions of people have come to realize that things have not only gone wrong, but horribly, existentially wrong. The republic is in mortal danger, and the blight will not be contained within our borders. It’s soaking into the Earth’s crust. It’s riding the oceans’ currents. It’s attached to the very molecules we breathe.”
I said that I feared that our better angels are simply no match for our worst demons. But there, I might have been wrong. Not because I have any illusions that Republicans will discover a dormant conscience and put a stop to this madness. Rather, I suspect that our topple into fascism hinges not on the winner in the battle of angels versus demons, but because of the inaction of everyone in between.
Career civil servants will, by and large, do what they’re told. Mainstream news outlets will say and print what is necessary to keep from being shut down. Corporations will require the favor of the regime in order to continue operating and remain neutral. Some in positions of power will make noises about norms and democracy, but it will be just that, noise. You’ve heard it before; it’s the sound of senators tweeting about their “concern” about a grievous outrage and then doing nothing about it.
“Point me to the light at the end of the tunnel, and prove to me that the tunnel hasn’t already caved in,” I wrote then. “Because I can’t see it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.”
I could still be wrong. So I renew my plea from two years ago: If I’m wrong, tell me how.
Otherwise, I don’t know what to do with this, this knowing. I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know what to do now, nor what to do when what’s happened becomes obvious to everyone.
A million years ago, when I was attending the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, my class took part in a fascinating three-week workshop on performance in masks. While considered sort of avant-garde today, theatre more or less began with performers masking themselves or disguising their faces to tell stories. The classics of the Greeks and the slapstick buffoonery of commedia dell’arte were all originally performed in masks. The most common icon for theatre today is a pair of masks, one for comedy and one for tragedy. So this was going to be some exciting work in getting back to the roots of our craft, learning some vital fundamentals.
The sessions began even more fundamentally than we expected. To the surprise I think of many of my classmates, the first week’s session was absolutely free of masks. After a rather reverent introduction to mask work, we spent the rest of our time staring at our own faces in the mirror. Up close.
Literally face to face with ourselves, we were instructed to look deeply and coldly at our reflections. We were told to examine every line, curve, spot, and flaw with excruciating detail and meditative patience. We were made to drop all attempts at animation or expression, to let our faces find a state of absolute rest, to give up control of our facial muscles to gravity.
It was difficult and emotionally challenging, and yet we were to refrain from showing that emotion. We needed to simultaneously investigate our own faces with impartiality while also retaining mastery over them. This would be hard, I think, for anyone to do, but imagine the struggles of a room full of actors, all building their careers and lives on the imperfect, asymmetrical image before them.
As the workshop sessions went on, the reasoning for subjecting us to this became clear. Before we could ever be allowed to put on a mask, we had to reckon with the ones we were already wearing.
It’s a cliche to say that we all wear a mask to some degree, actors and non-actors alike, but it’s also true. The metaphor of the mask has special resonance with me, not just because of my life as an actor, but for the masks of normalcy that I have shielded myself with for decades. I won’t recount all the ways in which I am an odd duck, but consider the utility of “masking” for someone who has always been small, anxious, and awkward, creative and highly sensitive, bullied mercilessly in childhood and subject to other traumas in adulthood, and, for the kicker, on the autism spectrum.
Particularly since being diagnosed with Asperger’s only a few years ago, I have been working very hard to deconstruct those masks, to peel them away, layer by layer, and discover who the person behind them actually is. To pass as human had been the enterprise of my life, and over time it exhausted and sickened me. I lost myself within those masks, and I was terrified of who I’d find once they were gone.
I didn’t need to be. Here I am in my early 40s, getting on just fine, all things considered. It was enormously difficult, but I have learned to accept a great deal about who I am and who I never will be. I have grown to appreciate things about myself I never allowed myself to before, and I’ve acknowledged ugly truths about myself as well.
But just as I miss my life as a professional actor, taking on roles and living different lives, sometimes I miss the masks. Just as a costume can help bring an actor more fully into the mind of their character, a metaphorical mask allows a person to adopt qualities they might not otherwise possess. A personality enhanced by a mask may not be “genuine,” but is it necessarily false?
As part of coming to terms with my true self, I’ve had to accept and own my introversion and social awkwardness. But in the areas of my life where more confidence and gregariousness are called for, as in many work-related situations, am I better served by resigning to my “true self,” or might it be warranted to augment myself with the traits necessary for success? In other words, if I’m shy, but I decide to pretend to be outgoing, am I betraying myself?
A few years ago, I might have answered yes.
Part of the work of self-acceptance has been to insist on that same acceptance from everyone else — not for my own validation, but to be able to present myself truly, as I am, without the need to excuse or apologize for who I am. It’s been an essential part of this journey.
But that doesn’t mean that my “true self” always serves me best. An easy example of this comes from parenting. While I am very honest with my kids about who I am and what I’m like, there are always going to be moments when I am doing my duty to them as a father by presenting to them a person who is stronger, more assured, and wiser than I know myself to be. This isn’t to fool them, but to give them the care or the example they need in that moment. It’s not false, but it is a kind of mask.
And of course, there’s work, as I mentioned. As a communications professional, I can only achieve so much with creative-but-anxious, and I fail my employers if I shrug and say, well, this is who I truly am! Like an actor putting on a costume and reciting lines written by someone else, I have to put on my mask, the one that represents a character that is more confident and assertive than the real person wearing it.
This is a case of mask-as-augmentation, and I think it’s distinct from mask-as-shield. In a less self-accepting time, my masks were ways to hide who I was, to defend myself from being identified as different, to thwart anyone’s attempts to scrutinize my true self.
A defensive mask is always ill-fitting. It slips off too easily, or else constricts one’s circulation. The eyes don’t line up with the holes, or it makes it hard to breathe. To wear a mask defensively is to be in a constant state of disaster-aversion.
The relationship changes, I think, once we’ve come to accept our true face, when we take ownership of who we really are, for all our flaws. If we can get to a place where we have a handle on the whole of ourselves, strengths and weaknesses together, I think then a mask is not necessarily a shield or a disguise, but a tool.
If we mask with intention, we can thoughtfully and deliberately augment ourselves to better navigate different situations. When our natural state isn’t suited to a meaningful undertaking, we can choose the mask that supports our goals, adopting the specific qualities that help us get where we need to go, or build what we want to see come into being.
This is what we were learning in those first hours of that theatre workshop. Before the instructor would allow us to put on one of the masks she’d brought, and begin to inhabit — and be inhabited by — the character the mask represented, we needed to accept and master our own faces. We needed to take off our defensive masks, stop hiding from ourselves, and see our true faces as they really are.
To have used those masks as disguises would have been to miss the point. The goal must never be to disappear. Rather, the mask allowed us to bring something new into being. The mask was not hiding our true selves. Our true selves were giving life to the mask.
Accepting who we really are is just the start, not the end. Self-acceptance isn’t about stasis. It’s about taking responsibility for who we really are, and with intention and new understanding, finding the strength to see what else is possible. One way to find out is to try on a few masks. Who knows who might show up.
I have this idea about the relationship between courage and laziness.
Courage, as I define it, is when a person acts out of principle, knowing that the act will cause them suffering. John Lewis knew he faced beatings, imprisonment, and possibly death when he marched. Susan B. Anthony knew she faced scorn, jail, and infamy if she cast a vote. Steve Rogers knew he’d be blown to bits when he leapt on that grenade that turned out to be a dud. (Fictional examples are helpful and illustrative so back off.)
I have lamented on countless occasions my inability to choose a Major Project of some kind and see it through to fruition. (One Major Project I actually did, finally, complete, and I will eagerly share it with you when it comes into full being sometime next year.) I’d like to write a novel. I’d like to start a theatre troupe. I’d like to write nonfiction books on a number of subjects and in a number of styles. I’d like to host a podcast, write and record an album of new songs, play my music live for audiences, get into voice acting, write a newsletter, make a satire news site, and so on.
Rarely do I even begin on these fantasy projects, let alone stick with them long enough for them take flight. Why?
Sometimes, a project just isn’t the right fit. It doesn’t interest me as much as I’d hoped, or it involves commitments I am simply incapable of making. That’s no reason for anyone to beat themselves up. I mean, I will still beat myself up about it, but I shouldn’t.
But more often than not, I think what holds me back is what I’ll call laziness. That might not be an entirely fair word to use, but I want to make a point. When evaluating a Major Project, any number of factors can weigh on my mind and convince me it’s not worth beginning, or not feasible. It could be that I don’t think I have the time, or that I don’t really know how to get started. It could be that I don’t see a market for what I’d offer, or that said market is already flooded. It could be that it would require that I ask for help or collaboration with others, possibly even strangers, and my intense wincing at the thought of being socially entwined with anyone drains my resolve. It could be that I perceive that it would require a financial commitment that I can’t make, or am unwilling to try to fulfill.
All of these are justifications for inaction. Reasons not to start. Reasons not to try. Some of them might be really good reasons! Some of them might be sober and realistic assessments that lead to the reasonable conclusion that something is just not worth taking on.
Some. But not most.
Mostly, they’re about unwillingness. A lack of will, all because of an imaginary cost-benefit calculation that I have made based on a slew of unknowable factors. It’s bad math. And because the result of actually making the effort to see something to its fruition is more likely to be a valuable end in itself, regardless of anything else, it really is, for lack of a better word, laziness.
To take the first step in a new enterprise, and then to take as many additional steps as possible, is an uncomfortable thought. And each step brings with it the possibility of stubbing one’s toe, tripping, or stepping on a rake. One could take a few steps very awkwardly and wind up looking ridiculous for several paces. One could walk for a very, very long time and get very, very tired, or run out of energy entirely and collapse to the ground. One could even reach the ultimate, dreamed-of destination and find that it actually kind of sucks there. All those things could be true, and most of them almost certainly will be true.
Then what is required to do it anyway? Courage. To undertake an action of importance even though we know that a lot of the experience will be negative, even though we might not even finish it, even though what we make in the end might be kind of crappy. To work in spite of those possibilities takes courage. To put aside precious free time and resources that we may never get back takes courage. To allow oneself to be vulnerable and entreat others for help and collaboration is risky and, to me, terrifying, and it takes courage.
There is the moment, at the point of a major crisis when it can no longer be denied, and must now be accepted as a new part of our everyday reality, that we tell the kids that everything has changed.
I didn’t have children at the time of the 9/11 attacks, but I can imagine that parents of young kids at the time had to find that right moment to explain what had happened with those planes, and why everyone was sad, scared, and angry. All of a sudden, everything was different. So much so that the kids needed to be sat down and told so in serious yet reassuring terms. I don’t know, of course, but I can guess.
I am a parent of young kids now, when the COVID-19 pandemic has really, truly changed everything. 9/11 probably didn’t fundamentally alter anything about kids’ lives back in the early 2000s, but the pandemic has utterly upended the lives of today’s kids, and it shows no signs of stopping any time soon. When schools shut down last spring as the virus broke loose, in a United States too stupid and delusional to even acknowledge it, the everything-has-changed conversation was inevitable.
My own kids had known that something called the coronavirus existed, and it sounded scary, but they had been reassured countless times that, while it was a serious problem for many people, it was not something that was likely to affect their lives or put them at any risk. I strongly suspected I might be wrong about this when I said it to them, but I didn’t know. Americans had largely avoided any upheavals due to the first SARS, West Nile Virus, H1N1, and Ebola, so it seemed like a safe bet that we’d be alright this time too. Ha.
Those several conversations with my kids over a period of weeks and months, about how they wouldn’t be going back to school for the rest of the year, about how there would be no summer camps or activities, how they couldn’t go and be with their friends, how we couldn’t bring them into the grocery store with us, how money was suddenly tighter and we wouldn’t be ordering pizza as often, and how they would be entering into a weird new quasi-school situation in the fall, they all bore the weight of that central premise: everything was different now.
Here’s the part where I admit to something uncomfortable. I genuinely regret all that my kids are losing and missing during this pandemic, and I grieve for the millions of souls lost or made to suffer from this disease. But I also felt (and, I suppose still feel) a certain twinge of satisfaction as I delivered the news of a New Normal to my kids. I think it’s because I know that the world desperately needs a new normal, a realignment of what we value and prioritize, a sober and clear-eyed look at the absurd fragility of our society. Maybe this pandemic would give our shallow, boorish culture the chance to reevaluate what really matters.
That’s not all. On a much more selfish level, I actually like some of the changes to interpersonal interaction that the virus has necessitated. I’m a severely introverted autistic with Asperger’s, I already work from home, I have little desire for travel, and I don’t have any meaningful non-familial connections that live anywhere near me. My pastimes of choice do not involve me leaving my home. The situation to which everyone else was suddenly struggling to adapt was already my comfort zone.
It’s more than that, though, because I have to hope that after such a major disruption of everyday life for an entire society, some reconsideration and recalibration will have to occur. There must be a new way of being that emerges from a disaster that is largely and plainly of our own making. If nothing else, perhaps we would experience something akin to the classic tech support cliché: we turn the whole thing off and then turn it back on again. The reboot clears away the cruft and bugs, giving us a clean slate and a fresh start.
But like me, he is skeptical. “What this virus has taught me is the supreme durability of normal, the dogged survival of the mundane world, the near-impossibility of some new era in which all old expectations of civility and social norms will just extinguish or burn away…”
This is indeed what I see. While the pandemic has certainly brought out the best, most charitable, and most empathetic selves in many of us, I think for most Americans, it has simply been a pain in the ass that we need to be done with as soon as possible. Not, I should say, as soon as is best, or as soon as it’s safe, but just, like, now. This is obviously the mode of the utterly corrupt Trump administration, and we see it all the time in the outrage-inducing stories of churches flaunting social distancing rules or stupid teenagers mass-infecting each other at parties. But it’s more insidious than that, more subtle.
It’s in the insistence that we shove our kids back into classrooms rather than decide as a society that we should just pay people to stay home. It’s the delusions about how death statistics are being exaggerated (they’re not), how kids are magically resistant (they’re not), and the absurd tribalization of mask wearing.
It’s in the excuses we all keep making about who we imagine it’s safe to congregate with, because they’re family, close friends, or just people that we somehow simply know have been safe and surely aren’t carrying the virus (and, of course, neither are we!). I’m sure I’ve done it, and I bet you have too.
And yeah, it’s in the polls that show that despite the mass death, suffering, and economic calamity, we’re still a coin flip from reelecting (or reinstalling) the guy who’s primarily responsible for running us through this meat grinder.
We are simply determined not to give a shit.
Many of us have given many shits. Many of us have no more shits to give. Too many of us never did to begin with.
In a recent piece for OneZero, Douglas Rushkoff recalls the tech billionaires who have been constructing self-sustaining fortresses in remote locations to shield them against coming disasters such as climate change, global unrest, or pandemics.
“These solar-powered hilltop resorts, chains of defensible floating islands, and robotically tilled eco-farms were less last resorts than escape fantasies for billionaires who aren’t quite rich enough to build space programs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk,” he writes. “No, they weren’t scared for the Event; on some level, they were hoping for it.”
Well, if I had their resources, I don’t think I’d hope for disaster, but I can imagine having a silent wish in the back of my head that I’d get some excuse to go ahead and take refuge in my own personal — and perfectly furnished — Helm’s Deep.
Indeed, Rushkoff says those of us who enjoy the privileges of being able to work from home and not be gripped by the terror of imminent eviction or starvation are making a calculation: “How much are we allowed to use our wealth and our technologies to insulate ourselves and our families from the rest of the world?” he writes. “And, like a devil on our shoulder, our technology is telling us to go it alone.”
I have always found it easiest to go it alone, and I have long been grateful to the technologies of the Information Era that have given me the means to do so, ever reducing the frequency with which I am required to involuntarily interact with humans on any meaningfully personal basis. I have been trying to insulate myself for decades.
I suppose the difference is that I have not by any means lost my sense of moral responsibility to the world I share with these inconvenient humans. The fact that the current crisis resides in the form of a highly infectious pathogen, and that I live with and care for children and a severely immunocomprised partner, limits what I can do outside the home. But I try to play my part from here, with donations to those who need it and can best use it, advocacy for the right causes, and, minimal as it may be, sharing thoughts like this with you right now. It’s not enough, I know.
I do prefer the safety and distance of the domestic-digital life. I do wish, fervently, that this crisis will shake us out of our collective stupor and make us appreciate each other at a basic level. But I do not wish for the end of all things. I do not want to hide while the world burns. I want a new world to grow from this one, a better one inhabited by a people with better hearts. A new world where I don’t need to hide, but in which I retain the option to do so when the time comes.
Everything has changed, and yet it feels like nothing has. Let’s not have gone through this for nothing.
The tragic truth is that Donald Trump’s chances of being reelected are pretty good, considering the mass death, disease, disruption, and despair that he has wrought upon the electorate. Just as it was in 2016, FiveThirtyEight gives Trump about a 1-in-3 chance of pulling off another upset. And given his hamfisted moves to sabotage the election, I’d say it’s really a coin flip. Even a fist like a ham can pack quite a punch when it’s attached to the President of the United States.
If Trump does win, legitimately or not (and it would almost certainly be by Electoral College technicality), it will be perhaps the darkest moment in American history. Trump’s cultists will of course foam at the mouth as they bellow in atavistic triumph, but for everyone else, it will be a trauma of the highest order. If the results of 2016 were a gut punch to the nation, a Trump victory in 2020 will be a national evisceration. Tens of millions of us will be psychologically and emotionally crushed. Our already fragile hopes will have been utterly dashed. We’ll be terrified and vertiginously disoriented. Save for the MAGA partisans, the United States will be a nation in utter despair.
That’s one of the things that worries me most about Trump’s potential reelection, the pall of gloom that is sure to saturate the national psyche. Defeated and exhausted, too many of us will have lost the will the keep up the fight. I don’t know if there will ever again be free and fair elections in the United States if Trump wins, but there definitely won’t be if a second Trump term lays us all low. And then who will stop the third term, the fourth, and all the rest to come under Presidents Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, and Donald the Second?
I can imagine the smallest silver lining to a Trump win in November, though. In a previous piece, I lamented the fact that the United States exists in a kind of quantum superstate, as two nations from different universes existing in the same physical space at the same time. Well, in the case of Trump securing a second term, I have to wonder if maybe that will spur the non-fascists of the country to finally take that hard look inside Schröedinger’s box and see for sure that the cat is, in fact, dead.
I lie awake at night worrying over the collaborators, quislings, and cowards that are enabling our transition to a Vichy state, but at the same time I find it almost impossible to imagine folks like, Andrew Cuomo, Gretchen Whitmer, or Gavin Newsome simply rolling over and accepting the new fascist order under Dear Leader Trump. I definitely can’t imagine my own state’s governor, Janet Mills, just shrugging and falling in line. There will be plenty of spineless Members of the House and Senate who will try to stay afloat and play both sides, not to mention the countless both-sidesers in the political-media class, but some definitely will not.
What I’m getting at is that a Trump win might finally snap some of the restraints that have lashed the reality-based states to the fascist-fundamentalist ones. Maybe the establishment of a gold-toilet kleptocracy will cause a few center-left leaders to flip the metaphorical table over and yell, “Fuck this shit!” Metaphorically.
What I’m wondering is, after a demoralizing Trump win, after we’ve recovered from the immediate emotional shock and trauma, and after we’ve gathered up our spilling viscera and shoved it back into our abdomens, whether we might decide that, dammit, we just don’t have to play this stupid game anymore. We don’t have to jerk around with the Nation of Fanatical Ignoramuses anymore. We can acknowledge that the relationship among these 50 states and various territories is just not working out, and that we can do better. We deserve better.