August 2017
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American History and Shaggy Dogs

by Jonathan Wallace

My favorite shaggy dog story is about a man with a golden screw in his navel. The proper way to tell it is to stretch it out for fifteen or twenty minutes, as he hunts for clues, tracks down gurus on mountaintops, tries to interpret ambigous koans, and so forth. Finally he ends up in some wilderness place looking at a little glass case with a golden screwdriver in it. He breaks the glass, and uses the implement to remove the screw. Then his ass falls off.

Wikipedia defines the genre as "an extremely long-winded anecdote characterized by extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents and terminated by an anticlimax or a pointless punchline". The reviewer John Simon turned a magnicent phrase, that Stanley Kubrick's 2001 was a "shaggy God story".

I just never expected American history to be a shaggy dog story. It is difficult to accept a Narrative that begins with Washington, Adams and Jefferson and concludes with Donald Trump. I find myself still indignant after ten months that American voters chose someone (even a minority acting through the Electoral College) whom I knew for so many years represented the worst of America, empty bluster, greed, vanity and cruelty, with an extensive, very visible record of dishonesty and failure. A man who didn't even begin to commence to start to display anything knowledgeable, competent, Presidential.

I just impulsively did a Google search of the phrase "opportunistic suicide". There's a lot of material on it: "Impulsive suicide involving decisions made in as little as five minutes is one of two types generally seen among patients suffering from depression". This past weekend, at Burning Man, an attendee ran into the flames at the ritual burning of the "Man" structure at the festival's close. We may never know if he had been planning to do so for years, or possibly had the idea a minute before he carried it out.

The election of Donald Trump may be similar to an opportunistic suicide: the man presented himself unexpectedly as an opportunity and we know from interviews and articles that at least some voters selected him precisely for his chaos and impulsivity. That is what he offered; an October 2016 editorial is entitled, "Trump to Voters: If You Want Chaos, Vote For Me"; a May 2017 Chicago Tribune editorial is titled "Are Trump supporters swayed, dismayed by ongoing chaos?" While I can understand a desire in the abstract metaphorically to blow up a power structure you feel has harmed or even just lost touch with you, the willingness of nihilistic Trump voters to throw actual humans under the bus, to vote for a candidate who would hurt, in one case I know of, their own sibling, stuns me. In the Trump University scam, Trump inflicted actual suffering and loss; now he has repeatedly threatened or done so as candidate and President, to Dreamers yesterday, transgender people, African Americans and even America's Jewish people who are facing a barrage of violent anti-Semitic content via Twitter and other social media unprecedented in America.

In 2012, Dahlia Lithwick wrote an article in Slate which launched a meme: " Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile". Future students of American democracy, if there are any, will ask how it came to pass, in a polity launched on the premise of sober, informed citizens making decisions carefully and collectively (the theme uniting virtally every essay in The Federalist), the Chaos Muppets could have saddled us with a President who is himself a Chaos Muppet--inmpulsively voted for the impulsive, chaotically voted for chaos. It seems a refutation of democracy, an argument that the Russian and Chinese oligarchies and kleptocracies can use to say democracy doesn't work.

Another issue I have been working on, and that has been working me over at the same time, is that of human agency. I have written here before that much of our official rhetoric denies that problems are human-caused. Climate change is of course a massive and world-ending example, but you can find numerous others once you start looking. For example, the 2009 market crash was obviously, indisputably caused by human greed, but is frequently reported as if it were a random act of nature. This kind of rhetoric simply abdicates any responsibility, and allows even the bad actors causing our emergencies to cast themselves as victims ("the couch was already on fire when I lay down on it"). Trump, as I have previously written, is the Victim-in-Chief; nothing is ever his fault. I believe he actually got hold of his base by his self pity, with which they identified, at least up to a point.

The idea that impulsive self destruction of a nation is possible, is an attack on human agency, on Narrative, on the "idea of progress" ably analyzed by J.B. Bury in a book of that name. If we reject the idea that Trump is a random unpredictable phenomenon, then an analysis of how we got from John Adams to Donald Trump, would follow a 220 year thread of propaganda, the politically manipulative demonization of the political adversary and the immigrant other, deliberate measures to assure an ignorant and compliant electorate, and then, inevitably, a loss of control by the wizards over the tools they created (shades of The Sorcerer's Apprentice). This is a very fruitful line of inquiry; Adams and Jefferson both hired yellow journalists to spread scurrilous stories about one another, and Adams' "Alien and Sedition" acts demonized the alien other. So in a way Adams and Jefferson gave us Donald Trump.

T.S. Eliot's over-quoted line about the world ending not with a bang, but a whimper, may be modified to describe our present circumstances: a whimperer has the authority unaccountably to end our world with a bang. That would be a killing joke indeed, a shaggy dog story which ends with annihilation.