Thursday, January 26, 2017

Notes from the Abyss, Chapter 1

It was a time in my life when I faced two truths: I was utterly alone, and I was going nowhere.

In fact, I wasn’t alone. I was living happily with my husband of 8 or 35 years—depending on whether you count the time we’ve been together or the time we’ve actually been able to be married. (We had travelled to Boston in 2008—four years before the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality—to marry.) And there were people around me whom I loved, and loved me in return.

The “alone,” then, was something altogether different. I wasn’t marching with my times—I had figured that out a while ago—but that was hardly the worst. In fact, the times were marching—at times it felt like goose-stepping—towards an unthinkable land.

It was the fall of 2016. The Democratic Party had brutally stifled the one authentic voice—Bernie Sanders—and given the nomination to Hilary Clinton. I had seen the stifling first hand, since I had had to go to the next precinct over to vote in the Puerto Rico primary. (In Puerto Rico, we can vote in primaries but not in the general election). And once there, I had waited for nearly two hours to cast my vote for Sanders. Later, I was to find out that there had been somewhere around 1500 voting places for the Democratic primaries in 2012, but in 2016, the number had mysteriously and suddenly been reduced to under 500.

It was one more of a multitude of tricks. I sat in the café and watched as around the country, the machine imposed its will. Facebook showed one thing: the faithful were posting footage of lines stretching city blocks of people trying to attend Sanders’ events. And then Clinton would “win” the primaries or the caucuses.

In the end, I came to like Clinton. All right, perhaps “like” isn’t quite the word. She was certainly intelligent; she was certainly experienced. And she was certainly business as usual. But I only came to that opinion late in the days before the election.

And then, of course, there was Trump. What did I know of him? Only what I had read in The New York Times and other news sources (OK—so polarized are we, you will want to know. CNN and NPR, as well as the even more incendiary Democracy Now. Go ahead—brand me as a liberal….)

In fact, I knew nothing about Trump. I knew that he was famous, that he had “triumphed” in business, and that he was controversial. I knew that he had married and divorced, among very public circumstances. I didn’t know the names or number of his wives. I knew nothing about his business deals, though I knew it was real estate and New York. I had never heard him speak, and never seen him on TV. I also didn’t know that he had appeared on a “reality” show, since I had never seen a reality show. (Well, perhaps I had. When I had been travelling to Wisconsin in my mother’s final days, I had broken the trip to stay in a very cheap hotel close to the airport. I would eat deli food from the Jewel Supermarket, and watch television until the Scotch and the Benadryl had done their work. And there I had seen something called “The World’s Biggest Loser.” You probably know it, but I didn’t, and it was a revelation to me. The premise was simple: several fat people were featured trying to lose weight. Since this is as interesting as watching a parking meter expire, the action was fueled by a sadistic and of course very thin woman, who screamed abuse at the obese contestants.

It was unsettling, all of it. Though I was later to write a “confessional” account of the last days of my mother, I wasn’t much of a fan of the genre. I knew people who were obese: they struggled, they went on diets of varying efficacies, and they stayed in the background. And wasn’t the background where we all should be? Was it one of the Mitford girls whose governess had whispered, “Remember, you’re the least important person in the room,” even though, as a Baron’s daughter, she very likely wasn’t.

But the contestants on the show were very much not doing any of the obvious if not easy things to lose weight: eliminating carbohydrates, reducing calorie intake, and exercising. Instead, they were trading public humiliation for the chance to be a star. The odds, after all, were stacked against them. And even if they won—they were the biggest loser!—they would have prevailed only after having suffered the insults and taunts of the host. Oh, and had millions of Americans laughing at them.

And so I sat on the hotel bed, drank Scotch, and pondered all of this. I would go back to Puerto Rico, where I was teaching some 200 students or so, and they had all seen the show. This despite the fact that many of them would have trouble understanding it: still, it was in their world, not mine.

And so it was happenstance that I had stumbled on “The World’s Biggest Loser,” with the dominatrix named (if I remember rightly) Jillian, and not “The Apprentice” with Donald Trump. In fact, I was not to hear Trump’s voice, or to see any footage of him, until after he was inaugurated on 20 Jan 2017. I didn’t watch the debates—why should I? I had read enough to know that he was exactly the kind of kid that I had despised in high school: a loud-mouth, a braggart, an arrogant and errant bully. True, he had grown older, though nobody could say he had grown up. That happens to people; what doesn’t happen, or so I thought, was that anyone would take him seriously enough to nominate him and then elect him president.

I had seen, as I approached my 60th birthday, a series of horrifying presidents. And I had seen spin, most notably for Ronald Reagan. But it was apparent: Trump was in a category by himself.

As were the times. For truth had stopped being important, or rather, the concept of truth no longer existed. What took its place was repetition, and that counted for everything. And since the proliferation of social media had diluted the prestige of mainstream news and allowed for fanatics to live comfortably in their niches, truth was whatever a person chose to believe.

I knew where this was going, since I had seen it well in Puerto Rico. “All politicians lie,” said my students, and looked at me with amusement when I challenged the assumption. Did I still believe in Santa Claus? Was I still waiting for the Tooth Fairy to slip me a quarter under my pillow? Some politicians lie more than others, I told them, and all politicians cite statistics and data that support their views. Why shouldn’t they? It’s up to us to get the full picture, and that means reading the news, and listening to the opponents.

But the news, said my students, was depressing, and also…well, the reporters also lied. So that meant that people chose candidates much as they chose their favorite baseball team. And of course, many people opted out of the whole thing altogether, as in fact many people opted out of the election. After all, only 55% of the eligible  population voted in 2016, which according to CNN was the lowest in 20 years. So we had two candidates that nobody wanted to have coffee with, much less spend four years reading about and watching. Yetch! And would it make any difference who won?

I wondered about that, and so I read what was—if anything—supposed to be a rather more than tempered account of Donald Trump. Called Trump Revealed, the book went all the way from the Donald’s paternal grandfather (the immigrant from Germany, who did in fact seem to operate some hostelry in which women of less than rigid virtue were welcomed) through Fred (father) and through the three marriages of Donald himself. And sorry reading it made indeed.

It is as useless to summarize the book as it was (and is) to post anything on Facebook. And in a sense, it misses the point. I read the account of the small business man in Atlantic City who made the signs for the Trump Taj Mahal, thinking that he was getting a big break by dealing with the tycoon. He waited and waited for payment, joined a group of other contractors waiting for payment, and eventually wound up receiving less than full payment. And there went the family business, as well as the land on which it stood.

It was hardly the worst story. Apparently, Trump had gone through a phase where being a Lothario was important to him. And so he had gone on radio with Howard Stern—another guy I know nothing about—and they had talked “locker room talk” for months. Could Trump have bagged Lady Diana? Yes, was the answer, and he (Trump) had been sending her flowers, before she got herself killed. And he announced that he was having great sex with Melania, and then passed the phone to her. “Yes,” she confirmed, every day, and it was terrific.

But all this is useless, and besides the point. And what is the point? Nothing is more revealing than what the bankers did to Trump when his empire was in fact failing, and when even father Fred couldn’t help. The bankers, it must be said, acted as badly as anybody else: they did to Trump what they were to do to the public in the first years of the 21st century. That is: they lent money like crazy to Trump, and often were unaware or uniformed of the other financial burdens that Trump had taken on. And so the chickens had done what they do, at the end of the day, and the bankers were left with the question: what to do?

In fact, the very thing that had gotten Trump into the mess got him out. Just as they believed that he was incapable of failing, he then became too big to fail. He was worth, said one of them, more alive than dead. So they put him on a strict budget: a monthly allowance of something in the six figures. Not hard for you and me, but apparently a challenge for Trump, who nonetheless had Melania sporting a diamond ring as big as a pigeon’s egg. And how had he gotten it, the bankers wanted to know? Easy, Harry Winston had lent it!

Of course, I believe these stories because I read them, and 30 or 40 percent of the public believes that Obama was (is) a Muslim born in Kenya. So who’s to say?

And that, of course, is the problem. Because a book is just as reliable as the website Buzzfeed; Facebook is every bit as valid as The Washington Post or The New York Times.

And so we had Trump, who had either developed major personality disorders at some point in his life, or who had arrested his development somewhere around age 12. None of that is particularly interesting. What amazes is that everyone had let Trump get away with it all for all his life, as well as stumble into the White House with a loss of almost three million in the popular vote.

And so I spent the fall of 2016 watching an incompetent braggart get away with it all. For none of it mattered. He hadn’t paid taxes, as reported by The New York Times? Perhaps, but who knew, since he was the first candidate in recent memory not to disclose his taxes returns. He groped women? Who cared, since the buds who were going to vote for him thought that was cool, and the Evangelical Christians thought that was a lesser thing than that demoness, Hillary, with all her support for abortion et al. No, none of it mattered, since there was no longer any truth, nor any metrics to get us to the truth.

Well, I told you at the beginning at the beginning: I was utterly alone, and I was going nowhere. And part of me, yes, watched with horror the ascent of Donald J. Trump. But that was only one part of it. For it became clear…

…while Trump was definitely the tail wagging the dog, the dog had been bred very much by the Republicans.