I recall a pungent response from Graeme Gibson, in a Q/A with senior high school students when asked if he endorsed “dissecting” a poem, as was/is? the custom in English classes: “You have to murder in order to dissect,” he calmly answered.
I was reminded of Gibson’s pithy retort when I read this quote from K. M. Mac Aulay (author of Black Anna):
“You can’t prevent what you can’t predict.”
Reconnoitering in a world seemingly at a tipping point on so many issues, however, tends to bring their collective impact into a kind of gestalt. We spend billions on trying to ameliorate, calm and even minimize our fears, while we also spend billions on something we call “carpe diem” (“pluck the flower of this day) in an oscillation of tension without formal sound, a vacillation without formal acknowledgement, a pin-ball bouncing without the flashing lights and razzle-dazzle percussions.
In one ear we hear words of warning of impeding disaster on the COVID-19 file, as numbers of cases and deaths climb, of other disasters like global warming and climate change, business disruptions and closings, unemployment and hunger rising exponentially, of cyber attacks on both public and private servers by amateur and criminally professional hackers, of nuclear capability enhancement in North Korea and Iran, (not to mention the U.S. Russia and China), of more predictable pandemics coming, and of permanently damaged young minds and spirits from having to go through this wind tunnel of a year, and even the ‘score’ of years in this century.
Simultaneously, in our other ear we hear the drum beat of opportunity, promise, challenge and ‘pots of gold’ at the end of many rainbows. Never before have so many been educated to this level; never before have so many people been lifted out of poverty; never before have so many global diseases been curtailed or even eliminated; never before have so many philanthropics operated in developing countries; fewer open conflicts have happened in the last decade that previously; never have so many agents co-operated in the pursuit and production of safe and effective treatments and vaccines for the pandemic.
Those high-octane headlines find similar warnings and rainbows in more local and regionalized public discourse: never has political rhetoric been so mean-spirited, divisive and contemptuous; never has there been so much collaboration among various jurisdictions ( in Canada) to confront COVID-19; never have food banks been so besieged by new hungry and hopeless families; never have there been more millionaires and billionaires; there must be a financial assistance package for displaced workers and shuttered businesses and for struggling municipalities and public services; “let them go bankrupt” comes from those on the other side.
Advocacy groups, including even those seemingly dedicated to social and political upheaval, metaphorically represent the tip of the spear on the left and the right. And, daily and even sometimes hourly outbursts of tweets jar those longer-term perceptions and the developed (and evolving) attitudes towards each person, tweet, headline or even cyber attack.
The flowing now has issues and processes that together comprise a weather pattern of a political culture and ethos. And increasing attention paid to the “weeds” of the “process” currently under consideration by the media, by CNN, by social media vacuums millions of eyes and thumbs into the cataract of public ‘opinion’. Swimming in this white water of public consciousness are political and media talking heads, some of whom have some of our respect while others lag far behind for each of us.
Falling headlong into the melee, however, by both those elected and those charged with reporting and analysing and interpreting, offers opportunity for ordinary people to latch onto whichever headline, opinion, stupidity, or calamitous “event” and whether consciously or not, package that stimulus (insult, outrage, affirmation) into the cognitive archive of our personal storage vault. Currently, the Democratic Senators are swimming (underwater on their prospects for derailing Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court) against the current in a valiant effort to solicit phone calls and emails to Republican Senators to withdraw/recuse/vote “No” on the nomination. And for many, both in the political class as well as in the media, the process has become the primary issue.
“How” something is done, or being done, or proposed to be accomplished has replaced a former concentration on what is being done/proposed. Relying on the majority of Republican Senators to confirm the nomination, McConnell knows that his legacy is intimately and eternally linked to his boast of ‘filling the judicial system’ with ‘right wing’ conservative justices at all levels. For his part, trump too is relying on a similar “accomplishment” both for re-election and for a triumphal legacy.
The voting process, itself, has become another of the many issues being weaponized, just like the rhetoric, the sycophancy, the push-back from centre-left Democrats. Removing ballot boxes from twelve to one, in each county, as the Governor of Texas has done (with now court support), along with emboldened restrictions of voting hours, timing of ballot reception, identification of voters, and even the question of whether mail-in ballots are legitimate are all like those tin roofs and neon signs that blow through towns and villages during recent hurricanes, flying through the political ether and ethos, in what has become a recurring, repeating, throbbing heart-beat of crises, much of it engineered, like those Wonky chocolate bars, by the trump’s fantasy and whim.
Unlike Wonka, however, trump is injecting his own venomous and toxic, unproven and untested, yet gullibly showered with glib adulation by his cult, “cure” for what he perceives as the American threat, if Joe Biden is elected.
Sugar-coated as his venom surely is, there are still some 40% of the American people who rush each time he holds a public, non-masked, non-socially-distanced super-spreader, to fill the tarmac, where Airforce One too often (and in complete disrespect for both tradition and respectfully practice) serves as backdrop to his Reifenstahl-inspired and Fuehrer-like narcissisistic hollow promises and self-congratulatory hymns.
Embodying the “entertainment” dictum and dogma of Barnum and Bailey, The Smithsonian magazine trumpets:
“We are enraptured by scoundrels. They showcase our passion for ingenuity and resourcefulness. Rules don’t matter in a culture that constantly reinvents itself. In the world of flimflam, con artists are American prototypes who exemplify the land of opportunity, . Aren’t we all searching for the trickster Wizard at the end of the yellow brick road?...In an interview with The New York Times, costume designer Michael Wilkinson said, ‘We wanted the actors to use their costumes as part of their hustle. They dress as the person they aspire to be.’…In the mid-19th century, the con artist was featured in Herman Melville’s last published book, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade. Set in a riverboat travelling down the Mississippi River, the 1857n novel tells the tale of what happens when the Devil, dressed in disguise, boards the vessel to conduct the business of evil. Melville wrote this book because he was outrages at the way America was allowing capitalism to nurture a culture of greed. The Confidence-Man is a complicated diatribe, but New York Times critic Peter G. Davis phrased it succinctly in a 1982 magazine article stating that the book was a ‘microcosm of America’s melting pot…a loosely knot collection of fables’ in which the title character uses his guile to dupe each passenger on the riverboat. In each instance, the Confidence Man/Devil works a con against the nineteenth century American Dream of optimism, truth, altruism and trust.’…Mark Twain, too, took up the art of the con. Like Melville, he used Mississippi riverboats to stage the antics of his flimflam men…One of the greatest (con men), P. T. Barnum was the real deal. According to a 1973 biography, Barnum was the pioneering impresario of ‘humbug’ who helped invent mass entertainment; his mantra was to exploit the public’s desire to be flimflammed. From the 1840’s to the 1870’s, he organized popular New York museums that showcased ‘industrious fleas, automatons,, jugglers, ventriloquists, living statuary tableaux, gypsies, albinos, fat boys, giants, dwarfs, rope dancers…He wrote that the art of the ‘humbug’ was to put on ‘glittering appearances…novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.’ Novelty and ingenuity were essential to his commercial success, his biography said, and if his ‘puffing was more persistent, (his0flags more patriotic’ It wasn’t because of fewer scruples, but more ingenuity. The glitter and noise created outside his museum drew crowds. Once inside they could be entertained fort hours by his displays, but they had to pay to get in—no one got something for nothing.
Fitzgeralds’ The Great Gatsby, the Broadway sensation, Show Boat, and Gone with the Wind, all enhanced the ‘confidence man’ archetype, as was the 1973 Robert Redford’s The Sting, set in the Depression of 1936. Of course, Madisson Avenue’s over-riding industry, advertising and message-management, have adopted and refined many of the confidence-man, flim-flam. So, while statistical research, data collection and opinion polls flood our press-release-saturated media, roiling underneath the public discourse is the heart-beat, and the obsessive-compulsive neurosis/psychosis of a culture always on the edge of its own self-doubt, anxiety and fear that it will never be OK.
Dressing the cover-up, confidence-man, flim-flam heroic imitator of Barnum in an Oval Office suit, with ‘patriotic’ red-flag tie riding below his belt, and then sending him out to ‘perform as the chief executive of the American political, economic, military, and human welfare history and constitutional system, however, is like my kindergarten daughter dressing herself and her friends in their fantasy costumes, with stage props, on a Saturday afternoon, for their (and their parents’) entertainment, except that we could laugh and applaud at their imaginative creativity.
In this current political pandemic, we are left to social-distance, masked and sanitized, for our own and for the health of our neighbours, and then to ponder how it is/was/will be that the flim-flam actually holds the power and influence of the previously and historically most significant public office on the globe…and more importantly how all those forces that consider this situation intolerable and unsustainable, not to mention unethical, amoral, and (racist, misogynistic, homophobic, bigoted and despotic) might be brought into a voting majority that cannot and will not be overturned by either the Electoral College or the Supreme Court. And finally, the United States, and by extension, the rest of the world can bury the tolerance and adulation of the flim-flam, confidence man, from holding public office in Washington and in the several other national capitals where this toxic venomous archetype has spread.
We might even be able and willing to discern that process, as a political weapon, agenda, purpose and legacy is, like those flim-flam costumes and seductions of the confidence-man huckster, little more than mascara that will not only never disguise a pig, but can tragically divert attention and concentration from the urgent public needs and divide a people so deeply and potentially permanently that crisis management becomes not the “abnormal” but the norm.
What will the media do then, when they wake up to the contributions they have so monumentally contributed to engendering, in rendering not only honest, intellectual, and even ideational and dispassionate, yet trust-worthy debate and political discussion to the trash-heap of North American political record? Will they fall even further into the gutter they have helped to engineer, thereby overtaking the prophetic and visionary role of the poets, prophets, film-makers and both utopian and dystopian writers?
Questions like the imposition of what is so clearly and unabashedly self-serving, agenda-based, ACA-demolishing, Roe-v Wade removal, gun-rights upholding, and civil and voting rights dismantling an appointment by this occupant of the Oval office are effectively rendered mute, emasculated and irrelevant. And who are the agents of this deafening silence? The wannabe flim-flam, ironically confidence-men, Republican Senators, a choir engaged in adulation of their Barnum-replica, now not operating museums of freakish specimens in New York, himself having become a freakish specimen in the White House.
Who says history is not stuffed with ironic (and too often pathetic and tragic) imitation?