Sunday, November 6, 2016

Night in America

Something I've noticed about myself as I've gotten older -- and it's something that should come with age, if you weren't fortunate enough to stumble across it earlier in life -- is that I have a better sense these days of the difference between the urge to say something and the need to do so. With the exception of a small handful of barbs tossed around social media, I've been mostly silent about the 2016 presidential contest, and when I did feel the faint tickle of an impulse to engage, I usually paused long enough to consider whether there was any real value to adding my voice to the din of shrill remonstrances and half-sincere hand-wringing. Any spectacle that manages to equally embolden both the stupid and the sanctimonious will invariably devolve into a pissing contest in which every last participant is guaranteed to find his shoes thoroughly drenched, and this presidential race could easily prove to be the all-time super-soaker of urination altercations. But now, with just days remaining until this race to the bottom mercifully ends and we anoint a dubious heir to the scorched earth that remains, I have a few thoughts to share, not because there's anything left that needs to be said, but simply because, to be perfectly honest with you, I sleep for shit these days.

I slept for shit my entire childhood. An anxious kid from as far back as I can recall, I allowed my imagination carte blanche to conjure worst-case-scenarios to explain every last bump in the night. A whiff of smoke from a backyard bonfire up the street meant our house must be on fire. A late autumn windstorm brushing branches against the eaves meant the old oak tree in the yard would come crashing through the roof. The night a carload of teenagers wrapped itself around that very tree, it made such an incomprehensible racket I fully expected to find the car sitting in the living room below, having crushed my mother where she sat quietly enjoying her latest issue of Reader's Digest. This was the 1970s, and each evening the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite, peered into our living room though the grainy Zenith, reporting news from around the world: Vietnam, Watergate, the Munich Olympics, endless violence in the Middle East, and that incomparable bogeyman, the Soviet Union. At home there was widespread unemployment, an anemic stock market, rampant inflation, decaying, crime-riddled cities, and an international oil shortage that rendered much of the country disconcertingly inert. I was obviously too young to appreciate the significance of what I was seeing and hearing, but the pall it cast over everyone and everything was as unmistakable as it was unshakable. This was the decade of haunted slumber that would ultimately land a mediocre b-movie actor in the White House, and four years later when Ronald Reagan announced that it was morning again in America, I still hadn't slept a wink.

From an early age I idealized all things America. I absorbed the gentle histories doled out in school, admired and appreciated the inimitable fathers and protectors of the Republic in proportion to their respective legends, and took bold comfort from unchecked faith in virtuous men. It was a Frank Capra world view: a belief that there would always be a Mr. Smith going to Washington. But the times make the cynic, and I'd only just grown up enough to grasp the essence of Watergate when Iron Ron gave us Iran-Contra, a modern classic of shadowy old-boy network shenanigans that, inexplicably, is remembered today mostly as a series of sardonic punchlines about Bedtime for Bonzo and that good soldier Ollie North. Then came the 1990s and the tabloid Congress that was far less interested in doing the work of the American people than it was in putting on trial the question of whether or not Bill Clinton blew his load on the dress of a woman who was not his wife. And who can forget the cooked intelligence (twice-baked, thrice-baked, whatever-it-takes-baked) the Bush-Cheney machine used to justify and re-justify pursuing the 9/11 terrorists in the one place they knew full well they wouldn't find them, Iraq. I mention these snippets of America's greatest hits not to preach or to rail, but simply to tell you this: I used to think we had it pretty bad.

When I look at the current state of American politics, what comes instantly to mind is a cheap hot dog: it's all lips and assholes. It's exactly how you'd picture a presidential election between Marie Antoinette and Richard Nixon, except in this case it's an orange blowhard with an exquisitely bad toupee saying, "Hey, let them eat cake. It's terrific cake. We've got all the best cake. It's really terrific. They should eat cake. I really believe that." And Nixon's the one wearing pantsuits and, like so many in her generation, unable to figure out how to use email. There may be philosophies and ideals and solutions lurking somewhere in the candidates' briefcases, but for the last several months it seems all they've done is pick apart each other's dubious characters, as though this is a trailer park beauty pageant and not a presidential election. And I realize it's fashionable and in most cases lazy to criticize the media for their role in this fiasco, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that the yellow journalism of the late 1800s looks relatively innocuous in comparison to the puce journalism of the Little Shop of Horrors that is 24-hour cable news, where every innuendo is batted back and forth across the news desk like a greasy ping pong ball and headlines are framed as questions rather than declarative statements. This isn't reporting the news, it's titillating the lizard brain, all for the sake of market share. It's appalling and shameful and, from sea to rising sea, we hear the cries of "Enough!" and "Please make it stop!" But just as in the 90s when poll after poll reported that Americans were growing tired of hearing about Monica Lewinsky, the truth is we tune in to watch in ever increasing numbers, complicit as any getaway driver. The revolution may or may not be televised, but the devolution is being broadcast as we speak, and for that we're all culpable.

Whatever happens Tuesday, I don't see an end to this symphony of dissonance any time soon. If Hillary Clinton wins, she faces a Senate that seems determined to spurn its constitutional responsibility of at the very least considering for confirmation the President's Supreme Court nominees. She faces a collection of halfwits in the House whose guiding principle appears to be obstruction at all costs. If Donald Trump manages to win, well, I don't even want to try to qualify the madness that scenario would usher in, but I suspect it would pale by comparison to the shitstorm he's likely to incite among his lunatic fringe supporters if he loses and follows through with the veiled threats he's leveled when asked whether he'll accept the outcome of the election. They say it's darkest just before the dawn. I can't help but wonder what sunrise on Wednesday November 9 will bring. Given what we've witnessed these last many months, who could be blamed for expecting that day to bring a long, cold night in America?

Yeah, I sleep for absolute shit these days.

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