When doom dominates the headlines, turning inward might prove to be our life raft.
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As soon as Emilie’s smiling face appears on my screen, I know I am in for a treat. The TikTok “brain trainer” has adorable hair—an asymmetrical, shaggy pixie—and her wonky aviator glasses are so fun. I can’t tell if she’s using a filter or if she has been uniquely blessed by the deities of lustrous skin and mink-y lashes. But it doesn’t matter, because soon Emilie will invite me to close my eyes. First, I will track her fluttering fingers in front of the camera for a few moments, become just a little bit sleepy, and then drop into 60 seconds of softly narrated, soothing brain-escape facilitated by a stranger.
I am not a woo-woo person by nature, but apparently I crave a little light hypnosis via TikTok while the world burns, and the algorithm knows it. I am not alone: “Mindfulness influencer” is a whole job now. And why shouldn’t it be? The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists just advanced the Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight, “the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.” So, yeah, I’ll take some woo-woo along with my little videos from random-but-authoritative-enough people telling me about purebred cats and ten-minute noodle dishes and skin cycling.
We’re a month into the year and 2023 already feels poised to tear new and terrifying holes in the ever-unraveling fabric of reality. The Supreme Court has said it can’t identify the person who leaked the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving tens of millions of Americans without access to abortion for the first time in 50 years. The U.S. House of Representatives had to take 15 votes over the course of nearly a week before the majority party could elect Kevin McCarthy as Speaker and officially come to order. And I’m using “order” here in the loosest terms, as McCarthy appears to have bargained for his speakership with the last remaining scraps of congressional dignity—at least his own office’s, and maybe the whole institution’s. He’s given seats to racist, white supremacist, insurrectionist, anti-vaccine, conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene on the House Oversight and Homeland Security committees, as well as to Biden election deniers/insurrection-enablers Scott Perry and Lauren Boebert, among other deeply questionable assignments. He has also given committee assignments to the corrupt and epic liar George Santos—or whatever his name is. It’s already bizarre enough that he remains a U.S. Congressman.
What’s happening right now feels bigger and weirder than just being the latest verse in the even longer, sadder version of “American Pie” that began playing in our collective consciousness when Donald Trump moved into the White House six years ago. It feels inadequate in the extreme to describe, as I have in the past, any of this as hypocrisy or gaslighting or even as the inevitable decline of lower-case-”r” republican order in the freest country on Earth™ (where there have been more mass shootings than days of this year). It’s all of those things, sure. We’re right to name the rise of American fascism, and we must. But what does it mean to do so while we’re swiftly losing whatever tenuous ability we ever had to reconcile reality with itself?
I don’t think it takes an advanced degree in anthropology or psychology to realize that it’s important for humans to have collective, mutually agreed-upon ways of understanding our world. This is how we manage ourselves. It’s how we teach our children and how we create apparatuses of accountability for when things go awry. Not to say we’re always great at it, or that we don’t create ways of understanding that do great harm by design. This, too, is part of the human project. But to take just one of the recent examples I cited above: Is it not beyond belief that the Supreme Court of the United States can’t identify the parties responsible for one of the most significant, if not the most significant, breaches of basic governmental operational conventions—the confidentiality of the deliberations of our highest court—in American history?
That seems not just unlikely or improbable to me, but actually impossible. SCOTUS investigators were careful to specify that they couldn’t identify a leaker based on a “preponderance of evidence” standard—not that they had no likely candidates. The preponderance standard is a low burden of proof, generally used in civil litigation; the fact that SCOTUS investigators didn’t turn up anything that meets this low evidentiary standard would seem to wave off queries about their findings. But we also know that sitting judges were not subjected to the same level of interrogation as clerks and staff, who signed sworn affidavits and who are not, perhaps obviously, guaranteed lifetime appointments to nine of the most powerful positions in the U.S. government. We also know that right-wing Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife Ginni Thomas is an insurrectionist, and that Justice Thomas has refused to recuse himself from cases related to the January 6, 2021 attack organized on the U.S. Capitol by GOP-aligned terrorists. This will become important in a minute, but bear with me.
I don’t know that Ginni Thomas’s role in attempting to overthrow the U.S. government has anything to do with her Supreme Court justice husband’s judicial reasoning, on the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Services case or anything else, though I certainly could speculate. I also don’t know that forcing Supreme Court justices to swear in front of their own minders that they’re not breaking their own self-imposed rules would inspire any given justice to admit to wrongdoing. But it doesn’t really matter whether the leak came from a right-leaning person of any rank who hoped to lock in five anti-abortion justices’ votes on Dobbs or whether the leak came from an enraged left-wing person of any rank who hoped to foment anger over the same. I do think it matters that the leak happened, period, and that having loose security protocols is some National Treasure–level Hollywood shit.
Does the fact that I find this unbelievable make me fucking insane? That it seems absolutely inconceivable to me that the fundamental credibility of our highest judicial apparatus, established in theory to be immune to the many and various blowings of America’s political winds, boils down to: Well, we’re bad at tracking our un-networked printers? If you’re the highest court in the land, tasked with one-third of our entire political system’s checks-and-balances process, and you’re bad at tracking your printers, the answer is not, “Welp, who can say who fucked up here?” Right? Right? The answer is: “Wow, somebody fucked up here, and prominent heads will roll.”
But no heads have rolled, prominent or otherwise. And so I return to the Ginni Thomas question, because it’s a perfect distillation of why anyone would be made to feel absolutely unhinged for making logical connections between reasonable ideas. Does it matter that Ginni Thomas, an anti-abortion activist, believes that the 2020 presidential election was illegitimate, or that her husband agrees with her? It might! Would the public be satisfied if the SCOTUS investigators on Dobbs had named a leaker with right- or left-wing motivations? Maybe! But we don’t know, and the Supreme Court, whose only job is to explain its reasoning on matters of national import, has declined to tell us anything besides: Huh. We didn’t network our printers. I have heard more outrage from my bosses at retail stores who noticed that the shelves hadn’t been properly dusted before the tax-free shopping weekend.
The thing that makes me extra crazy about this is that there remains a demonstrable investment in the processes of the American government and the American legal system both by people who wish to destroy it and by the people who wish to preserve it against the odds. This is where we get into the wacky nonsense of weenie-bargainer Kevin McCarthy’s speakership and lying-liar George Santos’s election as a U.S. representative. The moment is both chaotic and concerted. We no longer have a President Trump to blame for every governmental gaffe, but Trumpiness is present in every iteration of modern American malfeasance. Trump is both an absent villain and ever-present threat, while being too fundamentally dipshit to deserve credit for either. And yet his influence persists, diffused among so many lieutenants at so many levels of government such that asking questions about what exactly the fuck is going on here makes me wonder if I’m inches away from believing that a cabal of pedophilic Democrats are operating out of the back room of a pizza parlor. Certainly none of the new McCarthy-bargain Republicans defining the agendas of our Congressional Oversight Committee, which could be investigating any number of legitimate queries, are going to back off the opportunity to make batshit propaganda about Hunter Biden the subject of nightly news.
I exaggerate, maybe, but I think (hope?) you get my drift. Nothing feels real right now, and I can’t see a future in which I’m not forced to take more unreality more seriously. I don’t know if that’s new—possibly people witnessing the fall of Reconstruction or the trauma of the Great Depression felt similarly unsettled and unmoored—but I am not sure it matters in practical terms. What’s happening now is awful, and causes real harm today to real people, not just socially or politically but psychologically, and for generations. In George Santos, we have a lying, fraudster hypocrite in Congress (and he’s not the only one, this is the smallest potatoes). In Kevin McCarthy and his new cronies, we have insurrectionists organizing investigations into homeland security and election deniers investigating voter fraud, thanks to a go-along-to-get-along political power player. And in the Supreme Court, we have an entity that is so up its own ass about its role in American government that it can’t, or won’t, expose wrongdoing within its own ranks, even when it means putting its own credibility at risk.
I ask myself whether giving a shit about any of these things makes me some kind of weirdo, and then I think about the advent of truthiness. How amusing and horrifying it was to have a professional comedian like Stephen Colbert playing a fake right-wing TV host during the Dubya years, defining a micro-era of dissimulation. I wonder if my perception of today’s un-reality is real or new or meaningful, and then I think about how the actual Merriam-Webster Dictionary chose Colbert’s “truthiness” over the verb “google” for its word of the year in 2006. Today, we “google” everything, even when we mean we’re searching for answers elsewhere. But “truthiness” fell into and out of the mainstream over the course of the last 15 years; it’s now a signal that you’re old enough to remember a TV show, and not a president’s proclivity for prevarication. We no longer need a word to describe the ways in which politicians exploit our gut biases. We are always already in a dreamlike state of acceptance of this fact of non-facts, even when we hate or resist it.
Dreamlike is the wrong word; we are living a nightmare, but the chaotic illogic of non-reality remains the same while becoming infinitely more terrifying.
Is it any wonder that I crave a doomscrolling escape? I have too much and no information. I have all the tools of democratic engagement, and nowhere and everywhere to use them. I have the outrage and the know-how and the will, and nowhere and everywhere to put them to use in a world where systems aren’t just oppressive and aggressive but increasingly and deliberately unknowable and chaotic. I will do everything and anything I can, but I will also just follow Emilie’s fingers in the meantime, trying to find my own truth in one-minute increments. I can learn to know myself even if I don’t know anything else.
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