During the dark hours of what is now a previous crisis for America but an ongoing one elsewhere, Queen Elizabeth delivered a message of uplift. She sought to remind her people that “the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humored resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterize this country.”
In the context of hopelessly toxic Twitter feeds, that hyphenated “fellow-feeling” arrived like a Beatrix Potter bunny hopping across the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.
The only thing that Americans can say about fellow-feelers is that we have two warring factions. This discord is our national tragedy. New York City, on the other hand, has always managed to pass as a cunningly diverse (if spectacularly unequal) assemblage of fellow-feelers, whatever the scale of crisis.
Americans generally care little about history, but they do like a good “if only.” If only JFK wasn’t shot there’d have been no Vietnam mess and no Tricky Dick taping in the Oval Office. If only his brother had dodged a bullet, Ronald Reagan would never have got his mitts on a government to gut.
The concept hinges on the belief that events involving a single life can change world history, à la the wing-flapping butterfly creating a tsunami. But the contemporary origin story is the 1914 assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, that was said to have triggered World War I.
Great fiction has been partial to this device. In Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, if only Annushka hadn’t spilled the sunflower oil near the railway turnstile, Berlioz would not have slipped and been decapitated by the train and the poet would not have been compelled to pursue the evil magician for the length of the novel.
At a time in this crisis that now seems ages ago, Masha Gessen, a New Yorker columnist whose essays I admire, wrote about why she was not a bad person for leaving New York City during a pandemic.
Her daughter had asked if the family was going to be like “those people”—the “rich white people who leave the besieged city because they can.” Her mother’s justification on March 30: “If we got very ill, we wanted to be those people who were not stressing this already overtaxed city, taking up hospital beds that were needed by people who didn’t have the option of leaving.”
The family’s destination was Falmouth, Massachusetts, landing at a time when local residents on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket were asking fleeing New Yorkers to stay away and not infect them.
In a speech at Notre Dame Law School last October, William Barr, the U.S. Attorney General and Donald Trump’s current Oddjob, made clear that his conservative Catholicism and definition of democracy were one and the same. Like Republican fundamentalists since Newt Gingrich’s reign, Barr decried “moral relativism” as the cause of every social ill, insisting that the Constitution’s framers believed that “free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.”
When I read this, I thought how each side of the political divide preaches not just to the choir but to its most baroque-motet-y part—in Barr’s case, the Opus Dei fold of Gregory IX fanboys. But I also wondered if Barr had any desire to convert freethinkers to his cause. Because if he did, the way in was through hate.
The most Simpsons of Simpsons moments in my reckoning occurs not in the television series but in the 2007 feature film. When the biohazardous Springfield is threatened to be destroyed under its giant glass dome, the family and fellow residents gather in church, where Homer grabs and frantically thumbs through a Bible, exclaiming, “This book doesn’t have any answers!”
By 2007, the series was more than a decade past its prime, but the movie was peak Simpsons—first because this was the last time religion was important enough to warrant a joke, and also because it identified what Americans at the dawn of social media’s chokehold could not find in church: answers.
A recent House Financial Services Committee hearing provided Americans a brief moment of clarity in regard to both Mark Zuckerberg and our nation’s cultural quagmire. As the Facebook founder answered questions about political advertising and his proposed cryptocurrency, a Congressman’s comparison of Zuckerberg to Donald Trump provoked a reaction that went viral.
Zuckerberg’s physical façade is a barge billboard when it comes to communicating this important aspect about his worldview: he has rarely had to put up with anything that annoyed him or made him squirm. His forehead, in particular, suggests the Great White Plains of upper-middle-class access to things like high-performance front-load washers. Whatever nasty CSI was unfolding somewhere Alabaman and rank with bodily fluids, Mark Zuckerberg—just laundered and encased by central air—continued clacking code on a taut keyboard.
I was recently sitting between friends, a couple, at a movie theater, waiting out the seemingly endless stream of commercials for Peak TV filler. The he of the couple would lean across me to whisper “Yes” or “No” to his partner in regard to giving some series a go. They were usually in alignment, but when it came to Amazon’s Carnival Row, he vehemently declared “NO.” She worked in theater lighting; “Yes,” she countered. He was resolute: “Nothing—with—wings.”
His reaction owed to the fact that he taught an undergraduate short story writing course in which his students were solely interested in fantasy—lots of dragons and interspecies wing-flappers, lots of GOT homage. (This is a school where the tuition is well over $50,000.) His students explained their decisions as partly lucrative (“there’s a lot of money in YA fantasy”) and partly to express themselves, to put their “rampant imagination” on display. When responding in class to a story about a gender-fluid elf, my friend brought the Wrath of Kahn down upon himself by asking “Aren’t all elves gender fluid?”
Since the installation of a man who wants to be a 1989 version of emperor, I’ve thought quite a bit about Greek and Roman mythology. Given their rampant violence, misogyny, and injustice, these stories are fading fast from our common culture even though violence, misogyny, and injustice are not. When I learned a few of the stories in high school, autocracy was something that happened in olden times or else in bad countries. I wondered how these freakish, depraved gods could inspire awe when people had to have considered them jerks. But with the odious corporality of Donald Trump, America has been given a refresher course in unchecked and unrestrainable force—the basis of all mythology.
I am now willing to consider the malevolence of Trump and his cronies as mythic. This is not to give any individual actor (least of all the toddler-in-chief) classical stature as antagonist; they are contemptibly and irredeemably shills. Whereas Nixon’s conspirators got the Shakespeare treatment during Watergate, Trump’s flunkies cannot break the cartoon barrier. The obsequiously manic Guiliani getting wound up by Laura Ingraham is like Slim Pickens riding the Strangelove bomb. Barr alternates between Droopy Dog catatonia and—because of those glasses—Blue Meanie Chief. The entire cabinet you imagine as Minions ready to spring from inside Melania’s red trees.
“Too often,” said Fiorello La Guardia, “life in New York is merely a squalid succession of days, whereas in fact it can be a great, living, thrilling adventure.” I thought about my city as “a great, living, thrilling adventure” when I went to check out the throngs in Washington Square Park trying to hear Elizabeth Warren speak on September 16.
These were the faces of hopefuls, of progressives—the flash foot soldiers, many of them students who could afford to be hopeful by virtue of youth (regardless of a climate going to hell). Yes, it was a predominantly white audience, and, yes, there was a smattering of those whom Republicans love to label “the elite” and we locally will willingly stereotype as Upper East/West, Brooklyn, or maybe Tribeca moms. But for the most part, this was a group that could not afford a lot—maybe because there seemed to be more women.
My father’s mother was an old lady when I was born. My first memory of her house is a pair of large pink candles—one shaped like a “7” and the other a “9”—adorning the dining room buffet. She had turned that age at a party sometime in the past, and she liked to turn the “7” upside down to make it look like a “2.”
She was a young woman in the 1920s, but the era she fetishized—as an Irish American who married an Irish American—was the first years of the twentieth century.
She banged out bad chords on an upright piano and was always singing sad songs about dying children—“I’m Tying the Leaves So They Won’t Come Down.” Everybody died back then, when she was a girl in Elmira, New York. One of her brothers died of pneumonia—in bed at home, just like in Dickens. Her best friend, Loretta Meade, died as a young teen because she walked in the rain “during her monthly.”