It All Comes Down to Words

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Greek icon, ca. 1700 of The Second Coming, public domain

As will surprise no one who knows me, I am firmly of the camp that says when all is – to tap one of the larger clichés – said and done, all of what we spend so much time contemplating, analyzing, and sending one another alerts to heed (replete with links to videos, audios, articles, tweets, re-tweets, comments, and every permutation of the mechanisms afforded by technology to transmit and preserve utterances of the moment) is about language. It’s about what differentiates us from the other apes, and most of the other mammals: verbal communication (I said most, because there are other vertebrates, at least, who do vocalize and about whom we are discovering there are underlying structures, with rules and, well, essentially, phonemes, not which can necessarily and strictly be called verbal, but are certainly the cognitive equivalent: so we have a larynx, other creatures have other physiological structures to emit sounds).

So, it’s not so surprising that, after all, after all the tallying of the various categories and intensities of false utterances by our president, not to mention the cadre supporting him, sometimes with more lies, sometimes with ingenious if tortuously convoluted assemblages of words that don’t exactly – just shy of forensically – constitute more mendacity, but which work just as well as a plausible, but unprovable, construction of words in a seemingly comprehensible assemblage that serves to settle the senses. Or, it so confounds the senses (at their most corrosive, they confound all the senses at once… what’s that smell?) to so confuse them as to demand the respite of a self-imposed mental abandonment, as in “fuggedaboudit,” because it’s too painful to try to deconstruct into reason. We are left with pinning a sentence on the chief perpetrator of obliteration of all well-being into a state of chaos and woe with no more evidence than his own words. And spinning tales, in all genres of formal and informal rhetoric: essays, documentaries, texts (and equilibrating and neutralizing counter-texts), and doubtless what will be a long, possibly unending stream of creative formulations – fictions, certainly, but inevitably, metafictions, and speculative fictions, and the whole spate of formal ironic counterpoint, satires and parodies, not the truth, but not really ever untrue.

However, for now, until the current major engines of substantive content: the movies and series and mini-series, the blockbusters, and streams, and likely even TikToks, not to mention the book-length treatments, the one-offs, the tell-alls, the multi-volume compendious and comprehensive authoritative scholarly accounts, with all the apparatus providing the mass and weight of relentlessly factual gravity, for indisputable credence, begin to grind out, as a sub-industry in and of itself, we must content ourselves with the mainly moralizing, alternatively finger-pointing or hand-wringing, “who-could-have-known” and “didn’t-I-tell-you-so” opinion mongering from the hordes of usual suspects, and the inexhaustible supply of others who, absent a platform, simply construct their own – with instant credibility, because what is a network and connectivity for, but self-anointment?

What inspires for me this, that is, my own not so extraordinary meditation on the power and the meaning of words, of, I can say by extension, without stretching the pertinence, the meaning of language constructed of verbal forms, is this piece by a duo of senior NYTimes reporters, that is, by the attached link to a NYTimes story, not so extraordinary assessment, on the eve of Trump’s departure from the center ring of the political circus that has been his tenure in office, are two things about this account, from the necessarily salient voice – who other than Maggie Haberman has served, sometimes precariously, as an avatar of the phenomenon that occurred in full view and yet in strict terms of mindful probity as it happened, and that is the transformation of what had been undeniably the closest thing to reliable for a source (“source,” from the French, *source,* that is a spring, spurting unimpeded, pure, uncontaminated, and always refreshing and, if need be, restorative) of truth, that is, in English, that is, in the United States, that is, The New York Times. Truth, like the Times, had, in ways that will require clever analysis indeed to disentangle the actual process – somewhat like a re-enactment of the discovery of DNA, but not for the code of life itself, but something as inchoate as it turns out, the code of unassailable truth (if sometimes requiring a correction or retraction or reconstruction) – truth, as I was saying, has become now the neglected step-child, ragged and dirty, unkempt and maybe even sniveling a bit, of belief, the beast that had been tamed it was thought, but was the veritable rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. Aside: You can’t talk about this stuff without an allusion to the poem, The Second Coming, named for the imminence that has been the core of the doom anticipated throughout the 20th century, and prefigured the further spiritual decay of this present time; and what is what we fear most, but that for all of our sense that it can’t get any worse than this – the state of mind that prevailed through the course of major wars that have dominated our global history since September 1, 1939 (another reverberative poetic touchstone) and continue to do so, not to mention, the concomitant and co-extensive reign of terror, which has proven to be a weird melange of the sharp shocks arriving without warning and leaving ever greater masses of rubble and toxic clouds in the wake of explosive events mixed with the prevailing atmosphere of doom encased in the ruling rhetorics of state policy (buttressed with stockpiles of the apparatus of true universal annihilation).

But I was saying… two things, almost unnoticeable, surely innocuous, as are most banal verbal markers – surely meant to be no more than declarative, and possibly at least orientating, if not definitive. First, the NYTimes calls this article not reporting, and not opinion, but a “political memo.” A “memo?” I know who it’s from. To whom is it addressed though? For whom is it meant?

Second, buried in there is the very briefest phrase, applicable to the man himself, “functional self-delusion,” which I suddenly (even in the moment; nothing stealthy going on here) understood to be part of some new taxonomy about the behavior of paper tyrants (like Donald J. Trump), the kind that he invented, the first of its sort, seemingly familiar, but really never seen before, because of one fact (if it must be reducible to that, the form we Americans have come to prefer for our truths to go down, especially in the absence of sugar in the spoon), and that is, this tyrant had his finger amazingly, and unbelievably for four anxiety-dominated years, on the nuclear button.

So, I have to ask, what is “functional self-delusion?” Whose self-delusion? What, if there was something functioning, exactly was functioning? If this was “functional,” what’s dysfunction like?

And do we really want to know? Don’t waste any words telling me.

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Paranoia Porn

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Detail from Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” at the Museo del Prado

The germ of this thought comes from listening to an interview on Fresh Air yesterday, Thursday, November 12, recorded the day before, which would have been Wednesday, a week and a day since the still officially unresolved election, and at least two news cycles previous. I point it out using this commonplace gauge of cultural progress because it is also still current (or why would Terry risk the embarrassment of being out of touch?). To wit, I notice in both the New York Times and the Washington Post that President Trump – his aides are alleged to say – has no plan; he is merely getting himself however he can from news cycle to news cycle.

White house memo

Trump Floats Improbable Survival Scenarios as He Ponders His Future

There is no grand strategy. President Trump is simply trying to survive from one news cycle to the next.

The thought flits through my head that, maybe, he has at long last legitimately found his own bit of revelation and, as an endgame, turned to religion and a faith in miracles.

But nah. I can’t help but grab the seat of my pants and what’s left to palpate of my shrinking gluteal mass, and deduce from the condition of my hind parts that it’s the same old shit, just a different day. But it’s the implications of the ghoulish contemplations and deliberations on the possible, the probable, the unthinkable, and the preposterous that nag at me. It’s like a constant frigid flow of air from the left, a polar express of glacial horror originating from somewhere “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Yet it keeps nagging at me that I should just give in, and allow the temperature in my core to keep dropping, to the zone of absolutely no hope. It’s tempting, but I resist.

On Fresh Air, Terry’s guest was a dude touting some what is now considered durable, if not estimable, cred. His name is Garrett Graff, and he is the very model of the cyber-age journalist: former editor of Politico, a contributor to Wired, and the author of at least three books, one on Robert Mueller’s tenure as head of the FBI, a history of the bunkers built in secret to protect government leaders in case of nuclear attack, and an oral history of September 11 (which I am only guessing does not include President Trump’s notorious lies about witnessing people, which he averred were Muslims, dancing on rooftops and cheering from across the Hudson straits from Hoboken as the twin towers burned and finally tumbled).

The topic of their conversation is entitled, on the Fresh Air home page, as “Journalist Details ‘Potential Mischief’ of Trump’s Remaining Weeks in Office.” It consisted, in my hearing of it, of admittedly only speculative outcomes of the potentialities of the various “moves” and actions taken by the president in the past few days, and weeks, and, even going back months – with the unstated implication that every measure, every step, every vindictive or mean-spirited or sheer lunatic act was performed aforethought, and, conceivably… not saying it’s so, but this is how autocrats, authoritarians, totalitarians, dictators do things, have done things…

And I realized, not a new thought for me, but a refreshed set of impressions, that this is how a certain quarter among the news media has been reporting and commentating on the Trump presidency all along. To me, it constitutes a really unsettling superset of the stuff of dread-scrolling. For now I call it Paranoia Porn.

It amounts to imagining the worst outcomes of a regime that resists owning the qualities ascribed to it, beyond the malevolence and hatefulness embedded in the spirit of its worst aimless deconstruction of certain entities and systems necessary to the conduct of governance in the United States. These stories and conversations, these interviews and analyses, the stuff of a whole industry of media content engineering and manufacturing that has kept it going, and not just going but thriving – with the major companies, like The Times, reporting record levels of revenue and profits – in my view are the final throes of examining minutely what Trump has been doing, and then fantasized about by the far left media in the way of speculative horror scenarios based on incredibly complex conspiracies involving setting up a shadow government in the hollowed out shell of the existing legitimate infrastructure which has been performing the business of government for the entire history of the republic.

In fact, as far as I can tell, and anyone – from the lowliest whistle-blower to Carl Bernstein, from Mattis to Bolton, from Comey to Scaramucci – but anyone has been willing to make public, frankly and truthfully (by their own recognizance) has reported on every conceivable twist and turn, every u-turn and wrong turn, every impulse and miscue, there is only evidence of one large truth. Trump has proven repeatedly and consistently the incompetence and shallowness and shortsighted nature of nearly every one of his more far reaching initiatives and in four years, and continuing into this period of interregnum, when his aides tell the media that he has no endgame intended as a culmination of his current chaotically disruptive machinations, he has never betrayed the possession of anything resembling a strategy or plan.

Of course, as I like to say, I could be wrong, and I hope I’m not. But if I am, I am, and you are, no worse off than the doomsayers are perpetually hinting we may find ourselves to be. In which case, we will indeed be beyond help. But I am not sure I will regret (nor would I find solace in doing so) thinking this is all, as I say, a morbidly prurient fascination with yet a new form of pornography. It scares me to think of paranoia as a desirable state in which to seek ecstasy.

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