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Free Form Friday: Winter in America

I was planning to write this week about how winter finally came to New York State and how I hate winter. I certainly have not intended to make “Free Form Friday,” my weekly non-Bowie post, “Politics Friday.” All the more so because, much as I did when I was doing the song-a-day Bowie tribute in 2016, politics has already seeped into some of my Bowie-related posts. But I can’t help it. This is going to be another political post.

Winter actually serves as a convenient metaphor. Winter has indeed come to New York, and America as a whole. I found myself reading a New York Times story about the lead up to the Iowa caucuses after they took place. This is an odd thing to do since I already knew the result. And, because it was anticipatory, it is the type of story that marks time and would normally be quickly forgotten after the near-future event it anticipates becomes history. Which is too bad, because the story was less about the contest and more about the sentiment setting the mood for the contest — and sadly that is not likely to pass any time soon.

The story reported that voters “casually talk of the prospect of World War III, civil unrest and a nation coming apart at the seems.” It mentioned an “existential dread about the very foundations of the American experiment” and “an inescapable sense of foreboding.” Winter in America, indeed.

There’s an element afoot that resembles the old ironic figure of speech, “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes? Conservative leaders, the story reported, have pushed a “steady drumbeat…of lies” about the very legitimacy of elections that have resulted in a “disorienting frenzy of facts and falsehoods.” One voter was quote as saying that “voting a joke… because of the machines.” Another expressed fear that a re-elected Joe Biden would take away the rights of her teenage grandchildren and “police what they could say.” Though the article focused less on perceptions about the economy, it almost passingly mentioned that all this fear and foreboding comes amidst a period in which “inflation has fallen, unemployment has returned to a pre pandemic level, and layoffs remain near record lows” while “The Federal reserve plans to cut interest rates several times in the coming year.” Who are you going to believe?

The story appeared on page one and continued on to page 18, where it was situated next to a story about a closed-door Congressional hearing about UFOs. The hearings were, in part prompted by the claims of a “whistleblower” who testified at another hearing in July that the government has been hiding the bodies of space aliens and their advanced technology. I assume the relatively small placement of this story reflects the editors’ contempt for the idea that this guy was saying anything worth taking seriously. But what should be taken seriously is that Congress has held yet another hearing about space aliens. There seems to be a direct relevance between that fact and the story about attitudes in Iowa about Joe Biden’s language police and stolen elections “because of the machines.”

It’s sometimes a good idea to question basic assumptions. Answering the four-year old’s tendency to ask “why” about almost anything can sometimes be a healthy exercise for adults. Too often we get comfortable in our own premises. But there’s also a point at which it’s impossible to carry on a meaningful conversation. If it isn’t obvious why hearings on space aliens are fundamentally absurd, I don’t know what to say. The same holds with the Trump-inspired existential crisis gripping the hearts of those sympathetic to his view. In contrast to Republican fears, the story about Iowa characterized Democrats as fearing, among other things, that a second Trump presidency could “destroy the legitimacy of elections.” To that I say, too late! The other side gets a say in the matter and it sure looks like the legitimacy of elections has already been destroyed. (I am a Democrat and my related fear is not simply that the legitimacy of elections will be destroyed but that if empowered, Trump would destroy the results of elections, which is what he already tried to do).

The difference between what is and what could be is the difference between objective fact and potential for future change. No matter what anyone says or thinks, there are no alien bodies in storage at Area 51. Similarly, attitudes and beliefs have no bearing on how many votes were cast. But the same can’t be said about how many will be, for who and for what set of reasons. In this sense, lies can alter reality— they can’t conjure up material things, but they can inspire actions that change human systems.

In all that’s been written about the failed January 6th coup attempt, I have seen very little about what would have happened had Mike Pence done what Trump wanted him to do. There’s a difference between the fact that Pence didn’t have the legal authority to throw out ballots or declare Trump the winner and what it is he could have done. He could have said that Trump won. And then what would have happened? Pence could not have made it so that more votes, either popular votes or electoral votes were actually cast for Donald Trump. That’s the equivalent of him saying that there are alien bodies in government custody. But his actions could have changed what happened next.

The Times story went on to mention talk about civil war and quoted a historian about the similarities and differences between our current moment and the 1850s. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we’re not going to have a second civil war, at least not of the sorts where actual armies clash on battlefields in Pennsylvania. I think the more appropriate historical parallel is the point at which Julius Caesar declared himself Dictator of Rome, the Republic was lost forever but retained the trappings of its former (more, by ancient standards) democratic system but went on for the next several centuries as an empire. But that’s an analogy that I’ll flesh out on another day.

For now, I’ll stick with the winter analogy. Winter has come to America. And I hate winter…

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