Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Hillary Clinton

The poll vaccine

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Gravity's Rainbow

Over the last few days, a passage from Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon has been rattling around in my head. It describes a patient at “The White Visitation,” a mental hospital in southern England that has been given over for the duration of the war to a strange mixture of psychological warfare operatives, clairvoyants, and occultists. See if you can figure out why I’ve been thinking about it:

At “The White Visitation” there’s a long-time schiz, you know, who believes that he is World War II. He gets no newspapers, refuses to listen to the wireless, but still, the day of the Normandy invasion somehow his temperature shot up to 104°. Now, as the pincers east and west continue their slow reflex contraction, he speaks of darkness invading his mind, of an attrition of self…The Rundstedt offensive perked him up though, gave him a new lease on life—“A beautiful Christmas gift,” he confessed to the residents of his ward, “it’s the season of birth, of fresh beginnings.” Whenever the rockets fall—those which are audible—he smiles, turns out to pace the ward, tears about to splash from the corners of his merry eyes, caught up in a ruddy high tonicity that can’t help cheering his fellow patients. His days are numbered. He’s to die on V-E Day.

In case it isn’t obvious, the patient is me, and the war is the election. There are times when it feels like I’m part of an experiment in which all of my vital organs have been hooked up to Nate Silver’s polling average—which sounds like a Black Mirror spec script that I should try to write. I go from seeking out my equivalent of the Watergate fix every few minutes to days when I need to restrict myself to checking the news just once in the morning and again at night. Even when I take a technology sabbath from election coverage, it doesn’t help: it’s usually the last thing that I think about before I fall asleep and the first thing that comes to mind when I wake up, and I’ve even started dreaming about it. (I’m pretty sure that I had a dream last night in which the charts on FiveThirtyEight came to life, like August Kekulé’s vision of the snake biting its own tail.) And the scary part is that I know I’m not alone. The emotional toll from this campaign is being shared by millions on both sides, and no matter what the result is, the lasting effects will be those of any kind of collective trauma. I think we’ve all felt the “attrition of self” of which Pynchon’s patient speaks—a sense that our private lives have been invaded by politics as never before, not because our civil liberties are threatened, but because we feel exposed in places that we normally reserve for the most personal parts of ourselves. For the sake of my own emotional health, I’ve had to set up psychological defenses over the last few months that I didn’t have before, and if Donald Trump wins, I can easily envision them as a way of life.

FiveThirtyEight

But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I’ve come to see this campaign season as a kind of vaccine that will prepare us to survive the next four years. If there’s one enduring legacy that I expect from this election, it’s that it will turn large sections of the population away from politics entirely as a means of achieving their goals. In the event of a Clinton victory, and the likelihood of a liberal Supreme Court that will persist for decades, I’d like to think that the pro-life movement would give up on its goal of overturning Roe v. Wade and focus on other ways of reducing the abortion rate as much as possible. (Increasing support for single and working mothers might be a good place to start.) A Trump presidency, by contrast, would force liberals to rethink their approaches to problems like climate change—and the fact that I’m even characterizing it as a “liberal” issue implies that we should have given up on the governmental angle a long time ago. Any attempt to address an existential threat like global warming that can be overturned by an incoming president isn’t an approach that seems likely to succeed over the long term. I’m not sure how a nongovernmental solution would look, but a president who has sworn to pull out of the Paris Agreement would at least invest that search with greater urgency. If nothing else, this election should remind us of the fragility of the political solutions that we’ve applied to the problems that mean the most to us, and how foolish it seems to entrust their success or failure to a binary moment like the one we’re facing now.

And this is why so many of us have found this election taking up residence in our bodies, like a bug that we’re hoping to shake. We’ve wired important parts of our own identities to impersonal forces, and we shouldn’t be surprised if we feel helpless and unhappy when the larger machine turns against us—while also remembering that there are men, women, and children who have more at stake in the outcome than just their hurt feelings. Immediately before the passage that I quoted above, Pynchon writes:

The War, the Empire, will expedite such barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Führer—it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity…Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof is it…Perhaps the War isn’t even an awareness—not a life at all, really. There may be only some cruel, accidental resemblance to life.

Replace “the War” with “the Election,” and you end up with something that feels very close to where we are now. There does seem to be “some cruel, accidental resemblance to life” in the way that this campaign has followed its own narrative logic, but it has little to do with existence as lived on a human scale. Even if we end up feeling that we’ve won, it’s worth taking that lesson to heart. The alternative is an emotional life that is permanently hooked up to events outside its control. And that’s no way to live.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2016 at 8:44 am

Head of the class

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Meryl Street at the Democratic National Convention

The Democratic National Convention was filled with striking moments, but the one that lingered in my mind the most was the speech given by Meryl Streep, which was memorable less for what she said than for what she represents. Streep is undoubtedly the most acclaimed actress of our time, maybe of all time. At the peak of her career, she could come across as artificial and mannered—Pauline Kael once quoted a friend who called her “an android”—but she almost glows these days with grace and good humor. Even if this is just another performance, it’s a virtuoso one, and she maintains it with seeming effortlessness as she continues to rack up awards and nominations. Streep, in short, doesn’t need to be jealous of anybody. But as an article in the New York Times points out, there’s at least one exception:

Meryl Streep, the most accomplished, awarded and chameleonic actress of her generation, once confessed something approaching envy for Hillary Clinton: For women of her age, Ms. Streep said, Mrs. Clinton was the yardstick by which they inevitably measured their lives—sometimes flatteringly, sometimes not.

The idea that Meryl Streep, of all people, might bite her hand a little when she thinks of Clinton made me reflect on how each generation settles on one person who serves as a benchmark for the rest. And it’s often either the first to win the presidency or the first who might have a good shot at attaining it. It’s no accident that one of the earliest biographies of Bill Clinton was titled First in His Class.

I’m at a point in my life when people my age have just reached the point of eligibility for the Oval Office, and there isn’t an obvious frontrunner. (As a friend of mine recently said at an informal college reunion: “I guess nobody we know is going to be president. By now, we’d know it.”) But it’s still something I think about. One of my favorite examples of the role that a president—or a candidate—can play in the inner life of an ambitious novelist is Norman Mailer’s obsession with John F. Kennedy. Judging from how frequently he returned to the subject, it was second only to his fascination with Marilyn Monroe, which in itself was probably an outgrowth of his interest in the Kennedys, and he revisited it in works from “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” to Harlot’s Ghost. In An American Dream, he puts Kennedy right there in the opening sentence, which is like inviting a guest into the holy of holies:

I met Jack Kennedy in November, 1946. We were both war heroes, and both of us had just been elected to Congress. We went out one night on a double date and it turned out to be a fair evening for me…Of course Jack has gone on a bit since those days, and I have traveled up and I have voyaged down and I’ve gone up and down…The real difference between the President and myself may be that I ended up with too large an appreciation of the moon, for I looked down the abyss on the first night I killed: four men, four very separate Germans, dead under a full moon—whereas Jack, for all I know, never saw the abyss.

Mailer isn’t speaking as himself, but as a fictional character, but it’s hard not to interpret these lines as a conjuring of an alternate life in which he was friends with the man whom he had missed, by just a few years, at Harvard.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy and Mailer did meet briefly, and it resulted in a moment that speaks volumes about the uncanny prominence that a presidential candidate our own age can take in our thoughts. In “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Mailer writes:

What struck me most about the interview was a passing remark whose importance was invisible on the scale of politics, but was altogether meaningful to my particular competence. As we sat down for the first time, Kennedy smiled nicely and said that he had read my books. One muttered one’s pleasure. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve read…” and then there was a short pause which did not last long enough to be embarrassing in which it was yet obvious no title came instantly to his mind, an omission one was not ready to mind altogether since a man in such a position must be obliged to carry a hundred thousand facts and names in his head, but the hesitation lasted no longer than three seconds or four, and then he said, “I’ve read The Deer Park and…the others,” which startled me for it was the first time in a hundred similar situations, talking to someone whose knowledge of my work was casual, that the sentence did not come out, “I’ve read The Naked and the Dead…and the others.” If one is to take the worst and assume that Kennedy was briefed for this interview (which is most doubtful), it still speaks well for the striking instincts of his advisers.

I like this story best for what Mailer called its significance “to my particular competence.” A favorable remark, even in passing, from the man who had ascended to a level that no writer could ever hope to achieve was one that Mailer would savor forever. And then it was over.

Most of us never get that close, but it doesn’t matter: even from a distance, a president or a candidate makes everyone’s imagination follow a similar track, like a magnet acting on iron filings. That particular mixture of envy and admiration is especially visible among products of the Ivy League. A writer for The Simpsons once noted in an audio commentary that if the writing staff loved to write presidential jokes—like the one in which Grandpa Simpson claims to have been spanked by Grover Cleveland on two nonconsecutive occasions—it’s because the ones who went to Harvard can’t quite get over the idea that they could have been president themselves. You can feel the same sense of agonizing proximity in Mailer, who attended Harvard at a time when his Jewishness made him an outsider among heirs to power, and who later channeled that need into an absurdly unsuccessful candidacy for mayor of New York. As he later wrote:

Norman was lazy, and politics would make him work hard for sixteen hours a day for the rest of his life. He was so guilty a man that he thought he would be elected as a fit and proper punishment for his sins. Still, he also wanted to win. He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.

He concludes: “He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him.” But the memory of Kennedy lived on. Mailer wrote these lines in Of a Fire on the Moon, which chronicled the Apollo mission that Kennedy had set in motion. Kennedy would alter the future, and Mailer would write about it, just as Streep might play Clinton someday in a movie. But we’re all writing or acting these roles in our minds as we measure ourselves against the head of the class, even if we’re not sure who it is yet.

Beyond Kang and Kodos

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The Simpsons episode "Citizen Kang"

In a recent blog post on FiveThirtyEight about the state of election polling, Nate Silver mused about what would keep him up at night if he were Hillary Clinton. He concluded: “I’d be worried that Americans come to view the race as one between two equally terrible choices, instead of Trump being uniquely unacceptable.” As the Republican National Convention lurches to a start today in Cleveland, there are signs that a lot of voters have arrived at that exact conclusion. And if you’re a certain kind of television fan, it’s hard not to think of The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” installment “Citizen Kang,” which aired twenty years ago this fall, shortly before the presidential election of 1996. It’s the segment in which alien invaders Kang and Kodos assume the forms of candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, leading to seven of the most quotable minutes in the show’s history. Two lines, in particular, continue to resonate with self-proclaimed political cynics. One comes after Homer has exposed Kang and Kodos in their true forms, leading to this exchange:

Kodos: It’s a two-party system! You have to vote for one of us!
Man: Well, I believe I’ll vote for a third-party candidate.
Kang: Go ahead—throw your vote away!

And the other comes at the very end, after the victorious President Kang has enslaved the nation, prompting Homer to say to Marge: “Don’t blame me. I voted for Kodos.”

For many viewers, the episode encapsulates the suspicion—which we encounter across the political spectrum—that the two major parties, deep down, are basically the same. But they aren’t. Not really. And to understand why “Citizen Kang” isn’t as trenchant or insightful as it seems, we can turn to the writers and producers who worked on the episode itself. On the commentary track for the show’s eighth season, which was recorded in 2006, series creator Matt Groening and producers Josh Weinstein, David X. Cohen, and Dan Greaney have the following discussion:

Weinstein: Now, I would say, even though it’s specific candidates, the message is timeless…
Cohen: Yeah. One thing I think I’ve noticed about comedy shows that take on elections is the point is always the same—the point is it does not matter which of the awful candidates you vote for…
Greaney: Which is a complete falsity. I mean, the idiot criminal that we have in office is…a lot worse.
Cohen: I’m not saying it’s a good point. I’m just saying it always seems to be the point.
Groening: Because it feels like it’s a comment.
Cohen: Right. You’re able to feel like you’re making a commentary without actually taking sides and alienating people.
Greaney: Yeah, but—when you have somebody who is clearly an aggressor, then…evenhandedness is actually favoring the aggressor.
Cohen: That’s true.

The Simpsons episode "Citizen Kang"

And although I know it’s never going to happen, I wish that the insights conveyed in those last few lines were as familiar as “Citizen Kang” itself. The difference between the episode’s implicit message and the feelings expressed in the commentary track can be chalked up to the fact that the former was written during the Clinton administration, while the latter was recorded ten years later, at the height of disillusionment with George W. Bush. (In other commentaries, the writers mock their own ruthless skewering of Clinton at the time, joking, with a touch of wistfulness, that he was obviously the worst president the country would ever have.) If anything, though, it rings even more true today. And I think that Groening and Cohen—who went on to create Futurama—get at the heart of the matter. Saying that the Democratic and Republican nominees are equally compromised isn’t a political insight, but a simulation of one: it’s a comedic or narrative strategy disguised as an opinion. It’s the most insidious kind of empty statement, which allows the speaker to seem superficially insightful, even subversive, while really closing off the kind of thinking that really matters. As Cohen points out, this kind of false equivalence is perfect for writers who want to create the appearance of making a point without really saying anything. It doesn’t even qualify as real cynicism: it sidesteps actual thought as much as blind allegiance to any one party. And like most forms of laziness, it’s a luxury afforded only to those who are lucky enough not to be intensely vulnerable to the real consequences that presidential elections produce.

If it sounds like I’m being unduly hard on The Simpsons, I’m not: it wouldn’t be so powerful an example if it weren’t the best television show of all time. Its eighth season was a masterpiece, but there were limits to the messages it could send, simply because it was better off, in the long run, if it pitched its satire squarely down the middle—and also because it was television. This bears repeating, especially now. We’re in the middle of an election in which the lines between politics and entertainment have been blurred as never before, and not just because one of the candidates is a former and future reality star. Trump’s simulated version of tough talk and big ideas has been accepted as true by a sizable percentage of the electorate, because it only needs to hold together for long enough to last until the next commercial break. His strategy isn’t that of the big lie, but of a series of improvisations strung end to end, which he hopes will get him through to November. (It’s why he takes so naturally to Twitter.) But those who dismiss Trump and his supporters should begin by demanding more of themselves. The writers behind “Citizen Kang” only had to come up with a message that could sustain a third of a Halloween episode. At the time, it might have seemed plausible, but it only took one more election to expose it forever. Or it should have. But it’s always easier to recuse oneself from the difficult realization that the choice between candidates has huge practical consequences. Trump and Clinton aren’t the same, not for most of us, and certainly not for Muslims, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other groups that have evolved what Charles Blow has called “a sort of functional pragmatism” to survive. You can still tell yourself, if you like, that this election is a choice between Kang and Kodos. But it isn’t. Even if The Simpsons did it first.

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