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A Foul and Pestilent Congregation of Vapors
A Holiday Column
I have of late, wherefore I know precisely, lost all my mirth. I mean, that’s not what Hamlet says. He claims not to know why he’s lost his mirth, although given that he spends most of the play moping dreadfully about his destiny, it’s questionable as to whether he had any mirth to lose in the first place. As for me, lacking a lofty destiny or Denmark to inherit, or even a girlfriend to be unnecessarily cruel to, the mystery is not so profound. I have to keep abreast of the news, for my job, and it’s depressing the shit out of me.
Climate-change-enhanced storms killed dozens at a candle factory, and more at an Amazon fulfillment center, as underpaid and hard-working people rushed to carry out endless holiday orders for widgets and gewgaws and jewels and sweaters. Racism—from the kind that causes people to diss W.E.B. duBois in op-eds to the kind that inspires cops to exchange memes about lynchings, and then kill Black and Latino men—remains on the march, organized and unorganized, inexhaustible and unstoppable. Roughly a thousand people are still succumbing to Covid every single day in the US, as we steam towards a million dead. Abortion rights are on the verge of evisceration, the payoff for decades of concerted political effort by the right. Too much nothing is being done in Washington to help anyone, and next November there are all sorts of elections. All in all, it’s a bit like being in the path of a storm, pinned down and unable to deflect it, or evacuate, or burrow down deep enough to make it through unscathed. On top of that, it’s dark now at 5pm, stone dark, black-of-night dark, and I can’t get used to it, and I’m moving in two weeks, and I have to buy furniture.
It’s enough to make you wonder whether becoming a conspiracy theorist might bring some peace of mind.
Rest assured I’m in no immediate danger on that front—I’ve studied those worlds long enough to have been exposed to the major arguments, and to have found them unpersuasive; I’m too Jewish for the anti-Semitic theories, which is most of them, and feel solidly perched on a round if shitty earth. But I do find that myself longing—just a bit, from time to time—for such a worldview, so cleanly etched in black and white.
Consider TERFs—trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or the “gender-critical” movement as they dub themselves, a collection of frothingly bigoted gorgons concentrated in the UK but spreading their bile across continents with ease. Imagine, like J.K. Rowling, being ensconced in a gigantic castle, blithely convinced that the biggest problem in the entire hideous howling world is that trans women would like human rights. Trans women wanting to use the bathroom is the central crisis of the age, and everything else is going along more or less swimmingly, as far as they’re concerned, at least in terms of what’s worth expending any energy on. What a soothing set of beliefs! How cosseted they are! How coddled!
Or take QAnon—that Trump-loving cultic crew who believe that the government is hyper-competent and nefarious (as opposed to a collection of nebbishy bureaucrats and electeds swayed by moneyed interests, plus a grab bag of budding demagogues doing stunts to go viral on Twitter). And moreover the arrayed forces of evil are about to be dispatched with fatal alacrity, led by the Donald in that muscled, glowing, Ivan-Drago-esque guise he always seems to assume in fan-art. They may have picked the shittiest possible Prometheus, but at least they have one; they may be perpetually waiting for the day that all comes right, and may be perpetually disappointed, but at least they believe in such a day, a day of righteous reckoning—as opposed to the world just muddling along in decay, spiked with its usual potent measure of injustice, the worst full of passionate intensity, etc.
Speaking of the Second Coming, what if—instead of donning my mask each time I leave my apartment, and mingling in public with the knowledge hot in my mind that any errant interaction could gift to me a prolonged and agonizing death at the hands of a perpetually-mutating virus—what if I could simply believe, as a popular anti-vaxx meme puts it, that I was vaccinated in the blood of Christ? That God, as 59% of White evangelical Protestants appear to think, objects to the vaccine—and will inure me from all harm with His loving hands? I do not believe this, nor that blood can wash you clean (seems sticky), nor that a good dose of faith and essential oils can keep any disease at bay. I believe in very little, and none of it is particularly reassuring.
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Every time my thoughts stray in this direction—eyeing the impossibly elaborate world-building efforts of conspiracy theorists, the seas-and-time-spanning maps and charts they make to conjure a world whose good and bad actors are profoundly clear—I recall that such thought patterns are no panacea against sorrow. Indeed, the reverse is true—the state of mind of those ensnared deeply in the world of conspiracy is one of perennial wariness, even of pain.
If you believe that trans women and their allies are conspiring to put the kibosh on womanhood in general, your life becomes a hunt for a frightening specter, your waking hours concentrated on the violent effort to preemptively snuff out transness. Put your faith in QAnon, and you may find yourself profoundly alienated from friends and family members—believing that they are pedophiles, or lizard people, or just so persistently asleep to the truth they may as well be the walking comatose; and they may despair of you, and turn away. The proudly unvaccinated often find a different sort of comeuppance, one less abstract and emotional, with a rapid pulse and ragged breath and a lingering end.
So if there’s no solace in belief systems that portray the world as clearly delineated—cleft cleanly between light and darkness and good and evil, and perennially about to be set right—where do you find comfort? How can you soothe yourself, no matter how many bubble baths you take or skin-creams you purchase, when you know the world is brutish and very complicated and full of bad weather of both the literal and metaphorical kinds? When it gets dark at 5pm, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, all through the interminable and frigid night?
I don’t have any answers—I, too, am a quintessence of dust—but to return to the subject of believing: I do believe that the world, and the society we live in, is a profoundly interdependent place. That kindness is important to do and keep doing, to friends and family and strangers alike, not in the hope that it will be returned in kind, but in the hope that it will beget more kindness as it goes, and more hope. I don’t believe that a cabal of evil Jews or euphemisms for Jews control the world with tight and moneyed fists. I do believe that stripping us of hope for a better future is a good way for those who profit from it to maintain the status quo. And the status quo is unacceptable.
So, I fight to retain hope—as the activist Mariame Kaba puts it, hope is a practice—and to retain my ferocity, that scrappy, electric anger that keeps me ready with a riposte; and keeps others, better and braver than me, assembling packages for unhoused folks in encampments, no matter how often the police sweep through; and others making provisions to provide abortions, at great risk and with iron will; and still others bruised and battered by the bad winds of the world who go on, and keep going, which is the greatest feat of all.
All these are reasons for me to continue the practice of hope, take solace and nurture where I find it, and continue to feed the big and necessary well of anger inside me.
In the interest of nursing that inner spark back to a full flame, though, I’m taking a bit of time off—until the New Year, and until my move is complete and/or I’m too solidly walled in by boxes to leave my computer. It has been a fascinating few months writing this newsletter—I cherish every bit of feedback that you give me—and I look forward to returning to it with renewed strength and zeal. In the interim, and for 2022, I wish you all the necessary and intermingled kindnesses that fuel your hope, and your rage, and your generosity, and all the myriad qualities we need to wage the kind of battles the world presents us with daily. I will depend on others, and others will depend on me; we will fight for each other when we can, and do what we must, with noble reason and infinite faculty.