The system, though sorely tested, has held.
Two weeks ago today, a mob incited to violence by the delusions of reality trolls focused on a jacked-up TV star committed symbolic and literal desecration of the United States. That spectacle combined tragedy and farce, with a body count that has grown since I began writing about it that day. This essay began as a stream-of-consciousness rant in real time. Now, with two weeks of perspective, new events, the Biden-Harris inauguration, and a fitting coda delivered by an embodiment of the kind of America Trump and his followers sought to destroy, “Time to Leave the Funhouse” seems like an apt slogan for the coming years.
For all our futuristic boasts and hardnosed pretense, the USA exists in a state of arrested adolescence. Not because so many of us love fantasy, but because so many of us hate facing reality. Instead, we puff up our egos to mythic proportions while glutting ourselves with junk food and diversions. For all our cowboy bullshit, this nation is spoiled rotten. Even as our teeth, infrastructure and fellow citizens fall to pieces, Americans wrap ourselves in mythology and drugs to keep from recognizing the truth: Our nation is unsustainable. Without immediate action and major changes to our way of life, we are doomed not merely as a nation but quite possibly as a species too.
America, we have a problem here.
Hell, even our iconic cowboy mascot is a fake. Real cowboys in history were low-paid laborers – often queer, usually non-white, occasionally trans, and inevitably poor – who literally waded through shit in service to other men’s wealth. Not one American in a thousand was a cowboy; not one American in a million could actually live that life. Yet the cowboy, imported from South America and embellished by Hollywood, embodies These United States even as we divide ourselves by such iconography. It’s no accident that our swaggering cowboy president G.W. Bush left a legacy of catastrophes, that his fans burnt the former “Dixie” Chicks in effigy, and that would-be cowboys posed with both Union and Confederate flags while lynching effigies of our first Black American president. The Cowboy archetype, though based in history, is a whitewashed product of capitalistic racist fantasy. He might not be racist by default (and has, in fact, been reclaimed in Black American communities lately), but his popular image perpetrates a lot of racist trash. The quickest way a rich white dude can grab cred from working-class white folks is to strap on a cowboy hat, adopt a Southern drawl, and pretend to be “just plain folks” while hating on “subhuman mongrels” and “race-traitor” white liberals. Kid Rock’s been playing that game for decades, and Fox News rests on its foundations.
Donald Trump plays a variation on that archetype: The Self-Made Man – a brave, tough-talking All-American guy whose ostentatious wealth attests to his superiority over effete ideas like “taste.” The Self-Made American is the Cowboy in a business suit, his vulgar roots undermining elitist peers. He gobbles Big Macs and talks as though the world is his locker room; after all, it is. As Trump himself said, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Edison could get away with ripping off rival inventors. Harvey Weinstein could get away with raping movie stars. Trump got away with a laundry list of crimes against humanity, yet still had literal armies of Americans willing to kill and die on his behalf. While the future actions of those devotees have yet to be determined, the proof of that willingness turned 1/6/2021 into a funhouse mirror of 9/11/2001. Both became icons of symbolic wars against America. Two weeks ago, we waged that war against ourselves.
Seven years ago, in an essay called “Coloring the Symbol of a Man,” I said that “a leader – especially an elected leader – is a symbol of whatever that person leads.” Barack Obama, that “subhuman mongrel” whose existence so offended classic rock icon Ted Nugent, embodied the end of an unbroken chain of white men representing our United States. That symbolic overthrow (accentuated by the failure of cowboy president George W. Bush, plus the defeat of Vietnam survivor John McCain and Sarah Palin, Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the American Right) made all manner of absurdities seem possible. Obama was a Muslim. He was coming for your guns and children. He was somehow a Marxist Nazi Zionist Mao-worshipper who was probably the Antichrist and definitely part of a long-range plan by time-traveling malcontents. The fact that Obama never lived up to any of the dire prophecies about him just made everything worse. It’s no accident that Trump gained political momentum by mainstreaming Birtherist conspiracy crap. Even after Obama had graciously stepped aside (despite warnings that he would do exactly what Trump tried to do four years later), the mere fact that a (half-)Black American had personified “OUR country” for eight years drove many Americans unsane. A mythic Deep State reigned even as The Donald declared his absolute disdain for propriety and precedent. Instead of governing in any rational form, The Donald’s administration became a daily exercise of performative cruelty. Hidden symbols were unfurled openly by people convinced that secret cabals hid themselves in pizza dungeons and furniture stores. [*1]
The past few years have been literally and symbolically deranged. That madness climaxed in a orgasmic surge of perverse superheroes in a bloody-handed LARP.
All nations have symbols. All symbols can be poisoned. Human belief may be the most potent force on earth, and humans believe all kinds of awful things.
My fellow Americans, I say this as a creator and consumer of fantasy media: We need to be more careful about what, and whom, we choose to believe.
My fellow creators, meanwhile: We need to be more careful about what we put out there, and more conscious of how it is received.
Obviously, I love fantasy. My career and (to a degree that disquiets even me) identity encompass 30 years of creating exaggerated worlds of adventure. Before I began writing, I was an actor. Since childhood, I’ve loved comics, myths, and action movies. In those creations and entertainments, I’ve sought significance in the mundane world. Whenever possible, I’ve held the mirror up to my audience and myself, asking “What do you see reflected back at you here?” As a creator and a fan of fantasies – whose inspirations include real-world culture, language, and psychology – I understand what Joseph Campbell called “the Power of Myth.” And so, when I look at the narrative cast over the events of 1/6, I see the ultimate tragedy of a collective Narcissus slashing himself to death in a shattered mirror. And if that analogy seems overripe, remember that a young Air Force veteran got herself killed storming the Capital building, acting out an action movie trope, in service to a TV star’s gospel, while absurdly garbed cosplaytriots staged selfies nearby.
She wanted to be a hero. In the minds of many, she became one. And yes, on many levels, that is an American tragedy.
Much as I hate what she did, I feel sad about her death.
I feel sadder, though, about the deaths of people whose names we’ll never know unless we knew those people personally.
When this ridiculous saga appears in history books, that woman’s name will be mentioned while the 400,000-and-then-some Americans who died of Covid-19 remain nameless. The fact that one of those dead Americans, my friend and collaborator Jackie Cassada, was herself a fantasy author writing about incarnated dreams and reality wars, compounds the irony in ways that have me feeling sick myself. The fact that Covid-19 bookends the Trump presidency with one of the largest body-counts in US history is poetic enough to choke Shakespeare on Aristotle’s dick.
I feel sad about that, too.
Sad, and angry, and very, very old.
America, we need to get the fuck over ourselves.
We’re not a nation of cowboys or Self-Made Men. Our nation holds many wonders and promises, but we’re best served by seeing what we are in real life, not which fantasy suits us best.
Now, I love mythology. It’s my living. It’s my art.
I respect its power, though, because I know first-hand where that power – pro and con – can lead.
Mythology is vital to the human experience and society. Used carelessly, however, it creates monsters. Not the consciously created monsters like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (an analogy for the destruction caused by men who wish to play God), but rampaging creations like that American Frankenstein’s Monster, Donald Trump.
Again, I use that word deliberately. The root of monster means “a portent, an omen, a warning.” Mary Shelly’s warning is a sympathetic creature. I feel no such sympathy for Donald Trump. Unlike Victor Frankenstein’s unwilling creation, and despite his family’s wealth, Trump projects himself as that Self-Made Man. Fine, then. Let him fucking own what he has become: a warning of where our pride and carelessness can lead.
To the Greeks whose myths provide our science terminology, myths have multiple dimensions. Literal names have symbolic connotations, numerical significance, sometimes musical tonalities meant to invoke metaphysical forces. The same is true of other languages, too: Sanskrit, Hebrew, Mandarin, and more. Yet English, despite its twisty corridors of meaning, is a language of commercial trade and diplomatic expediency. So, too, are its home cultures, England and North America. Our myths, then, become fractured things, thrown together – like our languages – from bits of other cultures that we seldom understand in context. They’re pretty, sure, and often more potent than we expect. America is a myth writing itself on a daily basis… sometimes even, these days, on an hourly one. At its best and worst, that myth is powerful as hell.
And yes, again, I used that word deliberately: Hell – the myth-forged punishment ground remixed from older legends until it consumed its original sources in a pervasive garish nightmare.
Today, we seem further from that hell than we did when I began this essay two weeks ago. Another set of symbols triumphed, and those symbols – though in some senses as fantastical as the ones employed by Trump – are more subtle though no less passionate. In a characteristic burst of self-conscious mirror-play, Lady Gaga’s garb recalled the mockingjay pin and costume employed by Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: a teen-lit fantasy/SF series about multicultural rebels toppling a decadent Capital. The oroboroean tangles involved in a media-crafted queer-icon persona, whose name was inspired by a pop song from a British band whose queer-icon frontman was commenting on American media banality, wearing a red, white and gold echo of a film adaptation of a fantasy book series, to sing a parody of a British drinking song that became this nation’s anthem, at the Capital, while figuratively overthrowing its previous queer-phobic media-persona figurehead, are – I’m certain – obvious to Stefani Germanotta, the real-life artist behind Lady Gaga’s façade. There’s symbolic value, too, in having the young Black female poet Amanda Gorman read a poem she composed while watching Trump fans storm that same Capital. Trump’s revolution – despite its non-white enablers – was an assertion of white supremacy. Having a young Black poet laurate proclaim “The Hill We Climb” was a symbolic purge of those Rebel flags and Holocaust hoodies that claimed that ground only two weeks before.
These are, as the saying goes, interesting times.
America is confronting its mythologies and the monsters birthed from them. The racism and genocide that laid the foundation for all American nations (not merely the United States) began on distant continents. It holds pervasive sway, though, in American realities. These past few years, more than ever before, have forced Americans to face the mythologies we’re raised with and the monsters they so often breed. As I’ve often said before, the United States is an experiment founded upon genocide in which slave-owning men made eloquent promises that a diverse populace has yet to fulfill. The tension between those promises and the realities behind them have made American nations (again, not only the US) the vibrant and volatile center of the modern age. Even outside this region, that tension has shaken the world for nearly half a thousand years. This month’s chaos shook our myths to their foundations. Monsters came out, and living people died.
Trump’s cult, and the associated QAnon creed, are Apocalyptic cults in every sense of that word. They claim revelations from higher powers in an endgame struggle with forces of destruction. As ridiculous as their claims are by all rational standards of inquiry, the adherents of those cults are right about one thing: This is the end of their world, and things are being revealed that have been hidden from sight for too long. This culture is facing transformation, with old comforts dying in service of new realities. That is a frightening process, and things are being lost that can never be reclaimed. That’s scary. I get it. This new world doesn’t look like Leave It to Beaver, and though few of the guys hefting battle banners in Trump’s name are old enough to have watched that program on TV, the mythic America it portrays is part of their view of “the way things ought to be.” [*2] MAGAmerica is, at its heart, dedicated to preserving a mythic United States in which any cowboy can become a Self-Made Man if those pesky libtards and scary brown people would just get back in their places where they belong. Trump’s final act, the declaration of a slavery-denying “1776 Commission” on Martin Luther King Day, was as blatant as a Stars-and-Bars. [*3] When Q’s promised Apocalypse failed to occur, the cult turned upon itself. The results, again, remain to be seen. I doubt, though, that’s we’ve seen the last of them. From Haven’s Gate to Islamic State, atrocities have been committed over less.
Fellow Americans, we need to sort this funhouse out. We must be more careful and conscious of our mythologies, of the ways they guide us, of the purposes to which they can be put, and of the people – even me – who craft those purposes, and to what ends.
Otherwise, we’re just spinning frantically until our funhouse finally burns down.
Five lives ended in our Capital that day. Several more have followed since.
Now, at the threshold of symbolic new beginnings, let their tragedy be the warning we all hear.
BEHOLD THY FOOTNOTES!
*1 The fact that QAnon’s nonsense echoes the Satanic Panic which encompassed weird fantasies about heavy metal and D&D adds to the funhouse-on-acid feel of Trumpian mythology.
*2 The title of a book by Rush Limbaugh, whose impending demise adds yet another layer to this age’s over-piled irony cake.