America is a nation of mythologies.
All cultures have myths, of course. We have more than usual. We manufacture them, too. Our Hollywood films and comic books and pulp fictions and video games flood humanity with interactive mythologies chewing on their own tails like an Oroboros serpent. Cowboys and Gumshoes and Cops On The Edge™. Such tropes are the grammar of our cultural language, foundations of commerce and identity alike.
I know this because I work on the American Myth Factory floor. Donald Trump is a product of that factory, too. MAGA is a myth. So is QAnon.
Yesterday, four people died in the name of those mythologies.
They chose roles in a titanic game, and they lost their real lives in service to those fantasies.
When I say “myth,” I’m not using the superficial definition of “a lie, not real.” I’m referring to the deeper power of cultural symbols – a level of reality cloaked in fantastical garb. People need myths. Cultures need myths. Myths breed, and are bred in turn by, human consciousness. Just as our physical senses are delineated by spectrums of colors, sounds and textures, our cultures and identities are delineated by symbols of language, media and mythology.
If that sounds crazy, that’s because in a sense it is.
Yesterday, a mob of human beings, many dressed in costumes straight off a fantasy convention floor, stormed the symbolic heart of America in service to a baroque mythology crafted around an American icon and the lies he tells about himself.
Four of those human beings died. At least one of them was a conventionally attractive woman who served in our Armed Forces – someone who, at first glance, resembled an old sweetheart of mine. That disconcerting resemblance pointed to a deeper truth: Those people, all of them, however repugnant I find their actions, were someone’s sweethearts. Someone’s lovers, partners, parents, kids. Those mobs of people, and the people they endangered – and, in some cases, were prepared to beat and kill – are not pixels or abstractions. Their lives are human lives.
This is not a fucking game.
Yesterday, that person chose to betray the oath she swore to protect one American mythic cornerstone – our Constitution – in service to another: a TV con man who has used, and has been used by, American mass media for roughly half a century. That con man assumed the ultimate US iconography, the office of our president, to become a living symbol of America itself.
In the funhouse version of Trump’s America, she was the hero of an action movie. She’s being treated as such by some people, as a villain of one by others. I’m sure she saw herself in those terms, and she died in service to those myths.
That IS crazy. And before someone objects to my usage of that word, I’m using crazy in the original sense of “full of cracks; unsound.”
American mythology is crazy in that sense. In its name, we do crazy things, sometimes at great cost.
I feel sad about the human costs of our cracked society.
We’re careless with our mythologies. And that’s literally killing us.
I will not eulogize the woman killed in yesterday’s chaos at the capital [*1]. She made a decision to violate her oaths of service because malcontents and a con man told her to do so. She made her decision, and she died by it.
That said, her death is a tragedy in the classical sense of that much-abused word.
It’s the tragedy of a person, a mob, and a nation that have all given themselves over to absurdity because that fantasy seems more glamorous than the hardscrabble truths of a nation in decline.
As Reed Berkowitz wrote in his essay “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon”, the QAnon fiasco is, in a sense, a titanic RPG. A literal Augmented Reality Game. A cosplay convention with live ammunition and a body count. As that would-be hero yesterday took bullets and died, overgrown children in desperate need of significance ran around in impractical tac gear and costumes out of a video game. There’s a straight line leading from those tricorned Tea Party fools, the jackass offending both Nordic and Indigenous gods with his “Q Shaman” persona, and the “reality TV” spectre whose ubiquity kicked off this American tragedy.
That would-be martyr I will not name was a casualty of trolls. Three other people died nearby; I don’t know their names right now, but I’m sure we all will soon. One cop may or might have died too – reports, as if this writing, disagree about that. All of these casualties were extras in someone else’s LARP. Sacrifices to the vanity of men and women whose lives are so devoid of meaning that they’ll throw people’s lives away in pursuit of a glorious moment where a con man’s lies consumed the surrounding reality.
I know something about reality-war games. After all, I’ve spent the last 27 years creating one. Mage, in its various incarnations, deals with covert warriors seeking control over Earth’s reality. An idealistic premise became a cautionary satire about the nature of “truth” and the consequences of our actions. Certain elements of that series aged poorly; others became – often to my dismay – more relevant than ever. During my second run as head of Mage, my collaborators and I have tried to critique the concept while underscoring the realities beneath our fictions. The stress of doing that led me to resign in 2019. Whether or not I’m getting paid to manage it, however (which these days, I am not), Mage is part my reality. It probably always will be.
During those times when I wasn’t involved with Mage directly, Mage defined me even when I didn’t want it to. As my collaborator Nicky Rae – another casualty of Trump’s deranged antics – told me the other day, my influence defined Mage too. Even when I didn’t want it to. I’m intimately familiar with the responsibilities of such influence, and the ways in which glorious absurdities can unhinge a person’s life. Unlike Donald Trump, Q Shaman, Fox News pundits, and the multitudes of reality-twisters who craft this tragic LARP for pleasure, power and profit, I care what happens to the people who enjoy my work. I’m cautious, always, to inspire people toward constructive outcomes in their own lives, and to remind them that the fictions my collaborators and I create are not objective truths.
I’m also not blind to the fact that if things had gone differently in last year’s election, that mob might well have stormed the Capitol and died in the name of Biden instead of Trump… and that my sentiments toward them would be far more charitable than my current thoughts about the traitor veteran and her cosplay compatriots. I’m sitting here at 4:00 a.m. writing these words from a profound sense of sadness that we’ve come to a point in US history where one mob or the other seems inevitable, and that lives would have ended either way.
I doubt Donald Trump feels sad about anything except his 12-hour Twitter ban and his impending departure from the biggest stage on earth.
Donald Trump could not care less about the people who died yesterday. Whether they died in a Bastille moment or gasping on a respirator in an ICU, they were nothing to him but props in his legend. I don’t say this because I hate the man, though I do. I say this because his entire well-documented history portrays a man who cares about no one but himself.
Remix Narcissus with the Wizard of Oz, sample Eric Cartman, and project that Frankensteinian monstrosity through Maleficent’s mirror, and you get Donald Trump.
Our myths are killing us.
End of Part I
NATURALLY, THERE ARE FOOTNOTES
*1 An alliterative phrase that sounds like a blurb off an old comic-book cover seems like a fitting description of yesterday’s disgrace.