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PLAYING THE GAME


Let's say you're on the third string of your high school football team, and you watch as a rubber-armed quarterback keeps missing the receiver standing there waiting for the ball. The other team keeps winning, effortlessly. You don't know why, and the coach never even looks at you as you remain shoulder-slumped and white-faced. You could have done some good, you tell yourself. No one pats you on the back for being patient. You just sit there, as the minutes tick by and sure enough the entire stadium is shouting out the opponent's team name.

The game feels rigged. No matter what happens, you lose. You feel like Tantalus, who stands in hell under a fruit tree whose fruit he can't reach, and is knee-deep in water from which he can't get a drink. All those victories, all those failures. What a way to spend eternity.

That's my nightmare every now and then as I slip into the imaginary role of some Democratic pol trying to make it in the strange era when Republicans win everything and never seem to get censured or damaged by the outrageous mistakes they make. I try to explain the political monopoly each time I wake in a sweat. Is it racism, pure and simple? Is everything predicated on America's hatred of black and brown people, and therefore any politician who uses dog whistles and sides with Trump is going to win office? Is it insecurity that makes even the most flawed and conflicted candidate for office a sure win if he rattles his saber? Or is it some profound loathing of women that makes even the shyest and most reticent voter turn into Godzilla once he closes the curtain in a voting booth and looks for a woman-bashing monster to elect? It's probably some combination of all three attitudes that renders us incapable of governing.

Nothing is too extreme as a political stance these days. Take the recent Republican run off for senator in Alabama. Luther Strange, a name worthy of Hunter Thompson's hallucinations, was backed by establishment heavy weights in Washington, including Mitch McConnell and Trump, who went down like a punch-drunk boxer to the far more bizarre and terrifying Roy Moore, a man twice removed from the supreme court in Alabama for refusing to take down the Ten Commandments monument he installed in the Judicial Building and for continuing to ban same-sex marriages even after the court overturned the state law as unconstitutional. Moore won handily by voters who probably thought they were the last defenders of democracy in this country. But no one seemed to mind the idea that to save democracy one had to kill it first.

The repeal of the Affordable Care Act occupied the Republican-run House for much of the past seven years, where it voted time and again to end it only to have the Senate fail to back it. Doesn't matter. Every rubber-armed quarterback in both houses couldn't pass the ball to a receiver who could run it into the end zone. Trouble is, as some Republican cynics were heard to mutter, it's hard to take back what you give to the people. Not a thought that maybe the act was actually attempting to right an awful wrong in America. The only message the failed votes sent to rank and file red staters was that it wasn't pushed hard enough. But as Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy assure us, "We'll be back!" Graham surmised that it was the politics not the policy that sunk the latest repeal effort. It needed a little more "bipartisan" window-dressing to get it through. No lie is too big to fail, no public disservice is too evil to be rejected in the halls of Republican-owned government. Even with an inveterate liar at the helm, and obedient janizaries doing all the heavy lifting on the Hill, it wasn't enough to turn hatred into law.

The thing that intrigued me about the inability of the Senate to line up behind Cassidy-Graham was a sliver of doubt running through a fringe of outliers. It's as if the truth, however tattered in this age, trampled on and distorted by Fox News, Breitbart, mangled by Sarah Palin and her cohorts, manages to survive. No amount of words and gestures, shouts and phony push polls can quite overcome the suspicion that we are being lied to.

What is it about the truth that it never dies, no matter how corrupt we may become? Even when cigarette smoking was deemed harmless by vast amounts of "research" conducted by tobacco companies, Jeffrey Wigand, Brown and Williamson's chief scientist, showed up on 60 Mnutes to tell Mike Wallace the real science on smoking and cancer had been suppressed and a phony version given to the public. The truth about the war in Vietnam was finally exposed by Daniel Ellsberg in the New York Times in 1968, about the time the Pentagon was busy falsifying and distorting everything it knew about our losses in the field. We wouldn't know a thing about the NSA's surveillance of ordinary American citizens if Edward Snowden had not sent classified Agency documents to Wiki-Leaks, exposing an assault on privacy worthy of a Gestapo or the East German Stasi! All to protect the bloated lies and deceptions about national security that could no longer be contained by sheer force of will and malfeasance.

Truth is fragile, like a wild flower that blooms a few days before some boot crushes it underfoot. It springs up elsewhere, in another field, in a garden, under a fence, wherever bird droppings can keep spreading the oddly powerful little force a wild seed possess. No matter how often we spray, mow, use Monsanto's broad-spectrum herbicide, Roudup, to kill off unwanted contradictions to our manicured lawns and golf courses, it comes up again, out of bird dung. It has no particular hubris or reason to exist, it simply belongs to nature in some fundamental way. It hides in the dark until some mole dislodges the lid over its hiding place and allows the sun to nudge it awake.

As a species we are natural-born liars. We mislead ourselves on a whim, for a benefit so small it hardly matters in the end. It's the pleasure of the lie, the desire to bend nature's laws that makes us fake the truth, and when done, we are momentarily triumphant. Look at Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, which lasted some score of years and involved politicians, sports stars, and bankers, and was protected by the regulatory agencies supposed to root out such malefactors. He survived, and luxuriated on his yacht, wallowed in dough until finally the scheme couldn't pay off clients who demanded their profits. It was such easy money, no one wanted to believe it could be a scam. Until you didn't get your check in the mail. Then the humble little blossom of truth sprouted out of the earth and began to gather a bit of notice around its feeble lamp. It took forever to find out that Enron was broke, and that the vast scam over subprime junk bonds was such another scam that brought on the Great Recession. We hate the truth, we hardly think of it as the weed whose use we haven't discovered, as Emerson once called it.

But the truth is all we have in the end. It determines whether we survive as a country, as a civilization, if we embrace its toxic love and surrender to its stern rules. The truth in our time may very well be that we are trapped inside the bubble of the Civil War and cannot break out of its delusions; that we are unable to think of blacks as equals, or that the vast subculture of Latinos is anything but an aberration of our lax enforcement of immigration law. We are tethered to an age-old denial of women's right to power and equality. We are still burning witches in the public square as often as possible. When Trump muttered that Hillary was a "nasty woman," he was voicing a primal resentment against the desire of the female to enter public life. And without admitting it, voters felt the resonant thrill of recognition and voted accordingly.

And yet the truth is more powerful than habit or attitude; the truth is, we are flawed, dangerously mistaken, too cowardly to admit that our hatred has no real basis in truth at all, but that it protects us from that wild flower that blossoms momentarily and dies. Only to be reborn just across the road, always there, always surviving the terrible fury we express when we come upon it and try to destroy its life-saving meaning. The fact that Trump lies is not just a character flaw but a fundamental aspect of ourselves in the face of difficult situations. We lie like him, all the time, in every fix we find ourselves in. We lie and lie and lie and when the truth is put before us, we cry a little and promise to be better. But if someone watching me kill time on the bench at the football game had just casually suggested to the coach I might be of use, and to send me out in the last minutes of the fourth quarter, it just might happen that I could catch the ball and save the game. But then, in my nightmare, I never find out.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen