Last week my friend Allison put on her facebook, “Did anyone read the NYMag cover story?” She received a single response, besides mine, from a mutual friend who said “Mine hasn’t arrived yet!” Granted, we were all busy, it seemed, so very busy: Sept. 11th and the Koran burning seemed to have taken over all of our lives, and if it wasn’t that, then here in New York it was Fashion Week, and Brooklyn Bookfest, and then also Rosh Hashanah, and the end of Ramadan. When I found out the VMAs were tonight, I thought, really? Who could possibly care?
And so a story that I thought would attract a lot of attention on, say, social media, at least, was a non-starter: a lamp discovered with a shade made from human skin, alleged to be one of the famous lamps the Nazis made. It didn’t make any sense inside of any of these narratives, but also, it was just too horrific, I think, to take in. The cover of NY, with its image of a lamp, ostensibly the lamp, and the quote from the article, offering the lamp for 35.00, felt, when I saw it, like a voice from a dream . And the story itself was then easy for me to forget, except for every time I walked by it. All of which is to say, I was blocking it out, too. I think we were all blocking it out.
Observing this in myself made me turn my thoughts to my loose approximation of Freud’s idea of the self: that we are all what we agree to be, and that there is more to us out to the edges, rejected and ostensibly annihilated by that, except, it waits for those moments when we say “I don’t feel like myself right now”, or, “I don’t know why I did that.” This felt like part of that but perhaps also for the larger national mind. As I thought about it, though, it was easy to touch on something else: a weariness, I think, of being trapped in this story of how we think of our country and our culture and it is breaking down. One place you can see the rest of the story, as it were, is in fiction, and I thought of it reading Sigrid Nunez’s self-interview over at The Nervous Breakdown, where she said, of her new book, that while it has elements from dystopian novels, it is more about “a near apocalypse” and a temporary dystopia. I feel we live in a world of near apocalypses, adrift in temporary dystopias that seem never to end at the same time. Or as Fareed Zakharia recently asked, regarding our country, “when do the emergency powers end?” More importantly, when does the emergency end?
I thought saw the rest of the story also as I read my friend Porochista Khakpour’s op-ed this weekend, a thoughtful, searching response to the Islamophobia the Right has stoked since Obama was the nominee for president, and then Maureen Dowd’s latest, most hopeless column ever. I don’t know why she has her spot in the Times, and it continues to make me think less of the paper that they carry her little fictions. Never is she more incensed than when someone is performing their gender or race incorrectly—Hillary is mannish, and “Barry” (her condescending name for our president) is effete, also “colorless”, and is allegedly being abandoned by “Obamicans”, in this case represented by her transparently fictive Peggy, the character she tells us is telling her all of these things about our president, and who… has no voice from Dowd’s that sets her apart. While I do think it is the disease of our age, to just believe something because we feel it is true, despite evidence, I read it and thought of how much I wished Porochista had her spot instead. Not just because of her being my friend, but because her op-ed described life as I know it to be, as lived by me and the people I know. Dowd’s op-ed is, to my mind, what I’d call in a workshop “overdetermined”, i.e., it is a narrative trying to sell you something and is too neatly organized to do so to be drawn directly from life. For all she claims to understand the troubles of “regular people”, Dowd is very much from “the narrative”, the one elite members of the press write in advance of the news and then fits the news into, such as the alleged anti-incumbent fervor before most of the summer’s primaries, which then led to…just seven incumbents losing their spots out of 324 elections. This narrative is the same one that led also to the war in Iraq. Dowd, who made her name really by mocking the Clintons, now writes columns that have more in common with the Tea Party’s conservative white angst of “wanting their country back” than with the troubles of the average American, because the identity of that “Average American” has moved on, which is the whole reason we see the Tea Party agita at all. And Dowd is then part of a kind of Exquisite Corpse, written collectively by a punditocracy that struggles to be as inflammatory as the average sign at a Tea Party rally.
Porochista’s traffic on her op-ed did climb into the top ten of their most-emailed and most-read last night—here’s hoping the Times editors are as fed up with Dowd as the commenters on Dowd’s column, who, hilariously, one by one, took the time to take her to task.