I had to laugh when my wife, Elaine Schock, wrote recently that we live in an alternative universe. We write lying in bed next to one another, and sometimes it feels as though ideas travel between us before the words are formed. A thought had been eating at me the last couple of days, a terrible and perplexing one.
Remember Bizarro World? It was a fictional planet, Htrae (which is "Earth" spelled backward), populated by reverse counterparts to characters in DC Comics’ Superman mythos.
Htrae was cubed rather than round, see? People said and did things the opposite of the way normal reality (even superhero reality) should work. They said “goodbye” when they greeted each other, “hello” when they parted. There was a Bizarro-Aquaman—he couldn’t swim. A Bizarro-Marilyn Monroe—the ugliest person on the planet. My favorite was the Bizarro-Batman, Batzarro, the World's Worst Detective.
For me, though, the Bizarro World stories were too much of an absurd thing; they strained credulity (even in, as I say, a superhero mythos), and their cleverness was exhausting. How could it be anything else? Sometimes, though, they could be damn funny.
I hadn’t mentioned to Elaine that I was thinking about Bizarro World—I’d be surprised if she knew what it was; comic book enthusiasts were usually pre-pubescent boys and the early incarnations of Bizarro were better than the later ones that she would have seen. The earlier Bizarro had a certain pathos. Bizarro was evil, yes, but he had an endearing clumsiness, as if he was confounded by his own chaos.
But what put me in mind of Bizarro was the same thing that Elaine was feeling about the mind of TrumpWorld: What’s up is down these days, what’s down is up; what’s good is bad, what’s bad is valorous. This isn’t merely absurd—I mean, we all like to laugh at Trump when he asserts some grand claim about himself that is manifestly antithetical to what is true about him. (He boasted in Tulsa about how good-looking he is.)
No, it isn’t merely absurd. It’s worrisome, sometimes depressing, even scary, increasingly so. I watched the video of the three women haranguing Miami’s city commissioners, claiming that masks kill people; one telling a doctor that the doctor doesn’t know medical science because she believes in cautions about Covid—and maybe it isn’t deadly after all, but some myth, a plot for control? Another woman stood with her Bible, upset that more people don’t stand with Bibles in their hands in the face of Covid and the onslaught of masks.
The exchange was an ugly laugh relief—truly ugly, because two of the women speaking were hectoring the commissioners, one threatening them with citizen’s arrests. I was astounded that one of them just didn’t say, “Shut the fuck up and get out of here—and wear your goddamn masks on the street outside or you’ll get a fine!”
Then there was the woman at Starbuck’s who got crazily offensive with a barista who asked her to wear a mask. She threatened to come back with the police.
Those are WTF displays. Contemptible, powerless dolts looking for power—maybe because they’re afraid of what could be coming their way. But the inverted reasoning is getting bigger by the day, reaching a tipping point, conflating with other craziness, spreading like a contagion all its own: anti-maskers raging at the same time that Trump and his hordes rage against Black Lives Matter, against Obamacare, against immigrant children, against, I’d say, life itself.
As all these matters have grown politicized, they’ve assumed an amorphous form of ideology and religion that is dangerous and, well—may as well say it—kind of…evil. It isn’t merely stupid to ignore precautions—masks, distancing, staying home as much as possible—it’s menacing, a means of spreading the twin viruses of Covid and proud ignorance, like a threat against the welfare of the American community.
Growing with the frantic need to fend off intimations of mortality is a desire not only to offend the people who are trying to do the right thing but to jeopardize or terrorize them. An increasing number of health officials have been resigning lately because of threats on their lives. People whose work is to save lives are afraid for their own lives.
What do you call an evil afraid, for its own sake, of the harm it does? Hypocrisy, certainly.From CNN this morning: “When he travels to locations where the virus is surging, every venue the President enters is inspected for potential areas of contagion by advance security and medical teams, according to people familiar with the arrangements. Bathrooms designated for the President's use are scrubbed and sanitized before he arrives. Staff maintain a close accounting of who will come into contact with the President to ensure they receive test.”
But surely hypocrisy is the least of it. Mary Trump’s book calmly constructs a psychological portrait of an almost-sympathetic sadist in a padded cell. “Donald has, in some sense, always been institutionalized, shielded from his limitations or his need to succeed on his own in the world,” Mary Trump writes.
Lack of accountability cemented the man’s pathology, but Donald Trump, like all of us, is a creature of his time. The failures of accountability that have been invading our public life since the Reagan years are now forcing us to live on Donald's Trump's cellblock.
I see a correspondence between the anti-health factions and the defenders of racism and police violence, the Confederacy advocates. The right thing for a good nation is to look out for the health of its citizens. The right thing for a good nation is to banish excessive uses of force and bigoted speech and actions. The right thing for a good nation is to promote compassion. Social benignity is the reason government exists.
But in Trump’s Bizarro World, what’s good is bad, what’s bad is valorous. The effect of all this goes beyond a surge of ugliness and instead posits a new norm, a new morality that proclaims death is due, kindness and tolerance are blasphemy, and the future’s only acceptable direction is backward.
These are crazy fucking times. More than once when I’ve been sitting in the backyard at night, looking at the fairytale glow of the lights, playing with the dog or listening to Bob Dylan on my earphones or watching Elaine and my stepdaughter Claudia cherish the new baby, I feel like I’m in a citadel, a refuge of safety, a household of sanity, a kindred way forward.
America’s true reopening won’t begin until the morning after November 3rd, when we can begin to walk again the streets of a land that believes in promises better than death and cruelty. I wonder if others feel something similar at times.
Mikal Gilmore is the author of four books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir Shot in the Heart, and the 1960s cultural history Stories Done. He is a longtime writer for Rolling Stone.
Goodbye Hello ::: Los Papines
Mistra Know It All ::: Stevie Wonder
The Fool On The Hill ::: Aretha Franklin
John Lee Hooker For President ::: Ry Cooder
Nowhere Man ::: Vocal LT
Citadel ::: Rolling Stones
Feel Like Going’ Home ::: Charlie Rich
Crazy ::: Seal
Dizzy ::: Tommy Roe
Touch Me I’m Sick ::: Mudhoney
I’m Sick Y’all ::: Otis Redding