On the Desire to Surround Oneself with Wolves

Threaded tweets are bad now I guess, and the prevailing wisdom on Twitter seems to be “why are people tweeting when they could be writing blog posts?,” which I take as yet another riff on “you’re doing it wrong.” Particularly with reports of Medium’s demise not really exaggerated at all making the space for such thoughts increasingly scarce. That being said, I do have a blog so I guess I will kowtow to the times and put these thoughts here rather than as a tweetstorm. With any luck, Twitter won’t be around by the time that you read this and then I will come across as prescient rather than contrarian.

Last night, famous and influential (we can unpack these words later on) actor Meryl Streep gave an impassioned speech at the Golden Globes against Trump, for the rights of the oppressed, and the value of the free press. These are all excellent virtues and she is being rightfully applauded for voicing them. (Although we should be careful not to map any praise for Streep onto the Golden Globes as an awards ceremony itself, the Golden Globes being chiefly an opportunity for a variety of celebrities to crowd into a room, get drunk, and receive awards from around ninety random white men.) We will undoubtedly hear more speeches like hers as the celebrity-industrial complex mobilizes, although the extent to which the celebrity-industrial complex failed to influence the election itself does make me pause as to whether or not we’re being more than a little self-congratulatory here.

Still, Trump is a horrid, nasty, brutish individual, and his callous imitation of Serge Kovaleski makes him unfit to be a member of our society, to say nothing of leading it. That Streep explicitly reminds us of this stomach-churning moment is to be commended.

There is, of course, a counter-narrative brewing on Twitter. (I would embed some tweets here but that would seem to go against the whole stop-threading-tweets thing, right? So I’m not sure where to go with that one.) It goes something like this, and we hear variations on it every time really anything happens, particularly when it involves the celebrity-industrial complex: “Stop talking about X, we should really be talking about Y.” Don’t talk about Ellen, talk about Syrian refugees. It is the narrative of wrongful direction: we are not talking about the Thing We Should Be Talking About, but rather about the Thing Designed To Distract Us. (The fact that the sentence “No one is talking about Y!” explicitly is talking about Y will have to be left to the logicians here.) In the Age of Trump, this takes on a modified form: “X is the thing Trump wants you to be talking about, and he’s distracting you from Actual Evil Thing Y!” Right now, Talking About Streep is a distraction against the impending confirmations hearings for Trump’s ghoulish nominations for various cabinet positions.

I want to set aside the implication that individuals, and the aggregate of individual conversations that then constitute The Discourse®, are unable to entertain multiple trains of thought at once, and focus rather on the implicit claim within this rhetorical move: that Trump has any agency, intelligence, or control over master narratives in any way whatsoever. The rhetorical move, I note, is rarely that Streep/X is distracting in a cosmic, happenstance sort of way from the Hearings/Y. Rather, it’s positioned as “Trump actively desires that we talk about Streep/X, and our conversations about it play into his larger evil plans.” The evidence for such claims usually stems from the fact that Trump, like the unstable, grasping toddler that he is, takes to Twitter to rage against the most inconsequential of imagined slights. As I write this, he is tweeting about how Streep is an “overrated” “flunky.” (He might not be wrong on the first claim?1) The counter-narrative, the one that claims that Trump is a media master, a Lex Luthor of misdirection, positions these tweets as a kind of eleven-dimensional chess game wherein we imagine that Trump has the wherewithal and intelligence to deliberately seize on a moment in order to shift our attention from whatever other gruesome thing it is that he is doing.

This, I argue, is a misunderstanding of the situation, predicated on the idea that Trump is anything other than a monomaniacal buffoon. That he is one does not make him any less dangerous, but it does us all a disservice to impute skill, intelligence, and craft where there is none.

I said I wouldn’t embed a tweet but I’m going to, because this is a good one and it says everything I’m trying to say much better than I have said it:

So: why am I getting up in arms about this particular semantic quibble? I suppose it’s because I’m a Words Person, and so I believe that calling something what it is is difficult and useful work, because it forces us to examine what it is that we’re saying around what it is we think we’re saying. Trump is not tricking us into doing anything. He is not a wolf and we are not sheep. If he is a wolf, it is only because we are calling him one, and I have to pause and ask what we gain from calling him one. What do we gain from assuming that he is a cartoon supervillain? What do we win by characterizing a moment where a short-fingered vulgarian lashes out irrationally at a respected and prominent actor when she says some usefully benign things as a layered plot of the deep state?

I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I think we gain an enemy, and we position that enemy within master narratives with which we are comfortable. Maybe this is the celebrity-industrial complex’s fault, but given how prominent a human trait it is to pit good against evil I have a hard time seeing this as anything other than we perhaps imagining ourselves to be more complex and modern than we really are. I think this is a similar reason we are revanching the Russia-as-nemesis narrative: the United States (no matter who you are within it, no matter your perspective on left, right, or center it would seem) needs an enemy. As I wrote in a tweet a few weeks back (I know, I know): “without an enemy against which to assert empire, what are we” as a nation? I wrote that tweet in response to a wave of media sentiment against Russia’s cultural achievements: they made nothing but petty cronyism, so the claims went, whereas here in America we made Great Things. (Which, you don’t even really need to go back to the nineteenth century to get great Russian art: hell, you don’t even need to go back to the twentieth century, but I stand down here.) It seems useful in this moment as well. I would not for a moment claim that these critics desire Trump. I would simply ask what such claims mask: what desires live beneath. Desires for stability and coherence, certainly—it would make more sense if our rulers were in fact all-powerful sociopaths against whom we could organize coherently. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s tweet usefully exposes a desire for white male supremacy: Trump’s whiteness and maleness means that he must have some intelligent master plan.

I ask us to identify and name these desires so that we might more effectively name what we are really up against. This will be long and arduous work and I do not pretend to be really up to it. But I thought it might be worth starting to call some things what they seem to be now.

  1. Meryl Streep’s last truly transcendent performance was in The Devil Wears Prada, this is a fact, don’t @ me. 

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