Harpooning the Whale

I travel. A lot. Starting tomorrow I kick off my first real round of business trips for the year, which right now has me on the road nearly every week until sometime in March. And this is basically fine. I’m not crazy about it, but it’s a part of my life that I’ve come to terms with. I’m approached frequently at work by colleagues who want to pull me into some trip or other, and they’ll usually say something along the lines of, “Hey, do you want to go with me to pitch so-and-so? It’s in Assholesville and there’s a 4am flight…” My standard, admittedly canned response at this point is to remind them that I don’t want to go anywhere, ever. But I’ve got a leadership role around here, I have equity in the company, and when it makes sense for me to be there I’ll pack up my troubles in my old kit bag and go. And honestly, once I’m out there it’s usually not that bad. The leaving and getting back can be jarring, but the travel itself falls into a rhythm. There’s often a kind of somnambulant fluidity to it. Peter Murphy captured it in a song lyric long ago:

Gliding like a whale, in and out of hotels…

So it’s okay. I’ve posted my current travel schedule on the door of my office, my next few trips are more or less planned out, and I’m ready to go. No biggie. Or rather, it wouldn’t be a biggie, except that we happen to be, as of this writing, in the middle of a Federal government shutdown. That means that our beloved Transportation Safety Agency is only partially funded, meaning that airport security lines nationwide are hideously understaffed, and the people who are working them aren’t getting paid. And that means that my travel over the next two days is going to be like Dante, re-imagined by Kafka, and filtered through 800 pages of late-period David Foster Wallace.

But here’s the thing. I’m upset, as you’d imagine, and I’m not even one millionth as upset today as I’m sure I will be by tomorrow. But as a political pessimist, I’m actually feeling weirdly reassured. In a strange and non-intuitive way, something is actually working right.

I promised I’d get into politics a little bit on this blog, which I’ve usually avoided for fear of alienating basically everyone I know on one side or the other. But the moment is such that I can’t really get away with not commenting, so let me sketch out a perspective. My essential political hypothesis is this: all human relationships, of any conceivable kind, are dysfunctional disasters. Individual humans are dysfunctional disasters, for reasons that we’ll have ample time to explore together as we go. So it only follows that any encounter between two or more people can only have a multiplicative effect on the total baseline level of dysfunction. For proof, consider any relationship of any kind that you actually have. Two people, in isolation, will in all cases find a way to drive each other mad. This doesn’t preclude love, or caring, or deep commitment; all of these are possible. But essentially none of us can truly claim to be in command of the inchoate and ever-shifting mess of our own desires, ambitions and will. Matrixed against the equally inchoate morass of another, the result can only be a sort of sustained disaster. And the best relationships are precisely this: sustained yet fruitful disasters in which the ongoing handling of perpetual disappointment, paranoia and crisis translates, through long effort and careful, intentional cultivation, into a structure that solves nothing, but instead offers a manageable set of problems, a few points of useful logistical support, and some sex.

The same principle applies to human beings in any sort of larger grouping, from a family to a corporation to a society. There are no harmonious communities of humankind. There are only managed disasters. And the worst thing you can do in this context, in fact the worst thing that humans have ever done, is to try and replace managed disaster with utopic perfection. Somebody ends up dead. In some cases, tens of millions of people end up dead.

As a political pessimist, I therefore reject any attempt at perfecting the human endeavor, and embrace instead a policy of seeking, and cherishing, the least bad option among any available. The least bad option, in general, will be one which accomplishes two things: it will enable and embrace productive friction, and it will act as a check on the worst impulses of its human participants.

Consider the wall. All of this is happening, as everyone now knows, because the President of the United States will not sign any budget, or budgetary continuation, that does not include some $5.7 billion in funding for an imaginary wall along our nation’s southern border with Mexico. I say imaginary, because no serious person believes that it will be ever be built, even if the money were provided. Nor does the president, I imagine (and we can only imagine, as the president’s mind us somehow both radically available and deeply impenetrable in a way that only truly damaged minds can be). Moreover, even if he imagines that it can be built, I’m sure that in material terms he doesn’t actually care. The wall (and I’m surprised that this isn’t being said more often) is a symbolic act of racial hatred. To fund it is to put a sizable chunk of tax dollars toward the act of despising and fearing our non-white neighbors. Little matter that those dollars represent a fraction of the real cost of building such a thing, or that any attempt to do so would be tied up in court for years, or that no real political will to physically manifest it even exists. “Funding” the wall is simply a shitty thing to do. It’s a miserable act, pandering to that which is worst in a shrinking, angry, desperate part of our society, without even the partial dignity of a physical result. It’s trolling on a national scale.

Now the shutdown is also a miserable act. Real people are hurting. My own brother, a federal legal professional, is driving an Uber. He has a toddler daughter and a pregnant wife. It’s a scandal, egregious, shameful. But it is not, for better or for worse, an unmitigated shame. It’s not that, because it’s actually stopping something truly awful from being done. The system is delivering a ridiculous and very poor result, but it’s not quite right to say that the system is broken. This is actually the system functioning, by creating enough internal friction to stop itself from doing something dreadful. The system is actually supposed to do this. Not because it’s a good system, per se. This isn’t a good outcome. But it’s a least-bad system producing a least-bad result in a time of crisis, and checking the grosser intentions of a sublimely bad actor. This is, however disgusting, the appropriate response, in rather the same way that projectile vomiting is the appropriate response to food poisoning. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the body’s imperfect way of dealing with an ingested toxin. If we can’t exactly applaud it, we can at least lie on the bathroom floor, face pressed to the cool porcelain base of the toilet, wishing we’d cleaned it more recently, and recognizing that this all has it’s place.

So back to my whale gliding. There won’t be any. I’ll be suffering tomorrow, heartily, and I will curse and I will rail. We’ll all be suffering, and everyone in the airport will be angry with everyone else. Nor will any of this necessarily be okay. We don’t know the denouement of all of this, and there’s really no precedent to draw on because no one’s ever fucked it up quite this badly. I’ll reach my hotel eventually, and I’ll probably order up a glass of wine and commiserate with whoever I find next to me, and perhaps we’ll experience some small sense of camaraderie in the trenches, but whatever. The whale, though harpooned, still has shit to do. He swims on. We’ll see about the rest.

You know what? There’s also a really clever Thomas Hobbes joke involved in the whole whale motif that I thought I’d actually get to in the text. I really didn’t, but I’m still tacking it on now because even though it’s something of a lost opportunity I’m sure you’ll recognized it’s potential.

Because Leviathan. Right?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s