Online Only: Walrus Managing Editor Jared Bland interviews Mark Kingwell at The Shelf blog.A
nd so you woke up one morning and it was finally over. Victory. A triumph. Your acceptance speech was deliberately subdued, more effective in its withheld power than the barn burners of the early days. The crowd surged and wept. Your wife and daughters exited the windswept stage smiling, leaving you there, tall and handsome, a new man for a new millennium.
And what you thought then was not what people think. It was not the relief or joy of having won. It was not the burden of that same win. It was not even a mixture of the two, the smart pundit’s comment of choice. He’s got a lot on his mind now, Anderson. The reality is starting to sink in, Tom. Heavy lies the head, Campbell.
It was none of that. Instead, you kept thinking of that moment on the late-night talk show, the funny one, when you were asked to recite random text as if it were a speech. And you did that, because it was the funny one, and it’s important to show you have a sense of humour and you’re not stiff or elitist or dull. You did it. And it was weird, it was eerie, it was actually kind of creepy. The banal words came out of your mouth with the same intonation, the same building crescendos of inspiration, that floated hope and change and yes we can across crowds and screens, and that made people, even hardened cynics, tear up a little, because even they believed it might be true or just really wanted it to be true. Or maybe because of some mysterious neurobiological response from a deep part of the primate brain that responds, physically and emotionally, to certain rhythms and stresses, recalling the happiness of dancing, the beatific content of polyphonic harmony or Fibonacci curves, the line of beauty. As basic and as meaningless. As content free.
No, worse — not content free, content neutral. You could say anything at all, and if it was said right it would sound right. It would be
right. There you were, reciting the phone book or whatever, and it sounded awesome. And the host was kind of freaked out, and you were a bit freaked out too. Because what was going on anyway? If inane sentiments, random word strings, could sound almost as certain, almost as impressive and commanding, as your real message, your message of hope and change and yes we can, what was that? Your message was real. The other wasn’t. And yet they sounded the same.
ut now, making another speech, accepting the office, inaugurating the new era, you thought: wait a second. This is crazy, you thought, there on the stage in front of the people shouting and waving and weeping at the mere sight and sound of you. The difference is obvious, it’s obvious. Anyone watching you, hearing you, recite the phone book or whatever could tell the difference — that was what made it funny, the incongruity of making the meaningless sound meaningful, the contrast between appearance and reality, between acted and meant, between insincere and sincere, fake and authentic. Anyone, everyone, knows the difference. The difference is obvious!
And in fact, in fact, look how smooth you are, playing with this difference in such an assured way, meeting objections that you are an underqualified rhetorician, a pretender, by turning right around and taking them head-on, showing off your rhetorical skills to put them in their proper place. Not with the truth. Not with the message. Just the technique. Just the vehicle for delivering the message. One cool customer, you thought briefly to yourself there on the stage, one deft operator, being able to play around like that, to be so comfortable, so at ease with the difference that you could jump over the difference and back. You had command. It was obvious.
Was it really? Yes it was. Of course you had it, it was in your grasp, you knew in your heart, your faith was strong, your purpose true, your aims noble, and your character fine. Of course they were. You had it. Everyone said so. Everyone agreed. Everyone celebrated your command of the difference. But did you really have command? You kept wondering, and the wondering was hard to quell, because that wondering was part of your having it. Your certainty came from doubt, your courage from trial, your resolve from pain. The command was earned, you’d been trying to show that for months and months now. And everyone agreed, everyone said so. The wondering remained, though, and you wondered in turn about that. If you had, if everyone said so and everyone agreed, how come you kept wondering, how come you had moments of doubt that did not resolve into certainty, moments of trial that did not bolster courage, pains that would not go away because they were part of you?
Okay, okay — just a human being here. Not a saviour. Not a god. Not a devil either, or an evil genius. Just one man, risen to the top. Risen to the top of a system where the oneness of one man, the oneness of one woman, was the whole idea. Each one counts for one. That’s the basis of the whole shebang, that’s the fundamental tenet. Six billion of us, more, and in theory every single one counting for one. Everything flows from that, everything. Even though right now it was just 300 million or so, the ones with the right photo ID and bank accounts.
We actually know it’s not true. It’s a fiction, this counting for one. A necessary fiction, you thought, standing there. It’s one of those fictions that serve a crucial purpose and therefore are accepted, their untruth converted to value. You might call it a noble lie, a lie with moral sanction. Because nothing would work without it. The whole system would crash if we stopped agreeing to suspend disbelief about this one thing, this basic idea. The whole business would come tumbling down. One counts for one. Even though it doesn’t. And it doesn’t because we’re not equal, in opportunity or access to justice, let alone wealth, any more than in talent or good looks. Because nobody without millions of dollars to spend could even think of standing where you were now. Because one man with dark skin was not about to change the fact that who your parents were accounted for most of what your life would be like, despite the constant claims directly to the contrary.
Those claims had to keep coming, though, and we had to go on believing them, or else everything would falter. You wondered: did we play at democracy the way we play at cards or dice, evening out differences with the mechanisms of chance, with fictional order and accepted rules? Or perhaps as children play, imagining and taking on roles, switching them around, acting them out, pretending? A magical system, a brilliant invention, the best one so far?