A man sits in an old armchair in his living room in central Indiana. He is retired. A widower. He has watched more than 2,000 hours of cable news this year. Dust sits on the things he’s collected over the years. Guns, model cars, magazines, a few old Westerns on VHS. His eyes burn, his arteries clog, and his fingers blister from pecking away at comments sections for The Sun or The Herald or The Inquisitor or whatever it’s called.
He had a good job at a company that made big widgets with lots of moving parts. Now that company is gone. Wherever it went, it isn’t paying like it used to; no one retires from there anymore. He’s one of the last ones, the chosen ones, who remember what that was like.
His town is a dried up cluster of tumbleweeds, just like the next town over and the town after that. Shop windows are boarded up in the square, and the only restaurant left is the Mexican place, which is fine, but damned if you can get a decent steak anymore. A sign of the times, he thinks. A symbol of degradation of morals and values and The Flag and other concepts which are not quite clear, but about which he has felt very strongly for as long as he can remember.
His family has all moved away. They love him, in measured doses, but they wonder how he can possibly think the things he thinks, how he can say the things he says. Not just the big-picture talk about locking up immigrants, making prayer in public schools mandatory and executing abortion doctors. But the details. The flattening of kids in masks who had the gall to obstruct traffic. The gory revenge on people who would give away his hard-earned cash for food stamps. The increasingly vivid fantasies of putting a round in one of those pretty girls in Congress who’s pushing an agenda of communism, or Sharia law, or free college, or all of the above. How — his kids ask out loud, sipping moscato in their condos overlooking the Pacific — how can anyone think that way?
He is not crazy and not going crazy. He is clever. So clever, in fact, that he has managed to hijack his own brain. Had he not manipulated the gears and pulleys in his dated-but-fully-functional gray matter so as to escape onto a narrow set of tracks, it might allow him some unbearably painful thoughts.
It might tell him, “You wasted your whole life. You never took any chances, and soon you’re going to be spoiled meat in the ground. No one will remember you 20 years after you’re gone. You could have asked more of your precious humanity, your one-in-a-bajillion chance to exist, than just work and sleep and more work. You spent all your good years making other people rich, when you could have traveled and learned to paint and played Legos with your kids and picked flowers and laughed at death.”
But the clever brain won’t betray its user, so it doesn’t say those things. “There must be order to the universe,” it says. “There’s a God who sees all things and has a plan for you. This plan involves a natural hierarchy; some people are going to be above you and some beneath. Of course you didn’t waste your life. You worked hard. You paid your dues. You did it the only way you could, which was, and still is, the right way.”
The brain is such a staunch defender of its sedentary master that it goes in search of proof for these claims. The proof is easily found, even from a dilapidated armchair, in those two-thousand-plus hours of cable news and the countless days spent sifting through ads for luxury pillows and blood-of-Jesus oils and life insurance to read articles written on websites especially designed for proof-seeking brains.
The proof often takes the form of a threatening counter-narrative, told by anyone who says, “We can do better than this shit.” To our man in the armchair, “this shit” has become sacrosanct. “This shit” is what we must be made to endure because — god almighty, can you imagine the agony of thinking a lifetime of “this shit” was nothing but a swindle? Of being made the victim of a scheme to steal his time, his sweat, his whole life, just to line other people’s pockets? Of entertaining the idea, so late in life, that the hierarchy was a trick, and there were better ways, for all of us, all along? He’d have to hear all those things the brain so badly wanted to say, but didn’t, for fear of making a premature end of its host.
The adaptive, defensive brain will do anything to keep him away from suffering so. It will create diversions and lay traps for him. It will lead him on fantastic excursions, to extremes, to violent fantasy, so as to eliminate this dangerous counter-narrative by any means necessary. The brain does its duty, keeping him safe and secure behind borders, fortified by walls, buttressed by skin and flesh and skull and anything it can put between him and those terrible whispers that there might have been some other way, some better way, for him, for his generation, for all of us.
He leans his seat back, puts out his last cigarette for the day and turns out the light. He dozes off, secure in the knowledge that he had it right all along. He wonders how anyone could think any other way. •
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.