What’s Going On

You Just Don’t Know, Do You?

I once showed up at a national political clusterfuck looking for a job. After a few weeks on the campaign, I got hired, and soon enough I was face to face with a pretty famous American Political Mastermind in his element. In person he commanded the people around him as most high-pressure leaders do: by insulting them. His method was particularly devastating... and they would lap it up.

Here’s how he’d start: “You just don’t know, do you? You don’t. You don’t know what the fuck. Is going on. You just don’t have a fucking clue what the fuck you’re doing.”

Imagine hearing this in the nerve center of a major presidential campaign, your mere presence there marking the pinnacle of your political career. At one moment you find that you have 33 voice mail messages from New York Times reporters asking for leaks to put in tomorrow’s A1 story, and minutes later, the man in charge comes up and tells you you’re fucking clueless. It was easily the most amazing and memorable thing about the whole campaign.

Rinse and repeat for months over the course of the election process, incrementally reducing the “fucks,” shrinking the length of insults to confetti clouds of “You don’t know. You just don’t have a clue," every time this political monster passes you by.

No one had heard anything like it. A year later at a party, I saw him using “No one knows what’s going on” like Rain Man. He got in a rut, and as he repeated himself the crowd around him grew, gorging on his punishment. From what I hear, he repeats this as his mantra, everywhere he goes. This act isn’t a new one. The dialogues of Plato are loaded with scenes where the young men of Athens trip over each other to be put down by Socrates — to be told they don’t know a single thing.

In politics, the assumption of course is that the politicians and their advisors do know what’s going on, and where we should go. But in fact, the political genius is right; it’s true: in fact, no one has a clue what the fuck is going on.

Your mother doesn’t know why she had you, airline hostesses can’t possibly tell you how they ended up offering coffee refills six hundred times a day to complete strangers, Pat Robertson can’t explain how he came to play an evil game of mind control and money-suck through broadcast television over the past 25 years. I see a lot of the reason for this tied up in the fact that, exactly like this dog that’s sleeping at my feet, we are animals.

However, I think I can explain some of what’s going on: how it is that so many things are going on in a fashion totally indifferent to our own lives, why our surroundings and our actions seem so particularly un-monkey, all the rest of those glaring black holes in Joel Osteen’s Purpose-Driven Life.

Imagine in your mind for second that a dog typed up this article using his muddy paws.

You’re not far off from the truth: A fucking monkey did it instead. Yeah, something really close — 99% close — to a situation where you’re at staring at the chimp cage at the zoo, and one of them is sitting at a desk, typing away on a laptop, while a napping pooch occasionally swishes his tail. Something pretty damn close to that.

And it’s just a hop, skip, and a few million years that connect chimps to some of the most pure instinct “clueless” mammals that ever lived: horrid mice-like creatures. Obviously, something happened along the way, and I think I have some answers on it. Part of the answer of course is that the mice-like creatures already had lots of “humanity.”

But that’s going down a road I don’t have space for here, and some good philosophers have it explained pretty well, so I’m going to just try to explain the phenomenon of how you became what you are. How you became a ______. (insert  your identity)

The big metaphor that I think applies is the term that geologists use to explain how much of the landmass known as Japan sprouted out of the sea. “Accretionary prism.” Tectonic plates are rarely flat like dinner plates. They have hills and mountains. As one plate subsides under another, the one on top “accretes” the bits that stick out... and over time, you get a small landmass.

Another way to think about it is razor blade slowly pushing along a thousand-mile mirror scattered with cocaine molecules. At some point you have a pile of coke on your hands, but it takes a while.

Applying this metaphor to us, it’s like this: If you stay in a context for long enough, the residue of received culture begins to accrete around you, and you become that. Eventually there’s a point where there’s no going back — you’ve accreted in some aspect, say your job, and that’s all you can do, and so you keep going in one direction, further and further apart from other people, other occupations. If you don’t stay in the same contexts, and keep moving before things settle around you, then you have lots of little accretions that make up who you are.

All this might be pretty obvious, but I’m calling this the basic mechanism that dictates what you end up doing. A common time in contemporary American life that illustrates this when you’ve graduated with you liberal arts B.A. and you have no idea what you want to do. Only much later do you realize that all along, you had a passionate interest in protecting the rights of undocumented Honduran apple pickers in upstate New York.

You could have ended up doing anything at all. It’s exactly like catapulting a monkey from space at the spinning Earth. Wherever he lands is what he becomes.

There’s a story about how everyone nicknamed Joe Lieberman “Senator” when he was in college, and so the destiny of life myth continues, “And here he is today: the honorable Senator from Connecticut.” Remember, Joe Lieberman is a monkey, and “Senator” is a fairly novel thing in the history of the animals — even mammals for that matter. How many monkeys in college over the past five decades carried the nickname “Senator?” The girls said I was going to be an “Asshole,” but here I am, a pretty nice guy.

 

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