Down the Rabbit Hole

with Rev. Clay Nelson

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Clay Nelson © 12th August 2018

Reading: Jabberwocky

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Many observers of the Age of Trump liken it to an Orwellian dystopia—a perfectly sound metaphor, I agree. However, I prefer another author. My father was a lover of words. The complete Oxford English Dictionary or OED was at his fingertips whenever he was writing articles, a book or a lecture. But also, readily at hand, were the works of Lewis Carroll.

This betrayed his belief that that the OED did not give him enough words to be sufficiently creative. He was a practitioner of neologism, the coining of new words. While still in high school I once thought I’d tackle reading his Master’s Thesis. Not able to get past the table of contents with any comprehension, I complained that I had never heard of half the words. He just smiled enigmatically and stunned me by saying he created them. “That’s allowed?” I protested in amazement. When Lewis Carroll first wrote Jabberwocky — a nonsense poem that tells of a Beowulfian hero who is on a quest to face down a monster and who returns home triumphant — for the entertainment of children, I imagine he wore the same smile, for it is perhaps the most famous example of this linguistic art.

Lewis Carroll made the English language burble, chortle, gimble, galumph. But by far the most useful to the contemporary situation is “rabbit hole.” Carroll did not, of course, invent the rabbit hole; that distinction belongs to rabbits. But, with the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he did turn those holes into something that people could fall down — literally, in Alice’s case, figuratively for the rest of us. That was in 1865. For most of the ensuing century and a half, the phrase maintained a modest profile, always present but far from omnipresent; you might say it just burbled along.

But then, just as the primary season for the next president of the United States was beginning in 2016, a rabbit with red eyes wearing a white waistcoat consulted his pocket watch before scurrying off across the meadow, enticing us to follow out of curiosity, for this was no normal woodland creature. No, I wish it had been just a rabbit. It was a corrupt and repeatedly failed business man and reality TV star, gifted at self-promotion, and readily identifiable by his orange makeup, small hands and bad toupee, who rode down a golden escalator to announce to the world he was on a quest to lock up “crooked Hillary,” build a wall to keep out all the Mexican rapists, and to “drain the swamp” in Washington. The world was turned upside down. Like Alice, this was something we had never seen before, the most unlikely of unlikely candidates for president getting undue media attention. It was the Jabberwock, the monster, announcing he was to be the unlikely hero of the story. Politics had become entertainment. It was such absurd whimsy beyond even Carroll’s imagination — and remember he gave us talking caterpillars, narcoleptic dormice and invisible cats — we had to follow, never taking him seriously. And we did follow, right down the rabbit hole where, to our despair, we have lived in a bizarre, disorienting and disturbing alternative reality ever since.

It is not all our fault. The rabbit hole Carroll described was a figurative conduit to a fantastical world. But today it is a metaphor for extreme distraction. Its transformation is an unintended consequence of the Internet which breeds rabbit holes faster than rabbits breed rabbits. And we fall in them all the time. You sit down to work and remember you were going to look for a new jacket. Two and a half hours later you have looked at hundreds.
You place your order and refocus on work and need to look up a specific fact. How many chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi and hours later you have compiled a staggering amount of information on the Treaty’s impact on contemporary New Zealand, none of which you need for your sermon. The day pretty much gone you give one more go at your work, but a news notification comes up about your favourite basketball team. You go to check out the score and see that Trump has done something more outlandish than he did yesterday. That leads to looking at subjects even further afield. The next thing you know your partner has come home and asks what you did that day. “Just research for my sermon darling.”

Then there are rabbit holes that are more like sink holes: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The last being Trump’s weapon of choice to keep us distracted. He is truly a master of distraction. He has journalists, political opponents, even his political enablers, and world leaders chasing their tails while he goes about destroying our confidence in capital T Truth.

The Washington Post counted up the number of lies he had said or tweeted in his first year in office. It came to 5.9 lies a day. While most journalists are busy trying to correct the record, Fox and conservative news websites use their oversized megaphones to echo his lies, no matter how egregious or outlandish. Trump and they understand that the untruth of his tweets does not matter as long as the base accepts them as true. Opinion trumps facts. As long as the country can’t agree on facts, it will never be able to reach consensus. Polarisation suits their pursuit of power over truth, as his winning the presidency with only 19% of eligible voters proves.

Michiko Kakutani, chief book critic at the New York Times, has an excellent article in the latest New Zealand Listener based on her new book The Death of Truth. She lays out how the Trump rabbit hole seeks to assert power over truth. “Trump’s incoherence (his twisted syntax, his reversals, his insincerity, his bad faith and his inflammatory bombast) is both emblematic of the chaos he creates and thrives on as well as an essential instrument in his liar’s tool kit. His interviews, off-teleprompter speeches and tweets are a startling jumble of insults, exclamations, boasts, digressions, non sequiturs, qualifications, exhortations and innuendos – a bully’s efforts to intimidate, gaslight, polarise, and scapegoat.

“Precise words, like facts, mean little to Trump, as interpreters, who struggle to translate his grammatical anarchy, can attest.”

Within the chaos he foments with abandon, President Jabberwock with “jaws that bite and claws that catch” has assaulted democratic institutions and norms. The worst in my opinion is his attempt to destroy confidence in the media and replace it with his Fox News propaganda apparatus. But no less staggering are his attempts to undermine the justice system, civil and human rights, the intelligence agencies, the electoral system, environmental protections, and the civil servants who make the whole thing work. No less stunning is his consorting with authoritarian strong men around the world giving them legitimacy, while working to undermine the European Union and our ties to it through NATO. Daily he makes the world less safe for democracy and more hostile to Truth.

Frankly, it is exhausting. Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion and leader of a Russian pro-democracy group says that’s the point. Propaganda “exhausts your critical thinking to annihilate truth.”

Kakutani points out how the sheer volume of “lies, scandals, and shocks emitted by Trump, his Republican enablers and media apparatchiks – tends to overwhelm and numb people while simultaneously defining deviancy down and normalising the unacceptable. Outrage gives way to outrage fatigue, which gives way to the sort of cynicism and weariness that empowers those disseminating the lies.”

In our exhaustion, we who are appalled by Trump are tempted to put all our hope in the Mueller investigation of Trump’s likely collusion with Russia to win the last election and obstruct justice. Yet, it is magical thinking to believe that it could possibly lead to his impeachment. Even if the midterm elections produce a blue wave where Democrats take one or both houses of Congress, I predict that he will not be impeached. There is already a full-on attempt to discredit Mueller’s investigation with lies to Trump’s faithful. That will be extended to Congress if it attempts to remove him from office. As Congress is already held in low opinion by perhaps a majority of Americans, Congress is not going to risk taking actions that could lead to further polarisation. Igniting a second Civil War does not seem too farfetched. The most we can hope for is that a Democratic Congress could stymy the worst of his abuses and attempts to destroy the social contract. Besides, even if the House of Representatives actually impeached the Jabberwock and the Senate convicted him, the world would be left with the “frumious Bandersnatch,” Mike Pence.

I know I paint a dark picture. It is going to be a long slog ahead of us. We are going to have to pace ourselves, attend to the good it is in our power to effect, and pay attention to where the rabbit holes are. It may be decades before we can take the head of the Jabberwock and go galumphing home to the warm embrace of truth and reason. But no matter where we live in the world, this is our task for the foreseeable future. We cannot hope a Beowulf will come along to save us. It is going to take everyone who values freedom, truth, democracy and the worth of every person. But I trust someday our quest will succeed and we will chortle in joy, “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”