Never underestimate the power of the absurd

When I was 12 years old, a friend of mine introduced me to the sublime world of Frank Edwards. Edwards was the author of such brazen absurdities as, “Stranger than Science,” “Strangest of All,” and – a title that still makes me laugh out loud with delight as an adult – “Flying Saucers, Serious Business.”

In “Stranger than Science,” a young Filipino girl was afflicted with bite marks that appeared on her body as if she was being bitten by an invisible vampire. To prove I was not without my standards of evidence, the part that impressed the twelve year old me the most was that the mayor of Manila, who held her hand as it was being bitten, was a material witness! But It was a series of clear and beautiful photographs in “Flying Saucers, Serious Business,” of a hovering flying saucer, taken out of the window of a truck, that impressed me most. Somehow the brilliant Mr. Edwards was able to reproduce those pictures in his marvelous book, despite the nefarious attempts of the United States Air Force to silence him! Every conspiracy theory has its bete noire, and in the world of the UFO enthusiast it was the Air Force. That the photos were subsequently proved to be of the lens cap suspended from a fishing line of the very camera taking the pictures was hidden to me then.

It’s both pleasant and instructive today for me to recall the uncritical seriousness with which I devoured those silly books. It was a meta-magical time, one where I could give myself unreservedly over to the world of “if it’s in print it must be true.” This exercise in nostalgic neoteny helps me both to understand – and never to underestimate – the pernicious power of the low-information Trump voter, and how they sustain belief in what is, for those of us not so limited by a nature circumscribed by permanent adolescence, the patently absurd.

Consider as a case in point Matt Gaetz and company, and his ridiculous occupation of the SCIF, and its subsequent defilement by forbidden technology and pizza. There are two misapprehensions about that incident that we on the Left must stoutly resist. First is the wish to see the perpetrators of the misdeed arrested and jailed. Second is to adopt the view that it was a ridiculous stunt that somehow failed to make its point, or that it even backfired. I believe to hold either or both those views is a mistake, but permit me to explain.

First, had they been arrested it would have been every bit as ominous an act as it would have been had the United States Air Force had Frank Edwards arrested when I was a twelve year old starstruck UFO-devotee. Such an action would have supplied me with the final confirmation that something nefarious was going on, just as it would have added weight and credibility to the average low-information Trump acolyte that something dark and dastardly was going on in the basement of the nation’s Capitol Building. I fully commiserate with the glee of imagining Matt Gaetz and his Coalition of the Stupid behind bars, but I also understand it would have transformed them into martyrs. There is a time and place for it and I’m glad the Democrats of the committee saw clearly that this is not the time nor the place. It would have felt good, but it would have done damage. And I can assure you that enough damage has been done already.

It is no accident that Mr. Gaetz emphasized in his short speech before “storming” the SCIF that he was speaking from the basement. The basement is a logical place to put a SCIF when your goal is to shield it from electronic surveillance. But that is incidental next to the emotional implications. The Democrats were doing something in a basement, that is, in the dark, not out in the open in the light. Maybe Hillary Clinton was hiding down there somewhere too. It is on fog-shrouded moors and in dank basements that dark plots are hatched. Gaetz was deliberately planting the seed of that idea in his low-information constituents, in the hope that they would see his incursion, not as an illegal trespass, but as a heroic counter-coup. You can bet many saw it exactly that way.

In little more than a decade I grew up, I put away childish things, I was transformed from childhood UFO advocacy to actually working near Area 51, with a clear-eyed understanding that some weird and wonderful things went on there, to be sure, but they had nothing to do with alien spacecraft. The low-information Trump voters are still stuck in their twelve year old view of the world. They saw the occupation of the SCIF as valorous. They see Matt Gaetz the way I saw Frank Edwards, speaking truth to power on their behalf. We must not underestimate the power of the symbolism of the propaganda that went on there. We may dismiss it out of hand, but make no mistake, the low-information Trump advocate does not. What’s more, they can do something that I, as a twelve year old could not do. They can vote.

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