The absurdity meter has officially broken. San Diego County has voted to join the “revolt” against California’s self-proclaimed “sanctuary status.” The California law, it has been argued by people that ought to know, is a violation of federal law and unarguably unconstitutional. Some local California coverage of protests against the SDC action featured one of the protesters proclaiming loudly to the interviewer, “You just can’t go against state law.”
Not too long ago the host had a rather feisty on-TV exchange with someone whose response I described in private conversation as “utterly incoherent.” After that, I really thought it would be a while before I encountered anything quite so blatantly nonsensical. Yet in a matter of weeks I hear this protester proudly say something so self-contradictory that I wished I were capable of a Tex Avery cartoon take.
When Philip K. Howard’s “The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America” was published in 1994 it was about the law and how too much law always ends up with contradictions and that it is better to leave some things up to common sense. But I don’t think anyone at the time imagined that just a little more than 20 years later we would be subject to absurdities like that uttered by the San Diego protester. We have done far more than kill common sense, we have killed coherence.
Critic Martin Esslin coined the term in his 1962 essay “Theatre of the Absurd.” He related these plays based on a broad theme of the Absurd, similar to the way Albert Camus uses the term in his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. The Absurd in these plays takes the form of man’s reaction to a world apparently without meaning, and/or man as a puppet controlled or menaced by invisible outside forces. This style of writing was first popularized by the 1953 Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot. Though the term is applied to a wide range of plays, some characteristics coincide in many of the plays: broad comedy, often similar to vaudeville, mixed with horrific or tragic images; characters caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; dialogue full of clichés, wordplay, and nonsense; plots that are cyclical or absurdly expansive; either a parody or dismissal of realism and the concept of the “well-made play“. These plays were shaped by the political turmoil, scientific breakthrough, and social upheaval going on in the world around the playwrights during these times.
This is not the stuff of fiction anymore. Honestly, when I heard that San Diego protester pretty much all of “Waiting for Godot” flashed before my eyes. We are not cursed merely to live in interesting time, we live in absurdist times.
Note that the Absurd is born of two things:
- A world without meaning;
- Man reduced to puppet.
Howard was on to more than he realized when he wrote his book back in the early ’90’s. Certainly a plethora of law has helped lead us to this point. But it is the lack of meaning that is truly troubling. I think it is fair to say that in a world where celebrity can be gained without accomplishment and we all seek the empty fame of Facebook, and sometimes Twitter that the our world operates without significant and deep meaning.
I am not one, when I see things like this, to turn to eschatology. Mankind has too often hovered on the brink and recovered to do such a thing. I do wonder if the United States as we have known it will survive, but that is far from on an eschatological scale.
The host has been asking in interviews this week if this is a turning point administration, not unlike Reagan. While the changes this administration are bringing to governance are immense and consequential, I am not sure that it will mark the kind of national resurgence we saw during the Reagan administration. Ronald Reagan got government off the back of a country which had not yet reached the levels of absurdity we now see. The changes Reagan wrought in government unleashed a nation still coherent. Reducing government now releases the nation to…?
I am normally prone to optimism, but I find it hard to muster when things like what the San Diego protester said not only make the news, but when the broadcast comes back to the studio the anchors begin a serious discussion when they should be doubled over in dismissive laughter. But the real source of my difficulty is in the deficiencies in our non-governmental institutions.
If you read my writings here routinely you know that though thoroughly Protestant I have seen the Roman Catholic Church as the only institution robust enough to stem the cultural tide. But after the host’s radio and television interviews with Ross Douthat last week, I find that my evaluation of that institution may be flawed. Optimism is indeed hard to come by.
But optimistic I shall endeavor to remain. For ultimately my optimism is rooted in a supernatural source that cannot fail.