by Sam Buntz
[Note: the pompous, condescending, politically oracular voice of this piece annoys me now that I re-read it. I would much prefer writing about books or pop culture or music. So, sorry. But, on principle, I have erased nothing.]
Lately, I’ve been thinking about this quotation from the Russian writer P.D. Ouspensky: “The marionettes failed to understand the danger that threatened them and could not see that the very same wire which pulls the villain with a knife in his hand from behind a bush makes them turn and look at the moon.”
Ouspensky wrote that sentence during the Russian Revolution. He was observing his society’s massive complacency—buffered by the casual assumption that Russian civilization would continue on its usual course—when, in fact, the Bolsheviks were already destroying its foundations. Everything was in violent transition. Ouspensky said that the experience of national revolution and ensuing chaos convinced him that no one was really in control; we like to kid ourselves and assume that there are boundaries in the world, institutions and sources of authority that can’t crumble, but our world is as unstable and perishable as that reflected in a single drop of dew. If it’s supported by anything, it’s held up by a kind of persistent collective wish—a wish for permanence. The illusion gets itself taken seriously and becomes, for a while, a fact.
The foregoing paragraphs seem to be gearing up for a typical assault on Trump. But that wouldn’t make much sense: to imply that American society is filled with “marionettes,” tricked into looking at the moon and away from Trump, would be insane. People who are willing to agree with a Bill Maherish generalization like “Americans are stupid!”—an applause line Maher has been weakly using for the entirety of his career—would probably mindlessly assent to the claim that we’re ignoring Trump’s attempts to undermine democracy. But they would be wrong. Obviously, nothing is more discussed right now: everyone’s attention is on Trump. He is the only acceptable national topic of conversation, aside from March Madness. Rachel Maddow waves non-revelatory 1040 tax documents in the air, and rambles about Russian Oligarchs, while the Republicans wildly scramble to find a new way to make Trump’s claim that Obama wire-tapped him sound plausible. Today, the new excuse was: “Wait—maybe the British did it?”
But those issues—Russian conspiracies and wire-tapping plots—can’t be the villain with the knife in Ouspensky’s metaphor. They need to be the moon. After all, these conspiracies are primarily sport: I’m not sure how many liberals really believe that Trump is going to be unveiled cavorting with Russian prostitutes on video, or how many Republicans really believe that President Obama is personally overseeing a Deep State conspiracy to undermine Trump. Both of these ideas seem more recreational than not: they’re political fun n’ games, despite how we may froth at the mouth while playing them.
So, the knife-wielding villain needs to be somewhere else in this picture—the malign actor who will enter the play and shatter our pre-conceptions of how it will turn out. We dread his entrance in part because it will shake us into consciousness of the fact that this is not a world in jest, but a world in earnest (to borrow from Frost). The thing that hovers in your peripheral vision, that makes you swivel and adjust your head to put it out of mind, still remains annoyingly and resolutely there—if in the margin and a bit blurry.
Turning and looking at the moon, in Ouspensky’s sense, can take many different forms: for instance, you might figure that you don’t need to waste time campaigning in Wisconsin, or you may distract yourself from real problems by tweeting about the ratings of a reality show you formerly helmed. Variety is infinite. At any rate, it’s funny: the fact you are most eager to ignore may be the fact that is, ultimately, of the most crucial interest to yourself and your condition.
I think that fact is (probably) North Korea.
News stories about North Korea’s nuclear and ICBM programs are odd business. They are always on the front page of the New York Times. They are highlighted and discussed on cable news shows. The media seems to be doing its duty with regard to this issue… Yet, somehow, no one really wants to talk about it. Aside from a few of the more aggressive and military-oriented voices on Fox, talking heads generally deflate when it comes to this topic. It is just now forcing itself on our consciousness. It remained in the penumbra for literally a decade: three different presidents (Clinton, Bush, and Obama) failed to deal adequately with North Korea… Of course, Bush invaded Iraq over non-existent weapons of mass destruction and shrugged when North Korea began testing actual nuclear weapons. Their legacy of ineffective action and inaction is left, hair-raisingly, to Trump.
All that moon gazing is finally bringing us to a moment of reckoning. Rex Tillerson said today that the U.S. isn’t going to open talks with Kim Jong Un—North Korea simply needs to back down or risk a pre-emptive attack on its nuclear capacity. At the same time, The New York Times recently reported that our ability to launch such a pre-emptive attack is in grave doubt: it’s impossible to know where the North Korean government is storing its nuclear stockpile and missiles, and tracking the movements of the country’s leadership is equally imprecise. One of the most terrifying quotes I’ve read on the question came from President Obama. The Times reported that, last year, he told his staff that he would launch an attack to kill the North Korean leadership and destroy their nuclear stockpile—if it could be done. But it couldn’t. This was disturbing because it demonstrated how insanely high the stakes really are.
I’m certainly not writing this to advocate war with North Korea or to criticize Tillerson’s approach (I say Tillerson’s approach because, realistically, I’m not sure we can say that Trump has an approach—this is an issue where it seems like Secretary Tillerson and General Mattis really are being forced to play Atlas and keep the sky from falling). I’m aiming merely to observe our evasive attitude of mind, and ask if our attention is even in our own control. After all, Ouspensky’s metaphor strongly implies that it isn’t: our minds are born along by vast currents of history, that can either keep them afloat or dash them on the rocks, without taking their volition into much account.
I am, however, a “concerned citizen.” The North Korean situation concerns me. Montaigne once wrote, “Do not worry about how to die: you will know how to do it well enough when the time comes.” I’m curious to know if we have a better plan than Montaigne’s to offer to countless civilians in South Korea—and in the North—or if armed confrontation and appalling mass-death are the inevitabilities they increasingly appear to be.