“Men…go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly and one by one.”
–Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
Poised, as it seems we are, on the edge of a dark well with no visible bottom, I thought it might be fun to look back into my daybook and see what I was thinking about a year ago today. On April 20, 2020, I wrote:
“It appears the bodies are stacking up but who really knows. Most big cities long ago ran out of morgue space. LA has been piling up its daily haul of bodies in parking lots for years, so the refrigerator trucks don’t mean that much. Hyperbole rules the day. Nobody was prepared for this event – no one could have been — and much of the hand-wringing and finger-pointing and carpet-chewing reeks of pure power politics. For now, it seems, my best and highest purpose is to get the garden planted. Self-sufficiency has always been the road to freedom, which is a little bell in my head that doesn’t stop ringing. For instance: there is a robin – first one I’ve seen this year – sitting on a ponderosa limb just outside the window, staring at me and tilting his head back and forth. He pays his own debts, never bothers anybody, and lives to fly. And anyway I have other problems. I’m still, years later, grieving the death of Sam Shepard, still my intellectual and artistic North Star, who managed to drag himself through the mine fields of duplicity, bedded Jessica Lange for an impressive number of years, and who had a lifelong weakness for tight paragraphs, quirky pals, and quarter horses with some color.”
It appears that I was then, as I remain, more concerned about the machinations of mass fear and the sparks thrown off by that machine than I was the plague. That stance appears even more valid over time given a 99% survival rate from infections and the massive – and likely permanent — new intrusions of government into daily life. Businesses here – indeed our entire small town – have been punched very hard in the face by the seesawing decrees of our governor and her step-and-fetch-it assembly, who collectively mistake any movement whatsoever for effective action. They are like McClellan, endlessly building up the Army of the Potomac, feinting this way and that, but never quite attacking a meaningful center of gravity. Lincoln, who the Woke Pharisees of Media and Academia have now decreed an abominable racist, at least got fed up and eventually fired him. But here in small town Oregon the net result has been, for the second year in a row, a seemingly endless and bumbling mediocrity and the cancellation of every important event hosted by our town – events which bring “sticky dollars” into a community that severely needs them.
And who knew then that we would enjoy not only a strange new disease of dubious origin, but also live long enough to enjoy a summer stuffed to overflowing with an utterly embarrassing presidential campaign, the lionizing of a bizarre celebrity physician named Fauci (I have yet to be convinced it is ever, historically speaking, a good idea to have medical doctors anywhere near the seats of government power) routine and sustained rioting, bizarre public-square boot-kissing rituals, and a kind of Jonestown “come to me my babies” season of frenzied apocalyptic poetry readings and woke punch-drinking.
To top it off, of course, we had George Floyd, whatever it was that happened at the Capitol riot, and to complete the circle we now have the show trials of Derek Chauvin and Chewbacca Guy, or whatever his name is. Also, I read yesterday that somebody’s government funded statistics show more women than ever are shaving their faces, and also that: “It’s not possible to know a person’s gender identity at birth, and there is no consensus criteria for assigning sex at birth.” That alarming bit of news came from somebody called Devan Cole over at that pillar of media integrity known as CNN, a network that has become the functional equivalent of TASS or PRAVDA.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to spend most of my time this last year unmasked and unashamed, chasing cows and filming The Len Babb Movie Project. We’ve managed to visit seven states and log hours of film we will soon start editing into a rough cut of the film. That work has created great new friendships, a deeper understanding of my own convictions, and a salve for the slings and arrows of daily life in a nation apparently hell-bent on a life of self-mutilation.
In our travels it has been interesting to observe the various degrees to which anyone was obsessed with putting a diaper on their face. The best was Idaho, where people understood the risks and chose freedom anyway. It was possible to enter a restaurant, sit at the bar, and eat a sandwich. The worst was probably the Stockmen’s Casino in Elko, where it was fine to sit at the bar but between sips one was required to fandango the diaper around in a kind of ritualistic face-palming. One could get away with slinging the diaper under the chin for two rapid-fire sips from a Jack and Coke, but there was the distinct feel of being on the clock and suspicious eyes were everywhere. Somewhere in the security office, no doubt, an obese but well-meaning flunky on his fourth pack of Marlboro Reds was eyeballing the monitors and taking notes on the potential offenders below.
Speaking of mall cops, it’s interesting to see 150,000 Russians massed on the borders of Ukraine. The Russians, of course, have been using the old “issue them a passport” play since their last foray into the invasion playoffs which was in Georgia, in 2008. I had a chance to embed with some Georgian soldiers in Germany a few years ago, and learned to admire their pluck and determination in the face of existential threats. But the playbook has been dusted off and I feel confident that should the Russians invade nobody will do much. Europe is defended by mall cops and elementary school principles and has no warrior culture left to speak of, so they won’t do much, and Joe Biden – despite his celebrated defeat of Corn Pop at the Scranton lists, won’t do anything either. He might offer some anti-tank missiles in an effort to bog things down, but if you are a shopkeeper in Ukraine you are essentially consigned to hell.
And if I were Chairman Xi I would certainly just go ahead and take Taiwan, which nobody will do anything about either. Now that the Hong Kong Police have adopted the goose-step anything is possible, and one can be fairly certain the US military, which has a shortage of everything except signed copies of White Fragility, will not fare well against a peer competitor whose focus remains on actual warfighting and geo-strategic planning.
All of this sounds much more dour than I actually am. Mostly I feel pretty good about the state of things given the longer history of the world. We’ve never been guaranteed health, peace, or freedom, after all. Also, it’s spring again and the apple trees are budding, though I’m certain we are in for another great round of rioting, looting, and burning, and another year or two of virus terrors and night sweats and possibly some checkpoints where 18 year-old National Guardsmen demand to see your vaccine passport and any other papers required to travel. Although, of course, they won’t be demanding any of that from up to 1 million migrants expected to arrive at our borders by the end of the season.
It’s true that fear is contagious, and that men go mad in herds. And I think it’s also true that they recover at their own pace. The battles of yore were usually brief and hyper-violent events where after a few minutes one side broke and ran, consumed with terror. And that’s when the slaughter began as they were driven down and riven through. It will be interesting to see how long our nation can push back against totalitarian tendencies — inside and outside of our borders — before the grand old American line finally breaks and runs.
In the meantime, a few weeks ago I went down to Paisley to help some friends push cattle onto the desert. I took old Remi with me. He’s come a long way since I bought him at six days old. He’s up in the bridle now — though we go up and down — and I can rope off of him. That day we made a roughly twenty mile round trip, pushing 350 head about nine miles out onto the desert to a watering hole called Dead Cow Tank. It was a beautiful early spring morning, hardly any wind, not too cold. I was so buoyed by Remi, how far he’s come and how far we have left to go together, that I might have just stopped and cried for sheer joy out in that rolling ocean of sagebrush. But we were riding just beneath the Paisley Caves, the oldest known human habitation in North America, and somehow it just felt better to ride on with an honoring smile, the kind of smile so good and so true that your face gets tired, in gratitude for so much that is still so good.