One of two narratives describes the Obama presidency, and if you tell me which one is true I can tell you which 24-hour news network you watch. Either President Barack Hussein Obama is a nouveau socialist whose cult of personality has allowed him to expand federal power to an unprecedented degree, or the Republican minority in Congress has put politics ahead of the best interests of the country and paralyzed the Hill with unrelenting obstructionism. We here at Combat! would never tell you what to believe,* but only one of these narratives has been fleshed out with a lot of scenes. Two weeks ago, Senate Republicans finally released the hold they had placed on Martha Johnson, the woman President Obama nominated seven months ago to head the General Services Administration. If you’ve never heard of the GSA, it’s probably because you are not a wholesale distributor of toilet paper and cleaning supplies; the agency’s primary task is to oversee the day-to-day maintenance of the Capitol and related buildings. Johnson was eventually confirmed with a vote of 94-2, suggesting that she was perhaps not such a controversial nominee after all. While an extreme example, she was just one of dozens of qualified applicants on whose nominations the GOP has placed holds, whether to ransom them for pet projects or out of a spirit of general dicketry. While calling the Republicans obstructionists seems unfair—they are the opposition party, after all—the discrepancy between their principled objections and their voting records is beginning to suggest that they’re playing politics, not government.
Whether you read the Times or the Wall Street Journal, informed consensus has it that this country is in trouble. Our monster deficit increasingly undercuts economic growth, while our mounting foreign debts threaten to make us grad students at the table of nations, disregarded except when we’re subjected to lectures on the importance of industry. We need to stop spending money, stat, but at the same time we’ve got an economy in shambles, an infrastructure wearing through and at least two major cities (Detroit, New Orleans) half abandoned. Oh yeah—we’ve also embarked on two land wars in Asia. In this time of crisis, with a new president who rode to office as the explicit champion of American hope, we have opted to spend the past year arguing heatedly about the particulars of a health care reform package that we never passed. In the meantime, we managed to degrade our discourse to the point where the ruling party is regularly compared to Nazis, the president is accused of not being an American citizen, and even routine political appointments are ransomed for congressional pork, at least until somebody gets caught. At our time of crisortunity, when we were faced with the chance and the obligation to remake America for the twenty-first century, we as a nation have boldly stepped forward onto our own dicks, then fallen into the cat box. Which raises an interesting political question: What the fuck is our problem?
It’s Friday, and that means it’s time to fit the irregular detritus of the week into a taught chain of causal, um, links. The problem with contemporary life—if I can just jump right into it here—is that it’s increasingly non-narrative. Ever since the basic unit of work went from stalking a mastodon over the frozen plains for two weeks to franking insurance forms in a cubicle for eight hours, human life has become more and more episodic. That’s great for creating a mood but bad for developing character, to put it in workshop terms. Maybe that’s why the character of our nation has been so moody lately, with alternating factions declaring crisis amid recovery, victory in stalemate, strategem in disaster and vice versa, pretty much anew every morning. There must be a narrative in there somewhere, since yesterday will definitely not be happening again today, but sometimes the story seems hard to follow. Maybe we’re just looking at another week’s episode in the long-running melodrama of stupidity versus sense. Maybe stupidity has won, and the rest of the performance will be a puppet show, with shrieking socks debating each other in the same idiot’s voice. The fact of the matter is that not everything happens according to some plan, and our best evidence for destiny is still assembled in retrospect. This week, retrospect reveals only a startling refusal to cohere. As you move from the structure of your workweek to the short-form improvisations of the weekend, consider Camus’s assertion that meaning is only something we make for ourselves, and therefore so is meaninglessness. It is the edge between our desperate understandings and an indifferent universe where stories are made, and it’s the friction in the joint that gives them heat. It’s a cold morning in the Combat! blog offices, so let’s get a little fire going, huh?