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Message From Beyond 

Another look at the Republican convention

Thursday, Sep 9 2004
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John Preskill needs to give back that encyclopedia to Stephen Hawking, because the Republican National Convention proved once and for all that there are indeed multiple universes — the one we live in and the one in the minds of Republican speechwriters — and the monstrous black hole that joins them tore open over the dais where Bush appeared before us with his own message from "beyond the stars."

That line came at the end of a speech that began with bizarre falsehoods and a litany of hollow gestures accompanied by no details except for some dusty old files from the GOING NOWHERE drawer over at the Cato Institute library. But it was after leading his flock across that barren policy desert that Bush’s real hallucinations began. "We have led," Bush declared with well-practiced solemnity, "many have joined, and America and the world are safer." Huh? Oh right, he means in that other universe flickering in and out of existence all around us like quantum foam. With each new sentence, Bush led us further into that alternate realm where a complete failure of a foreign policy is praised as a campaign centerpiece. Bush wove together the magical realm only he can see and the one we live in to establish a new, patchwork narrative in which postwar Iraq is a beacon of freedom, and rather than exhausting our political capital in the wrong place, America has harvested so much good will around the world that the rest of the bad guys (like the ones in North Korea who do have nuclear weapons) are lining up to raise their white flags.

Thus have the Republicans inadvertently taken the country on a philosophical outing, a prime-time journey into the strange frontier of Republican semiotics and epistemology, where words are detached from all meaning, and knowledge is fluid, and there sure as hell is no truth.

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Drawing from Machiavelli and Karl Popper simultaneously, the post-post-structuralists at the GOP have realized they can say fuck it and step off the abyss: Why bother with existing truth when it’s so much easier to create your own? Let the Democrats toil in the rocky landscape of facts and information and seek to explain it. Our words create new realities that need no explanation.

This has been the guiding principle since the convention opened, starting with Giuliani, who personified such trickery by maintaining an image of moderation while presenting the most authoritarian language of the week. Zell Miller, the first man to grow fangs and hair and start howling on national television, was the only one at podium time to slip and reveal the true face behind the GOP’s Portrait of Dorian Gray politics. (Having gotten a good view under the Garden’s bright lights, Zellologists nationwide finally have a chance to figure out exactly where in the Australopithecus lineage he belongs.) But it was telling that Miller was disinvited from the delegates’ box the final night because of his untamed delivery — rather than the more insidious trouble that his 20 minutes of oratory sagged heavy with lies.

Bush’s address was more graceful in its unreality.

Listening to it was like trying to comprehend the transcendence of pi, or the geometry of imaginary numbers. Unfettered by the constraints of truth, Bush laid out an ethereal vision of his splendid record: about having "passed the most important education reform in history"; and how tax relief was a boon to the economy; and what a glorious time it is now that democracy is flowering across the Middle East.

Juxtaposing those words with our own, physical universe became dizzying. The fabulism of one statement was still being mentally cataloged when the next one would come along and rend a new fissure in the spacetime around the Garden.

And as the competing realities oscillated in and out of phase — Bush universe . . . real universe . . . Bush . . . real . . . — the swirling maw of the wormhole over the arena grew, and I worried about being sucked in. Bush tried to invoke Truman, the man for whom The Buck famously stopped. There was wind from the suction as the portal widened a bit further. Then I recalled that it’s Bush who won’t take responsibility for his mistakes, like when he tried to lay blame on his erstwhile Old Europe allies’ intelligence services for the reckless war of his in Iraq that they all opposed. The Garden shuddered from the cosmic friction, and my notes flew off the table.

"What’s happening?" I asked Stephen Elliott, who was sitting next to me.

"He’s taking us to the other side," Stephen said. His hair was blowing around and his eyes were crossed as he tried to resolve our trans-dimensional existence. Then he asked me why there were so many eyeballs with wings flying through the press stands.

Luke Mitchell, from Harper’s, wore a beatific smile as the room trembled from the gateway’s power. "Dear God," he sighed, taking off his glasses to look at the light emanating from that other world where only optimism reigns. "It’s . . . beautiful."

Delegates spiraled up from their seats toward the portal. The security men held on to railings and chairs, but they succumbed as well. Time slowed, and I saw myself walk past as an old man. Then I lay on a richly appointed deathbed, watching my own giant embryo floating in space. There were streaks of light and a tremendous, deep white noise, and I began to realize that President Bush is just a regular fella, a straight-talker from the heartland who believes in all of us, in our values and our vitality as Americans, and that if only we had smaller government, and privatized Social Security to help us save a little nest egg for our families, and maybe some legal reform to keep the trial lawyers from slowing down business, then all the world’s problems would end. Bush would resolve the vale of tears in our tiresome, terrestrial world into a wonderful dream.

"Where are we?" I whispered to Stephen.

I don’t know. . .," he said, his eyes filled with wonder.

Next to me, the reporter from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette turned into my grandma Dotty. She wore her Hashomer Hatzair uniform and cravat. Behind her was the moshav in New Jersey. It was 1929. "The shomrim love the president. Herzl and Marx love the president!"

Grandma? Is that you? I miss you. But — why do you have your arm around Paul Wolfowitz? Grandpa hated Wolfowitz. When did Wolfowitz join the Movement?

"The Movement joined him," she said. "I have your favorite Jell-O here for you, Joshy. Orange flavor. Join us."

The wind howled. It pulled me upside down, and I held on to the press box with one hand. My grip loosened, from four fingers, down to three, then two — until, just at the brink of surrender, came that "calling from beyond the stars" at the close of the speech, which was just the catalyst for the wormhole to snap shut, collapsing the multiple realities over the Garden into a single, immutable reality — the one where the actual message from beyond the stars* last week came from the kind of scientific research that Bush doesn’t believe in. The one where Bush waged a one-man war on almost every worthwhile policy of the past half-century. The one where Bush can quote a letter from a fellow at a conservative think tank and pretend that it was written by one of the soldiers he sent to Iraq. The one true reality, in short, where everything the man says is plain old Texas bullshit.

It was with great relief that I fell back into the chair I’d stolen from the Arizona Republic. With clarity of thought restored, I could again see the convention for the cheap con that it was. And the transparency seemed all the more apparent having visited the void with the Republican spirit guide. As Luke said, putting his glasses back on: "Man, that was like that one acid trip where all is revealed as dust." Back in the solid world, I realized yet again that if you don’t fall for the GOP’s presto-chango act, its stage show is empty. Without the magic, there’s nothing.

"That’s it?" Stephen said.

"Guess so," I said, gathering my computer and chargers and notes from the floor. The balloons were falling, but the room was emptying already.

"Let’s go home."

*Days ago SETI discovered a special signal, perhaps aliens, which if true would be awesome. Read about it here.

This is from Joshuah Bearman’s blog.

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