Friday, August 04, 2017

Poisoning the Well

Once in a great while, it's fun and even illuminating to reread books. Depending on how long it's been, you can get a lot out of it. I first read Stephen King's Needful Things back in the early '90s, half a lifetime ago. It was billed more or less as a horror version of Our Town, and that was essentially how I recalled it, until actually sitting down and rereading it over the last week.

(We here in Northern Cali are in the midst of a protracted heat wave; the number of days below 100 degrees in the daytime is maybe five since Memorial Day, so more than enough time to read. I think I knocked out seven full-length books in July, somewhere around 3,500 pages. It's too fucking hot to do much else.)

As intrigued as I am by King's explanation in the link that Needful Things is in some respects a satire of '80s excess, I came away with more specific impressions this time around. If I were to condense this 700-page doorstop (not an insult; it's a richly rewarding and fun read, but it's a big-ass book) into a logline or elevator pitch for someone who for some reason hasn't gotten around to reading the book, it would go something like this:
The devil comes to a small New England town, and turns the townsfolk against each other.
That's a radical oversimplification, though it gets the broad points across. The devil (pun intended) is in the details, and contextualized against our current real-world backdrop, can be fleshed out more interestingly.

The main theme of the book is cupidity, the sort of slavering covetousness that spurs otherwise rational humans to abandon good sense in order to pursue an object that they connect perhaps too deeply with, for whatever reason. In NT, these objects are at once mundane and yet important on an intimate level -- a mint-condition Sandy Koufax card; Elvis Presley's sunglasses; a splinter of wood from Noah's Ark.

So maybe now the elevator pitch is a bit more expansive. The "devil" understands his target audience, their vacant desires and what they will do to attain them. He hooks them and sets them in motion against each other. Desire and surrender and our willingness to see what we want to see are central to the trickster demon's nefarious plans. And when the objects of desire turn out to be junk -- the ratty card of an unknown player; a busted pair of cheap sunglasses; a rotted hunk of lumber infested with bugs -- the marks (at least the ones that manage to eventually see the objects for what they actually are) are appalled at themselves, at what they did for an empty promise.

Any sort of deceptive person -- a used-car salesman, a cheating relationship, a grifter or con-man, a politician -- cannot do what they do effectively without the complicity of the mark. The old saw about a grifter being someone who gets you to empty your pockets, but a con-man being someone who gets you to empty you pockets and then go home or to the bank and get the rest of your money to hand over, holds true here.

A good liar understands the value of pride and the need for respect that we all have, the intrinsic need to not be thought a dummy or a rube. Pride becomes the hook for the con-man to reel in his fish -- the fish cannot admit that he was dumb enough to fall for a shiny rubber lure, even as the barb hangs out his cheek and he is being reeled toward the boat.

Leland Gaunt's goal in Needful Things is ostensibly to collect souls, but it is really just to make mischief, the sheer joy in turning neighbor violently against neighbor. The discord is the reward, you might say. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

In a consumerist society, we are used to our thoughts and desires being monetized. It is so routine at this point it barely merits notice. But what if those thoughts and desires are escalated, taken to the next logical level? Someone who figured out how to weaponize those things would wield unspeakable power. That is how cults are built, and whether that cult leader is Alex Jones or Kim Jong Un or Fuckface Von Clownstick is irrelevant -- the principles are the same, and they work on the same type of people.

Perhaps worst of all is that when it comes to deprogramming brainwashed cult victims, the consequences can be almost as bad as leaving them in the cult. It's not they're going to thank you and jump across to "your side." By definition they are in need of something, usually something that jibes with their preferences thus far -- so when that something gets removed, there's a good chance they'll find something worse.

The symptom gets treated, but the disease -- ignorance in the broader sense, but specifically things such as living in a bubble with their own facts, racism or racist assumptions, a daily addiction to outrage du jour stories (again, without bothering to check whether there's any factual basis to them or not) -- persists and mutates.

Obviously, the root causes go back generations, but the more recent origins do stem from persistent systemic inequality, that most Americans did not get to share in the "recovery" anywhere near to the extent that their betters (who, after all, caused the collapse in the first place) enjoyed. Until that gets adequately addressed, we are simply heading deeper into an extended cycle of viciousness, regardless of whether the con-man gets impeached and removed.

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