The Republican Hajj: On ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ – 18 September 2015

Perhaps we are reaching a crisis point, a moment in which we suddenly tire of comedy and politics in the same sighing breath.

Yesterday it was reported widely — and briefly — that over 700 Muslim pilgrims were massacred when human stampedes erupted on a ritual journey to Mecca. I stress “briefly” because every few years we hear of such semi-suicidal, lemming-like massacres among the Hajj-driven faithful, yet journalists, always afraid to trespass into sociology, never offer any rational account for civilians trampling one another. The reports are conveniently brief, relieving us of the responsibility of an explanation. Usually, some clueless middle-manager is blamed, and the story ends. One Saudi official proclaimed the tragedy was a sign of “God’s will”, a rather unsatisfactory explanation of urban planning so poor that it spurred rampant manslaughter. The tragicomedy thus seems inscrutable and exotic: when overpopulation and religious delusion merge, the faithful will be smothered by their own faith, the masses crushed under their own mass.

Many news outlets cited Health Minister Khaled al-Faleh, who blamed the stampede “on undisciplined pilgrims not following instructions”, and moving about “without respecting… timetables“. It remains unclear, however, why the violation of timetables should result in carnage or what types of official “instructions” would stop people from murderously treading across their pious brethren. Journalists also reported that local officials inexplicably had blocked off two alternate roadways along which pilgrims can symbolically stone the devil (a cathartic ritual of the hajj). Does this provide a better explanation? Are adherents so eager to stone the devil in effigy that they, forced to share a single roadway, must violently thrust past one another to have the best shot? Is impatience the corruptor of virtue?

We cannot imagine the minds of the ambulant killers or the terror of the trodden dead. No rational explanation will suffice. We can only create a fiction in our heads. We imagine the pilgrims packed in so tightly that their peripheral vision is cut off entirely. Unable to see above the level of their own horde and consumed with claustrophobia, they know only a goal (stoning the devil) that remains unseen, blocked by the swarm. When one pilgrim (frustrated by the blocked passageways) pushes from behind, another pilgrim lunges forward, initiating a perilous chain of events. Other pilgrims overreact, and each escalating overreaction initiates a domino effect of panic and outrage. But each pilgrim, unable to rise above the shoulders of his brothers, cannot witness the whole picture: each only sees his adjacent circumstances, not realizing a wide-reaching chain reaction has been put into motion. Without perspective, death results.

Americans will shake their heads at the massacre, or perhaps indulgently gloat, believing delusional devil-stoners deserve whatever rotten fruits their labors bring. Of course, Americans too cannot see above their own heads, and they too are boxed in by delusional neighbors and adhesions. No, we don’t literally trample each other to death — that would be too vulgar — but our blindness nonetheless ramifies into an incurable legacy of deadly consequences: minimum-wage poverty, unjust incarcerations, lacking health care, homelessness, widespread depression, and so forth.

On September 18’s edition of Real Time, Bill Maher invoked the “sunk cost” fallacy to explain why Republicans double down on their own delusions. When one has spent years of life and billions of dollars on trickle-down economics, denying climate change, or throwing stones at progressivism, one can’t simply change one’s tune — to do so would invalidate one’s entire life, not simply one’s argument. Apart from the trickle-down fallacy, the best example of Republicans’ sunk costs is the alleged drug war: admitting its colossal failure in both theory and practice is tantamount to toppling the central pillar of Reagan’s legacy, which must be propped and twisted to meet the needs of contemporary zealots. Conservatives simply have too much invested in the blind stubbornness of their own followers, who misremember Arcadian pasts as they age into prepaid graves. Republican followers dare not look above the crowd’s teeming shoulders: better to be righteously crushed than discover the devil is an illusion.

Sadly, the illusion is enabled by so-called moderates. Though he confesses to Maher that he is not a birther, racist, or conspiratorial lunatic, tycoon Mark Cuban nevertheless admires Donald Trump because “he opens the door for other imperfect candidates”. I am not really sure what Cuban means, as I was never under the impression that any candidates were perfect. I suspect he means that Trump’s uncensored, stream-of-consciousness rantings expose the imperfections bubbling beneath candidates who coyly censor themselves, thus giving future candidates a license for boldness and transgression. But, as I’ve suggested previously, Trump is incapable of transgression: he simply repeats conservative platitudes with a telegenic panache and a New York accent. He is the ultimate follower, dressed in Caesar’s robes.

Another of Maher’s guests, the journalist Jorge Ramos — recently ejected from a Trump press conference — warned against digressions into comedy. “I take him very seriously,” cautioned Ramos, and although few expect Trump to win the Republican nomination, the xenophobia that incites his faithful pilgrims demands attention. Maher correctly criticized Latinos who failed to vote in the mid-terms for passively allowing Tea Partiers to rise to the political surface; Ramos had no response, but, as always, passivity is the handmaiden of blindness.

There is a more pressing reason to take Trump seriously, however, and it has little to do with Trump. It’s too easy, too tempting to allow ourselves to fall into nihilistic comedy, to allow ourselves to become trampled under a submissive culture unable to logically direct its anger. The comic banquet has been perfectly laid out before us — and who can resist? But to sacrifice our lives on the altar of public farce — and the farce grows duller daily — is to accede masochistically to alienation. Once we accept this masochistic conclusion, we sink into a neurosis that no comedy can assuage. And then we cling to that neurosis as deluded pilgrims fasten onto oblivion. We soon define ourselves by our neuroses and anxieties — because these are nearest and dearest to us — believing that only through these negative affectations can we claim individualism. Were we cured of these neuroses, we’d become too bland, too banal, no fun at cocktail parties.

But perhaps we are reaching a crisis point, a moment in which we suddenly tire of comedy and politics in the same sighing breath.