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President of the Flies

“There isn’t anyone to help you,” says the haunted pig-head-on-a-stick. “Only me. And I’m the Beast.”

The marooned schoolboy Simon stares at it in horror. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you?” the talking head continues. “I’m the reason why it’s no go?”

The scene, of course, is from William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” surely the feel-good novel of 1954. I’ve been thinking of that story — and other tales of castaways — for a while now. Since before the coronavirus hit, in fact.

Has there ever been a better metaphor for Donald Trump’s America than the shipwreck, or its modern cousin, the island plane crash?

There we were, sailing through the uncharted waters of the early 21st century, when suddenly, our boat was dashed upon the rocks. The morning after the 2016 election I felt as if I’d washed up half-naked on some cruel and hostile strand, a strange country where people with disabilities were mocked, immigrants like my mother were reviled, and grabbing women by their private parts was apparently A-OK, at least if you were a celebrity. Where was this place I’d landed? Was I going to have to survive for the next four years on coconuts?

Now, three and a half years later, we know a little bit more about Donald’s Island. Unemployment is at its highest since the Great Depression. About 100,000 Americans are dead — as many as 36,000 of them perhaps because Mr. Trump refused to embrace a national policy of social distancing until it was too late. Before that, the president was impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. As of April, The Washington Post estimated, he had made false or misleading claims to the citizens of this country 18,000 times.

Don’t worry, though: In 2017 the richest among us got a big tax cut.

Is it any wonder that many Americans speak of their hope of deliverance from this administration with the same words you’d use if your plane had crashed onto Carnage Island? Who’s going to rescue us? we wonder. Who’s going to take us back to the place we once called home?

Tales of castaways often describe the tension between those who hope to recreate the civilized world (on the one hand) and those who see their marooning as an opportunity to start over (on the other). Some of these islands are places of idealism and fantasy; the Swiss Family Robinson, for example, use their time shipwrecked in the East Indies to perfect the arts of self-reliance, acceptance and cooperation. (They also tame a jackal, whom they name Fangs). At the end of the novel, when a British ship arrives, some of the characters decide they don’t want to be rescued.

On other islands, things go all to hell. Sometimes this is because the castaways revert to their more primitive selves. Piggy in “Lord of the Flies,” for instance, implores his chums to trust in reason and in science, like a middle-school version of Dr. Anthony Fauci. They respond in turn by dropping a big rock onto his head.

In some stories, the castaways settle in for the long haul. They build shelters, they hunt for food, they choose leaders. Others are more reluctant. Shannon Rutherford on the television show “Lost” spends her first couple of days sunning herself on the beach. When asked to pitch in, she refuses — because she’s certain a boat is coming. Why plan for a future in a place you don’t intend to stay?

When the coronavirus hit, many Americans channeled their inner Shannon. We’ll just wait this out. After all, how long could it take? Someone — the Centers for Disease Control? The World Health Organization? — will rescue us. There will be a vaccine. By summertime, surely, everything will be back to normal.

What I fear is that there is no ship coming. A shockingly large fraction of the country — the president’s core supporters — likes this island just fine. When white men wearing camouflage and bearing assault rifles occupied the Michigan State House in defiance of their elected governor, it was hard not to think of the boys in “Lord of the Flies,” who, by story’s end, have devolved to their most barbaric selves.

In Golding’s novel, the schoolboys-turned-savages carry sticks sharpened at both ends. In Michigan, they carried posters of their governor with a Hitler mustache drawn on her face.

Unexplored territory often contains dangers, like the black smoke monster of “Lost,” or the slave-driving aliens in 1964’s “Robinson Crusoe on Mars.” But the worst adversary in these stories is always something far scarier than aliens. “Maybe there is a beast,” says Golding’s Simon. “Maybe it’s only us.” Later, as he gazes into the vast mouth of the beast, he sees “a blackness within, a blackness that spread.”

Still, if the beast is us, then so are our better angels: doctors, health care workers, farmers, delivery truck drivers — everyone who has helped us survive. It’s not the Swiss Family Robinson, but during this shipwreck of a spring, a wide range of heroes have demonstrated how to embrace the spirit of cooperation and of hope, even during a time of crisis.

Who is it we think is coming to save us? Who could it possibly be, besides ourselves?

As Tom Hanks’s character observes at the end of “Cast Away,” “I know what I have to do now. I got to keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise.”

Source: NY times

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