The news cycle resembles one of those disturbing, dramatic medieval landscapes. This one is informed with some enigmatic message conveyed by the placement of its elements.
At the center, but not dominating it, is Trump. Almost all of the painting concerns him. Groups animatedly argue about some utterance of his, or some failure to utter something, or some utterance that came too late, or didn't. One corner section of foreground displays some fighting - not a bloody battle but there is someone dead on the ground. In another corner stand mythical figures, the characters of the Game of Thrones. Interlaced with all this, like flitting birds, are vignettes of racism or sexual misconduct. Someone who really has everything - fame, fortune, talent, beauty - had her ass grabbed; there was a trial. Someone said 'nigger', but the saying is implied; it cannot be depicted. Some did or did not go to this or that parade. On some tiny bit of canvas there is a toilet; it refers to a dispute about who can use it.
What then lies in the distant background? Three hundred dead in a mudslide in Sierra Leone; they are barely a smudge. A sea dotted with thousands of drowning people. Many black lives lost, but they didn't matter. We also see giant icebergs drifting, scorching cities, arctic fires, and in another far corner, the Middle East, hundreds of thousands murdered; thousands more tortured to death. The level of detail is incredible given how, by the standard of column-inches, these depictions must be almost microscopic.
Some things you might expect in the landscape aren't there at all; they are too small to represent. The prison populations, the unemployed, the people on food stamps, the meth cookers, they might rate a flick of paint, not enough to bring recognition. Far off, the Thai slave trawlers, the world's torture chambers, the Rohingya, one could go on and on... nothing. For the millions who have died in the Congo, year in year out, not one speck.
What is the meaning of this? It is not that people don't care about the catastrophes and atrocities. Contrary to so much moralizing, anyone will tell you that three hundred black lives, even in Africa, matter more than one white life in Charlotteville. Anyone will tell you that the Syrian holocaust is vastly more important than who grabbed Taylor Swift's ass. Anyone, one hopes, will acknowledge that climate change matters more than toilet disputes. Nobody thinks the theft of Game of Thrones episodes is a world-shattering crisis. There is nothing wrong with people's real priorities.
No, the picture quietly suggests those over-crowded rats who savage one another. They cannot affect their environment, so they fixate on one another. Trump, for the left as well as the right, is a hope substitute. He is something someone might possibly affect, either to help or to hurt. When he was elected, some of his opponents said they would be - how mortifying - 'diamond-hard' in opposition, on the streets in the hundreds of thousands to fight his agenda. But it was always clear that going into the streets, in the hundreds of thousands, would achieve nothing, not even in defense of the Paris Agreement which also, truth be told, will almost certainly achieve nothing. No marches and no computer classes will create jobs and bring better lives to the rust belt. No street theatre will get many thousands of unjustly incarcerated black people out of jail. No one expects anyone to devote enough resources and political will, let alone intelligence, to help Africa or the Middle East.
Indeed politics itself is done. For ten years I taught courses on democracy at a university in Canada, often thought to have one of the world's best democratic societies. I was critical; I hoped for students to defend the institution. Never, in ten years, did I find one single student who believed democracy was worthwhile. The despair we feel goes much deeper than what's discovered in polls; it manifests itself in our focus. That is why we obsess about terror, sin, racism, and generally speaking the evil hearts of our neighbors. We cannot see a way out of the cage, so we lash out at our fellow rats.
We certainly will find no way out if we don't look. We shock one another, but that is no excuse for wallowing in indignation. Demoralized as we may be, we still need to reconsider how to change the landscape in which we are all so shocked.