Can we keep afloat long enough to get to shore?

In Stephen Crane’s “Open Boat,” four shipwreck survivors struggle to keep a lifeboat afloat as they flounder about a stormy sea, tantalizingly close to shore. It’s one of the great American short stories of the nineteenth century—maybe one whose world of literary naturalism is more nearly accurate today.

At one point a nameless survivor known only as the correspondent announces that “Shipwrecks are apropos of nothing.”

When I first read that statement many, many years ago, I was teaching English in a world that made sense—made sense despite the Cuban Missile Crisis, three assassinations, a seemingly endless war in Southeast Asia, and an impeachment. Crane’s words were ominous, and though I found Crane’s philosophy too pessimistic and random for my taste, I loved “The Open Boat.”

Today everything seems apropos of nothing, the latest being the shooting yesterday morning on a baseball diamond in Washington, D.C. For us to search for some meaning is futile, though maybe not as futile as believing some good will come of this. It won’t. No good came from the Newtown massacre, or from the shooting of Gabby Giffords, or the Pulse nightclub murders. We are past extracting good from these horrific events; worse, we are beyond extracting meaning.

We don’t know anymore; we merely await the next horror. Crane, anticipating the world of 2017 perhaps, wrote this: “A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats.

We are feeling those waves, and like Crane’s victims in their ten-foot-long dinghy, we fear being swamped. But when we hear Trump claim (after the shooting) that “our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace and that we are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good,” how can we respond other than with derision? He doesn’t get to say that for two compelling reasons: first, he integrated violence and politics throughout his campaign; and second, he’s a pathological liar and can’t be trusted to mean anything he says. If you’d like a third reason, let’s not forget his reaction to the Pulse nightclub murders: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”

Nobody deserves extreme physical violence because of his political beliefs and I hope Rep. Scalise and the other victims make full recoveries. But the event remains, as Crane said, apropos of nothing: an incident sprung from a chaotic world and initiated by a 66-year-old madman. What is apropos of something is that in the workaday world to which we return after each of these violent incidents, our country is still being led by a halfwit.

I say that not to incite some other halfwit with a weapon, but because the term fits.

I have never advocated violence in my blog entries and never will. The same is true of most of my like-minded followers. But Trump’s expedient and specious call for unity is no reason for us to rally behind him: he remains a self-centered, dishonest, and ignorant man who has been given control of a precarious lifeboat but who possesses neither the wherewithal nor the desire to get us safely to shore.

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