This past week, journalists in America were struggling to comprehend two major stories: The first was that Donald Trump announced (via tweet) on Wednesday that any news that paints him in a negative light is, by definition, “fake news.” He went on to threaten the press credentials of any journalist who doesn’t portray him in a flattering light. This is, of course, the natural culmination of two years of attacks on the media, threats to reporters, promises to change the First Amendment press protections, and an unprecedented claim that the media itself is an “enemy of the people.” Perhaps relatedly, CBS reported Friday that every television at the Food and Drug Administration is tuned to Fox News and cannot be changed. This stuff is jarring because just two years ago, we believed such threats to the First Amendment died with Richard Nixon.
At the same time, we are all attempting to unravel a narrative in which Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s nonlawyer, created a shell corporation to pay hush money to a porn star with whom Donald Trump claims not to have had sex. That company became a funnel for ungodly sums of money from Fortune 500 companies and Russian oligarchs to perform services that it could have in no way performed.
In other words, if you work in media, you would be well within your rights to have had a tequila shot with your breakfast every day this week. It’s all just terribly sick and sad and the constant stream makes it hard not to be sick and sad all the time. We’ve long since stopped describing news consumption as drinking from a firehose. It went from firehose to tidal wave a year ago. Nevertheless, we’ve persisted.
Perhaps the most common refrain journalists hear from strangers is “I feel bad for you. I feel sad that following all this is your job.” The truth of the matter is that there is not enough hazard pay in the world. It’s hard not to want to shut it all off and just hope that some combination of Michael Avenatti, Bob Mueller, and the 2018 elections might restore normalcy. Normalcy would be nice, because weeks and months of being the head/desk emoji is hazardous to one’s mental health. Our brains, messed up from all that banging, still know something is amiss. It feels like the only way to exert any control at all over the insanity would be the capacity to turn it off.
And, of course, turning it off is exactly what a president who wants to kill the news is hoping for. Also, remember how reading and making the news are still all of our jobs?
This week a handful of tweets started trending that reminded me of how strong the impulse to normalize has become. It started with this tweet:
And spiraled into a series of these:
How do we hold normal and crazy in our minds at the same time? Sorting through this dilemma, and living as a journalist in the Age of Trump™, I have become thoroughly obsessed with a parable that mysteriously reached back from my childhood and grabbed me by the throat sometime after the election. It’s a story I used to have on a record and forgot about for 40 years. Truthfully, it’s an improbable tale for a kid’s album in the first place, but the ’70s were weird like that.
It took me months, but an old summer camp friend, Michelle, with an assist from a folklorist friend, finally tracked it down for me. The story is credited to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a radically transformative thinker and mystic who lived in the late 18th century. It’s a funny parable coming from a rabbi because God and religion appear nowhere in it. It’s also weirdly prescient for three centuries ago, but I guess that’s what makes a parable roll. Here it is:
HARVEST OF MADNESS
There once was a king who was also an astrologer. By studying the stars he learned that the harvest of wheat that year would be tainted, and anyone who ate of it would go mad. The king revealed this prophecy to his friend, the prime minister, and asked if there was anything they could do. The prime minister said, “Let us set aside some of last year’s wheat. That way we will not have to eat the tainted grain.” The king thought about this for a while, and then he said, “It’s not possible to set aside enough of last year’s wheat for everyone. But if we alone eat the good wheat, we will be the only sane people in a mad world. All the others will look at us as if we were the ones who are mad. So, we will have to eat the tainted wheat. But let us place a mark on our foreheads to remind each other that we are mad, like everyone else.”
The tale won’t let go of me in part because it so perfectly describes the world in which we now find ourselves, call it the Broccoli/World-on-Fire Paradox. We are trapped in a kind of national collective madness, where lies are truth, truth is derided as fake news, corruption is cleansing, and cruelty is good governance. Suddenly the adults are children and the Parkland, Florida, kids are adults, and every time you think it can’t get madder, it just does. It’s a world in which the mere act of declaiming, “This isn’t normal,” or “They’re not telling the truth” is dismissed as hysteria and overreaction. Jokes can hurt feelings, but ripping children from their parents leaves no lasting moral footprint.
Recently, I have begun to think of the wheat in this parable as the news itself; the news we must consume, because there is no ethical option to ignore it. That’s the compact we have made, and so we eat of it and eat of it until we are half-mad, but at least we are all going there together. We know what this is doing to our sanity, to our relationships, to the country, and indeed the entire world, but there’s no option but to follow it where it leads each day.
While I used to think of the parable of the wheat as tragic and nihilist (and in my childhood, I found it terrifying and still wonder who thought it suitable for a children’s record), in the year since Donald Trump took office, I have increasingly found that the story stays with me for a more hopeful reason. It stays with me because of the image of this mark, this stain on our foreheads, the one that’s meant to denote that we used to be sane, even if we can’t remember that fact. It’s a mark that signals that even though, as a nation, we must still inhabit these glittering cathedrals of lies and corruption, we can still see in one another the faint signs of what we were and what we hope to become again. It’s the story of a kind of ultimate triumph of all the people who live within madness and are forced to eat all the lies and still refuse to call them delicious. For me it’s a parable about truth telling (or the echoes of truth knowing) for truth’s own sake and of forming communities of people with secret markings who recall that we’ve all lost our minds but still refuse to just float up above it all and pray it goes away.
I told this story to a roomful of people the other night and someone asked me after how the story ends. I had to admit to him that as a formal matter, the story ends where I ended it: the madness and the markings. But the truth is that the story doesn’t end so much as invite us into it, to contend with it on its own terms. I’ve come to turn to this parable to recognize the markings and appreciate the people who suit up every day and use the tools of their trades to try to shovel the wheat around, to pile and sort it, and to hold fast to the old ideas about how the world should work. I see you there in the broccoli aisle, and you see me.
The people who organize and vote and march and run for office, the people who track down and report news, the folks who file lawsuits and who hear those lawsuits—they all do it in a world that makes no internal coherent sense anymore. But they see the other marks on other people’s foreheads, and they forge ahead. And I salute you, fellow broccoli people, and want to affirm that your marks are not as faint as they may seem. As long as we hang on to the marks and the memory and the promise, perhaps we can eat the wheat and not lose ourselves to it. The story holds fast so long as there are two people left to recognize each other. We eat the madness, as we may have to for a while longer, but we are not yet mad, and not yet alone.
This article is adapted from a speech Lithwick gave last week when she accepted the 2018 Hillman Prize for Opinion & Analysis.