Much of Nick Flynn’s new memoir This is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire concerns the childhood trauma in the title. Late in the book he compares his lifelong revisiting of this trauma — and the mistakes he’s made in his life that seem to be related to his obsession with it — to the Tom Cruise time loop movie The Edge of Tomorrow. “After a thousand or so lifetimes Tom learns that he cannot save everyone,” Flynn says. And, “In the addict’s world doing the same thing over and over leads to death, or at least to being trapped inside a very small life. In Tom’s world doing the same thing over and over leads to perfection—he learns, by the end how to kill the robots.”
I have heard that reliving a trauma in your mind over and over may be an evolutionary survival tactic. If you had a close encounter with a bear in a mountain pass, you might be more alert to the danger of bears the next time you are in a mountain pass. It makes sense as well that threats not only to you, but to your family, your village, your tribe will also haunt you — and everyone in the group.
On Saturday, I began exploring the ideas of hauntology and nostalgia. It makes sense to me that the deeply interconnected tribe we call progressives would have that shared sense of injury to be wary of from losses we invested so much energy in, like 2016, 2004 and 2000. It may not literally be the trauma of a village ransacked by the people of the next village over, but our brain chemistry might treat it the same way.
But this is not Groundhog Day — to jump to another time loop movie. We can’t play the same day, the same election, over and over again until we become perfect concert pianists, until we try everything possible to save the homeless man, until we learn to be the best person possible in the time we’re given and escape to the next stage of life.
The circumstances today in 2020 differ from 2016. It is fine to be motivated by loss. But it is important to look around and see what has changed. The Democratic convention begins this week. It will be mostly virtual, but was originally slated for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Wisconsin went to Trump in 2016 after Hillary Clinton’s campaign gave little attention to the state. I know Wisconsin a little better than most of the swing states I suggested adopting yesterday, having lived there for three or four years, but friends I’ve stayed in touch with there are teachers or artists or tech workers, not part of the dairy industry that so much of that state’s economy is tied to.
Dan Kaufman wrote a long exploration of Wisconsin’s struggling family farms for this week’s New Yorker. It is worth a read for understanding the challenges small farmers face — not just in Wisconsin’s dairy industry — but across the country. He traces the struggle back to the “get big or get out,” policy of Richard Nixon’s agriculture department. Farms have only become larger and larger since then. But in a system of one person, one vote, individual farmers have ballots, not the corporate entities that have gobbled them up and lobbied for policies that benefit big farms over small ones (though plenty of their money influences the election). These national big-ag policies have put farmers in the position of voting out the “bums” in charge again and again as the “bums” change: opposing Nixon’s policy, supporting Reagan, supporting Clinton, then souring on Clinton when NAFTA didn’t deliver promised help (though still narrowly reëlecting him and going to Al Gore in 2000), voting for Obama, and then for Trump.
I don’t know what the answer is for Wisconsin farmers. It seems likely that there will be fewer jobs in agriculture in the future, given the general trend towards automation in everything. Perhaps some small farms can embrace a combination of technology and diversified non-dairy agriculture, niche crops. I’m no agriculture or economics expert, but there have to be policy solutions that could keep more small farmers in business, if that’s what we want as a country. What is clear is that Wisconsin farmers have been in an electoral time loop longer than I’ve been in mine.