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  • Jan Flynn

I’m Living in a Simulation!

It’s lovely, but can I trust it?

Photo by Paul Kapischka on Unsplash

I know better than to believe what I see

I write this as I’m sitting on the patio of our corner lot, gazing out at the linden trees and honey locusts that reach from opposite edges of the street to touch their leafy tips, shading the sidewalks. Neighbors wave greetings as they walk their dogs or ride their bikes past our house.

Front porches sport inviting chairs among pots spilling with early summer blooms. Flags flutter from brackets and balconies — some Stars and Stripes, some rainbows, some declaring the household’s embrace of science, equality, and tolerance.

As the afternoon warms, parents hauling wagons full of towels and coolers lead small parades of bathing-suited kids to the community pool. The children from the house across the street are selling lemonade, a dollar a cup. It’s very good.

A breeze softens the heat; cottony clouds drift lazily in the azure sky. There go a couple of our friends, waving from their tandem bicycle. My husband kneels in the soil nearby, installing rhododendrons in the shade of our side yard.

I could almost swear it’s real

It certainly feels that way. But even a cursory glance at Google News or my social media feeds reminds me that the country, if not the whole world, is spinning straight for hell. Unless I’m living in a simulation, then my sweet neighborhood is certainly going with it.

The weather’s lovely in my bubble today, but a merciless heat wave is scorching the Southwest, making life miserable and in some cases deadly for roughly 40 million people. Drought is unrelenting in the West, historic storms chronically threaten the East with flooding, and we are all weighed down with the burden of our carbon footprints, anchored by our sense of helplessness.

Students are marching across the country, pleading with their elders to protect them from being mowed down by guns in their classrooms. Women are about to lose sovereignty over their own bodies. Inflation is making everything harder for everyone, and we’re all looking for who to blame.

And that’s all just in the background

Unless you spent this past week wedged under a rock, you are aware of the first televised hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol. And unless you’ve stayed offline and off the grid ever since, you’re familiar with the highlights.

I’d been following the committee findings, often through historian Heather Cox Richardson’s phenomenal “Letters From an American” on Substack, so I was pretty sure the hearings were going to be a placid recap, a dignified review of the stuff we’d already read or heard.

Boy howdy, was I wrong. Rep. Liz Cheney — with whom I vehemently disagree on nearly everything but whose courage I will forever admire — laid out the seven-point plan that our former president pursued for hanging onto the office he lost by over seven million popular votes and 74 electoral college votes.

As awful as I’d already understood the January 6 attack to be, the hearings revealed new information that was even more horrifying. It was old news that Trump refused to call off his goons or do anything to stop the carnage in the Capitol, for hours. But it was spine-tingling to learn that his closest advisors, including his children, were begging him to do so. Meanwhile, his response to reports of the rioters’ chanting “hang Mike Pence” was, “Maybe our supporters have the right idea. Mike Pence deserves it.”

And then there was the revelation that Scott Perry and other GOP legislators sought Trump’s presidential pardon for their part in the attack, immediately after the whole thing flopped.

I won’t go on; you’ve heard all this already.

But what I keep coming back to, from my vantage point on this tree-shaded patio on this idyllic little street, is this: beneath this sublime surface, invisibly, the foundations threaten to crumble. Worldwide pandemic refusing to end, war in Europe, and a planet that is screaming for our attention. And instead of having the bandwidth to address those threats, we are face-to-face with the inarguable (though it will be argued), indisputable (though it will be disputed) fact that a President of the United States staged a coup.

He didn’t succeed. But he tried his best to demolish democracy as we know it, entirely in service to his bottomless, diseased ego.

I couldn’t hope to articulate this better than Maureen Dowd in her New York Times opinion piece, “Donald Trump, American Monster:”

We listened Thursday night to the frightful catalogue of Trump’s deeds. They are so beyond the pale, so hard to fathom, that in some ways, it’s all still sinking in.

And a significant faction of our leaders helped him do it

Unbelievably, they’re still at it. As Susan Milligan, a senior political writer at U.S. News and World Report noted in an article on June 10:

Capitol Hill Republicans – unlike the GOP during the Watergate era – have almost uniformly rejected the very legitimacy of the hearings themselves . . . House GOP leaders – including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, whom Cheney said was “scared” the day all of Congress was targeted by a violent mob – declared they would not watch the hearings and instead have “counter-programming” for those uninterested in watching

This is why, on this glorious summer day in my Pollyanna neighborhood, I worry that I’m living in a David Lynch movie. Or that, unlike Neo, I took the blue pill instead of the red one.

Because from where I’m sitting on my patio, I see a very different reality: one in which people from a variety of belief systems are kind to one another, in a human-scale environment that allows for coexistence and community rather than exclusion and excess. Parents feel safe about letting their kids explore the green spaces and roam among their friends’ houses without constant adult supervision.

Sometimes mischief results. Last week, for instance, the peace of our block was disturbed by repeated instances of “ding-dong ditch” — the classic suburban prank of ringing doorbells and scampering away before the bleary-eyed residents open the door.

Except, these particular ding-dongers committed their transgressions at 10:30 in the morning. The third time it happened, my husband spied the perpetrators, a giggling clutch of nine-year-old boys, hiding directly underneath his office window.

In this oh-so-sweet simulation, the biggest danger we face is cavities. It’s the external reality that scares the bejeezus out of us.

But reality should be like our ‘hood

More to the point, it could be — for more of us, everywhere in the U.S., and by extension, everywhere in the world. Not that everybody wants or needs to live in a suburban idyll; there’s lots to be said for the rich intensity of high-density urbanity or the expansion and serenity of rural spaces.

The point is, in a nation as wealthy and as capable of innovation as the U.S., there is no good reason why we should be divided, suspicious of our fellow citizens, or frantically grasping for the resource crumbs that fall from the hoards of kleptocrats and multi-billionaires. Nor is there any good reason why we can’t address the life-threatening challenges we face, including climate change.

We could have much more justice, much more peace, and many more of us could have much nicer lives.

But there are bad reasons why we do not. We are asked to accept lies as truth — the more preposterous, the more insistent the demands for our belief — while those at the highest levels of governance repeatedly betray their oaths of office, caring only for their own power.

And now we have all the evidence anybody should need that American democracy is in dire peril. We — all of us in this country, including on my bucolic block — are poised on a knife’s edge.

This simulation will survive for a while

If the Big Lie supporters succeed, if those who are working fiendishly to seed distrust in our institutions, our elections, and each other have their way, if minority rule gets its death-grip on our republic’s throat — the streets in my neighborhood won’t change overnight.

For a time, people will still wave to one another. Until they start checking for indicators of with whom it’s safe to fraternize, because in a close neighborhood like this, someone could always be watching.

Flags will still fly from front porches. Just not the rainbows or BLM pennants. The houses and yards will still be lovingly maintained. Until middle class prosperity is drained upwards until it bleeds out, and rot and crime set in.

The authoritarians will be in charge, ruling from their walled compounds as they suck the last drips of sap from the American Dream. The dystopian vision that the Right has been warning us about while actively nurturing will come into poisonous bloom.

I propose that we still have a choice

We may still be able to choose the reality that we want for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren — and decent futures for other people’s children and grandchildren. But our choice is narrowing and becoming more stark by the day.

Those of us who are lucky enough to live in peaceful, safe surroundings — a bubble, if you will — have to remember that bubbles are fragile things. If we want to preserve them, we have to be willing to look beyond them. If we want to maintain and expand them so that others can enjoy their protection, we may even have to leave them for a time.

I want my simulation to become a reality for anyone who would like to participate in it. Crazier things have happened — for instance, founding a new nation based on the notion that power should derive from the consent of the governed, even if we’ve struggled to put that idea into practice.

But such things don’t happen without a lot of effort and sacrifice. If certain interests make it harder to vote, that means we have to do whatever it takes to get our ballots counted. If hate groups in service to the authoritarians try to terrorize us into silence, we have to get past our fear and speak up anyway.

If we’re going to save democracy, it’s unlikely we’re going to be comfortable every minute we’re doing it. I love my comforts, but others have given up theirs so I could have mine. Looks like it’s my turn.

I’m very grateful for my circumstances

It’s wonderful to have a refuge to return to at the end of the day, a place that makes sense, that’s comforting and friendly and sane. But if I want to make it real, I can’t hide away in it. I may not have much heft to lean us toward the better side of the knife. But I’ll do what I can.

As I tiptoe out of my simulation, I invite you to join me.

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