The parable of the chalkboard cat

There was an old, shell-shocked substitute teacher who worked in Rocky River City Schools when I was growing up. His name was Mr. S, and he had a cat named Max. Every time he subbed, he drew Max on the chalkboard. (It was never very clear if Max actually existed.)

Now, Mr. S was a vehemently patriotic dude. He was subbing in for Ms. Lucas’ math class when we heard the PA announcement that a World Trade Center tower in New York City had been hit by an airplane. His eyes went vacant for a moment or two, and he turned on the television, a big hulk of late-20th-century technology strapped as it always was onto a roving metal cart. By the time we tuned in, another airplane had hit another tower. I was 12.

Inexplicably, some of us were ushered outside for a bus safety drill.

When Mr. S drew Max, he also drew a boxy television that had cable access. Max spent classes watching the Cat News Network (CNN), All ‘Bout Cats (ABC), Nothing But Cats (NBC), and so on. This was long before any of us had heard the term “fake news.” But that’s what I think “fake news” is — something concocted by a deranged substitute teacher, easily distracted by students’ questions about an imaginary cat and insistent on the idea of America being something “great.”

Scene was accused of being “fake news” by a prominent local mayor just last week!

I wrote recently on the memetic shields used by this new front of brand-focused conservatism. “Paid outside agitators,” etc. These things aren’t useful to Americans; they’re as helpful as a chalkboard drawing of a cat or a television, the shadows on Plato’s cave flickering into reality a world that was never actually real.

I don’t think Mr. S meant anything insidious, of course. It was, after all, just a thing he did during the course of his workday. He made the job his own, and, god bless ‘im, I know I haven’t forgotten about his imprint.

But, as I stretch my limbs and draw connections across time and life, there are people who do mean to cause harm with these words, these flickering fragments of ideas that divide us and inspire malice. The president is one of them. He should never be trusted, never be allowed to be seen as anything more than a cartoonish villain with his finger hovering just above the Big Red Button in the nuclear football. He screams — he calls “the media” “the enemy of the people” — and he screams some more, bellowing incessantly into the bowelish ears of anyone stupid enough to believe what he says.

That said, I hope Mr. S and Max are doing well these days. We have reason to worry about our veterans’ health and safety.

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