background noise

AROUND A NEW YORK TABLE on a rainy summer eve a most intriguing theory is shared. “Everyone thinks it was the Russians,” says a cousin, raising an eyebrow. “‘The Russians, the Russians! It was the Russians,’ they say. But I have a friend who works for the airlines. He says he was taken to a bunker deep in the desert. It was a Donald Trump troll factory, row after row of computers. They’re the ones who hacked the election,” he folds his arms. “It wasn’t the Russians. It was us!”

No one quite knows what to make of my relative’s story, but it is not immediately dismissed. Anything is plausible in this era of conspiracy theories. In Britain, a certain Rees-Mogg is building a time machine to take people back to the Victorian Era. Italy is run not by the prime minister but by his deputy, a Kremlin fan boy named Salvini. Estonians are mystified by their politicians’ hand gestures. They wear broad hats and parade around like tsarist-era preachers.

Some are disowned for being soft on the new powers. Then disowned again for being too tough. Are you with the new government or against it? Are we all being played by Russian intelligence?

The gulf between the people and their leaders only grows. They are more like cartoon characters than politicians. Their boasts, absurd claims, midnight twitter storms only feed this alienation. The Estonians are despondent about their sullied national image. All major newspapers herald the rise of right-wing populism. Britain has a nervous breakdown. America has its mad king.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four!” an older uncle weighs in at last. “It’s coming to pass, just as they said. They are watching us through all of these new devices to control our thoughts. We’re in 1984!”

“You know, 1984 was actually a pretty good year,” my father says, looking up from his wine. Like his son, he’s been here all this time physically but mentally he’s somewhere else. “At least for me it was. Business was great. I had a great car. What was that band? With George Michael?”

“Wham!” I say.

“Yes, Wham! They were big in 1984. So was Van Halen. It was a great year, it wasn’t bad at all.”

“That’s not the 1984 I was talking about,” the uncle cocks an eye. “I’m talking about Orwell.”

Orwell. There is a deathly finality to the name and a sort of sullen agreement among the family members that things are trending that way. On the wall, the portrait of my long-dead Italian great grandmother watches over us with olive dark eyes. Deep sorrow. Mussolini has been resurrected. The lament of the ages.

The day after the Orwellian family dinner, I take a long walk to the end of a peninsula with all of the world’s troubles swirling around me. The sandy spit juts out into the Atlantic. It’s covered with near tropical greenery. Somehow it still seems impossible to get away from the noise. It’s everywhere, in everyone, a kind of contagious disease. Animosity, despair. People at each other’s throats. And yet the sea here is the same for now, as is the beach. The turtles still pull up on the sand to mate, and the crabs scatter before the seagulls swoop in and peck at their many thin legs.

If you wanted to, you could just turn the whole world off for a while, live and enjoy your time. Let your feet sink into the sand. Breathe, sweat, suck on the smell of the sea. Everyone is so worried, but their worry gets them nowhere. It only robs them of their lives. Let the background noise fade into the distance. Sooner or later, every Mussolini-sized ego is bound to implode. When it does, you’re far away. There’s a pretty world out there to be savored still if you want it.