Spector, Sense and Nonsense in the Battle of Democracy

Episode 5 of MARVEL’s Moon Knight series is all about delusions.

During Episode 5, we see the handpicked protagonist Marc Spector go toe-to-toe with a psychologist/cult leader whose divine mission in life is to genocide every human with a high crime waiting in their future. For most of the 42-minute runtime, the bad guy is in full shrink mode, dangling a bedazzled medallion around his fingers and explaining to Spector that the struggle is in his mind: There’s sense, the times when our hero is in the real world and interacting with it, and then there’s nonsense, the moments when the world seems to be in an existential struggle, conjured and centered by the mind of Marc Spector himself. When Marc thinks he’s in that kind of struggle, the doctor advises, when the bullets are flying and it seems like there’s no time to think, Spector should stop and think anyway. “Is this sense?” the doctor asks. “Or, is this nonsense?”

Forgive me for quoting a mass-murdering pseudoprophet at the start of an article about politics, but Marc Spector didn’t need that advice nearly as much as we, the people of the United States.

Even as the January 6 hearings have sat on the backburner for a population more worried about $5 fuel and stalling stocks, the most troubling cut of former president Donald Trump’s conduct has stuck in my mind like a double stick of gum: A man who commanded the only briefcase capable of blotting out the sun refused to divide sense from nonsense.

Trump’s campaign manager told him not to comment on the election results until the states had actually counted the votes; sense. His faithful sidekick told him that the Constitution wouldn’t let a vice president toss election results, just because they’d force him to back up the U-Haul; sense. Even as then-President Trump’s supporters stomped around the halls of the Capitol to try and stop the new government, our ex-chief exec’s own daughter told him to put out a statement that would clear the corridors; sense. Instead, Trump declared victory four days ahead of any result, sparked a riot by demanding Vice President Pence break the law, waited until the January nightfall to tell his “special people” to quit ransacking Congress, and spent the next year and a half complaining that his stolen-election fantasy couldn’t keep him in power. Nonsense. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.

Is this nonsense a bonsai tree from Trump’s brain, the logical result of a billionaire politician who never hears “no” hearing “no” from the hardest of hard numbers? Sure. But this is also a story about the people who told Trump yes: Rudy Gulliani, appearing drunk at the former president’s club to get the stolen-election ball rolling. The least scrupulous members of conservative media, who let the man who knew them better than anyone else lie to their faces and into their audience’s ears. Finally — speaking of the audience — the millions of people who bought it hook, line, and sinker when the former president went casting about for accomplices. Trump didn’t embrace nonsense because sense was too hard; he embraced nonsense because it was far too easy.

On Tuesday, the J6 committee brought in a couple of poll workers from the state of Georgia. They were Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman, a pair of women trying to do their civic duty in a state that wouldn’t have let them 60 years ago. After Trump’s campaign came a cropper in their proverbial backyards, the president-reject and a few of his supporters on cable TV decided to claim that Moss and Freeman had secretly pulled “suitcases” full of ballots from beneath tables during counting, and that such an act of fraud is what kept Trump out of pole position in the Peachtree State.

Besides, you know, the death threats Moss and Freeman got in the mail, besides the dangers that forced Freeman to flee her own house for safety, another problem with this particular 2020-truther-conspiracy-theory is that it’s… manifestly untrue. A few poll workers were putting ballots in containers to keep counting them the next day, but Georgia’s secretary of state told them to tally through the night. So, they pulled the ballots back out and resumed counting. End of story. Any other interpretation of events was nonsense — dangerous, deadly nonsense that left Shaye Moss sitting in Congress on Tuesday and grieving the loss of her family’s security. “There is nowhere,” she told them, “I feel safe.”

Sense and nonsense, in Moon Knight, aren’t just plausibility tests from the series’ bad guy; they’re metaphors. When Marc Spector is living in sense, he’s walking through the streets of London as a normal person, sifting through the mess he’s made of his life and his marriage, confronting the parts of himself he’s tried to bury instead of burying them in fantastical scenarios. When he’s living in nonsense, he can’t trust anything — not even his own eyes. Everyone in the world of nonsense is trying to screw Marc Spector, or hurt him, or exploit him in some way, and he perceives them as manipulating his reality to get what they want. For all he knows, everything — even the walls and halls of his doctor’s office — might be a lie, designed to sideline him from the fight between good and evil.

Trusting no one, believing in nothing, besides one’s own assumptions: Does that sound like mere nonsense, or something far more insidious?

Let me be the first to agree with staunch leftists who insist that former Vice President Mike Pence shouldn’t be a hero. No, he shouldn’t, just like the potbellied football dads who break up school shootings, or the great clouds of GoFundMe gadflies who pay some cancer patient’s medical bills. But, well, here we are — a Vice President obeying the law wasn’t a sure thing on January 6, because the people who had made him VP in the first place were trying to kill him. If you’ll pardon my corniness, Pence chose sense, and it looks like he’ll pay for his choice with his entire political career. The next time there’s a constitutional crisis and a vice president is on the spot, let’s hope they’re not incentive driven.

But that’s the nature of nonsense, nonsense that no one knows better than the American Right: Roaring voices on talk radio spent years telling Americans that their government, their education system, and their day-to-day lives had been tackled by liberals who’d stop at nothing to destroy their way of life. With all respect to the manifold shortcomings of liberalism, that kind of paranoid cynicism is nonsense in a country whose every citizen has a stake in watching it prosper.

“As a free people in a free society,” explained the Harvard psychologist Todd Rose, “it is unacceptable that our public institutions treat people as distrustful.” When the structures we trust teach us to distrust one another, he explained, “the consequences in terms of human dignity and social trust are so damaging that [sic] that trade-off is not worth it.”

It’s nearly impossible for us to build a functioning democracy if we don’t trust each other, and an entire media apparatus has spent the last 30 years convincing every patch of the American quilt to distrust every other patch. When Pence, or Georgia’s Republican officials, or Liz Cheney, or Shaye Moss, stand up to preserve democracy — no matter how flaccidly — it should rock us to our cores. No, not because we shouldn’t have expected this from them, but because we didn’t.

Moon Knight’s ending isn’t about delusions; it’s about trust. Like any superhero movie, Marc Spector’s road to world rescue runs through people — okay, beings — he doesn’t believe in at first: Friends, exes, creepy gods, and, last of all, himself. He never really embraces their realities, or folds his perspective into theirs. But they share a righteous goal, and the facets of them that frazzled Marc Spector matter less and less as the stakes keep spiking. Sense. In the end, it’s the cult leader — with his goal of killing anyone with a big-time transgression in their future — who finds himself steeped in preemptive paranoia. Nonsense.

The stakes are spiking in the real-world, too, as our leaders grow ever more invested in who, exactly, gets to choose them. In a world like this, we might be tempted to be more guarded, more cynical, and to trust only those minds that seem closest to our own with the keys to the battle of democracy.

Nonsense.

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