Fine Print

The candidate said he was going to make everybody happy. He was gonna make everybody safe and prosperous. He was gonna give everybody what they needed and wanted. He was gonna make everything fine.

The camera cut to the crowd, who waved flags and chanted and cheered because they needed and wanted a lot.

“But don’t forget to read the fine print,” Lester told the jubilant crowd on TV.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Lester turned to me and said, “It’s always the same goddamned thing with these guys.”

“What guys?” I asked.

“These peddlers – these con-artists of hope and doom.”

“How are they the same?” I asked. “Their policies and tastes are different, you know. Like how one don’t like the darks and the other one does.”

“Darks or not, it’s all the same. What’s the same is the fine print. You ever read it?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, you ought to.”

“Okay,” I said. “Maybe.”

“Sure, principles are different and some are better than others. Okay. But it’s still the same goddamned thing every time. Don’t matter who the candidate or the winner is. That’s why it don’t really matter, cause the devil’s in the details of the fine print and the fine print’s always the same.”

I asked, “So what’s this fine print say?”

“That broken promises are always somebody else’s fault. That’s why there ain’t a goddamned difference between any one of them – cause the fine print’s always the fucking same. That’s why they spend all their time creating villains instead of getting things done. Better villains make for better heroes, see? James Bond ain’t shit without some villain wanting to kill him or destroy the world. And that’s why we don’t spend no time listening to what they’re actually saying about what they’re going to do and whether or not any of it makes sense.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“It’s cause they put all our focus on the story. Like, would you rather be on the right side of fiscal or foreign policy or on the side of a fucking superhero when being on the side of Superman sorta makes you a hero by proxy too, right? It’s just a bunch of good versus evil bullshit, that’s all. It’s comic books. It’s professional wrestling. It’s detective novel fiction. It’s Conan. It’s John Wayne tough-guy, good-guy bullshit. It’s the manly hero or the tragic hero, but either way it’s all about heroes and villains like any other story.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s Dirty Harry or Serpico,” Lester said. “Which do you choose, the ass-kicking hero or the tragic one?”

“But Serpico was a real guy. And Dirty Harry was based on a real detective too.”

“It’s all turned to bullshit once it gets up there on the screen,” Lester said.

And that was sorta making sense why things mostly stay the same.

Lester went on, “It’s rigged. Always has been. Always will be cause the details in the fine print’s always the same. All of them trying to convince everybody else they’re Robin Hood when they’re all just common thieves. But people need to believe in something. They need to believe in something good when their jobs – if they got one – aren’t good. When their neighborhood and government’s no good and even they’re not that good as parents or neighbors or teachers or mechanics. When their kids are only a few steps removed from jail or the psyche ward. When their spouses are lazy or liars. When they’re jealous of their brothers or sisters or their brothers and sisters are jealous of them. When some looming illness puts Grandma in the hospital or the nursing home and the bills are as catastrophic to the family as a hurricane. It’s all a shitshow. So they sell a good story that we plebs believe. That becomes the product of politics. And we need it to believe in our stories cause, for heroes to be heroes, they need a story. And we plebs need to believe in our own Robin Hood cause we got nothing else.”

“Well, if everybody was a cynical as you, we wouldn’t see that kinda turnout, Lester. People are obviously believing in something – something concrete.”

Lester pointed to the television.

“What you’re seeing there is mass hysteria,” he said. “What you’re seeing there is a mob’s belief in fairy tales, which is all they got left when the reality of things is garbage. See, in reality Robin Hood’s a community organizer or a petty bureaucrat. But in a story, he’s something far more glamorous and exiting. And that’s what we want. That’s what we need, to feel a part of that grandiose narrative.”

“Hm,” I said, not wanting to believe.

“Fairy tales and stories are all they got left. And that’s why the comic book hero wins, cause it gives more life to the fairy tale. Makes the story more exciting, at least. But, what these dummies don’t get is that it’s nothing but a story. But they’re taking it as real. And they’re taking their bit parts in it as real too, stepping into scenes to claim a bit of their hero’s glory. But it’s dumb glory – false glory – a pawn’s petty sacrificial glory – cause none of it’s real.”

Then the candidate proclaimed how his opponents hate the county. He proclaimed how his opponents loath his supporters. He said he wouldn’t let his constituents down. He said he wouldn’t let them be defeated, so the crowd roared and waved their flags and raised their signs again.

Lester shook his head.

“See how goddamned dumb the public is? Look at these dummies with their stupid hats and shirts and signs. You think any of them has brains enough to think for themselves? And it ain’t just this guy, it’s the other one too. It’s how their whole story works. And it’s cause people love stories. They don’t want what’s real cause real’s too boring and terrifying at the same time. Real’s scary and it’s hard to make sense of. So that’s not what you feed them. You feed them a simple enough fairy tale instead. You feed them the fairy tale of their own lives.”

Lester looked over at me again.

“They both play the same game,” he said. “Just swap out the characters and different accusations for different crimes. And not too many characters. Just two main ones. Too many main characters muddy the story. Simple, neat, clean characters and story. Good versus bad. Cain and Abel. It’s as old as time.”

“But what about the details? What about the way a character looks.”

“Fuck the details,” Lester said. “They’re superfluous. You think we need to know the middle name of Lex Luthor’s aunt? He’s evil. That’s all we need to know. The rest is a waste of print and airtime.”

I nodded.

“See, it’s the story that frames the character,” Lester said. “Without a story, a character isn’t anything. It can be a sketch. Maybe an outline or an idea, but it’s not a real character. Without a story, the character does nothing. It is nothing. We all need the story to understand what characters we and our heroes are.”

I agreed. I finally felt like I was beginning to catch on to something.

“We gotta get out of this fantasy for anything to last,” Lester said. “Daydreams. Nightmares. Fairy tales. Lullabies. Illusions. Delusions. None of them last. None of them are real. And that’s the problem. You can’t fix anything with what’s not real.”

The candidate was still on the TV bellowing promises and accusations.

The crowd continued to mind their cues, swaying between meek and docile, then frenzied and fervent.

“Look at this shit. It’s like a conductor and his orchestra,” Lester said.

I agreed, saying it was at least something to have a chair in playing somebody’s tune.

“Otherwise it’s just whistling to yourself out in the woods. Whistling notes with no melody or meter or rhyme or nothing,” I said.

“Well, I never understood the mechanics of music. I like it. I just don’t understand it,” Lester said.

“Me neither,” I said.

Lester gave a deep sigh.

“For fuck’s sake,” Lester said. “I wish there was something else on, but even sports is fucked up nowadays.”

And, unfortunately, that was true. So it left us with very little.

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