R.I.P. Van Winkle
(or The Upside Down)
ONE SUNNY MORNING, Rip Van Winkle awoke from a deep sleep only to find himself in the mountains, sprawled out on a grassy knoll. There was no use dwelling on the blunders of his day drinking, so he stretched, worked out the kinks in his neck, and hiked back into town.
Upon arrival, he was bewildered to discover that he didn’t recognize a single face—a near impossibility for a town hobo of his distinction and institutional stature. Yet, that wasn’t the strangest part. The townspeople were all walking not on their legs—those instead dangled casually in the air—but on their hands. A few also wore facemasks for what he presumed was protection from the dust, as their mouths were so close to the ground.
“Excuse me, why are you all upside down?” Rip inquired, stooping to ask a couple who were hand walking, leg in leg, down Main Street. He harbored a hope that they would backflip to their feet and clue him in, chuckling, on this elaborate prank.
But the couple did not backflip or chuckle. Eyeing him askance, they stiffened and cautiously retreated. The fear in their expressions made clear they thought it was he—the one upright on two feet—who was deranged.
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Bewildered, desperate to understand, Rip traversed the streets, engaging with any upside-down townsfolk who would not recoil at his approach. He soon discerned that he had slumbered for twenty years and awoken amidst a pandemic.
Though indolence could hardly account for a twenty-year nap, Rip had always been something of a loafer, more inclined to recline and watch life unfold than jump in and meddle with it. But the more time that passed, and the more peculiarities and irregularities that he observed, the more an uncharacteristic determination stirred in him to address this madness. Spurred by an unfamiliar resolve, Rip hopped onto the concrete lip of the town square fountain
“My fellow townsfolk,” he declared, standing tall, “you may not recognize me, but I am one of your own.” People hand-walking nearby gathered to watch what they presumed was a circus acrobat. “Through some fantastical turn of events, I fell asleep for twenty years and have only just awakened.” The assembly, now anticipating a stand-up routine, expanded around him, attracting even more onlookers. “You are all in the throes of an epidemic.”
“What a revelation!” quipped from the audience a late-night talk show host who could barely conceal his jealousy at the growing assemblage. “Way to drop truth bombs four years too late!” This elicited the customary mild laughter and half-hearted applause.
“Not Covid,” Rip said. “You are infected by the Upside Down. just look how old-school lefty mantras like Pharma Greed Kills and End the Forever Wars and Stand With Female Athletes and Judge Not by the Color of One’s Skin and Free Speech For All and My Body My Choice are now protest slogans of the populist right. look how the bearded rebels are no more the lentil left but the radical right: smashers of idols more godless than moralistic more punk rock than conservative. the anarchists of our day lob grenades from the libertine right gleeful in the fraying of institutions trolling the internet roadways running the reds of gender traffic laws cutting lanes without virtue signaling speeding past the establishment limits mooning the radar-wielding thought police as if to say, ‘Go shove your fines and suspensions and revocations up your tight totalitarian asses.’”
A stunned silence had fallen over the crowd. “You sound like you admire them!” a woman finally exclaimed. With acrobatic poise, she balanced on one hand and with the other pointed an accusatory finger at him. “You might even be a fascist!”
Rip shook his head. “I merely report on the Upside Down. just look around. is it not odd today’s fiercest cold warriors identify as liberals, a fresh breed of hawks urging ever more arms deals ever more escalation, ever more proxy war, trigger-happy liberals who paint their fingernails blue and yellow while staining the earth red. is not odd that the dissenters of the Cold War hysteria, the critics of this McCarthyism Red Scare 2.0 are now identified named, shamed and defamed as being right. right not as in righteous nor as in might makes right (for in the Upside Down might makes left) but right as in Putinite.”
“A smoking gun!” declaimed a criminal lawyer in the audience. “Proof of Russian dezinformatsia!” This expert corroboration ignited a flurry of flailing legs, accompanied by chants of “Lock him up!”
“Does it not suggest,” Rip went on, unfazed, “that you are in the Upside Down when western liberal intellectuals attack western liberal ideals when they qualify and temper free speech, slurring it as a bully’s free pass, pontificating on the hazards of open discourse due to threats foreign and above all internal that must be thwarted through surveillance and censorship—”
“We don’t censor!” a PhD teaching assistant brayed, interrupting him. She rushed over to tape shut Rip’s mouth but, in her agitation, lost her balance and cracked her head on the fountain steps, knocking herself out. One man clambered onto her motionless body for a better vantage point as Rip pressed on:
“—through surveillance and censorship that purges hate speech and destructive misinformation thanks to the clarifying omniscience of fact checkers and anointed disinformation experts and department of homeland security disinformation governance boards who gallantly do the critical thinking and deciding for us.”
Murmurs of assent and relief swept through the crowd, as most had failed to catch the irony. But the sharper ones caught on. “You distort the facts,” a prominent newspaper columnist opined. “I declare you brainwashed.”
“It is you who distorts,” Rip replied, “but that is understandable because we are in the Upside Down where the security state has executed a clandestine wife swap between the two parties, now siccing ivory poachers on its old mistress, the Elephant, while seeking fresh opportunities and backdoor access with the Ass.”
Amidst the scandalized hubbub, a man in black glasses whispered, “Eliminate him.”
“We are in the Upside Down,” Rip continued, “where the ‘most watched most trusted’ news network bleeds out viewers after deposing their most watched host while their supposedly bleeding-heart rivals cuck their viewers nightly with neocons and c.i.a. big boys, their dwindling but faithful audience of retirees watching on from their armchairs baffled but open-minded trying to get hard. lucky for them, there’s a pill for that. just wait for it in the commercial break.”
“He attacks medicine” a pharmaceutical lobbyist sneered, “he attacks Science!”
“Good of you to bring that up,” Rip said, “for in the Upside Down scientists suppress evidence and reject scientific inquiry to sod over the grassy money tracks of their tiptoeing, selling us zoonotic fictions while hiding gain of function fundings all in the name of The Science like those venerable papists of yore who hawked indulgences while hiding the swindle all in God’s name.”
“Blasphemy!” a reddening former government agency director cried out. “These are dangerous and crackpot conspiracy theories!”
“Maybe he has Long Covid?” an immunologically healthy but psychically compromised teenager in a fashionable facemask whispered to the former director. “Wouldn’t that explain everything?” She was, however, too socially distanced for him to hear her.
Another girl, not yet in her teens, asked Rip the question on everyone’s mind, for this was an enlightened, progressive town: “Sir, are you a right-wing extremist?”
“A fair question,” Rip conceded. “I’ve always been right sort of but hard right and always been left too but hard left for I believe in wings. I need space to fly you see and the middle of the road is only good for lane dividers and roadkill.”
“So you are a right-wing extremist,” she clarified, wide-eyed, having never before encountered one, though she had been warned about them in school.
At this identification, the town café owner stuck his head out of his window, which displayed an EVERYONE IS WELCOME HERE 🌈 sticker, and screamed, “Piss off, fascist scum!”
“Hold on, I may seem right wing extreme to you only because in the Upside Down the terms Left and Right have lost meaning. in the Upside Down the chauvinist Right stands with the despot Left each pushing its purity purity of race or purity of syntax send them back or shut them up each forgetting that purity is inbreeding, purity is incest. forget the terms left, right, liberal, conservative. they have all been co-opted bastardized, weaponized for divide and conquer tactics by the establishment, by the powerful or rather by those in power for being powerful is another thing altogether.”
“So you are a neutral extremist?” the girl pressed him, puzzled. “But how can you be an extremist without lying on one extreme?”
Rip admired her youthful clarity of thought, but before he could respond, her father intervened, hooking a leg around her and dragging her away. “Beware, Sophie! He’s a sophist!”
“Be aware, indeed,” Rip murmured to himself. “I’ve been asleep too long.”
Though sympathetic with the father’s protective instincts, the onlookers wanted closure. “Answer Sophie’s question!” a voice from the crowd demanded. “Are you right or left? Define yourself!”
Rip held out his arms. “I am both Left and Right. The far Left and the far Right. The L and the ight. I am the Light.
A gasp of outrage went up. A priest clutched his cross.
“I jest, I jest. ’tis yet another pretense yet another delusion of power. I am only the Light insofar as you are too you magnificent illuminated spirits.
“Drop the metaphysics!” a realist yelled.
“Very well. ‘What am I?’ you ask. I am the far left of the Right. And the far right of the Left. The Ri and the ft. I am the Rift. Ay, I am the Rift that lies within us all and I say unto us—” Rip extended his arms before the congregation, palms up, and slowly brought them in: “Come together.”
The throng of spectators wavered momentarily, strangely moved by these two words. “Come together?” they murmured as one. “Come together… yes, Come Together!” Entranced, stirring as one as if by hive mind, they pressed in, heeding his call. But since they were upside down, so too for them was the meaning of his words.
They closed in, and Rip Van Winkle slept again, for good.
First published in 1819, Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle” tells of a Dutch-American townsman in colonial America who falls asleep in the Catskills only to awaken after twenty years into a transformed and independent America. Upon his return to a changed town, Rip is questioned about his political affiliations and allegiance, upon which he professes loyalty to King George III, which does not go down well in the post-American Revolution atmosphere.
Today’s date, September 21, marks the International Day of Peace, established in 1981 by the U.N. General Assembly. Two decades later, the General Assembly, through a unanimous vote, designated the day as one of global ceasefire and non-violence. A few weeks after that, on October 7, 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban in what was named Operation Enduring Freedom. The operation indeed endured, turning out to be the United States’ longest war. Twenty years of devastating war later—the length of Rip’s nap—the Taliban was back in power.
Today Biden is meeting with Zelensky at the White House, where he is set to announce a fresh round of military aid to Ukraine, including Stinger and Javelin missiles, GMLRS rockets, and cluster bombs. Zelensky will additionally meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, “whose position,” according to the lead story in today’s New York Times, “is imperiled by an extreme-right faction of his party that opposes Ukraine aid.”
Peace Out ✌️
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