Whenever the world is too much with me, I come to my secret war room here to plan strategy and recover a sence of control. Yesterday, for instance, I received two phone calls in quick succession that made it clear things were getting out of hand and that made a retreat to this quiet place almost obligatory.
The first was from a Reagan supporter, an evangelical Christian who had read an article of mine on the connection between the Electric Church and far-right politics. Although I was obviously demon-possessed, he said, he wanted to set me as straight as it was possible for anyone in such a condition to be. God-hating writings such as mine, he said, would only help to elect that apostate, Carter, and he was sure I didn't want that. Even an unsaved person such as myself, he patiently explained, would be better off in an America that had come back to God and that was decent and good like it used to be. He was vague on how this was to be achieved; on how America was going to reestablish the sort of world-dominating power it had in 1946, on how Reagan was going to manage this while giving us a trillion-dollar tax cut, and on when America had ever been that good. Never mind that, he said. The important thing is that I get the picture ; and this, as he painted it in warm pastels, came out of some Norman Rockwell painting of 40 years ago; lots of wholesome, friendly white folks who were hard-working and God-fearing and not afraid to walk the streets at night, and with the freckle-faced kids on bikes and friendly dogs tagging along: a town of about a thousand people, it seemed; the year, 1925; and brute industrial America so far in the hazy background as to be out of the picture.
The second call was one of my co-workers in the Carter campaign of 1976, who wanted to know whether I was going to be on the team again. But when I said "No," and told her that making up one's mind was proving to be complex, she said that there was nothing complex about it. Carter, she said, was obviously a right-thinker on ERA -- and what else did anybody need to know?
In short, it was one of those election-year days that convinces you that either you're crazy, or the world is. And I was struck by the sameness of it all. Each of my two callers would have resented the suggestion that he bore any resemblance to the other. But they seemed to be more alike than not, in that each of them was practicing what is central to the 1980 campaign, the politics of salvation. The Reaganite evidently believed that his man had been divinely appointed, not as an administrator, but as a kind of shepherd who would lead us back to a Holy Land that hitherto had existed only in our dreams. And the Carter woman was deeply into the magical thinking that characters all single-issue politics: the notion that if one tiny thing could be made okay, everything else would automatically fall into line and be wonderful too.
Sweet mystical salvation, it seemed, was the theme of both the Republican and Democratic campaigns, the one offering Heaven on Earth, the other a Perfect Savior, two different forms of what seemed to be a child's fantasy game. And it was not just that they were promising a lot, which would have been politics as usual, but it was what they were promising that had changed. Gone were the days of the candidates who offered you a chicken in every pot and who could be checked up on by lifting the lid of your pot to see if you had one. What these new politicians offered were salvation-fantasies; whole new technicolor worlds from which danger, evil and even cockroaches had been eradicated; or else a divine version of Themselves. So it was not for nothing that the Carterite -- a good friend of mine -- had closed out the conversation by saying that, if I had any lingering doubt about who to vote for, all I had to do was look at Carter.
"I don't get it," I'd said. Upon which she'd explained that one could see "the goodness coming out of his eyes."
This was fortunate, I thought, because there sure as hell was not any goodness coming out of his foreign policy. But even so, it seemed to me that Harry Truman would have fired any flack who tried to sell him on the basis of the goodness in his eyes and, finding myself confused by these extreme forms of irrationality, I at last fled to the secret war room here -- a quiet, orderly place where things are as simple, manageable and wonderful as the practitioners of the politics of salvation are promising that the real world can be.
This room is where I play correspondence chess, and my situation boards are up on the wall. From one of them I can see that Thomas Hasperis of Reno, Nev., has just played rook takes rook in a game that has been going on for over a year now.
I love it here in this quiet place, where 14 games are currently going on with opponents from all over the United States. And I come here out of the same motives that caused some of my fellow citizens to practice the politics of salvation -- in order to partake, however fleetingly, of a child's world of ideal justice, and to escape, however imperfectly, from the real world out there, which Billie Holliday fittingly sang of as "this bitter earth." The world calls us chess players impractical fools, but sometimes I wonder. Ours is a reasonable world, in which one learns to accept certain limits. And any chess player who so takes leave of his senses as to suppose that these proud towers and noble horses are real or who fancies that these humble pawns, chaste queens, incorruptible bishops and sublime kings are anything more than figures of wood is looked upon by the rest of us as daft. And yet the great world out there, caught up in wild eschatological fantasies far more bizarre than any enacted by our poor little wooden men, thinks that it is we who are weird.