A week ago Sunday, I participated in an online book club. I had never actually engaged with this group before, though they had been around for a decade, and I first “joined” via Meetup.com over seven years ago. Each month, I wanted to read the selection, but I never would, and the monthly meetups involved a trip into Manhattan that repeatedly felt progressively more difficult as the dates approached.
The club hadn’t met since March, the pandemic obviously making an in-person meetup impossible. Having not “met” in nine months, and nervous about how well the conversation might flow via Zoom, the organizer decided to run a test using a short story rather than one of literature’s great novels. (When I first joined via Meetup, the group’s name was the Modern Library 100 Book Club.) He selected Shirley Jackson’s iconic and influential short story, “The Lottery.”
A quick read? No travel? Attendance while wearing my elephant slippers and sitting at my desk? The universe had removed all my excuses.
The organizer chose “The Lottery” weeks before a large contingent of insurrectionists who claim to value “law and order” decided that violently attacking the seat of our government provided the best way to “protect” democracy from an election result with which they disagreed. By the time roughly 20 of us gathered on Zoom, the uproar prompted over 70 years ago when Jackson’s 3700-odd words first appeared in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker seemed especially quaint.
And symbolically prescient.
(That New Yorker link includes the full text of the story as well as audio version by author A.M. Homes. I encourage anyone to go read it, certainly before continuing here.)
Like many (or even most?) people my age, I read “The Lottery” in high school, if not before. I never forgot its ending and always recognized its enormous influence on so many other works of literature, forms of storytelling, and general pop culture. Still, before rereading it on Jan. 9, I knew the story’s climax but recalled little of Jackson’s journey to that denouement
From the start, I was surprised at how completely Jackson foreshadows her twist conclusion. This passage comes from the story’s second paragraph:
Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix—the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy”—eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys.
Since the book club discussion, I’ve written literally thousands of words that ventured down multiple tangents about “The Lottery” and its perfect distillation of Trumpists, their ingrained MAGA mentality, and the jaw-dropping, shocking, horrific events at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Upon reflection, I’m surprised that I was shocked by the contemporary resonance of Jackson’s tale, a realization that continued to solidify and grow after our conversation.
Finding my focus proved difficult, though I now realize I was helped somewhat by the historian Heather Cox Richardson whose remarkable daily “Letters from an American” on Jan. 16 focused on the long history of right-wing authoritarianism in America and how easy it has been for some to tap into the collective feelings of resentment and stoke tribal action. Still, even with her much more descriptive and eloquent context in mind, there absolutely must be a glitch in the Matrix when—regardless of metaphor or symbolism—“The Lottery” is a work of fiction, while the Trump presidency is not.
He mesmerized millions of Americans who hoped for his regime to continue, and regardless of what percentage (large or small) were rabid enough to consciously answer his call-to-arms, the images I watched seemed more appropriate for Designated Survivor than CSPAN.
I always found “The First Follower Theory” clever and profound, but Jan. 6 was just the latest example of how terrifying it can also be. “The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader,” Derek Sivers states during his short TED Talk. The first (and second, third, and fourth) followers make the crazy “safe”; they enable others with similar ideas and biases to speak out because they no longer feel alone.
Most movements—good or bad, large or small—work in the same manner as a pyramid scheme, so when the origin—let alone the originator or first leader—becomes lost or forgotten, it is the most ignorant followers who become the most dangerous by being the most complacent. In “The Lottery,” Jackson devotes much description to reinforcing that nobody knows how or why the lottery began; how it has (or hasn’t?) evolved; or even what underlying meanings and symbolism stem from this ritual and the various objects involved.
Jackson makes clear the lottery’s normalization right from the beginning as well, essentially describing it as no different than any other town event. How could it be when Mr. Summers—the man who conducts the lottery—also MCs “the square dances, the teen-age club, the Halloween program.” Mr. Summers is neither a political figure nor a member of law enforcement. He simply “had time and energy to devote to civic activities.”
Why would the townsfolk consider the lottery abnormal? Why would any of them exhibit much curiosity? The crowd expresses a nervous anxiety followed by a cathartic relief before celebrating their safety by killing the sacrifice.
Empathy is non-existent: Not for their neighbors; barely (if at all) for their families. Not once during the story does anyone—including the lottery’s eventual “winner,” Tessie Hutchinson—argue against or question the lottery’s existence. When one person mentions that another town has discussed abandoning the lottery, Old Man Warner—the oldest man in town, i.e., the town elder who has survived 77 lotteries—leads the dismissal and derision of the very possibility of doing so, blaming the crazy youth for whom nothing is ever good enough.
They do it because they’ve always done it.
They do it because they believe this annual sacrifice keeps the crops growing.
They do it because they believe not doing it would court destruction for their way of life.
Until the very end as stones fly towards her, even Tessie’s screams focus on how the selection process was unfair and rigged, not that the entire endeavor is wrong or barbaric. The rest of her family doesn’t even go that far: Her husband simply accepts it while their three younger children celebrate not pulling the black mark themselves. Whether her youngest son Davy understands what’s happening or not bears little relevance on the feeling elicited when reaching, “and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.”
Meanwhile, Jackson ensures we can’t forget Tessie’s own complicity as she places an enormous hurdle in the way of the reader’s ability to empathize with her too: She’s more concerned about herself than her children. In my reading, it is not a stretch to assume she would toss any of them, onto the pyre to save herself, including little Davy.
Before the family draws their individual lots, but after her husband Bill Hutchinson and Mr. Summers discuss that a married woman selects with her husband’s family, Tessie argues that her daughter Eva and son-in-law Don should have to pick too, which would only lead to lower odds that Tessie would select the black dot. Apparently, if Tessie had to stone Eva, that would be more fair.
There is never a moment when anyone from Mr. Summers on down expresses sorrow nor sympathy to Tessie, either. Not only is the relief among the crowd palpable, they enthusiastically participate in an activity for which even moral relativism offers no real defense. The closest to any expression of distaste Jackson offers arrives with a brief, almost tossed-off comment as Mr. Summers tries to move things along:
“All right, folks,” Mr. Summers said. “Let’s finish quickly.”
How is it possible for a whole town to feel good and have fun committing murder? Belief and confirmation bias are powerful things. A mob mentality not so different from that in the story seemed to occur due to the precise moment in history the story arrived via The New Yorker, one when our current disease of American exceptionalism and entitlement grew exponentially in the wake of World War II.
And that disease is what ultimately led to Trump and what now must be termed “MAGA mentality,” which we should not describe as delusional but rather as an example of inexplicable blind faith. Never-Trumpers have regularly argued, “Country over party,” but that’s the wrong argument. Our political discourse often involves multiple views talking past each other and debating different subjects, and that’s true in this case as well. “RINO” accusations aside, the members of the Cult of Trump believe the only way to save their country is not through Republican or conservative ideology; to them, Republicans may not be as crazy as the “libtards” controlling the Democrats, but they’re just rats in “the swamp” too.
It would be unfair, though, to characterize all Trump voters that way. They’re not. There is a second branch as well, and arguably, it consists of the majority of those who voted for Trump, enthusiastically or reluctantly. These ideologically conservative Republicans who in their core believe the “high tide lifts all boats” theory benefits people at all rungs of society decided that achieving their ends required whatever means necessary; that in a country where the political structure allows them to retain power even as their ideology continues shrinking in popular opinion, they must stick with the team that will enable their goals: changing the judiciary, deregulating industry, cutting social programs, etc.
Those go-along to get-along conservatives aren’t nearly as loud as he citizens of this Bizarro nationalistic shadow polity of Trumpistan, unless they have their own ambitions for the White House, such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. The Trumpists have chosen “Man over party” and “Individual over ideology” because they believe that’s the way to achieve greatness for their country. The Old Faithful of Confederacies—rising from the ashes again and again like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers I suppose—now with Stay-Puft Strongman Dear Leader leading the way (while running in the opposite direction) is the all that stands between them and the crazy commies.
Once upon a time, I would have considered such statements hyperbole, but then I watched as many of the same people who suffered strokes and seizures watching athletes kneel during a song, climbed the walls and over barricades of the Capitol Building in order to replace the Stars & Stripes with Golden Calf-like Trump Keep America Great flags as well as Confederate Battle Flags.
In fact, I don’t want to gloss over that the Confederate Battle Flag was never a symbol of a new nation but rather only of rebellion. Nobody can cry “Hyperbole!” When other describe the events of Jan. 6 as an insurrection when so many people waved and hung a literal symbol of insurrection into the center of our country’s government.
The ends justifying the means is the Occam’s razor explanation for how so many supposed constitutionalists could so easily abandon the principles of both that document and its preceding declaration from a decade earlier, believing that elevating a president to such an unimpeachable (pun intended) throne does anything other than fulfill King George’s prediction in “You’ll Be Back” from HAMILTON.
You’ll be back like before
I will fight the fight and win the war
For your love, for your praise
And I’ll love you till my dying days
When you’re gone, I’ll go mad
So don’t throw away this thing we had
Cuz when push comes to shove
I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.
The Confederation of Trumpistan is arguably the largest example of mob mentality in modern history. For many of the 74-million voters who chose Trump in this election, MAGA mentality installs an “alternate fact” filter over reality. How else does anyone make the argument that almost 400,000 American deaths (and still accelerating) isn’t at least in some part due to this administration’s incompetence? And I don’t believe I can pose that question in a more generous way.
It’s easy to latch onto his verbal tic preambles to every lie—“People are saying...,” “Everyone knows that...,” and the like—but what about, “I’ve done great things for our country...,” “It will be terrible for our country...,” or, “We won’t have a country!” Those who believe and choose to follow him trust these amorphous statements more than any evidence to the contrary.
In “The Lottery,” this town of 300 people believe their community and the larger society “prospers” because they conduct the annual lottery. As Old Man Warner scoffs, “Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’”
As insane and shocking “The Lottery” was to readers in 1948 and surprising such reactions may be for many modern readers now, considering the history of our country, the contemporaneous context of that era, and the most primal elements of human nature, I see no epiphanies here. And as many have argued throughout Trump’s tenure, though everything from his speech announcing his candidacy through an insurrection at the Capitol shock nearly everyone, no matter how unthinkable it once was, none of it should really surprise; especially if you consider this period not as a response to the Democratic Obama presidency but rather as a ricochet to the man President Obama.
As long as those “First Followers” appear to support even the most inept and rudderless leaders, thereby offering cover to the less confident masses, our tribes will always create different lotteries. Since our most primitive days, we have not survived without our tribes, no matter how big or small; whether we were born into or discovered and adopted them later.
We understand the realities of the world around us because of the information bestowed upon us within those very same tribes, regardless of where it may lie along the spectrum from veracity to “alternate fact” propaganda.
“There’s always been a lottery,” Old Man Warner states, but that’s true only because there’s always been a mob to go along with such things. Now that the MAGA mentality has its firm grip on so many, where do we go from here?