November 6, 2022

An old Arab parable: In Baghdad’s marketplace, a man’s servant finds himself eyed ominously by a figure he recognizes as Death. To escape his fate, he’ll ride immediately away, to Samarra, he tells his employer. Who goes to the marketplace and sees the dark figure. “Why did you frighten my servant?” he asks. “Oh, I was merely surprised to see him here in Baghdad,” Death answers, “because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

In John O’Hara’s 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra, Julian English is an upper crust businessman, believing the world owes him his status. Then he does one stupidly impulsive thing. It sets him on a dark path, which he treads implacably, refusing to make a course correction. Ultimately wrecking his entire life. Was it fate, like in the parable?

I don’t believe in fate; we have choices. Julian, unlike that servant — or perhaps like him? — could have avoided what befell him. O’Hara’s book is discussed, together with Russell Banks’s Continental Drift, in one by Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club. In the Banks book, Schwalbe writes, “one bad decision starts to unravel everything. As with O’Hara, it’s not just the bad decision; weakness and stubbornness also contribute.”

Reading this I realized that’s exactly what’s happening to America. We made one bad decision in 2016; in 2020 it briefly looked as though, unlike those novels’ protagonists, we were course correcting; but now it seems we’re veering back toward a disaster we’re incapable of averting. About to put in power a bunch of bad people, and lock in a fatal 2024 election blow-up. Inflation and crime won’t wreck America; the Trump cult’s assault on democracy, truth, and reason will.

This is insane. I have tried to sound the alarm, but most Americans’ heads are elsewhere. I feel like a Jeremiah, the Biblical prophet whose warnings were ignored.

America is racing toward an appointment in Samarra.

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