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Cheer Up, Aaron Rodgers

Aaron Rodgers, seen here on the field thinking freely during his Packers' loss to the 49ers in the NFC Divisional Round.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It is both quite natural and objectively deranged to see yourself as the protagonist of reality. It is natural because that is how we experience reality from one moment to the next, and also because it is much more fun to imagine yourself being pulled intensely down the street in a Spike Lee dolly shot than it is to acknowledge that you are in point of fact "running out to get toothpaste." It is deranged because it is so manifestly not true, and deranging in turn because living as if it were true makes everyone else in the world into an opponent, or a rival, or at the very least a potential obstruction in the righteous hero's journey. The whole world is in the way; everything that someone else has becomes meaningful primarily as something that you do not have, but should.

This is a jealous, wary, lonesome way of moving through the world, and can't help but make the person at the center of it both grandiose and ridiculous. There are things to compile along the way, but because there is by definition no real trust or fellowship in it—because there is no room or time for distractions or anything or anyone else that might weigh our protagonist down—it is restless, grinding, singularly empty. The hero just clears room after room, for years, hunting for some final boss who might explain what any of this was for, and then presumably be defeated. At which point ... well, what?

Aaron Rodgers is on vacation, now, at least to the extent that he can really ever be said to be off the clock. But I have spent the better part of the last week puzzling over the singularly strange story that Kevin Van Valkenburg wrote about him at ESPN last Friday. What was shaping up to be one kind of story—a sort of "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" write-around job in which Van Valkenburg attempts to paint a portrait of an uncooperative genius despite that genius's refusal to sit for him—became another when Rodgers called Van Valkenburg the night before the story went to print. "It seemed like you're thinking about writing a hit piece," Rodgers said after the Packers forwarded some questions that Van Valkenburg had sent along via email.

Rodgers responded to those questions, on a call, as if trying to write that piece himself. The quarterback delivers himself of a weird stream of disconnected and decontextualized statistics and news-scented memes and non-sequiturs, interrupting and exasperating himself and generally whistling like a teakettle at full boil. "When the president of the United States says, 'This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,' it's because him and his constituents," Rodgers said at one point, presumably quite calmly, "which, I don't know how there are any if you watch any of his attempts at public speaking, but I guess he got 81 million votes, but when you say stuff like that, and then you have the CDC, which, how do you even trust them, but then they come out and talk about 75 percent of the COVID deaths have at least four co-morbidities. And you still have this fake White House set saying that this is the pandemic of the unvaccinated, that's not helping the conversation."

The spongy meat of that sentence is perfectly familiar—it is the sort of thing that every web-addled free-thinker says every day—but the spice and seasoning is more interesting than the flabby protein itself. Not just the heavy-handed overdosage of its application, which suggests in every way someone so lonely that they have forgotten how to have a conversation, but the wild and overbearing heat of it. Rodgers, like everyone else, has quite clearly been driven a little bit mad by the ongoing Covid pandemic, which is relatable enough. The result of all that fervid stewing is rubbery and indigestible, but it is recognizable. It is, by now, something like the national dish.

Rodgers is right, I think, to be angry. The sense of being deceived or kept in the dark, the standards applied cynically and arbitrarily and at any rate to no discernible effect, the sense of abandonment and alienation all up and down the culture, the way that the wholesale and heartbreaking absence of anything like a shared broader purpose or even an agreed-upon common interest leaves overmatched individuals to fight something so much bigger than themselves, and leaves only that doomed and dreary hero's-journey bullshit as a structure for the day-to-day—this is all authentically shameful and painful, and at some level it appears that Rodgers has picked up on that. But he has no idea what to do with that, or how or why it might matter, because he cannot see it as having to do with anyone but him.

Because he only knows one way to understand this stuff, and because that way only leads to a more profound non-understanding, he talks about the conversations that he feels like he cannot have, and about all the things that he thinks he cannot say. There are people who talk for a living only about this, and say only those things; this endless circular conversation about all the necessary conversations that cannot be had is the only conversation they have. Rodgers, among many other people, listens to them and nods along. And when it is time to speak, about anything, that conversation is what comes out.

The thing here is to be free, but crucially not just free to do whatever you want to do. Being able to do whatever you want to do is already a freedom that Aaron Rodgers already enjoys, as it turns out; he has correctly adduced that rules do not apply to him, and has gloried in that impunity this year. "Just as there appears to be no single throw he won't attempt, there is also no opinion he will back down from if he feels he is right," Van Valkenburg wrote. "The two sides of Rodgers felt intertwined, each fueled by the same flood of self-confidence and unapologetic joy." There is no detectable joy in it, at least to me, but there is also no doubt.

This freedom to do whatever you want is also one that is readily available pretty much everywhere, to pretty much everyone. It is less interesting, I think, that no one can make Aaron Rodgers wear a mask—which, sure, whatever—than how few of the institutions that might have attempted to do so have ever really tried. What might have happened—a concerted national attempt to eradicate or minimize or even manage the pandemic—has mostly just not, not just because it seemed hard but because there isn't really the institutional will or capacity to enforce any of the not-especially-onerous stuff that such an effort would have required. The result is a wilderness of weird rules dictated by a sclerotic and inconsistent elite and effectively unpatrolled by any recognizable authority. The agencies that might enforce it are in many instances openly opposed to those rules out of roughly equal disgust at the populace to which those rules would apply and distress at the possibility that those rules might be deemed to apply to them as well. Beneath the thin surface of a national effort is just a writhing mess of individuals making their own choices, for their own reasons, on their own individual behalf.

There is, more broadly, an unspoken consensus that holds that allowing a million or so citizens to die is just the practical choice if the alternative involves doing things that might alter the status quo, or just make people think differently about how they fit within the broader collective reality of our national life. The result has been a desperate and deluded belief that a critical mass of sufficiently responsible individual decisions might make up for the absolute and unconscionable absence of anything like concerted collective action.

The shame of it, the horror of it, is that no such response was ever really mounted in earnest at all. The moment in which we all find ourselves now, not quite together, is a jangle of discordant signifiers. We note record daily deaths alongside a bizarre and bizarrely aggrieved line of argument pushed by a bipartisan elite that peevishly asserts that everyone is overreacting to that reality. We see teenagers driving ambulances and National Guard members teaching in elementary schools because too many of the people who might otherwise do those jobs are too sick to do them, and then watch that atrophy become an inspiring human-interest story on nightly news broadcasts. Everyone is jostled everywhere by the heedless elbows-out rush of variously inconvenienced parties, each and all of them at the center of their own personal hero's journey, to position themselves as the greatest and most afflicted victims of all this pandemic tumult, even as thousands of other people literally die, of that very pandemic, alone and scared in overextended hospitals, every fucking day, still. Two years on, none of this has really changed. It has only been amplified, and atomized, and monetized, through what are apparently not just the most robust but the only truly resilient channels that the culture has left: the ones that drip poison, a little bit at a time, into the confused and lonesome individuals who have convinced themselves that it is actually some forbidden nourishment.

But you knew all that. What has kept me coming back to the Rodgers story over the last week is not that Rodgers is an especially unique or even compelling central subject; Van Valkenburg is a good writer and did a good job writing it, but Rodgers is not the first elite athlete to be both an obsessive competitor and kind of a smug jerk. But there is something in his anger that I have seen elsewhere and wondered about.

In the absence of anything more cohesive or more ennobling, a versatile but otherwise useless resentment has become the signal core emotional fact of American public life. Rodgers, like most people, has an easier time diagnosing this in other people than in himself; he seemed characteristically affronted by the fact that so many people seemed to be cheering against him in the NFC Divisional round last weekend, "for one reason and one reason only, and it's obviously my vaccination status." He seemed to think that this was very small and petty of those people, which precludes Rodgers from having to think about why those people—who I suspect just want this pandemic to end, and who have realized the by now well-quantified fact that the vaccine Rodgers has refused to take is very good at preventing serious illness and death from this particular disease—might hate him and people like him for the ways in which they have chosen themselves over everyone else.

But I wonder why and how he can go on believing that people who are being shouted at online, or who make a point of signaling their hostility to everyone they encounter every day, are somehow more urgently and unfairly sinned against than the people that they have effectively taken hostage. Some of this is probably just the laziness and moral cowardice that it looks like—it is easier to complain about the inability to have a forbidden conversation than to face the opprobrium that would follow from actually having it. Some of it is just what distance does, and the way that this grievance-driven strain of metastatic individualism makes the rest of humanity into enemies.

But that does not explain how these little vengeful godheads manage to square the persecution that they perceive with their own effectively unfettered progress through every day. "As usual in the United States," Alex Pareene wrote in his newsletter earlier this week, "the people who won the political argument are now complaining the loudest that they’re dissatisfied with the results, and, apparently, it’s all the fault of the losers." This is what I wonder about: how Aaron Rodgers can be so unhappy even after getting everything he says he wants.

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