Cats find themselves in diverse conflicts. You will find them in the film genre that defines the twenty-first century: the cat video. On the internet you can witness cats against balloons, cats against cucumbers, cats against popcorn, cats against ducks, cats against flowers.
A cat will stare you in the eye and knock your possessions off the table for no apparent reason other than mild amusement at destruction for the sake of destruction. We could speculate about whether the first orange tabby president is essentially feline in his willingness to flout rules, his unpredictable attention span, and his penchant for viewing all humans as vassals put on earth to satisfy his arbitrary whims. These qualities for some reason draw in cat people and Trump supporters but repulse everyone else as a strange masochistic pathology.
The connection between Trumpism and catism is, of course, based on bad anecdotal reasoning. But like many false equivalences, it is the kind of thing that seems intuitively true if you do not think about it for very long. These sorts of associations work if you lack a sense of proportion and ignore contrary evidence like the anti-Trump career of Alaskan cat mayor Mr. Stubbs. Visceral reactions cannot be easily dismissed, however, in an age in which unprecedented access to information has not produced any narrative clarity about how to make sense of all this. What matters is not what information is out there but what attracts your attention.
The flipside of the imperative to pay attention is the allure of distraction. Cat videos offer a pleasurable diversion. The cat video answers the question “Is this all there is?” by saying, “This is too much. I need a break.” Cat videos promise a respite that feels necessary when you think this could not get any more bizarre but then it does. A fashionable thing nowadays is to say that this is shocking but not surprising. When shock no longer surprises then the familiar and quotidian become ever more elusive and desirable.
During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton pined for a feline respite in the wake of Trumping deluge: “It makes you want to turn off the news. It makes you want to unplug the Internet or just look at cat GIFs. Believe me, I get it. In the last few weeks I’ve watched a lot of cats do a lot of weird and interesting things.”
Looking at weird and interesting things is at odds with earnest reminders to pay attention. Do not get distracted, you are told. Do not lose focus. Keep calling. But what is distracting from what? Is collusion with the Russians a distraction from health care? Is health care a distraction from the Russians? Are health care and the Russians distractions from the same old neoliberal hegemony laughing all the way to the bank? Can a cat really chase away a bear? The answer to the last question is a decided yes. But what about a gator? Yes again. To the other questions, it is more complicated. Trying to sort through what matters when there is so much seems overwhelming, exhausting. Can a candidate get away with bragging about sexual assault, mocking the disabled, courting white nationalists, and picking fights with veterans while running a flagrantly corrupt campaign that funnels donations to his own businesses? Can you really just do that? Well if a cat can defeat a poisonous snake, then maybe anything is possible.
This is unbelievable to many secular liberals. The need to come to terms with disbelief is surprising if you thought that secularism required no belief and was based only on firm foundations of reason and empirical evidence. The shock that so many people are eager to opt out of democratic social contracts forces you to recognize that secular liberalism, with its inalienable rights, self-evident truths, and universal declarations, might just be a socially and historically specific set of rules, norms, myths, and codes of conduct that prove startlingly fragile in the face of impassioned resentment driven by a different “common sense” about who counts as human.
Now that this is not surprising, it is unclear whether diversions are buffers from shock or whether they are symptoms of resignation. Reminding people of the need to stay shocked, liberals exclaim: “This is not normal!” In this lament, the lost normal that has been unsettled, disrupted, and displaced is none other than enlightened liberal modernity. In response to ahistorical fantasies of making America great again, secular liberalism has constructed a counter-nostalgia for a time when facts were facts, academic expertise was respected, political institutions were transparent, and everyone shared a common sense of decency before it was torn asunder by the assaults on Truth by Trumpians and postmodernists.
That the majority of the world’s inhabitants would never have recognized themselves as living under any such enlightened dispensation says something about the limits of secular liberal attention. Racist ethno-nationalism is shocking and surprising to those who were unaware that it was there all along.
Nostalgia works a lot like distraction. It indulges the desire for a happy leisure place we can share outside of divisive appeals to racial and national solidarity. Ironically searching for common humanity in nonhuman companions, one imagines that the cats in Paris, Seoul, Istanbul, or Calgary see things in pretty much the same way. The cat video offers a lingering affirmation of the possibility of a world in which we can live together. As Clinton asserted: “We have a job to do. It’ll be good for people and for cats.” The question is whether anyone still believes that.