Sitting here in the corner with the wool pulled down over our eyes, listening to strangers whisper urgently about money and what desperate things they'll do if they don't get it, it's easy to feel like a hostage. Being held for ransom is now the normal state of things for the citizen-consumers of America.
Whether we're talking about the National Football League or the national debt as political football, we've long since surrendered ourselves into the abject care of madmen.
On Thursday night, NFL owners voted in favor of NFL owners by a count of 31-0. (The Oakland Raiders abstained, raising a question as to how greedy is too greedy even for pirates.) That our Benevolent Circle of Sporting Billionaires voted to approve of themselves strikes a blow for their self-esteem, I suppose, but does nothing much for you or for me or for the young men who play football in the NFL.
Meanwhile, we await word from Washington, D.C., where our annual gun-and-butter bill has come due, and the government budget is likewise up for discussion.
No matter which side you're on, and no matter how either negotiation turns (and let me be the last remaining national pundit with an IQ in the mid-double digits to state that there'll be plenty of professional football and plenty of professional government in the weeks, months and years to come), the new reality of America is a theater of desperation. A constant play of brinkmanship in which the status quo teeters forever on the edge of disaster.
Think of it as management by cliff-hanger. After all, the operation of a business or a government requires a sharpened sense of melodrama when its leading export is fear.
The zombie media report on all these things to the extent possible, of course, which isn't much. Unlike a mattress fire or a cat up a tree -- the drama and subtleties of which are apparent and observable even to us -- in cases like this, we can only go on what we're told. And everything we're told is a lie. A strategic feint. A bit of planted agitprop. Someone in a well-cut suit takes us aside in a hotel corridor or statehouse hallway and pours a story in our ear. This we bring back to you like a ransom note, as if the NFL labor agreement or the U.S. Constitution had been scissored letter by letter from a magazine.
The fact is we can only report with full confidence on the quality of the crabcakes in the hotel's atrium bar, or the number of points we'll earn for the stay. We do our best, but our best isn't very good when it comes to "process" stories like these.
Politics and business, two of our most human processes, both proceed from the premise of good faith, from the notion that each side must deal in earnest with the other. Neither can advance or improve its position otherwise. Self-interest is based on truth. In the absence of good faith, barter isn't commerce; it's a swindle. In the absence of flexibility, it's not a negotiation; it's a sermon. Perhaps we need everyone to sign a pledge promising never to sign another pledge. Because dogma, however moral or ethical or honestly arrived at, is the opposite of politics.
All of which might account for that sense of ambient dread you've been dragging around all summer.
In what can only be called history's worst case of Stockholm syndrome, not only do we continue to believe deeply in our captors and the institutions and fictions they represent but we go so far as to pay our own ransom. Again and again and again.
And having done so, having given over whatever little remains to us, soon enough we'll be pushed out of a van onto a darkened road somewhere, frightened and disoriented, until the next time someone needs to raise prices, and we're all taken up -- or just taken in -- again.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.