by SASKATCHEWAN KOLONOSCOGRAD, Alternate Reality News Service Existentialism Writer
J. Charrington Squiffy puts a large cardboard box on the table in front of me. On a label on the front of the box is the cryptic designation “54219854641-25896213489874-3C,” under which somebody has written in a precise hand, “Social Justice.”
“We received this one on January 20, 1981,” Squiffy tells me. “The day of Ronald Reagan’s Presidential inauguration. I remember it well: it was a Tuesday…there was a slight drizzle, but it actually seemed to refresh DC.”
Looking inside the box, I find newspaper and magazine articles on the responsibility of society to protect its weakest members. “There are many more books, pamphlets tracts and even the odd stone tablet going back three thousands years,” Squiffy informs me. “If you really want to learn about the subject, I’ll have to fire up the forklift.”
I tell him that won’t be necessary, that I’m only browsing, and he leaves me to it.
I am sitting in a nondescript cubicle in a nondescript building in a nondescript part of Washington. These are the offices of the federal Department of Quaint Notions, a little known government initiative that keeps alive the largely forgotten ideals of previous generations. It is deathly quiet, as if the very idea is enough to keep people away.
Over a coffee during a break in my research, I ask Squiffy – whom I can only describe as, yes, nondescript – if the Department of Quaint Notions exists primarily to keep these old ideas alive for a time in the future when they might again be needed. Squiffy responds with a noise that almost sounds like laughter.
“Mostly,” he tells me, “the Department is used by people who want to prove that life used to be much better than it is now. You wouldn’t believe how much time Dinesh D’souza and Samuel P. Huntington spend here! Frankly, I…I was glad when I saw you come in – it’s nice to be able to serve somebody who doesn’t have a rabid look in their eye.”
Squiffy goes on to explain that it is possible to transfer a quaint notion from his department to the Department of Received Wisdom, but it is rare. “The paperwork is murder!”
Back in the office, I ask to see the department’s most recently created file. The box he hands me, “54219125741-25896213368874-2F,” is simply called “Torture.” In it, I find a variety of arguments that torture is a morally indefensible activity for modern democratic governments to engage in.
I comment that the box doesn’t appear to be as full as others Squiffy had given me. “The debate on this subject isn’t complete,” Squiffy responds, “but we received a directive from the Bush administration instructing us to prepare our materials in anticipation of the idea’s quaintification, so we’ve been scrambling to comply.” Squiffy states his confidence that the file will be up to scratch in a matter of weeks, if not days.
As I go through the box of material, it occurs to me that there are no electronic documents in the Department of Quaint Notions. When I point this out to Squiffy, he makes that almost laughing sound again, which, I decide, is something I don’t want to hear again as it is really annoying.
Instead of answering me directly, Squiffy disappears into the vault that contains the department’s files (imagine the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark with poorer ventilation). After a few minutes, he returns with another box. “54236535741-25896213362564-8X – Technology.” I don’t have to open it to know what it contains: arguments about the efficacy of print over electronic means of communicating and storing information.
After a long day of research, I ask Squiffy what his favourite quaint notion is. He points out that this isn’t an easy question to answer since most of the quaint notions from previous eras have been totally forgotten. The example of the Victorian Era belief that crushing tomatoes on your face will cure Influenza is the one out of the dozens he cites that sticks with me.
Having said that, Squiffy takes a deep breath and says, “Progress, the idea that things are always getting better, materially, spiritually, politically. The fact that the file is constantly bouncing between the Department of Quaint Notions and the Department of Received Wisdom should tip most people off that life is cyclical, not linear. And, yet, there is something seductive about the idea of progress, something…comforting.”
As comforting as the existence of the Department of Quaint Notions.