The Tin Hat

Kevin Bartelme

May 25th ’20 • ISBN: 978-1-887276-86-3 • $ 19.95

In The Tin Hat, his fifth humorous work of fiction with Coolgrove, author Kevin Bartelme brings us another biting satire about our culture’s fast slide into disturbing, uncharted territory. Not new to that critical point of view, our author lends us his literary goggles to witness hosts of science deniers submitting to delusional superstitions in hot, blind pursuit of their measures of success. Through deft application of dramatic devices he allows us a comedic gaze at outrageous behavior in the light of wise hindsight to be found in the best of ancient Greek comedians—writing as they were, in an already mature democracy and no strangers to diversity and valuing truth over correctness or lies. In The Tin Hat, Bartelme tells it like it is.

When Professor Ted Gershem and his graduate school abnormal psychology seminar participants investigate conspiracy theorists diverse as flat-earthers and gluten rejectors they encounter a slew of Cassandras who warn them about everything from the Reptilians to the Bilderbergers. Before long they find themselves plunged in bizzare world-views where nothing is what it seems and where dark, unseen forces, battle for control of our minds. In this outrageous gambol through the dark side of New York, the group gets more than what they bargained for as they’re drawn into bizarre, off the wall situations involving eccentrics with exceedingly ‘rich inner lives’ dwelling in nothing but alternate realities propounded by, among other extreme tin hatters, a cabal of Ayn Rand revivalists. We are taken on a painless romp through an America gone soft on science but fallen hard for fabricated untruths passing for news. What will the ardent members of a theater group not do for their minute, or fifteen, of fame? For lovers of Americana, The Tin Hat has the power to vaccinate against the depression and gloom in circulation in 2020 as the nation hurtles toward the most contentious and landmark election in US history.

Chapter One of The Tin Hat excerpted:

Author: Kevin Bartelme

            ‘I am not a paranoid. Not in the normal sense anyway. Even if I were, just remember even paranoids have enemies. Just remember that. So take a moment and let me tell you what’s going on. It’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Number one, you don’t have any control over your own mind. Everything you think, everything you feel, everything you do has been organized by someone else since the day you were born. You are immersed in propaganda so deep and pervasive that you don’t even recognize it. After all, it’s your natural environment. You do what it tells you to do, you feel what it tells you to feel, and, above all, you think what it tells you to think. You don’t really exist at all. You are just a figment of someone else’s imagination. Now things get really interesting. If you are a figment of someone’s imagination, is that someone a figment of someone else’s imagination? You can see where this is going, can’t you? Frankly, I can’t. But I’m trying.

            At least I’m trying, which is more than I can say about all the zombies standing in line with me at the check out line in the grocery store.

            Speaking of groceries, I eat gluten. In fact, I eat all the gluten I can get. Within reasonable limits, of course. Bread is and always has been the staff of life. For tens of thousands of years. So who are all these freaks babbling about how it’s poisonous or something. And one more thing. Their gluten free dough is completely unworkable without adding sugar. Sugar!”

            “So what do we have here?” Professor Gershem looked up from the note he was reading aloud and threw the question open to the five Ph.D candidates in his graduate seminar on abnormal psychology. “What sort of person wrote this?”

            “A nut,” the fat class comic wisecracked.

            “Thanks for your perceptive diagnosis, David, but what sort of nut is this guy?”

            “I think he’s a paranoid schizophrenic,” Rhoda Memberman suggested.

            “Why is that?”

            “Well, the first thing he claims is that he’s not paranoid. Then he goes on to say we are all being controlled by propaganda. Everyone
but him, that is. That’s sort of the same thing as voices in his head that no one else can hear.”

            “Okay,” said Professor Gershem, “now we’re getting somewhere, but paranoid schizophrenia is a really strong term. How about someone just walking down the street listening to their iPod? They’re hearing voices too.”

“But those voices are real,” Akisha Lumumba objected. “If you put on the iPod you can hear them too.”

            “So if everybody was listening to the same iPod tune, this guy would be perfectly fine,” said Barry Breen. “That’s just monotheism. One voice, one word.”

            “You’re not just talking about monotheism,” Akisha objected. “You’re talking about patriarchalism, the white man with the long white beard who looks like Santa Claus coming down the mountain like Charlton Heston with the Ten Commandments.”

            “No one shall pry my stones from these arthritic old hands!”
David Kogan erupted theatrically.

“I think Akisha might have a point,” said Breen. “Actually, Moses was the very last person in the Bible to talk to God so that makes him the final authority on God’s wishes.”

            “Why are we talking theology?” Rhoda Memberman complained. “The guy who wrote what Professor Gershem just read doesn’t even mention religion. He seems more concerned about his digestive system than God. Don’t do it,” she warned David Kogan. “You’re going to say the guy must be Jewish. Ha, ha, ha.”

“You said it, not me,” said Kogan.

            “I think we’re all missing the point here,” Professor Gershem tried to get the discussion back on track. “This guy is talking about  propaganda, not voices in his head. He is talking about human, not divine, agency. He is talking about people manipulating, or attempting to manipulate, other people. By the way, I know nothing about gluten. I’m not a nutritionist. but this guy thinks that the people in the supermarket check-out line are zombies created by some sort of malign

            “Apophenia?” said shy Rino Matsui who very rarely spoke at all but, in the Professor’s estimation, was the sharpest student in the room.

“Please, elaborate.”

            “He thinks that the world revolves around him and he’s the only one who can read the messages it’s sending.”

            “So he’s a solipsist,” said the Professor.

            “I’m sorry…” said Rino.

            “A solipsist is someone who thinks the world, as you just said, revolves around himself alone. Does anyone here ever read their horoscope in the newspaper or wherever? Have any of you ever read a fortune cookie?”

            Everyone, of course, murmured in assent.

            “Did you ever, even for a tiny split second, think that it actually applied to you?”

            “Do you mean the horoscope in the Post isn’t true?” David
            Kogan wailed. “You’ve ruined my whole day.”

            Gershem actually had a good heckler put-down to shoot back, which started, “Well, in your case…” but he decided to ignore Kogan.

            “What I mean to say is that we all suffer from apophenia, if only in a very mild way. As individuals, we all are occasional victims of self-referential delusions. But that doesn’t seem to apply in this case. This guy thinks that everybody is getting the same message but he’s the only one that can see through this ‘natural environment’ as he calls it.”

            “He’s hardly the only one,” Breen objected. “There are whole books written on the subject of propaganda. Maybe you should just send him a reading list.”

“So when we talk about propaganda, when we talk about a system of indoctrination orchestrated by those in power, what are we really talking about?” Gershem asked his class.

            “Government,” said Rhoda. “In order to rule, the government has to manipulate the governed. But there’s nothing new about that. It’s been around through all recorded history and probably well before that.”

            “As I said before, I don’t know much about gluten,” said Gershem, “but is this guy a nut? Is he wrong about a deliberate attempt by a small group of people to manipulate everyone else? Is he a tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist or a highly perceptive observer of society as a whole?”

            “We can’t really analyze him,” Breen objected, “without a whole lot more information. Is he one of those guys who think the
reptilian shapeshifting Queen of England rules the world through the Satanic Bilderbergers? Is he a big alien invasion enthusiast?”

            “You’re right, Barry,” said Gershem. “We shouldn’t draw conclusions based on a single piece of paper but I think this guy’s attitude is becoming more and more prevalent in our society. People are reflexively questioning the legitimacy of any sort of official narrative.”

            “Well, look, we know we’re being spied on and we’re being lied to about it,” said Akisha. “I think that creates a lot of anxiety and the result of all that anxiety is a lot of people think someone is conspiring against them as individuals.”

“It makes them feel more important than they really are,” said
Rhoda. “It simultaneously makes them feel in the know and, because of that, dangerous to the powers that be.”

            “It’s sort of like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’,” said Kogan. ”The iPod People are closing in on him.”

            “Zombies,” Breen corrected him.

“So how to treat this guy?” Gershem asked. “He’s going to look at any attempt to disabuse him of his notions as proof of a wider
conspiracy, that the therapist is trying to turn him into a zombie.”

            “And if some shrink tries to put him on some psychoactive drug he’d be right,” Akisha observed.

            “We don’t have to disparage our more pharmaceutically inclined colleagues in the mental health field,” said Gershem. “I’m sure a tiny
fraction of them are well intentioned.”

            He got his laugh.

            “So that’s the problem,” said Gershem. “I want to hear your
suggestions next time we meet.” The professor looked at his watch.
            “Sorry, I’ve got to run but I’ve got meeting in ten minutes. See you all on Tuesday.”

             The seminar dispersed as usual with everyone going their own ways. The tenuous camaraderie of the classroom seemed to evaporate as soon as they were out the door. But not this time with Barry Breen attempting to converse with exceedingly polite and seemingly unattainable Rino Matsui. “I thought what you said was very interesting. Do you have time for a coffee?”

            His spirits soared when she said rather offhandedly, “I think I have a few minutes.”

            They found a little coffee bar right across and down the street from the main university entrance, and Breen paid for her latte, a most forward thing to do indeed from her point of view.

            “You don’t have to do that,” she said almost petulantly. Actually she was secretly thrilled.

            “I just wanted to break this fifty,” he explained. “The next one’s on you. Just kidding. It’s my pleasure. Kanpai,” he said lightly bumping his paper coffee cup against hers,“You speak Japanese?” she said.

            “Yes I do. I can count; ichi, ni, uni…”

            She giggled. She couldn’t help herself.

            “I can say thank you very much; Arigato gozaimasen.”

            This time she squealed with laughter. “Who taught you
Japanese? It’s so bad.”

            “You really think so? It’s that… yabai?”

            She suddenly looked at him with reluctant respect. He was  teasing her. He knew what he was saying.

            “Perhaps you could teach me more?” he pressed.

            “Perhaps. When I’ve got time.”

            “Why don’t you give me your phone number?”

            “Give me your phone number. I’ll call you.” She looked at her watch. “Now, really, I have to go. Thank you for the coffee.”

             As she walked off down the street, it was impossible not to notice that little extra swing in her hips.

            “What do they want anyway?” Breen mumbled with no extra swing in his hips at all.

            Professor Gershem, who had been summoned by the head of the department, along with two other senior faculty members, to discuss a matter as yet to be disclosed, was the last person to enter the room, and the meeting commenced on his arrival.

            “Sorry I’m late,” he apologized. “My students just wouldn’t stop asking questions.”

            “I thought you were a clinician, Ted,” his colleague Alan Garret needled him. “You’re supposed to ask the questions, not answer them.”

              “You have a point there.”

            “Well, now that we’re all here,” said Alvin Spurtz, “I can tell you what this is all about and I don’t want this discussion to leave the room. The department has been offered a rather substantial amount of money for research purposes. Actually, it’s a government contract but we’re not supposed to know that. The funding will be provided by a private foundation right here in New York, the Spuyten Duyvil Trust. They want us to do a study on the psychological aspects of the notions of good and evil. What do people think is good? What do they think is evil? And why?”

            “Isn’t it all relative?” Alan Garret asked. “I mean we think eating other people is horrifying but a cannibal has an entirely different opinion.”

            “Exactly,” said Spurtz. “The question is how do people acquire and maintain these conceptions, these perspectives.”

            “This sounds like anthropology,” said Conrad Boardman.

             “That may be, “said Spurtz, “but we don’t want the
anthropology department to get the grant, do we?”

            They all laughed.

            “But seriously,” Spurtz continued, “ I think, with the aid of our many grad students, we can put together a report by the deadline.”

            “What’s the deadline?” Gershem asked.

“           It’s the government,” said Spurtz. “We could spend the rest of our lives working on this and even pass it on to our grandchildren.”

            “In other words,” said Boardman, “the deadline is when they bury us in the cold, cold ground.”

            “Well, that’s one way to put it,” Spurtz agreed enthusiastically.

            “Talk about a sinecure,” Garret agreed. “Where to even begin?”

            And so, under no particular pressure, they outlined a plan for their inquiry into the psychological origins of the nature of good and evil and left Spurtz’s office on collegial terms with the assurance they would be equally rewarded for their efforts and might possibly aspire to some sort of award or other.

            As they walked down the hall together toward the exit, Gershem and Garret considered the nuts and bolts of such a study.

            “You must have had a few patients with strong opinions on the
subject, I mean paranoids and the like,“ said Garret.

            “Not nearly enough for a survey study. I think we’re going to have to go to Bellevue or Pilgrim State or something like that for the kind of numbers we need. But then, why not just average people? You don’t have to be nuts to have a take on good and evil.”

            “You may have a point,” said Garret equivocally. “What’s your take?”

“Are you calling me average?”

            Gershem walked out the door of the building thinking of his much younger Israeli wife who had deserted him as soon as she got her green card. He wondered what poor sap she was hustling now as he walked down the street to his apartment on West End Avenue. The large space, some six rooms, presented him with something he could never fill again so he only went into the kitchen and his  bedroom. Even the study with all his books had been abandoned to the maid’s occasional feather dusting. It was too early to go to his favorite Chinese restaurant on Broadway so he sat down at the kitchen table and began writing notes on possible groups of people to interview for the new project. Religious people, of course, the more hardcore fundamentalist the better. Political extremists were definitely another fertile hotbed of material on the subject. And, of then again, there were conspiracy theorists who abounded on all sides of the political and religious spectra. As a psychologist he was not much interested in religion, though he had read quite a few books on its expression of unconscious forces, but it certainly was central to the notions of good and evil to which large numbers of people subscribed.
Politics was more about economics with a healthy dollop of jingoism, war-making technology, and unparalleled corruption to spice up the stew. Good and evil sat in the back of a shiny bus being driven by greed and the lust for power. Conspiracy theorists such as the patient who’d written the note he’d just read in class, on the other hand, came from the left, the right, the fervently religious, the atheists, and the completely deranged. There was no clear agenda and there were tens of millions of them lurking out there, flooding the Internet with their opinions and proofs. This wildly disparate group was the one Gershem decided to study. In retrospect, it might not have been the wisest choice.

            The first thing he would do was have his students scour the Internet for every conspiracy theory they could find. Then they would categorize and cross-reference them, since many seemed to overlap. After that, they would try and set up interviews with the various theorists. It all seemed so simple and logical at the time. What was in store, however, would not be so simple or logical at all. But innocent abroad Gershem did not know that yet and happily went off for supper at the appropriate time to King Wok Szechuan where the staff knew better than to serve him anything with monosodium glutamate which made him break out in a rash. Or so he claimed. No doctor had confirmed this allergy and one had even implied it was psychosomatic.

            While he was sitting eating his moo goo gai pan, he wondered what the Chinese conception of good and evil was, but he didn’t know how to broach the subject with the professionally obsequious waiter. It was early and there were very few customers in the restaurant so Gershem decided to give it a shot.

            “Wo Chung, what do you think the difference between bad and good is?”

            The waiter reacted with alarm. “Moo goo gai pan no good?” he asked.

“No, no,” Gershem reassured him. “It’s very good. That’s not really my question.”

“No? What you want?”

            “Forget it.”

            “Yes, I will,” Wo Chung nodded and smiled.

            Gershem decided the Chinese were too inscrutable to seriously
discuss good and evil. Or too smart to think about good and evil at all.

             At loose ends after he’d dined, he decided to walk south down Broadway to a local bar that he knew, the Stay Put Club, where the crowd was more or less his age and it was highly unlikely that he would run into any of his students. Wouldn’t do to get caught quaffing a scotch and soda with a bunch of semi-inebriated regulars, most of whom knew him by name. It was, however, as good a place as any to poll the clientele on the nature of good and evil.

            Gershem went into the bar, took an available seat, was brought his drink without even ordering, and immediately confronted with an old
acquaintance, John Connelly, asking him, “Say there, Ted, how about those Mets?”

            The question, of course, was just a joke. Gershem decided to dig right in.

            “John, are you Catholic?”

Kevin Bartelme