Americans deserve a Festival of Incompetence, to celebrate daylight savings and every stupidity like it.
I am not the first member of my profession to draw attention to the thoroughly debased cultural currency of “holidays.” For years many of us have protested the holding of Christmas festivities during—or, indeed, even before—Advent, and our even ghastlier tendency to leave off celebrating well before February 2, when my own children open the last of their presents.
But things are getting worse, not better. In my lifetime “Halloween” has become a season unto itself, one that lasts from about the end of August until the first Christmas decorations begin to appear (roughly) on All Souls Day. Meanwhile, even thoroughgoingly secular holidays such as Thanksgiving have been transformed beyond recognition. How I long now for those halcyon days when the annual humiliation of the Detroit Lions on national television was the mere vigil of one of the high feasts of GDP growth instead of the end of a month-long inducement to purchase worthless Chinese plastic.
I could go on in this vein indefinitely, but facts must be faced. The American people are desperate for something to celebrate between the vigil of All Saints and the fourth Thursday in November. Which is why I am proposing a new holiday, one that will in fact be celebrated twice a year.
Before I continue, I should make it clear that the “Festival of Incompetence,” which I propose that we observe at the beginning and ending of Daylight Savings Time on the second Monday in March and the last Sunday in November respectively, was originally my wife’s idea. Like most American parents she and I spend roughly a third of the year trying to adjust our children to this pointless scheme of meddling with clocks.
There’s nothing we can do about Daylight Savings Time. This is true even though it would be difficult to think of another national policy with fewer defenders. In fact, I have never met a single person who believed that it was worthwhile, and I doubt such a person exists. This is exactly why it is never going away—that’s how these things always work. (An actually popular or worthwhile undertaking on the other hand…)
Hence, in the spirit of jubilant resignation, the Festival of Incompetence (or FOI for short), a biannual celebration not only of Daylight Savings Time but of all the absurdities, stupidities, inanities, blunders, and obvious errors visited upon us by forces beyond our control: not only federal, state, and local government but also major corporations, educational institutions, sports leagues, hospitals, dioceses, and departments of fish and game.
The great thing about FOI is that, like All Saints, when we commemorate both the great saints of the canon and the comparatively humble objects of local cults, it combines the universal and the particular. No two people will celebrate it in the same manner. We can of course all acknowledge the monumental follies of our age—the so-called liturgical reform, the system of de facto indentured servitude that we fondly refer to as “higher education,” the decline in building materials, textiles, and the quality of other consumer goods, the eradication of our industrial base, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, so-called “airport” security, smoking bans, mobile phones, the two-part legalization of cannabis, the successive rounds of Covid theater during the last two years (can you believe it has been that long?)—but what about those other winsome little acts of stupidity we are all forced to put up with?
Think of the poorly designed highway merge where you have a decidedly non-zero chance of being killed during your daily commute, the ugliest municipal building in your city or town, your least favorite corporate telephone menu or online customer service portal. Recall with especial relish the longest conversation you have ever had with a representative of your employer-sponsored insurance company—the indescribably sweet feeling of being told after waiting on hold for an hour, having the call disconnected the moment you finally reach an agent, and reconnecting that the mistake is the hospital’s fault and you need to contact their billing department. Think of how you felt when you last renewed your driver’s license or paid your water and sewer bill in person and were told that your state or city assesses a $7 fee for the use of a credit or debit card, as if it were 1972 and these little pieces of plastic were some unheard-of inconvenient commodity.
So much for the matter. In what manner should FOI be celebrated, you might ask? Here it will do me no good to be overly prescriptive, lest I find myself an object of mirth (“Here’s to Walther, who made FOI the worst holiday since Flag Day with his lame drinking tradition!”). Still, a few suggestions are perhaps in order:
- Games, such as “How much did it cost?” (a pointless but one hopes amusingly ritualized attempt to answer questions like why your city council forced the library system to buy a dilapidated building that it had paid too much for years earlier when the downtown bank decamped for a plaza off the highway) or “Ontology of the catch” (an NFL-themed investigation into changed attitudes about metaphysics).
- Decorations, e.g., banners replete with misspellings or gibberish English of the kind familiar to anyone who has purchased a child’s swimming toy from Amazon or read an instruction manual purchased in the last year; or, for the more ambitious, deliberately sloppy home improvement projects that remind you of municipal contracting, McMansions, or the bathroom of your favorite fast food franchise—constructing a birdhouse with multiple overlapping facades of at least three different materials (preferably at least one of them fake brick veneer).
- Special food and drink: One idea is to commemorate the retirement of the most recent iteration of the food pyramid (remember when people thought that Cheerios were better for you than farm-fresh eggs?) or the gradual evolution of ever-more harmful substitutes for animal fat. Another is to see how quickly you and your friends can become what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define as “problem drinkers,” viz., a woman who drinks more than one alcoholic beverage per day.
All of these played some role in my own family’s inaugural celebration of FOI this year. Here’s hoping the rest of you will join us in March.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.