On her train ride home the other night, Mrs M found herself seated---stuck---across the aisle from a guy she described as a typical conservative loudmouth sounding off to a companion on various Fox News-approved Right Wing angers and resentments as if going down a list and checking off boxes. His running theme was that somebody, somewhere was getting way with something at his expense. Teachers! (For instance.) They make over a hundred and twenty grand while working only nine months out of the year!
The guy was in his mid-fifties, which I’ve noticed is about the age when men begin to become addicted to Fox News and also the age when they begin to face up to the fact they are going to get old and die, and as I’ve said before, I think the two are related. From other things he said, Mrs M deduced he’s in real estate, although she couldn’t tell in what way. All she could be sure of is his income depended on what other people decided to do with their money on any given day and it ate him up that he had no control over that. There are lots of ways to be in real estate and none of them guarantee you’ll get rich at it. The prospect of making a killing on any given day is what’s attractive about it to many people. The need to make a killing to compensate for the lat month of worse than no killings and to give you a cushion to cover you through the next month or next year is probably what drives many people mad. Mrs M couldn’t tell if he’d made any killings lately but if he had they weren’t giving him any satisfaction. He was too angry at how one way or another he’d be done out of money he should have and would have in the bank if not for Fill In the Blank With Anything But Bad Luck or His Own Mistakes. It’s always THEIR fault.
I must have been in a self-critical mood, though, because none of the usual sneering at conservatives passed through my mind as Mrs M related his rants and raves. What I thought instead was, He sounds like me.
I don’t mean in his politics, of course, or even in his tones of anger and resentment. I mean just in his spouting off in public without regard for the sensibilities of people stuck across the aisle and forced to listen as they try to unwind, relax, rest, read, and otherwise put their own hard days at the office behind them.
I do this all the time. And not just about politics. Name a topic, get a lecture. I’d like to think I at least know to keep it down, but I don’t always. I can get carried away. I can be like that pompous professor in line at the movies behind Woody Allen in Annie Hall and I’m sure many people trapped within earshot long to reach behind a poster and drag out Marshall McLuhan to tell me what an ass I am and to shut up.
I call this blogging in public, and I hate it when I catch myself at it. I hate it more when I catch myself at it with a group of friends blogging in public right along with me. I have many intellectual friends and a defining characteristic of intellectuals is we love to hear ourselves talk, especially when we don’t know what we’re talking about. We enjoy making it up as we yammer on. We call it theorizing but it’s mostly just mental games-playing and showing off like Tom Sawyer walking along the top of the fence, except we often don’t need there to be a Becky Thatcher there to impress.
(You saw what I just did there, didn’t you?)
Catching the group of us strutting our intellectual stuff like this can ruin a night out for me. I feel bad for everyone around us at a restaurant, in a bar, in the bleachers, on the train, or in line at the movies stuck nearby and forced to listen. But it’s not just that. I feel like we’re spoiling our own good time. We’re taking ourselves out of the moment, removing ourselves from the physical world, losing the connection between what’s actually occurring outside our heads and what we’re thinking. I especially hate it when the subject is politics, which it too often is, because then not only are we mentally removed from the scene, we’re in Washington or Albany, doleful places to be.
I’d blame our obsessing over politics on our spending too much time on the internet and watching the television bobblehead shows except that it’s been a feature of my social life since high school when there was no twenty-four hour news, when all you could watch on TV in the daytime were soap operas and game shows, when social media was a note taped to a locker, and when my communist girlfriend and I used to sneak off into a field next to school between classes and she’d instruct me on the evils of capitalism while we were both thinking about what we should have been doing under the circumstances and would have been doing if we weren’t a couple of shy, nervous, timid, and inexperienced proto-intellectuals distracting ourselves with talking about politics.
By the way, she’s a rabid Right Winger these days and refuses to read my blog.
I think politics is still a distraction for my friends and me, and I do blame the internet, social media, and twenty-four TV news, to an extent. Blogs, Twitter feeds, and television punditry encourage a reductively political view of life. The timelines of many of my Facebook friends are relentlessly political. Oh, they’ll interrupt themselves to post pictures of their pets and their latest meal and tor pass along news about their health or their jobs or their family and friends but they’ll quickly follow up with post after post after things in the news that have made them mad.
It’s the making ourselves mad that’s the trouble. Our anger isn’t productive. Nothing comes of it but frustration, discouragement, and more anger. There are problems that can be solved by talking about them but talk only goes so far in helping to solve others, political problems chief among them: it has to lead to action. And for too many of us political obsessives, the talk doesn’t even lead to the simple and easy action of picking up the phone and calling our Congresscritters. RT-ing a trenchant Tweet is fine, but it’s better to write an editor or call the mayor’s office. Even better, of course, is to go knocking on doors and showing up at offices. What’s happening in the streets of Ferguson, New York, D.C., Boston, and Berkeley shows what can be done through the internet and social media, although unions organized, Civil Rights were won, anti-war protestors marched without smart phones, and I’m an advocate of being politically informed and engaged simply as a basis for the most minimal forms of good citizenship. But for most of us most of the time the talk is just talk, the Tweets are just Tweets, and not because we don’t follow it up with action but because we know or at least feel there’s no action we can take that will change things. There are too many problems, too many competing interests, too much power and money allied against the change, too much else for us to worry about and to do. All we can do is get mad.
And that’s another trouble. Discouragement is pervasive. When we’re discouraged by one thing, we tend to let it discourage us about other things. The whole world begins to look bleak.
But I also think obsessing over politics is a distraction in another way. It’s a way to think about other people’s problems instead of our own, that is, we use it to avoid thinking about what else is bothering us and making us unhappy. And then it can become the case that we start mixing up our personal unhappiness with the general and from there we can trick ourselves into believing it’s up to politicians to solve our troubles---“If only those damn Democrats would get it together!” “If only the President would stand up to the Republicans!” “If only Elizabeth Warren would run!”---and we lose sight of the fact that there are ways besides taking partisan political action to make ourselves happier and improve our own lives and the lives of others.
And, as I suspect it does for that guy on Mrs M’s train, politics can provide an excuse for not owning up to our own mistakes and bad decisions and selfish and foolish choices. It’s always THEIR fault.
We just identify a different THEM.
Finally---and this is not trivial---a political view of life is a critical view of life. Politics is about making things better which is a way of saying it’s about fixing what’s wrong. And that’s important, but we shouldn’t lose track of what doesn’t need fixing. Not everything is wrong. A lot is right and much is good and some things are wonderful, even beautiful. And we often miss that the right and the good and the wonderful and the beautiful are right in front of us because we’re talking politics instead of paying attention to the nice meal on the table, the good company around us. With so much to catch up on, so much to share, our attention is focused far away on the likes of John Boehner and Ted Cruz, Bill O’Reilly and George Will. Bad enough we spoil our own good time by making ourselves listen to ourselves talk about them.
Pity the poor people around us.
I’ve got several posts in the hopper that are partisanly political and having written what I’ve written here I almost feel like I should apologize in advance. I’m even tempted not to post them. And maybe I won’t. Do you really want to know what I think about Elizabeth Warren running for President? More than you want to know what I thought about The Theory of Everything or about my other high school girlfriend’s---the Republican, not the Communist---confrontation with the relicts of dead saints on her first trip to Italy when she was twelve?
Meanwhile, I’m going to end this with something non-political and beautiful: 24 Introvert Dream Libraries.
That’s the private library of writer Neil Gaiman. You can see the whole gallery at LonerWolf.
Another hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist.