(This article was originally published February 22, 2015. Still relevant? You be the judge.)
It should be said, on background, that I spend my days listening to news and public affairs programs (C-Span, BBC, NPR). My free time is spent reading newspapers, “serious” periodicals, and non-fiction books, also of the news/current event/issue variety (with history sprinkled in). Needless to say: I have no clue what is popular with the kids these days; my pop-up ads on social media and the internet assume I’m basically a 60-year-old male. I like to think I’m still fun at parties but what I do not think is that I actually know anything. Actually, it’s the opposite: the more smart stuff I consume, the more I look for, and the more I’m convinced that it would take all 24 hours of every day to scratch the surface of knowing anything. I have no idea how many hours it would take to get a solid, comprehensive grip on understanding and synthesizing any of it.
The background here is in three parts then: the first is that I consume a lot of commentary, fact, and media, including making sure I get duplicate information from multiple sources so the commentary doesn’t get confused with the fact and so that biases are multipolar. The second part is that it is entirely possible to live, breathe, and die by the news (even the good sources) and still know nothing: knowing takes the right sources and the right time and is more than a 40 hour per week job and, on any given day, I’m missing out on more of the information I want than I’m gaining. I blame my day job, but please don’t tell my boss. There’s a quote from Lily Tomlin along the lines of “No matter how cynical I get, it’s never enough to keep up.” For me, “information” would replace the word “cynical.” The third point: No matter how cynical I get, it’s never enough to keep up.
I think most people in “real America”, the one where the eponymous “ordinary Americans” live, I think they consume as much actual news as they have time to access. I think it takes real time, the kind that is more difficult to come by if you’re working a day job you have to pay attention to and raising kids and getting to the gym and taking care of the yard, the house, your marriage, your self-image, your health, and your retirement accounts; in fact, it requires extraordinary time to seek out the information that would really be useful. I think most people would love to know more but the most convenient sources aren’t helping them out much. The newspapers are trying to stay alive and worthwhile content is more expensive to produce, so there’s much less of it. Television news thrives on the visual (think pretty girls, weather, and disaster) and the dramatic; the substantive gets relegated to the categories of “too wonky”, “in the weeds”, and “snoozefest”. It’s possible to carve together quick, detailed, meaningful analysis online: but (a) this assumes digital literacy, affordable broadband, and sufficient gadgetry and (b) it also assumes the time and curatorial prowess to dive past the flashiest, instantaneous tweets and blurbs and most relevant results. The internet has everything; but you have to get past the ephemeral and the electric first. Scandal and schadenfreude are the dragons at the gate. Sometimes you don’t want to be a knight; you just want to get the news.
And I think the easiest thing for any of us, the media and the normal folks alike, is to get some information and then form strong opinions. The easiest thing is to go with your team or your party or your interest. But even easier still is to just hate them all: the media, the politicians (especially the politicians), the one who said the thing, the one who failed to say the other thing, the one who said the thing that wasn’t true, the one who slept with the girl, and the girl too for that matter.
It’s just so easy to assume they’re all bad, they’re not doing anything, they’re doing the wrong things, and they’re all dirty anyway. It’s time to take our country back and vote every one of them out.
And that is not without grounds: Anthony Weiner’s spectacular fall from legitimacy was due to multiple ridiculous instances of flashing his little anthony weiner on Twitter. Brian Williams’ fall from grace was due to repeated, inexplicable, self-aggrandizing inaccuracies in both houses of entertainment and news across a decade. In Indiana, Eric Turner (R-Cicero) is no longer a legislator because it turns out it’s a really bad idea to sit on a committee involving funding for nursing homes when you and your family own (wait for it) nursing homes (or companies which own companies which own…). And Tony Bennett, formerly Superintendent of Public Instruction, should not have been accepting campaign funds from a donor who financed/owned charter schools that Tony Bennett was in charge of evaluating and publicly funding and providing vouchers for. And Bill Clinton maybe should not have cigared an intern. (And, in fairness, the public and the impeachment squad shouldn’t have decided that mattered.) And that guy in Louisiana shouldn’t have stuck bundles of dollar bills in his freezer. And that Fox News anchor should certainly not have said that Santa was not black and “that’s a fact, kids” or that we, the U.S., is most certainly in an actual Holy War. And, any person reading this, discussing politics, going to the polls, or just sitting this one out again will most likely be able to extemporaneously name eighty other things that the elite players in our government or those who are supposed to be watching over it have done lately which genuinely deserve our collective derision: the least active Congress in the modern era, the actual government shutdown of 2013, the readiness to end funding for the Department of Homeland Security as of February 27 of this year because the president “overstepped his bounds” and a basic funding bill seems like an appropriate place to spank the president; Giuliani currying favor — with whom and for what purpose remains a mystery — by suggesting that a sitting president does not love his country and wasn’t raised the same way the rest “of us” were and 2016 frontrunner Governor Scott Walker (R- WI) not bothering to raise his hands on the dais at his fundraiser to suggest Giuliani may have erred because, of course, all public servants love their country. Sure, they have different ideas and they also love their egos and their reputations and their parties and their legacy, but at the end of the day, love of country is there too. And there are so many obviously bad moves being made by the governing and speaking and non-ordinary Americans, that sometimes the only response is just to disdain every one of them, focus on the mistake, and say “screw ’em all.”
No matter how cynical I get, it’s never enough to keep up. Politicians, what can you do?
There is some genuine entertainment to be had from politics: I mean, since Palin isn’t governing, it’s legitimately funny to watch the video of whatever that was she was trying to say in Iowa in January. Since Jeb Bush hasn’t governed since the early 2000s and is a Bush, there’s a kind of laugh out loud quality to his garbled worldview in a foreign policy speech he didn’t have to give this past week when he gave it; more to laugh at when he points to the global team, all of whom cut their teeth with 41 and 43 (and 40, for that matter) but says he is totally not, emphatically not, either 41 or 43 when it comes to global issues. The possibilities for mirth due to politicians speaking are endless: I’m not a witch, take a chicken to the doctor, it depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.
But it’s not the kind of funny that lasts very long; scratch below the surface and you end up feeling like none of the elected emperors have any clothes. The typos and the vulgar banality of the papers and the talking heads and the Twitterverse cause similar guffawing until you realize you’re dancing to a soundtrack that isn’t there, laughing at a joke that’s hackneyed and painfully familiar but has real-world, kitchen table implications. There’s a sense, for the “ordinary American” that the joke not only isn’t funny, but it’s actually on you.
No matter how cynical I get, it’s never enough to keep up.
Which leaves us where, exactly? I’m human. I bet you are, too. So’s Mitt Romney and Barack Hussein Obama and Sarah Palin and Mike Pence. So are Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Gwen Ifill, and Brian Williams. So’s Eric Turner and Glenda Ritz; Jim Shella and Diane Rehm. And even the Clintons, the Bushes, and the Pauls. We make mistakes. Some of them spectacular, some of them life-altering, some of them public. Some of them while we’re in office. Some of them while we’re on TV.
And I don’t know how to square the need for good people to be in office, good people to report on the people in office, good people to run for office, and good people to vote for the people and buy the papers and watch the content created by the good people with the gut instinct to vomit or laugh or be smug when the stupid happens and becomes a meme.
I don’t know how to continue to have a starry-eyed view that government, specifically American government, has the opportunity to accomplish meaningful if slow-moving good in this world when House of Cards, ethics reports, and 40-plus hours of news consumption tell me not to be so Sorkin-quixotic-besotted and certain about that.
I don’t know how to square all those LOL moments and the smug gabfests and the memes and the inattentiveness and the gerrymandering with the fact that, at this point, it genuinely seems like a good person can’t get elected while remaining a good person (the staffers and the lobbyists and the operatives remain constant and eternal; the candidate/governing body is nearly irrelevant). I don’t know how to reconcile the difference between the elite and the ordinary American; can’t possibly account for the fact that the smartest, most capable people I know couldn’t be elected or think of running for office because their lives are insufficiently sanitary and error-free.
And I definitely don’t know what to do with the part where the people who run, the people who win, and the people paid to comment on it all screw up and the mistakes begin, in our peculiar popular culture, to overtake anything else.
I don’t think Miley Cyrus can be defined by twerking. I don’t think Brian Williams’ 50-ish years of existence and kids and everything can be reduced to a glorified helicopter story. I think it is too simple to make a crack about Chris Christie’s weight and I think it is mean and shallow of any normal human being to make a glorified fat joke. I think it’s disgusting of Rand Paul to lie and say he has a Bachelor’s degree in Science when he has no B.A. or B.S. at all. And I think it’s similarly gross of anyone to discount the fact that Paul has a valid M.D. that he earned without the customary baccalaureate.
I think Lily Tomlin was right. I think the American people are right. I think even the least effective and least deserving representative is, on some level, right. I think we’re all human. I think we’re all capable of egregious error. I think we’re all capable of being mean-spirited and cynical and joyous at the public humiliation of others, particularly if the others are in power or in public.
Which is to say: we are all wrong, too. And, in our best moments, we are right, too: with ideals and forgiveness and consideration and hope and everything.
Every one of us.
We’re doing the best we can. We’re grandly screwing it up. On occasion, it photographs well. On occasion, we aim for okay and solidly hit “goodness” almost by accident. The best of “us” should not be cancelled out by our thoughtless sentence; the sum of our whole should not be callowly cancelled out due to a squeamish and ill-effected part.
Maybe it’s time for people who don’t look great on paper to run for office. Maybe it’s time for those in government to say the little screw-ups are not important and then talk over the allotted time to explain what is important and why. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate the whole mess of it: the papers, the TV, the internet, the politicians, the voters. The governed and the governing. Maybe it’s time to say laughing is easy and thinking is hard. Maybe it’s time for everyone to be a little more vulnerable, a little more idealistic, a little more forgiving.
And a little more willing to learn more, to run for things that can only result in failure, to be as open as possible, even if it’s not politically smart or media-savvy or mundanely popular.
No matter how cynical I am, it’s never enough to keep up.
No matter how idealistic I am, it’s never enough to keep up.