In this excerpt from Better Living Through Selective Apathy, I talk about something rather timely right now: Political Extremism. Come on in, the water’s fine…
One particular hill many people choose to die on is Capitol Hill. When having traditional enemies ended and we could no longer rally around a common enemy, we turned on each other as our enemy of choice. Like cuttlefish, we have a preferred diet of other things, but we are just as happy to eat each other when the opportunity presents itself. The polarization in this country might have very well reached a point of no return. Not only have we zealously crossed that bridge, we have blown it up out of fear the crazies might follow us over it. Now we are trapped on our respective islands, each side committing its own share of daily atrocities and hurling feces at the other. It is a never-ending childish cycle of “You started it!” “No, you started it!” which will have no satisfactory outcome for either side.
In 2016, Donald Trump ran for President of the United States on the abstract, meaningless slogan “Make America Great Again.” People with more than two working brain cells to rub together understood immediately that this slogan was no more quantifiable or executable than Hillary Clinton’s slogan “Forward Together” that same year, or Barack Obama’s “Forward” in 2012. It had no more practical meaning than Obama’s “Change” in 2008 or Kerry’s “Let America Be America Again” in 2004. The 2000 campaigns gave us hits like “Leadership for the New Millennium” from Al Gore and “Compassionate Conservatism” from George W. Bush. It seems like the left is always trying to go forward and the right is always trying to go back. It also seems like the general consensus is that most Americans are incapable of thinking beyond anything which doesn’t fit neatly on a hat.
If you go back through every presidential campaign slogan from past elections, you’ll find the same thing over and over: Saccharine, impractical, emotional reaction targeted one-liners. This isn’t a new phenomenon, either. What exactly does “Hurrah! Hurrah! The Country’s Risin’, for Henry Clay and Frelinghuysen!” even mean? They’re all like bad television commercials that rev you up over a product you can barely identify, but for some reason you know you must own immediately. Don’t be a gullible idiot. Don’t watch the first ten seconds of a sixty-second pharmaceutical commercial and start swearing by that drug, without listening to the other fifty seconds devoted to all of its side effects.
Back to the present, I asked someone wearing a Make America Great Again hat to quantify what it is about America that they felt wasn’t great. I asked them how we could actually bring back that specific thing which made it great. They had no answer. The M.A.G.A. slogan is nothing more than playing on the nostalgia of the past which in retrospect seems like a better time than the present. It always has. That’s a normal psychological occurrence. We remember the good with fondness and longing, and we don’t remember the daily struggles that went along with it. Of course we remember the ordeals and traumas we went through, but not usually when we’re being nostalgic or reflective. When we look back fondly on earlier happier times, it is usually because we are currently struggling in some way and long for the days when things were as simple as they seemingly used to be. However, things are never as good at the time, but only selectively seem so in retrospect. Having sentimentality for the past, its people and events, and its hope for the future, is something most people experience and use as a coping mechanism for the present. The Make America Great Again campaign plays mercilessly on that un-quantifiable sentimentality, reminding us that our past was a more hopeful and optimistic time.
When pressed to state practically how we can take steps to return ourselves to that time, I have yet to hear a person in the cult of Trump give a useful answer. This isn’t because they are stupid. It is because they are normal, gullible humans. They are the same gullible humans who got behind “Patriotism, Protection, and Prosperity” in 1896. They are the same people so susceptible to the power of suggestion that they felt “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it” was logical enough to put Richard Nixon into the White House. They are the people who only read the headline and never delve more deeply into what they are being fed, and they compose the vast majority of voters.
Now, the past was not always great for everyone. There is one aspect of American social life that I do feel was great, though, and which we could rather easily return to if we actually wanted to. There is a frequent answer I have heard regarding what the former “great” America used to be. Many people sigh and pine for the days when the public seemed much nicer and more respectful. They talk about how the permissive society has made things less and less respectful and that the people of this country don’t have the same quality of character they used to. In short, they say people have become petty. I tend to agree. That said, returning to our specific past, where so many people suffered from the prejudices of others, is not a place to which we should want to return all for the sake of making people act more nicely toward each other. Here is a rather revolutionary thought: We can still be nice to each other and nice to people with which we might have differences. Radical, I know.
Did you know that there was a time in this country where politics and religion were not socially acceptable topics of conversation? It was considered gauche to squash a pleasant social situation by bringing up a discussion about politics. Why was it considered a bad thing to talk about? Such discussions rarely result in anything positive, and more often than not, have a negative outcome. If you find yourself in a social situation with someone whose entire social identity seems to be derived from politics, I encourage you to show them no interest, concern, or enthusiasm. Simply tell them you are not interested, and change the subject.
Persistent social talkers of politics usually have one of three possible intentions. One intention might be to brainstorm on a particular social or economic problem, with the intention of coming up with a proposed solution to that problem. That would certainly be useful, but isn’t frequently what is being talked about. It’s also not all that practical unless the proposed solution to the problem is going to be brought before the people with actual power to enact the solution. That is assuming a solution can even be found in the first place. In regard to most problems in politics, if the solution were that easy, then the politicians probably would have come up with it already.
The second intention of a social politics talker might be to bellyache about something political about which the person is passionately in agreement or disagreement. There is no practical solution or benefit to this, other than allowing the political talker to vent their feelings. Be selectively apathetic to such bellyaching, lest you get sucked into a useless debate on something with no solution.
The third intention of a social politics talker might be to purposely cause strife by going on the offensive against another person with differing beliefs, all for the joys of stirring up angst. This is nothing but trolling, and should be treated with utter disdain.
I believe that everyone should treat such social politics talkers the way we treat that embarrassing racist old family member. We redirect the conversation, and do our best to ignore that person. With such an approach, we might just start tip-toeing our way back toward a more civilized society. The actions of politicians is not the direct cause of our current social division. The real cause of that division is our social reactions to such politics, and how we treat each other over our differing opinions.
Did you know that there was a time in this country where people had the quality of character necessary to show kindness, even when they had differences with others? Imagine that. Some of those differences were serious social problems which still exist, but that is not what I am talking about. What I mean is, if you had a simple disagreement with a person over something unimportant in the grand scheme of things, you didn’t try to punish them and cancel them from your life.
I truly don’t know if the general public can get back to that better previous place. I frankly don’t have much faith that they have the quality of character needed to do it. Too many people refuse to be held accountable for inappropriate behavior. Too many people choose the easy path of cancelling others from their lives rather than trying to reconcile, and it’s so frequently over such insignificant problems or disagreements. The path back to civility requires everyone to suffer slight inconveniences with more grace. It is going to be a difficult road, and it requires all of us to change. I do fear that we have become far too comfortable and enjoy far too many conveniences. We have gotten in such habits of convenience and instant gratification that we aren’t willing to suffer even a small inconvenience anymore.