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Inside The American Box
Social media has boxed in America.
Think outside the box is a cliche. There’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that everybody knows that cliche and everybody understands what it means. The bad news is that most people don’t want to and therefore they cannot.
About 8 years ago, I thought it would make sense for me to try a new blog. It was a very difficult thing to do and so I abandoned the idea. The name of the new blog was ‘The Downside’. Its aim was to spread the bad news. It got a cold reception. Around that time, I had just finished reading Bleak House. I had concluded that America was headed towards Dickensian times, and so I wanted to immerse myself in the London of muck and figure out how to survive it. It turned out that the story proved very uplifting to me and its moral was quite compatible with my general attitude.
Keep your own house in order.
The corollary to that simple rule was to insulate yourself from the madness in the streets and in other houses whose rules and reputations were beyond your control.
But what if you feel very strongly that your house is in such immaculate order that you should run outside and tell everyone how they should run their houses? Then you’re probably engaged in our great American Culture War. It’s not a healthy place to be, and a lot of Americans recognize this.
Recently a very popular manifesto issued from the august publication of Harper’s Magazine in defense of free speech. You may have seen it. I read it and did not react, in fact, I played the role of a critic which is my natural instinct. So I wasn’t particularly swayed one way or another, but I heard it loud and clear. People feel challenged by a certain lack of civility. I say this is part and parcel of that part of our public spirit that sometimes gets a bit too loud for its own good. That part of the message resounded among most people I interact with, especially those who have bemoaned the spirit of cancel culture, deplatforming and the general noise that is the miasma of the interwebz, specifically social media. Our new notion of Hell is the Comments Section.
What to do then? If you have been defreinded on Facebook or horror of horrors involuntarily conscripted into a racial sensitivity training class, or worse still actually punched in the nose during a ‘mostly peaceful’ demonstration. Or maybe no bad things in particular have happened to you personally, but you aim to show that civil discourse can be had in this fatalistic year. Perhaps you’ve joined Persuasion. Perhaps you’ve upped your Twitter game with a new friendly attitude. Perhaps you’ve decided to watch a broader set of TV, or maybe you’ve turned your back on all of the public until things calm down. If so, I think you’re particularly unique because what I see most people doing is repeating something over and over again.
“This next election is the most important in my life, perhaps the most important ever.”
Which side are you on, my brother? I’m not on a side. In fact, I abandoned partisan politics and many cares about it. This would have been a lot easier before the moment of Bush vs Gore but we have been Hanging Chad ever since. Sorry old bean, you were a fine gentleman and a swell chap. Now I’m afraid your time has past and well, now you are quite lynched, bitches! In light of all that, I have adopted the following principle, which I apologize for repeating if you’ve seen me utter it before:
The Abstention Principle
A simple moral principle: when a future change is framed as a problem which we might hope our political system to solve, then the only acceptable reason to talk about the consequences of failing to solve that problem is to scare folks into trying harder to solve it. If you instead assume that politics will fail to solve the problem, and analyze the consequences of that in more detail, not to scare people but to work out how to live in that scenario, you are seen as expressing disloyalty to the system and hostility toward those who will suffer from that failure.
Now bear with me, I’m about to get medievally stoic. If you actually think that you can vote climate change away, then you are over the edge of rationality. If you actually believe that the right government policy will solve the race problem, I cannot respect any of those ideas. If your relative gets sick and you blame their death on political malfeasance, you are barking up a tree with no cat in it. In short, there are no democratic solutions to these problems. Your faith is misplaced. You will always draw a short straw. Your deities are false gods. You have been dealt a blow and you have turned the other cheek. You have no more cheeks to turn so why stand in the face of this incompetent thing?
Now you’ve probably heard me say that I am a civil libertarian. That is true. You can be a civil libertarian without voting. And you can do so without any expectation that your government, local, state or federal, will come to your aid. How can you do so and keep your head up? How can you maintain your public spiritedness when you don’t have a representative in this ungodly large republic who represents your particular priorities?
[adjusts collar, the top corner of a strangely familiar looking card peeks out of his shirt pocket]
How indeed. I happen to have really enjoyed this podcast between Rabbi David Wolpe and Eric R Weinstein. The killer section (between minute 8 and minute 11) talks about the gifts of Christianity as compared to that of Judaism or Islam.
What Christianity gave to the world that Judaism and Islam could not..among many other things it gave the separation of Church and State… Huge.. Christianity arose in the Roman Empire ... civil law was taken care of. But If you are creating a religion as Muhammad and Moses did in the desert, you need civil law and religious law alike. So Islam and Judaism didn’t make that distinction between civil and religious law. Christianity had to because it grew up in Rome.
How? You look at the example of black Americans who created everything we have from that traditional culture outside of the legal imprimatur and sometimes in direct defiance of the law itself. Eat my cooking. Watch me dance. Listen to my jazz. Bounce your head to my bebop. Check out my twist of the language. Dig my liturgy. Memorize my poetry. Attend to my attitude, my style, my mutations. Recognize my genius. You don’t have to vote, you merely need to pay attention. You need to wade in this water with me.
[the card is more visible, it looks like a race card, but it has a different shimmer.]
The Limits of Democracy
Do you see what I did there? A lot of people falsely believe that if it weren’t for the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, all of the blackfolks would be dead. Not hardly. We, and therefore America, were not black before the 60s. We were Negroes and the Civil Rights Movement was originated for the purpose of addressing the Negro Problem. But the biggest legal battle, Brown vs Board was settled in 1954. The rest was practically inevitable. But in fact much of the Negro Problem was obviated by Black Consciousness. You high five and give a fist bump because of what black people decided to be with one another, not because of the politicking of Dirksen. Clearly, without Dirksen, the law as it stands would not have been passed, but that’s not what makes American society what it is today. Not the law but the society.
That’s just one angle, but I chose it because you know it to be true that American society is extraordinary because of its people, not because of its electoral manipulations. And here are a people who by and large socialized America into what it is, not through political power but through other means. The world will little note nor long remember what is voted here, ahh but what is danced…
This is what I’m really getting at. I am trying to get you out of the box. If you are more interested in how exactly you can extract money and votes from the masses, you are doomed to that particular ladder of Republican operative or Democrat strategist. Same two-tailed coin. Neither of them, nor their entire parties are capable of delivering social amity. That’s on us. So first you have to get out of that box that puts you at the mercy of the push-polling, horse racing, soundbiting, website analyzing and head-talking multi-tentacled Lovecraftian beast that pretends to be the agent of our democracy and get with people.
Now a lot of this sounds a bit romantic. You have to have an inordinate amount of faith in the better angels of our nature if you will believe law and order will be served and protected by a lot of happy talk and BBQ picnics. Once again, you are right and the Bob’s your uncle. You can also be goddamned sure that all the votes and money we have spent up to this moment in time has delivered, what? Confidence? And when you are feeling nauseous about what passes for debate these days exactly which politician understands you and calms your spirit? Well, bless your heart if you have an answer to that, and don’t forget to leave a comment below.
What I’m saying is that society, my pedigree chums, is our business. In the time we have left in the sunshine of these temperate latitudes, we need to get out and network with each other. How? It doesn’t matter how. You will figure it out. There is but one rule.
The rule is that you never punt to politics.
You make sure that your commitment is to a human being and your society with them and their society with you. Not friendship. You don’t have to kiss. You have to find a soul in them and respect it, socially. Your mutual sociability is what matters. You are a social animal, so socialize. That’s how society is built. You have forgotten. That’s why you always have a political bottom line. That’s why you let that incredibly powerful tentacled beast speak for you, hoping against hope that it will mumble the right thing. You’ve been hoping it would wrap tenderly around your box and carry you across the finish line, and you wonder why you’re flat on your back rubbing your head where it dropped you into the street. Wonder no more.
I am a civil libertarian. It doesn’t matter which way the political winds blow. I know how to conduct myself in a civil manner. I’m not your friend. I’m in your network. It is a network of civil discourse, thoughtfulness, discovery, music and all them yummy soft things. We’re not here to win or lose, but to be social. Even if all your mewing from the box sounds politically derivative - that’s ok. I know you were meant to be free. The funny thing is, you don’t really even have to think outside of the box. You can just break on through to the other side, and make it funky.
(John 11:38-43) Hmm.