I’m writing this a week after the MAGA-mobbing of the United States Capitol building, but “a time like this” could mean any number of other things. How can I write about pop music while people are being treated so horribly in immigration detention centers and prisons? Or while environmental destruction is happening? Or while women are being abused in rising numbers? Or whie the network of concentration camps in Xinjiang keeps growing? Et cetera. In terms of circumstances to be outraged and saddened by, we’re spoiled for choice, here.
The question posed above is a hypothetical at the moment, but I don’t expect it to stay as such. Something else will happen at some point that seemingly overwhelms normal life. I remember being at the office where I worked on September 12, 2001, unable to concentrate and impressed and bewildered by my colleagues all around me getting back to work, even though we were in Manhattan and the smoke was still rising from the rubble south of us. In the fall of 2016 I was in two different active discussion groups for self-declared creative types, and both came to a crashing halt after Trump was elected, as participants could talk about nothing else but their anger and fear. (Whether the description “creative types” should correspond so precisely to a particular point on the current American political spectrum is a discussion for another blog post.) After the video of George Floyd’s murder started circulating, both the Jukebox and Tone Glow paused their usual work for a week to bring more attention to the protests, and if you read the frank discussion of finances that Tone Glow editor Joshua Minsoo Kim published last month, you know that that publication was not exactly so established that it could afford to take a couple weeks off without real consequences.
So the world is unjust, and people are dying, and I still have it on my to-do list to get y’all proper reviews of “Oinamaqo” and “Taboo” and also probably at some point a cranky evaluation of Kyle Ruh’s solo discography to date, despite a good portion of y’all having no idea who Kyle Ruh is. (Spoiler: this is pretty decent, and in being so, an exception to the rule.) So you might well be wondering what is wrong with me, that I seem to have my priorities so clearly out of order.
Or maybe you, reader, aren’t wondering this at all. But I am, sometimes. I do, sometimes. Like anyone else, I have a Should Monster (or a Social Survival Mammoth, if you prefer) and I like to joke that my Should Monster is considerably more woke than I am. For example, my Should Monster was completely unimpressed by the argument that it is perfectly fine for an American who’s never been east of Germany or west of Vancouver to write about performers in Kazakhstan. But my Should Monster is perpetually skeptical not just of my actions but of the values driving those actions. Are you sure you’re actually doing good? it asks me. Are you sure you’re not just taking up space, or worse, embodying a destructive and selfish worldview? Other people work harder, and on more noble causes; why don’t you consider yourself inferior to them? I consider you inferior to them, my Should Monster reminds me.
I wrestle with this a lot. I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing, given how hard it can be for me to tell the difference between my Should Monster and my conscience, sometimes. But I do think that on this particular point the Should Monster is wrong, and I’ll tell you why.
First of all, I stop blogging for any number of reasons, most of them ignoble. I didn’t write for nearly the entirety of December because I was feeling depressed, and my depression served the advancement of humanity not a whit. I won’t promise you that I’ll never find some current event overwhelming—see above; my recollection is that I was an even more sluggish employee than usual for the rest of September 2001, and well into October—but you have the right to question my motives if I do.
But more broadly: to declare that some piece of art, or writing, or entertainment is irrelevant to the Problem of the Day is to imply that you’ve worked out the relationship between said creative work and the behavior of the people receiving it down to the nearest thousandth. I talked abut this assumption at greater length at the end of Part Seven of the Ninety One Series, but I don’t see how that’s supposed to work. We have plenty of examples, after all, where the predicted causal relationship didn’t pan out. Listening to heavy metal music or olaying Dungeons & Dragons didn’t lead to a rush of teen suicides in the 1980s (this 2006 paper says that the increase in male adolescent suicide rates is more pronounced in 1950-1980 than in 1980-2000, which raises the question of whether heavy metal and D&D helped decrease suicide rates), playing increasingly bloody video games didn’t make us all more violent, the educational benefits of watching Sesame Street seem to fade out by the end of high school, and reading Harriet the Spy did not turn a generation of girls into androgynously dressed tomato-sandwich-eating wry observers of human nature. (I’m currently reading a biography of Louise Fitzhugh, Sometimes You Have to Lie, and it’s interesting, but the writer seems determined to make the case that Harriet the Spy is not only a good book but one that helped propel more feminist outcomes, and I am a bespectacled writer who read Harriet the Spy over and over but nonetheless I think the biographer is overstating the case.)
We cannot do politics all the time. And furthermore to do politics all the time, or as often as possible, is to stake one’s ethical self-conception on politics—or worse, on policy, which is a different thing. Politics is flexible; politics can be argued and re-argued with people changing their minds a hundred different times à la Paul Samuelson. Policy, however, has to become concrete and potentially alienating at some point. You have to vote for Candidate X or Y. You have to decide whether to include Shakespeare in the curriculum or not. You have to throw your weight behind the imperfect solution, or propose a different imperfect solution, or choose the imperfect solution of doing nothing at all. And having chosen, because we don’t like to think of ourselves as having been forced to choose or as having half-assed our choice, we then tend to double down and declare that the way we chose is the One Best Way. And having to repeat that calculation in every little facet of our lives, right down to the potential implications of listening to X (or X on repeat) instead of Y (or not listening to anything at all), is not only a harsh and limiting, Should-Monster-laden way to live, it increases the chances that in making our policy choices we’ll choose unwisely at some point, and do harm when we were trying so hard to do good.
Today I listened to the new VICTON album, and earlier this week I listened to the last twenty minutes of a Jonah Goldberg podcast. This is a man who writes constantly about politics, who writes books about politics, who has gone from editing one publication about politics to another, who derives most if not all of his financial (and maybe social) capital from people wanting to hear his opinions about politics.. Yet at the end of his podcast he wanted to talk about his sister-in-law Chantal, who had passed away on Christmas Eve. He didn’t say anything about her political views, and he wasn’t trying to make any larger policy point; he just wanted to register the loss of a woman he clearly admired and a member of his family. Towards the end, audibly choked up, he said something about how in the creation of memories and meaning between loved ones, there lay the great purpose in life, not all this politics. One can disagree with him, and worry about erring too far on the side of insularity; and another person might have found meaning in policy and family intertwined, if losing their loved one led them to campaign against a particular rudeness or towards better circumstances. But we shouldn’t be required to make policy hay out of our loves, or even our entertainments. I’d rather live in a world with less straightforward policy marches and more space to celebrate the kind Chantals.