I thought that by being super-informed about the US political process and arguing about it online I could influence the outcome, somehow. Which, obviously, I couldn’t, writes Danyl Mclauchlan.
I’ve been addicted to US politics for most of my life. It’s an easy drug for political nerds to get hooked on: American elections are very dramatic, and as of late very weird, and they can have world historical stakes, or at least they always feel like they do. And their media and culture industry is so vast – “hegemonic”, as the kids say – that it just swamps ours and we end up being deluged with whatever the Americans are preoccupied with, which, every four years, including this year, is their presidential election.
But maybe we shouldn’t really care about American politics? Late last year I was waiting for the bus, eavesdropping on a litter of undergrad students who were arguing about the Democratic Party nomination. Some of them supported Kamala Harris because she was a woman of colour, and some of them supported Bernie and hated Kamala because she was “a fucking cop”. And it suddenly struck me as weird that people were so informed about the nominees and internal processes of a political party they weren’t members of, in a country they didn’t live in and couldn’t vote in.
Back in 2004, in the very early days of political blogging, I got obsessed with the Democratic candidacy. I supported this guy called Howard Dean, who’d opposed the US invasion of Iraq, and I spent many hours reading about Dean and the nomination process and the delegates and superdelegates and Super Tuesday. I felt devastated when Dean lost to John Kerry, who then lost the general election to George W Bush, who now enjoys a post-presidential image as a sort of amiable doofus but was regarded as even more demonic than Trump at the time, at least in all the blogs and leftwing partisan media I compulsively consumed.
Our hobbies and interests don’t have to be productive. They probably shouldn’t be. Some people like fishing; some people play bridge; some people follow politics. And that’s all fine. But I didn’t see my US politics obsession as a hobby. I thought it was morally worthy to know everything about Dean’s campaign and to hate his rivals. I convinced myself that having strong opinions about American politics was, somehow, a form of activism. There’s this mistake which we make – and by “we” I mean “me”, but maybe you, too – in which we naively think that learning about something gives us control over it, and I thought that by being super-informed about the US political process and arguing about it online I could influence the outcome, somehow. Which, obviously, I couldn’t.
It’s stressful being emotionally invested in something you have no agency over. Really: this is almost the textbook definition of a stress trigger in the clinical psychology literature. And there’s this vicious cycle where you start following some jaw-dropping Washington drama – Russia-gate, the Kavanaugh hearing, impeachment – and get stressed, then dive in even deeper based on the fallacy that additional knowledge will give you agency, and you just get more invested and more stressed. A couple of weeks ago I talked to someone who was genuinely furious to the point of losing sleep about something Trump had tweeted about Greta Thunberg, and I think more people should consider not paying attention to what Trump tweets about Greta Thunberg.
US politics is very unlike New Zealand politics. The leaders, parties, political systems, issues and electorates are all utterly different. But I worry that we’re getting so saturated with US coverage that it’s easier and easier to conflate the two. The most extreme example of this is the accused Christchurch mosque mass murderer – I note with some pleasure that I legitimately do not remember his name – whose manifesto barely even mentioned New Zealand but who claimed that his atrocity was motivated by a desire to provoke gun reform in the US, based on the premise that this would provoke a violent response against the US government.
Less appallingly, we (allegedly) have a fake news crisis and a “free speech on campus-crisis”, both US manufactured phenomena, so now we have these crisis too. And there’s an increasingly apocalyptic tone to some of our domestic political conversation, a tone which is ubiquitous in the highly polarised, very dysfunctional environment of American political debate but which sounds bizarre given the comparatively low stakes and centrist dominated context of New Zealand. We’re the eighth happiest country in the entire world according to the UN’s 2019 World Happiness Report. That doesn’t mean everything is perfect, that things can’t get better, but when I hear academics and commentators announce that we’re trapped in a neoliberal hell or a socialist dystopia, or that the snake-like hordes of immigrants are ruining everything, I suspect they’re imitating the rhetoric they hear from whatever US pundits or thinkers or podcasters they admire. Our cadres of eager revolutionaries need to calm down; go for a walk and leave their phones at home.
There’s a great Borges story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, about a conspiracy of intellectuals who decide to change the world, and they do this by (spoiler) writing an encyclopedia which describes a perfect fictional world: its history, languages, philosophy and art. And these are so fascinating that people study them instead of our own. By the end of the story our world is gradually becoming the fictional one. We obviously can’t “become” America, but we can become a worse place by confusing that country’s highly dramatic but fractured and unhappy state with our own.
I’ve found that Trump makes it easier to ignore US politics. He’s an attention monster; his style is about provocation; outrage; drowning everything else out. And you can either buy into this and react to everything he says, which is what he wants you to do, or disengage. Tune him out. You can’t completely mute him, of course, but I’ve spent the last year regarding US politics as white noise; traffic on a distant highway, and this is much nicer than existing in a perpetual state of outrage and terror. Trump can be outrageous and horrible and dominate the news cycle longer than you can stay sane. The only agency we have is the ability to ignore him.
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