An Open Breakup Letter to American Politics
This week made me nostalgic for the 2000 Presidential election: for a recount in Florida shut down by the Supreme Court, and for the victory of George W. Bush. At least W. won under circumstances that called his legitimacy into question.
Whereas this week’s victory for Donald Trump was decisive, in state after state after state. Despite his claims, it seems the system isn’t so rigged.
So I’m out, America. You and I need some time apart.
It won’t be easy to quit you. I love your executive checks and gerrymandered balances, your rhetorical flourishes on gleaming aircraft carriers. I love following your politics, as I’ve done nonstop since the first (and only) Clinton administration. Through the Gingrich years and the Starr report, from “known unknowns” to “yes we can.” In the Obama years, I teared up at episodes of “West Wing Week.” Every day, I devotedly listened to NPR and read the New York Times.
So, like most mainstream media consumers, I was confident of a Hillary victory this week – even arrogant. I was contemptuous of Trump. I relished the anticipation of his ugly defeat.
And so I spent most of Tuesday night with growing dread and horror. I stayed up to watch his speech, and then I could hardly sleep. You’re keeping me up at night, America.
So I’m moving on. My attention is a scarce resource, and I’ve got to allocate it to something that matters. I’ve been drawn in by your psychodrama and your personalities, America. They’re entertaining, like binge-watching “House of Cards” in real time – but this just got real, and deeply disappointing.
I’m changing my information diet, replacing your gooey temptations with healthier local fare: civic politics and neighbourhood associations; debates between candidates for the Alberta legislature, and public hearings on Calgary’s urban development. That’s where my opinion can effect change. Your House Republicans aren’t courting my support – so why invest my emotional energy in them?
I’m shifting my consumption away from the unreliable podcasts and newspapers I heard and read. They were so wrong this election; they don’t give me a true picture of you, America. They didn’t capture your roiling undercurrents of hope and discontent and sexism and whatever else made you vote for Trump. (That was the verdict of Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield on WNYC this week. They got me thinking, and prompted this letter.)
When Clinton said, in the second debate, that Trump makes his own reality, I scoffed. It reaffirmed what I wanted to think about those who believe things contrary to my beliefs: that they’re living in a filter bubble, ignoring the reality that contests their views, or makes the truth more complicated than they want it to be.
Some of that must still be true. They deny the science behind climate change, and science is knowledge. That’s why they call it science.
But some of it just isn’t true. I’m no better than you, America. Some of my own beliefs are as immaterial as yours. You say gun rights, I say women’s rights. You say war on drugs, I say war on poverty. You say religious values, I say secular humanism. You say “clean coal,” I say punishingly high carbon taxes. Let’s call the whole thing off.
I can’t cite any of my core values that owe more to nature than nurture. The equality of the sexes? My mom was a physician. The unquantifiable values of the liberal arts? I’ve got a humanities Ph.D. The need for universal, government-run health care? Please: I’m Canadian.
None of these values are more substantial, more ‘true,’ than the values you hold dear. The only difference between a demagogue and a firebrand is whether or not we nod in agreement.
My point is, America, you’re not deluded – you just have different values, born from different experiences. I call myself a liberal cosmopolitan, but I close my mind and deny my empathy to too many whose values are alien to mine.
There are some cases where I have to abandon this relativism, like your denial of climate science. That’s willful ignorance. But that self-interested delusion doesn’t extend everywhere. It doesn’t extend to your socio-economic anxiety, which provokes what outsiders call xenophobia. I want to dismiss the beliefs emerging from your experience that contrast with those emerging from mine, but I can’t.
I’m not immune to media narratives constructing a reality around me. So how do I find a new relationship with my media without becoming an ostrich with my head in the sand? The first step is to take a break from the New York Times and the NPR Politics Podcast and the New Yorker magazine. (Those are really hard words to write.)
I’ll turn to media with more self-criticism, more openness about their reality-distortion field. No doubt I’ve missed lots of that in these sources and legions more, especially this week. But I just can’t take the risk that I’ll get embroiled in Trumpery when I tune in. Maybe after the inauguration.
In the words of someone I met on Wednesday: I just can’t look at the man. Not yet.
And I need to refocus on immediate things around me: the people I care about, the neighbourhod and city and province and country I live in – where things are going pretty well, these days.
So it’s not me, America, it’s you. But let’s stay friends, can’t we?