Just when we need it the most, a fun and insightful book about our worst tendencies hits the shelves.
The Times this morning released a new poll, in which the race is closer than we’d like to think, but still leaning toward Hillary, on this last autumnal weekend before we list into what could be a particularly black week in American history. Perhaps more notable, though, was the level of bipartisan antipathy everyone felt toward the whole mess: over 8 in 10 said the election had left them feeling “repulsed” rather than excited.
This raises some important questions: who chose “repulsed” as an option, and why haven’t they gotten a raise? Is this is worst, or at least the most dispiriting election in US history? And maybe most importantly, who the hell are the 20% excited over this monstrous perversion of democracy?
Because I can’t imagine anyone being happy. I happen to find Hillary Clinton an inspiring person, with the normal caveat that of course she’s deeply flawed in some troubling ways, and think she’ll make a fine post-heroic President. But I am just as repulsed as anyone by what has happened over the last 16 months. I feel sick about what might happen, and what has happened, and feel a wave of violent loathing surge up in me anytime I see a red hat. I don’t even want to talk to anyone who is voting Republican this year.
It is an actual sickness that has taken over our country, an illness whose primary symptom is rendering civility impossible. This illness is perfectly diagnosed in a fun, sharp, and insightful book by Billy O’Keefe, These Are My Friends on Politics, a book whose sharpness and genuine weariness over the mess is perfectly counterpointed by its bright and pitch-perfect illustrations.
Disclosure, I suppose: I’ve known Billy since high school, which at this point is an achingly long time ago. But I’d be writing about this book even if I didn’t. We probably see each other once every 5 years or so, on average, and he’s one of those people who I always say “I need to hang out with him more”, and one of the few where I actually mean it.
That said, I still recognized myself in the book. Not me, per se, but my behaviors. And you will too, if you are at all politically engaged, which is to say, not entirely removed from life. If you know even a little bit, and especially if you know just slightly more than a little bit, and are just fucking livid about it.
Billy’s book traces a normal conversation between friends, who genuinely care about each other, are happy to see each other, have a long history with shared jokes and affection for each other’s kids, and all that. Like my group, like your group. But then, as it does, politics comes up.
From here, with more and more elaborate and Loony Tunes-esque illustrations, the conversation devolves. A few jabs, a few poorly-understood stats, a few appeals to dubious authorities, and people get more and more wound up, digging in, forming tribes, spittling over each other with the righteousness of desert prophets, even though no one is entirely sure-footed on any of the issues. They just know they are angry. So very, very angry, and suddenly, their friend is the enemy.
The conversation is heavily footnoted, observations on how the arguments rarely make sense, and how they are generally just the thinnest reeds. “Quotes citing the analysis” is footnoted as “made-up insane opinions” of cable news experts, the last word of which, we’re reminded, should be “literally any other word but this one.” As someone who has, at times, been quoted and interviewed as an “expert” on literal matters of life and death, I just want to say: I agree.
But, as Billy reminds us, these are friends. Good friends, thoughtful people who remember his birthday. And that’s sort of the problem. Things are so toxic, and our own toxicity is so instantly rewarded and recognized by whatever bubble in which we choose to float, that there seems to be no going back except to avoid the topic altogether.
The question, though, is if we should avoid it, and I think we should not. There are real serious things happening, and it is vital to stay engaged (and even more vital to stay active, a front in which I fail). People’s lives are at stake, civil rights are in play, the future of the climate is literally tipping over an irrecoverable edge, and one party’s main tactic is to try to keep black people from voting.
To me, anger is the only real answer to that. But I recognize the other side, while wrong, feels their anger is just as legitimate. And I don’t think Billy’s book is advocating disengagement, as he himself is very engaged. No, the lesson is more disquieting than that. Through a slender volume of drawings, he’s revealed the real rot behind everything: we are no longer a functioning democracy.
Politics is vital, it is important; indeed, it is the fabric of our society. We are designed to be self-governing, which is a messy and chaotic thing, but can work. But right now, and with no end in sight, we simply can’t do it. We’re too far apart, too dug in, and have not just our own ontologies, but separate and competing eschatologies, which isn’t just frustrating, but deeply dangerous.
In some ways the scariest parts of his book come not in the fire, but in the scenes of genuine affection. He’s right that those parts are what really matter in our brief lives: the friends we have and the people we love. Those are what we’ll remember with our last rattling smiles.
But the idea that even people who love each other have fundamentally different viewpoints, not just opinions, is troubling. That we can’t even communicate with each other without getting livid and hateful bodes very ill for our democracy, and is one of the reasons why a know-nothing authoritarian bigot has a puncher’s chance of winning the election. Our nation no longer really knows how to govern itself. And at the risk of contradicting a book which I think you should buy, I don’t know if that’s the effect of politics on us. I think, more frighteningly, that’s the effect of us on politics. And I don’t know if that can change.
Billy’s book is great. You should buy it.
(PS: as for that 20% who aren’t repulsed? I’m going to go mostly with hardcore white nationalists and misogynists who finally got their message mainstreamed. And that’s why, like the Hulk, I’m always angry.)