Like many people in today's oversaturated work/media swamp, I'm not good at vacationing. For the first few days, I get fidgety because I am not "plugged in" to things like the news of the day or my email. I can't stand the feeling that the world is churning on while I'm loafing around. I wonder what I'm missing (what's the latest gossip from the newest political flavor of the day floating their name for president? Which pundit is spouting off on who "should" be doing what?). But then, about 72 hours in, I realize just how ridiculous most of it all is. At some point, I just step back and suddenly understand how sad and pathetic it is for so much of my attention to be focused on things that really, truly do not matter to anyone other than the tiny sliver of people who work in politics and/or the media. I end up becoming obsessed with the haunting feeling that at some point in the future I'll be on my death bed with all sorts of regrets that I actually spent even a second of my precious time here in the land of the living reading a David Brooks column. I then consider how many websites, think tanks, and other glorified "infrastructures" exist SOLELY to either promote or attack columns from people like David Brooks, and think there might be some validity to the theory that Earth is really purgatory.
When I think of purgatory, I think of something like a Capitol Hill office whose air conditioning went out in the dead of August - everyone is pitting out their suits, but nonetheless toiling away at utterly moral-free work, whether its corporate lobbyists buying off legislators, pundits passing off cocktail party gossip as "reporting," or lawmakers doing, well, nothing. It has all become meaningless - but the grind keeps grinding on, and we all have to pretend that our system is really Serious and Important about representing the people and dealing with real issues. That is what I think purgatory is like - and let's be honest, it ain't far from what happens now in our "democracy."
I was reminded of this purgatory-ish state of affairs at two points on my otherwise restful vacation. One was last Sunday, Christmas Eve, when I made the mistake of picking up a few major newspapers. There on the front pages, as war rages on and our economy goes to shit, were yet more stories trying to psychologically dissect Barack Obama. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or get depressed. And I want to make very clear - my feelings had nothing to do with the story being about Obama, as opposed to any other candidate. It could have been stories about Tom Vilsack, Hillary Clinton or Evan Bayh - it didn't matter. My feelings - quickly dampened by another beach-side sip of rum - were about the implicit declaration of meaninglessness that come with printing such stories and devoting such reportorial energy when there is so much else going on in the world.
I felt the same way a few days ago when I turned on the TV for the first time in a week, only to be greeted by wall-to-wall coverage of Gerald R. Ford - arguably one of the top ten most unimportant presidents in American history, considering that he served for a very short time, was never actually elected, and didn't really accomplish anything other than launching Chevy Chase's early comedy career. But when you watched the coverage, it was as if something as monumental as, say, 9/11 had happened. Slick, special news graphics declaring that the "Nation Mourns Gerald Ford" were everywhere - as if everyone was in the street crying.
Look, there's no doubt the upcoming presidential campaign is somewhat important (though really, are we going to go through another hyperventilation about yet another election being "the most important election of our lifetime?" I mean, when does that claim get old?). And I'm sure Gerry Ford was a nice guy. But what becomes clear when you step away for a little bit and look at what's going on from a bit of a distance is that we've undergone the Us Weekly-ing of our democracy. The whole thing known as "American Politics" is one huge celebrity golf tournament to almost everyone professionally involved - from the operatives to the reporters to the politicians themselves. It is a game where the fame of the players and the sportiness of their clothes and the expensiveness of the clubs they wield is more important than anything else.
Because really - it is so much easier to ignore our soldiers who are getting their heads blown off in Iraq and instead do what the New York Times did and focus on a presidential campaign's challenges to Barack Obama's workout schedule ("The senator has grown accustomed to keeping a regular routine," the Times' Jeff Zeleny breathlessly reports, "including a daily stop in the gymnasium to lift weights, play basketball or run, that would be upended by the demands of travel and fund-raising"). It is so much more fun to ignore that boring subject of stagnating wages and instead mimic the British media's royalty fetish by creating our own White House fetishes here at home - fetishes that pretend the passing of a glorified bureaucrat/caretaker president is some national event deserving of 24-7 news coverage.
We all deserve blame in this - it's not just some conservative conspiracy. Look at the typical Democratic politician or high-profile "liberal" pundit and you will most likely be looking at someone who, if they were forced to tell the truth under penalty of CIA torture, would quickly admit the thing they care about most is staying on Bill Clinton's Christmas card list. Look, too, at the progressive blogosphere/mediasphere - you can count on one hand the number of high-profile blogs and magazines that are serious about anything other than the latest polls and gossip - and about staying on the good side of whatever candidates have good "buzz." And perhaps most sad from a creative standpoint, you can also count on one hand the number of truly talented writers and communicators on our side (the left suffers a solid case of Hack Disease).
In writing articles about Partisan War Syndrome and a blog that sticks close to actual issues, I have tried my best to be part of the solution - not part of the problem. But I am sure I have contributed to all of this in my own way, as we all have. But after this vacation where I read six truly terrific books that challenged my thinking (which I will review in a post in the next few days), I am pumped up for 2007 and making my New Year's resolutions pretty simple: I'm going to do my best to stop talking about what "should" be done and I'm going to keep trying to actually go "do" it (see the Progressive States Network, as an example). Similarly, I'm going to stop spending even a moment of my time paying attention to the mindless celebrity gossip that now dominates our politics, and I'm going to spend as much of my time as possible writing about the people, causes and facts that actually affects the vast majority of Americans who live outside the Beltway.
I hope everyone else does the same, because remember, folks - the next stop after purgatory can be hell. We may not be there yet, but a look at Iraq, New Orleans' Ninth Ward and/or the millions of people struggling to get by shows exactly the dangers of worshipping the status quo.