01/22/2014 04:39 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

Intimate Politics: The Personal and Political Revisited (An Interview With Harvard's Tim McCarthy)

Timothy Patrick McCarthy is a Lecturer on History and Literature, Adjunct Lecturer on Public Policy, and director of the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. His most recent book is The Indispensable Zinn: The Essential Writings of the "People's Historian"

In the interview that follows, conducted in August of last year, we discuss the aggression and mean-spiritedness that characterize so much of American public discourse. It is a more open and vulnerable politics possible? And if so, what would that require of each of us?

Matt Bieber (MB): For the past 6 or 8 months, I've checked out of reading the news, and particularly political news. I did so because it was beginning to feel that while the players and headlines change a bit, at a more macro level, the storylines stayed the same. The ideological ships change direction relatively slowly.

You're a student of history, and you're more familiar than most with a lot of the threads running through American history. When you look at the contemporary political scene, do you see those threads playing out in a relatively predictable way? Or have there been moments in the last, say, 12 months when you've been taken by genuine surprise at what's going on in our politics?

Timothy Patrick McCarthy (TPM): Those are important questions. Part of the reason I'm hesitating, though, is because I'm struck by the first part of what you said, which is that you "checked out" because you felt that even though the headlines might be slightly different, the players and politics seem virtually the same.

Two things that I would pass back to you before I answer the question: One, give me an example of a straw that broke the camel's back, where you said, "Gee, there's this again. I can't take one more headline or news item about this"?

And second, what was the emotion or set of emotions that you were experiencing that caused you to "check out"? Was it a feeling of anger, exasperation, frustration, desire for self-care, need for deeper analysis?

MB: There were a bunch of feelings. Some of them were situation-specific and some were more general. Part of it was a kind of disappointment that had become really entrenched, and reading the paper each day or turning on the TV reactivated it. It was a basic feeling of disappointment in the unnecessary combativeness and mean-spiritedness and lack of compassion. Looking at our political system so often looks like watching two castles from a distance; they lob cannon fire back and forth, but they never actually seek to understand what's going on in the other castle -- why they're so upset or what they believe.

You also mentioned self-care. I'm not sure I would have pinpointed that, but that's exactly what it is. For the most part, political news coverage tends to be of such low quality and so reflective of the mean-spiritedness that courses through our politics that I feel myself getting caught up in it and absorbing those sentiments. So much of what is offered on the popular websites or the cable TV channels is what my friend calls "rage bait": Get angry about this, and tomorrow we'll give you something else to be angry about. You're not really supposed to do anything with that anger, it seems -- you're supposed to just feel it. And I started to wonder: What am I feeding myself here? What am I doing, other than solidifying my opinions of myself as the good guy and of other people as the bad guys?

Even the policy and process stories aren't much better. In the stories about the budget negotiations, for example, each party trots out nice rhetoric about seeking common ground. But there's so little genuine heart-to-heart conversation -- in which the parties genuinely seek to understand one another -- that the outcomes are usually predictable. If the Republicans have the majority, then they more or less get what they want, etc.

But then you have a story like Trayvon Martin, where it's less about policy and process. And for the most part, I find myself disgusted with the way that those stories are covered -- there's this totally exploitative, sensation-of-the-moment quality to it all. So many of the journalists only seem to care about the fact that they're a part of high drama, and not the fact that real human beings are involved.

When the verdict came down, I was struck by the way that people on the Left were so quick to see the situation in such a black-and-white way. Of course it didn't feel like justice was done. But I couldn't have gotten excited about the alternative outcome, either -- of sending Zimmerman to prison for decades and decades and having him rot and get raped and suffer even more than he's already suffered. That doesn't sound like a compassionate, humane way to resolve the situation to me. It sounds more like a way to try to make ourselves feel good for a moment, until we move on and get distracted by something else.

More generally, I'm finding that I don't want to consume a daily diet of politics in which people are made into objects for the satisfaction of other people's needs and desires and aggressions.

TPM: Well, there's a lot there. Let me try to take that piece-by-piece.

I thought it was so interesting that you used the metaphor of the castles lobbing cannon fire at one another and all of us standing at a distance watching the battle. There's a sense of futility that comes with that, a feeling of remove from whatever the action or disagreement is, whether it's outright war or legitimate differences or petty, predictable politicking. There's the alienation that many of us feel that produces frustration and disappointment, and then produces anger and despair...

Read the full interview at The Wheat and Chaff.