Let Them Eat Tacos

I have no idea why the secretary of Homeland Security would dine out at a Mexican restaurant on the very day she defended the use of internment camps at the Mexican border.  I don’t know why the White House press secretary would show her face anywhere while acting as a mouthpiece for the most dishonest chief executive to ever sit in the Oval Office.

(If you missed it:  Last Tuesday, protesters yelled “shame!” at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen inside MXDC Cocina Mexicana in Washington, D.C.  Three days later, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the 26-seat Red Hen in Lexington, Va., by the restaurant’s owner after several employees were made uncomfortable by Sanders’s presence.)

I’m not the least bit surprised that both of those public officials would be confronted by angry constituents while attempting to enjoy a relaxing night on the town.  Given the tenor of public discourse in 21st century America, the miracle is that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often—or more violently.

I understand instinctively why those concerned citizens feel the need to vent their outrage at these crooks and liars face-to-face when given the opportunity.

In the future, however, I wish they would resist the urge to do so.

Before we go any further, I should probably mention that I am about the least confrontational person on the East Coast.  I’m not sure I’ve ever started an argument with anyone in my adult life, and whenever someone attempts to start an argument with me, I make every effort to tactfully withdraw from the conversation and/or the room.  For all the self-righteous vitriol I’ve unfurled on this site over the years, the notion of telling an odious prominent figure, in person, what I really think of them fills me with bottomless anxiety and dread.

Admittedly, as a privileged, native-born white male, it is very easy for me to hang back on the sidelines and allow human events (however alarming) to run their course.  For someone like me, the actions of President Trump and his collaborators may be irritating—even horrifying—but they do not pose an existential threat to my way of life and probably never will.

I realize, in short, that spending one’s day avoiding conflict and social discomfort is a luxury that many of my fellow Americans cannot afford, and that sometimes verbally lashing out at those who oppress you can feel like a moral imperative—and possibly the only recourse that is available to you as an otherwise powerless individual.  If members of the Trump administration are deliberately and pointlessly making millions of Americans’ (and non-Americans’) lives difficult, the argument goes, why shouldn’t they get a taste of their own toxic medicine whenever they enter space occupied by the victims of their noxious acts?

The reason they shouldn’t—the reason all public servants should be left unmolested when they’re not on the clock—is because Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high,” and every liberal in America cheered.

By its own rhetoric, if the Democratic Party stands for anything in the age of Trump, it’s moral superiority.  Whether stated directly or implicitly, the message from Democratic leaders and supporters in recent years is that, all things being equal, Democrats are the party of sanity, empathy and love for one’s fellow human beings, while Republicans are (to coin a phrase) deplorable.

Without question, Donald Trump’s own rotten character was the primary basis of voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016—“Love Trumps Hate” was arguably Clinton’s most successful and resonant slogan—and most liberals still regard Trump’s penchant for childish name-calling and general thuggery as an intolerable moral stain that must be repudiated at the polls in 2018 and 2020—namely, by voting for as many Democratic candidates as possible.

The question is:  If the left truly believes in the Judeo-Christian ethos of treating others as you would have others treat you—and that Trump and company constitute a monstrous perversion of this policy—do they not have a responsibility to exhibit such mature, noble behavior themselves?  To lead by example?  To understand that darkness cannot drive out darkness—only light can do that?  To be the change they want to see in the world?

I say yes, and this includes allowing Nielsen and Sanders to eat their dinner in peace, whether or not they deserve it.  Because in the end, this isn’t about them.  It’s about us.  And it’s not a good look for the so-called party of inclusion to start telling certain people they’re not welcome and they don’t belong.

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Unplugged

I recently returned from a week-long trip to paradise—Martha’s Vineyard, to be exact—and while I was there, I did something that, for me, was both unthinkable and unprecedented.

I kept away from social media and the news.

That’s right.  From the moment our ferry cast off from shore, I ceased all contact with my Twitter feed and didn’t reconnect until after returning to the mainland.  For good measure, I also generally avoided Facebook, the New York Times and cable news, opting to remain as ignorant as possible about what was going on in the parts of the universe not directly in front of my nose.  For perhaps the first time in my adult life, I just didn’t want to know.

Now, maybe tuning the world out is the sort of thing most normal people do to relax at their favorite summer getaways.  But as a prototypical millennial news junkie, I can scarcely imagine being walled off from current events for more than a few hours at a time, vacation or no vacation.  Since acquiring my first Droid in the summer of 2010, I’m not sure I’ve gone a single day without checking my social media apps at least once.  You know:  Just to make sure I’m not missing anything.

Having lived under the tyranny of Zuckerberg and Bezos for so long, I’ve realized with ever-growing acuity that I am every bit as addicted to the little computer in my pocket—and the bottomless information it contains—as the good-for-nothing Generation Z teenagers I’m supposed to feel superior to.  More and more, I recall Jean Twenge’s terrifying recent Atlantic story, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and I wonder whether any of us—of any age group—are going to emerge from this era better citizens and human beings than when we entered it.

So it was that, on the occasion of my annual sojourn to my favorite summer retreat—an island I’ve visited annually since before I was born—I decided I needed to find out whether I’m capable of cutting myself off from the GoogleTube cold turkey.  Whether—if only for a week—I can bring myself to live as I did for the first 23 years of my life:  Without constant, hysterical, up-to-the-second news flashes from every corner of the globe and, with them, the instantaneous expert (and non-expert) analysis of What It All Means and Where We Go From Here.

Mostly, of course, I just wanted a week without Donald Trump.

Did I succeed?

Kind of.

Yes, I still read the Boston Sunday Globe (mostly for the arts pages).  Yes, I still listened to my favorite NPR podcast while riding my bike.  Yes, I still posted pictures on Facebook before going to bed.  And yes, I still allowed my cable-obsessed bunkmate to watch a few minutes of Morning Joe before we headed out to breakfast each day.

All of that aside, I nonetheless fulfilled my core objective of not actively following world events closely—if at all—and believing, to my core, that nothing in life was of greater concern than which ice cream flavor to order at Mad Martha’s and whether to wear jeans or shorts while hiking at Menemsha Hills.  (The answers, respectively, were butter crunch and jeans.)

So I didn’t get the blow-by-blow of President Trump’s meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-un.  I didn’t hear the early reports of children being snatched from their parents at the Mexican border.  And I didn’t see that raccoon scaling the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota.

What’s more, I noticed that as the week progressed, I grew increasingly less bothered by how out-of-the-loop I was in my little self-imposed cone of radio silence, and it got me wondering whether I couldn’t keep up this stunt indefinitely.  Whether, in effect, I could become a beta version of Erik Hagerman—the Ohio man, recently profiled in the New York Times, who severed all ties with society on November 9, 2016, and hasn’t looked back since.  Dubbing him “the most ignorant man in America,” the story left little doubt that Hagerman, in his calculated obliviousness, is probably a happier and more well-rounded individual than three-quarters of his fellow countrymen.

Of course, Hagerman is also extremely white—not to mention extremely male and extremely upper middle class—and there is no avoiding the uncomfortable fact that choosing to ignore the daily machinations of the Trump administration is a direct function of white privilege (as countless Times readers pointedly noted at the time).  To be white is to be insulated from Trump’s cruelest and most outrageous policies; thus, there is little-to-no risk in not keeping a close eye on them every now and again.

“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges,” said Jimmy Stewart, with great scorn, in The Philadelphia Story in 1940.  As a member of the privileged class—in my whiteness and maleness, if not my disposable income—I recognize the profound moral failing of even thinking of mentally tuning out an American society in which virtually every racial, ethnic and cultural minority finds itself under threat.  Silence is complicity, and I very much doubt I could live in happy ignorance knowing, deep down, that a great deal of preventable suffering is occurring just beyond my immediate line of sight.

But it sure was nice while it lasted.

See You Next Tuesday

Almost everything I know about bad language I learned from George Carlin—the stand-up comedian who, in 1972, explained in a now-legendary monologue that there are seven words that cannot be said on television.

In case you forgot, those words were “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “cocksucker,” “motherfucker” and “tits.”

While Carlin revised and expanded his initial list of “dirty words” over the years—when I saw him perform live in 2007, I purchased a wall poster that listed 2,443 of them—the essence of the original bit has lost none of its power or relevance in the 46 years since it debuted.  We might quibble about which (and how many) words belong on such a list in 2018, but we agree—if only implicitly—that there are, in fact, certain words that cannot be said on television or in any other public space.

And last week, we had a spirited and rather unexpected argument about whether the list still includes the word “cunt.”

This argument, you’ll recall, sprung from an episode of Samantha Bee’s TBS program, Full Frontal, in which Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” for doing nothing to stop her father, the president, from separating immigrant mothers from their children after crossing the Mexican border into the United States.  Whatever the merits of Bee’s gripe—valid and cutting as it was—the mere presence of the so-called “C word” drained the entire rant of its substance in the eyes and ears of the Twitterati and briefly threatened to derail Bee’s entire career.

As a regular Full Frontal viewer—and a fan of Bee’s since her days at The Daily Show—I was neither surprised nor offended that she would (and did) feel compelled to call Ivanka Trump the most disparaging name a woman can possibly be called.  Beyond the small fact that the word itself was bleeped during the initial broadcast—this is basic cable, after all—I have long taken the view that women can employ sexist invective to their hearts’ desire in a way that men don’t (and shouldn’t) get away with, and a certified comic like Samantha Bee is hardly an exception to the rule.

Just as black people can say “nigger” and gay people can say “faggot”—while white and straight people, respectively, cannot—women, as an historically oppressed group, are entitled (and, as far as I’m concerned, encouraged) to assume ownership of the language that has been used by men to keep them down since time immemorial.  Apart from ironically blunting the negative impact such words often have on their targets, co-opting rhetorical slurs enables you to disarm and disorient your would-be oppressor by showing him how meaningless such words ultimately are.  It’s a double standard, but a necessary one—a means of ever-so-slightly rectifying a history of patriarchal misogyny that cannot possibly be repaired in full.

So if Samantha Bee wants to sling a see-you-next-Tuesday at Ivanka Trump, that’s her privilege.  And if Ivanka wants to respond in kind—or not at all—more power to her.  Why on Earth should it concern anyone other than the two of them?

It shouldn’t.  Yet, it does.

At the moment—and for the last many years—the American culture finds itself locked in a hysterical feedback loop of offense-taking, in which an objectionable comment by a member of one ideological clan publicly wounds the moral sensibilities of the other—until roughly 36 hours later, when the roles reverse following some fresh outrage by a representative of Team Number Two.  Samantha Bee today, Roseanne Barr tomorrow.

Broadly speaking, if we are to escape this corrosive, cynical war of political attrition—as we should, if only for our collective mental health—there are two types of societies America can choose to become:  One in which no one is allowed to say anything that might offend someone else (today’s de facto status quo), or one in which virtually anything may be said because everyone has decided not to be bothered by it.

From all I’ve written so far, you can probably guess which scenario I’d prefer.  Speaking as someone who hasn’t lost his temper over anything for at least 20 years, there is something to be said for not walking around all day with your hair on fire because a minor celebrity uttered a naughty word in public.

This isn’t to suggest that every controversial statement of recent vintage is of equal moral weight—or, for that matter, that we should abandon our sense of right and wrong in the interest of being a little more agreeable with each other on social media and in real life.  Some things really are worth being outraged by, and it’s up to each of us individually to decide where to draw the line.

All the same, my advice—informed in no small part by the wit and wisdom of George Carlin, one of the happiest and most well-rounded Americans who ever lived—is to allocate your indignation sparingly and judiciously, and—when at all possible—to err on the side of just letting things go.