Patrick’s Day

Everyone has a personal anecdote they retell just a little bit too often. Mine occurred in October 2007 at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common, where a first-term senator from Illinois gave a rousing speech to an adoring crowd about why he should be the next president of the United States. Immediately following his address, Barack Obama worked his way down the rope line shaking hands, including my own. I may or may not have washed it ever since.

What I have tended not to mention is the other hand I shook that night—that of Deval Patrick, the then-governor of Massachusetts who introduced and formally endorsed Obama moments before the future president stepped up to the podium. While the precise content of Patrick’s remarks is lost to history (except on YouTube, of course), what I remember vividly is my being utterly spellbound by this newly-inaugurated political dynamo who, like Obama, had emerged from practically nowhere (actually, from the world of corporate law) to ascend, ever-so-rapidly, to the highest ranks of elected office.

Hearing him speak on that crisp fall evening, it wasn’t difficult to see why. Marrying fiery passion and thoughtful confidence with an eloquence that few orators of his generation possess, Patrick on the stump had that magical ability to incite righteous fury about the world’s problems while inspiring thunderous hope that, if we only came together in common purpose, every one of those problems could be solved. While I may not have envisioned him as a future president in that particular moment—he was Obama’s opening act, after all—he nonetheless commanded my attention as no other public official (including Obama) ever has.

I mention this now, of course, because Patrick announced at the end of last week—quite unexpectedly—that he is running for president in 2020, some 11 months after ruling it out and a mere 12 weeks before the Democratic primaries begin.

Can he win? Common sense and the laws of political gravity say absolutely not. Between having no money, no name recognition and no chance of appearing at Wednesday’s nationally-televised debate (and possibly not the one in December, either), Patrick would seem to require no less than an act of God to assume anything close to a competitive edge in what is already the most overstuffed crowd of presidential hopefuls in modern history. What’s more, the apparent premise of his candidacy—that none of the preexisting Democratic candidates is exciting enough to defeat President Trump next November—is belied by most polls, which suggest the party’s voters are quite happy with their buffet of suitors and are not itching for a white (or black) knight to swoop in and save them from themselves.

If money were involved, I’d say Patrick doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to be the 46th president and is out of his goddamned mind to enter the fray at this extremely late date.

And yet: That voice. That command of language and evocation of sacred ideals. That dogged optimism that—despite all evidence to the contrary—America remains a land of bottomless opportunity whose best days are yet to come.

If any Democrat in 2020 can pitch the idea that Donald Trump is a moral aberration whose reign can be swiftly overcome and forgotten—and has the rhetorical gifts to sell that notion to a majority of the persuadable public—it may well be Deval Patrick. Indeed, as in 2006 when he first ran for governor, his relative obscurity among most voters could prove more of an asset than a flaw. After nearly a year of witnessing the same half-dozen “serious” candidates circle each other like hungry sharks, here’s an entirely new species of politician for us to consider with fresh eyes. What’s the worst that could happen?

How this actually shakes out will reveal itself soon enough—in all likelihood, by the New Hampshire primary on February 11. In truth, probably the most—if not the only—notable thing about the abrupt, 11th-hour entrance into the Democratic race of an entirely new candidate is the sheer audacity of it all—the presumption that a would-be serious contender could forego nearly a year’s worth of fundraising and profile-building and somehow still wind up on top.

It’s an utterly ludicrous electoral strategy with a near-zero chance of succeeding. But then again, Patrick would not be the first African-American political wunderkind in this century to employ audacity as an operating principle and use it to turbocharge himself to the front of the pack.  Weirder things have happened.

And will I, who has seen Patrick work his magic up close and in the flesh, cast my vote for him in the Massachusetts primary on March 3?

Ask me again on March 2.

Twitter and Cheese

Perhaps you’ve heard the joke. A married construction worker on break opens his lunch box and says, “I swear to God, if it’s ham and cheese one more time, I’m gonna jump off this building.” Sure enough, the next day it’s ham and cheese yet again and, true to his word, the man leaps to his death. At the funeral, his wife remarks, “I don’t understand. He packed his own lunch.”

I recount this silly, if morbid, little yarn in light of Americans’ gradually-escalating freak-out about our various modes of social media—in particular, the blue menace that is Twitter, whose darker, louder, more hateful corners seem to be sending all of us to the proverbial ledge.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published its latest exhaustive (read: exhausting) deep dive into some aspect of the Trump administration—in this case, the president’s use of Twitter as a blunt instrument against his political enemies, real and imagined, both within and without the executive branch.

While I would love to engage with the piece’s most compelling and insightful conclusions, I must confess that I haven’t actually read the damn thing and have no immediate plans to do so. Though I have no doubt the Times investigative team has produced valuable and enlightening analysis of how the 45th president’s Twitter habits have shaped the course of recent history—which they most assuredly have—the truth is I just can’t bring myself to care about what Donald Trump types into his phone while he’s sitting on the can.

Frankly, I don’t care what most people tweet most of the time, and I dare say the feeling is mutual. At present, I “follow” a grand total of 22 individuals and organizations on the platform, which is to say I don’t follow roughly 330 million others, including Donald Trump, yet—oddly enough—I have never once felt I’m missing out on anything of any consequence.

In the decade since I first joined, I have only ever used Twitter as a means of keeping up with the nooks and crannies of American culture that truly interest me, and blissfully ignoring everything else. What’s more, my account is private, meaning no one can read my own 280-character brain droppings without a formal request. My current group of loyal followers could fit comfortably inside a telephone booth, and that suits me fine. So far as I’m concerned, I’m the consumer and Twitter is the product—not the other way around.

Which returns us to the construction worker and the ham sandwich. When it comes to Twitter and its many analogues across the googlesphere, we all pack our own lunch. Online, our “friends” and “followers” are entirely of our own choosing and can be done away with through a single tap of the finger. If we don’t want ham and cheese appearing in our newsfeed 24 hours a day, we have the power to pick a different sandwich, or none at all. Apart from the advertising that pays our meal ticket, the menu is entirely within our power to curate.

It begs the question: Why, exactly, are so many of us threatening to jump off the ledge? Why is our entirely voluntary participation in this virtual town square causing us so much unnecessary agita? If each of us has near-total control over which social media personalities to invite onto our pages—and which ones to block—why all the bellyaching about how these platforms have become toxic dumpster fires of intemperate partisan hysteria?

Are we simply a nation of masochists? Do we secretly enjoy rolling around in the rhetorical muck, self-righteously claiming we don’t? Are we so addicted to the dopamine hit that outrageous online behavior provides that we are destined to be sucked into the vortex of hate no matter how hard we resist? Are we a species that just enjoys complaining any chance we get?

Here’s a thought: Stop complaining and start acting.  If the ugliness of social media genuinely repulses you, try removing the sources of that ugliness from your field of vision and see if conditions don’t improve.  Don’t blame others for that which you yourself brought forth.  Take responsibility for your own life.

And don’t forget to vote on November 3, 2020.