The Prettiest Sight

In The Philadelphia Story, a lowly reporter played by James Stewart scornfully intones, “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”  For one week on Martha’s Vineyard earlier this summer, that’s exactly what I was doing.  And oh, what a pretty sight it was.

Certainly, the Vineyard—regularly ranked among the priciest vacation spots in America—screams “privilege” in any season, from its private beaches and golf courses to its posh restaurants and hotels to its A-list clientele.

In my case, however, the fact that I was among New England’s most well-heeled (albeit in a budget-friendly rental unit with no room service) was ancillary to the real privilege I enjoyed for eight days and seven nights on this triangular island seven miles off Cape Cod:  The privilege to not care what was happening in the universe beyond the shore.  The privilege to disconnect from current events and suffer no consequences whatsoever.

See, in my normal, landlubber life, I’m plugged into the global newsfeed about as deeply as any good American should be, monitoring Twitter and the New York Times with freakish regularity to ensure I am always in the loop about whatever unholy nonsense the president has gotten himself into today (among other things).

But while on vacation, I made a deliberate effort to disengage from the minute-by-minute deluge of copy that otherwise scrolls across my transom, and just try to relax for a change.  By and large, I succeeded.

To be clear, this did not entail a total 24/7 news blackout.  Rather, it meant checking Facebook two or three times per day instead of the usual thirty.  It meant scanning Boston Globe headlines without necessarily reading the articles underneath them.  It meant not watching a single segment of cable or network television.

Most significantly, it meant absolute abstention from Twitter, and all the nauseating, petty political catfighting contained therein.

It meant, in effect, that I still had a vague, general sense of what was happening across the seven continents, but without the fuss of getting bogged down in the details.

What I took away from this experiment—this voluntary, temporary withdrawal from the media-industrial complex—was how precious little I was missing.  How trivial such seemingly earth-shaking stories really are when viewed in proper perspective.  How oddly pleasant it was not to be waist-deep in the muck of political tomfoolery at every hour of every day.  And how much I dreaded returning to my usual routine in the real world—which, of course, I did with all deliberate speed.

It begged the question:  What’s so great about the real world, anyway?  Why do I burden myself with the minutiae of global happenings when I could just as well spend my free time going for long walks and plowing through the collected works of Agatha Christie?

Keeping on top of the news may make me conscientious and informed, but does it really make me happy?  Would I be any worse off, as a person, were I to harness the laid-back habits I picked up on the Vineyard and maintain them until the end of my natural life?

In all likelihood I would not be, and that, in so many words, is the true meaning of privilege in 2019 America.  It’s not a question of wealth or fame (of which I have none).  Rather, it’s about the ability to tune out.  To be mentally on vacation for as long as one’s heart desires.  To ignore such unpleasantries as war, famine, global warming and the Trump administration and be affected by them not one whit.

Deep down, of course, this is just white privilege by another name, since to be white in America is to know that, however bad things may get, there will always be a spot for you on the lifeboat.  And to be a white man, all the better.

Naturally, as a bleeding heart liberal (or social justice warrior, or whatever we’re supposed to call ourselves now), I can hear the angel on my shoulder gently reminding me that the role of the Woke White Person in Trump’s America is to support and agitate on behalf of the downtrodden—immigrants, Muslims, and pretty much anyone else who isn’t Caucasian and/or male and doesn’t have the luxury to take a mental health break from reality—which requires paying close attention to what is being inflicted upon one’s fellow countrymen—and aspiring countrymen—on our watch, in our name.

On refection, it seems like a fair price to pay for someone whose life is sufficiently charmed as to be able to spend a week of every June on a place like Martha’s Vineyard, watching the sun rise over Edgartown Harbor and guzzling beer and clam chowder without a care in the world.

After all, there is some happiness to be found in simply being involved—however meekly—in the national discourse, particularly when Election Day rolls around, as it is wont to do every now and again.  That’s to say nothing for the lowly blogger, who will sooner or later need to write about something other than lobster rolls and how to avoid being eaten by a shark.

Advertisements

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.