The other day I had a dentist appointment, and as an alternative to focusing on whether or not it was currently unpleasant, I tried to become interested in American politics.
It’s not that American politics fails to be attention-grabbing. But a casserole falling on the floor is attention grabbing, and I wouldn’t say that I’m interested in falling casseroles. I do read about the political situation, but like a casserole-fall viewer, mostly with curiosity and responsive dismay, not with real intellectual engagement or fertile thinking. Why?
Politics is important, from what I can gather. And detailed. And probably involves all kinds of normally intellectually gratifying constructions such as game theory, strategy and institution design. So shouldn’t it be interesting?
I think it doesn’t seem interesting because I have the impression of it being broadly ridiculous, and as a consequence, somehow not my problem. An analogy: in my current house, I am usually plenty interested in perfecting the finer details of our system of household responsibilities. But if I joined a new house, and they told me that they determined who was going to wash up based on a weekly basketball tournament combined with an astrological reading, I wouldn’t be intellectually gripped by the finer questions of how the basketball tournament should be run, or how different people were doing in the game.
Or relatedly, it feels too far from making sense to me to engage my intellectual curiosity. If someone was trying to find a good route North to Seattle, I’d be more compelled to join them in the question than if they were trying to find a good route North to New Zealand or Mars.
When I say it seems ridiculous or nonsensical, here are some things I’m thinking of:
- if you wanted to determine the best policies to adopt across a huge number of issues, voting to choose a small group of people to decide them all, out of a moderately larger pool of people, based on a combination of a few issues that seem salient at the time, plus the candidate’s vibes, social prowess, and susceptibility to public embarrassment, doesn’t seem like a thing you should even expect to work.
- Continual overt lying isn’t a deal breaker in the highest office
- Debate of the kind where you discuss the answer to some question doesn’t seem to be part of presidential debates
- Things I would usually think of as basic are not assumed in public debate. For instance, that the ‘personal freedom’ we might agree to uphold isn’t prima facie going to include freedom to harm other people by giving them covid.
- Something something QAnon?
This is all an account of my previously unexamined feelings, and on examination, I don’t endorse them.
For one thing, the sense that something isn’t my problem because it is silly doesn’t make sense. Where does it come from? Perhaps that at a smaller scale, if a thing is too silly, it is often best to disengage. If a club has lots of stupid rules, you should usually leave rather than trying to overhaul it; if a restaurant won’t let you eat without discussing the proprietor’s confusing personal conflicts at length, the standard response is to find a different restaurant rather than trying to workshop your relationship with this proprietor. But there aren’t other Americas to go to, and this one has plenty of influence over all kinds of important things, so this heuristic doesn’t apply at all.
But at another level, my sense that things are ridiculous in a way that might negate my identifying with them or caring about them seems wrong. Everything is part of the world, and there are real reasons it came about, that would make sense on the most complete and true theory of things. It is my world, and if I am to contend with and understand it, then that includes the curling of Donald Trump’s lips as much as much as the flocking of swallows, the unfolding of logic, or the spiraling of galaxies.