“The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, is as relevant as ever. “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” the essay begins. We have certainly seen this, particularly during the Trump years in which grievance, chaos, and division have reigned. At times it has felt crazy (and crazy-making), but Hofstadter is at pains to state that he is borrowing the clinical term “paranoid” to describe “the heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” among more-or-less normal people that’s existed from the country’s founding through the present day.
Hofstadter’s essay was published in tumultuous times, with the anti-communist fervor of McCarthyism serving as his contemporary exhibit of the paranoid style and its capacity for wreaking havoc.
Hofstadter notes the phenomenon’s “apocalyptic and absolutistic framework”:
Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated.
Hofstadter notes a key phenomenon of the modern right wing–feeling dispossessed (or at least knowing how to manipulate others experiencing or frightened of dispossession):
America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.
Hofstadter then brings his socio-political commentary into the psychological realm: “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him.”
This dovetails with the hallmark feature of clinical paranoia, as described by Nancy McWilliams in Psychoanalytic Diagnosis (1994,The Guilford Press): “The essence of paranoid personality organization is the habit of dealing with one’s felt negative qualities by projecting them; the disowned attributes then feel like external threats.” (p. 205). McWilliams also notes the reliance on denial and high levels of innate aggression among those who skew paranoid. They struggle with anger, resentment, envy, vindictiveness, and—most of all—fear:
The paranoid stance is a combination of fear and shame. . . Paranoid people use denial and projection so powerfully that no sense of shame remains accessible within the self. The energies of the paranoid person are therefore spent on foiling the efforts of those who are seen as bent on shaming and humiliating them. (p. 208)
Paranoia, whether clinical or socio-political, is difficult to treat. It remains to be seen how much the passions of the moment will dissipate if not constantly stoked, or if a dangerous fringe that has made it into the mainstream has metastasized beyond control.
My favorite Voting Plan comes from my friend Tina, who posted on Facebook: “I plan to fill out my absentee ballot as soon as I get it, put it in the nearest drop box right away, and watch cat videos until after the election.”
I, on the other hand, even though contemplating how to follow Tina’s example and calm my nerves as we approach E-Day, couldn’t help myself. On my therapeutic walk this morning, I made the mistake of listening to The Daily‘s latest podcast, “The Spector of Political Violence.” It featured Americans of every political (and apolitical) stripe buying guns because they are nervous about everyone else having guns. I suppose it’s a comfort that the story’s angle was deliberately non-partisan. But hammering home the point that people who are scared arm themselves to feel safe–despite all the evidence that the presence of a gun increases the risk of violence–made me even more anxious. I’m a member of a very large club.
I recommend following Tina’s lead. So in that spirit, here’s some reminders of goodness and beauty from my daily walks of the last few months that are helping me get through:
Remember to vote, and remember to set your clocks back Sunday. You’ve got your choice about how to spend your extra hour: sleeping, insomnia, doom-scrolling, watching cat videos. Choose wisely, and see you on the other side!
You know what motivates me more than almost anything? When someone I know and trust asks me to do something! I joined Weight Watchers with a friend. I took a job I wasn’t looking for because my friend recruited me. I served on our school district’s foundation—and even became its co-chair—because so many people I admired were involved and urged me to get involved, too. I make countless donations, go to events, and buy unwanted wrapping paper and grapefruit from friends’ children. I like to joke that my political activism consists of doing whatever my friend Ruth asks of me.
It’s not that I’m a pushover or a mindless follower. My parents never had to say, “Would you jump off a cliff just because your friends were?” It’s just that people I know and trust inform and inspire me. They provide good company, hold me accountable, and make me a better person.
It turns out I’m not alone, and that this has big ramifications for voter turnout. Research shows that the best way to get somebody to vote is when someone they know reminds them. Call it a helpful nudge, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), or benevolent peer pressure–it works! That’s why one of my very favorite acts of political work this season has been Friend-to-Friend Voter Outreach.
It’s a simple and fun organic way of growing a network of voters not from campaign lists but from within our personal circles. All it takes is asking three people you know in battleground states and districts who share your views to vote, and to ask them to ask three more people. Follow-up with a couple of pre-election reminders, and that’s it!
Of course, if you’re an overachiever, you can ask more than three people—I’ve cast a wide net, and have also asked people not in battleground states but with roots there to participate. But three is a perfect number—not too much to ask of anyone (including yourself!), and enough to make a real difference. It’s also a nice way to catch up with friends and relatives where contact might not extend much beyond birthday and holiday cards.
I’ve had some lovely exchanges with far-flung cousins, Facebook friends, and my daughter’s college roommate. My husband’s best friend, not normally political, agreed to contact his mother and all his high school friends in Cleveland. I’ve never in my life participated in a single chain letter, but this is a chain I love to build, link by link.
Please join me. Use the resources below, have fun, and let me know how it goes. Let’s win big.
– A good step-by-step guide (you don’t have to attend the ongoing workshops offered by the organizer, though you’re welcome to contact him for next date if you like).
I clipped this cartoon from The New Yorker soon after Donald Trump’s inauguration, and it’s been on my refrigerator ever since.
The first week of this Administration seems practically quaint compared to what’s happening now. Those were the days of a flurry of executive orders loosening environmental protections and going after immigrants; lies about crowd size and voter fraud; Kellyanne Conway’s injecting “alternative facts” into the Trump Apologists’ Lexicon; and, most notoriously, the Muslim Ban.
It took three attempts to craft a travel ban that passed muster with a willfully obtuse U.S. Supreme Court. It’s a useful model for the trajectory of the last four years: Initial incompetence–along with intense resistance by an outraged opposition not yet exhausted by relentless provocations–contained the damage for awhile, until it didn’t.
But the only ways in which Donald Trump and his enablers have gained competence is to divide and better manipulate the considerable levers of power they control for corrupt, unlawful, and dangerously destructive ends. The takeover of the spineless Republican Party is complete. Mitch McConnell and Bill Barr, the Scylla and Charybdis of the whole treasonous enterprise, guard the rot with a competency and smooth veneer that will forever elude the obviously unfit Trump himself.
The resistance is still strong, but exhausted.
It is Labor Day, the traditional start of the home stretch of every presidential election. November 3, 2020–the day we have been waiting for since November 8, 2016–has taken forever to come but it’s almost here.
So imagine the word “term” instead of the word “week” in the cartoon above.
Summon everything you have in the next few weeks to make sure it doesn’t come to pass. Talk to similarly inclined people in your circle to make sure they are registered to vote, and that they do vote, either with enthusiasm or holding their noses. Sign up for phone banks, text banks, letter and post-card writing. Make donations if you can. There are a million opportunities available, and participating in them may save your mental health as well as the future of our country and planet.
Perhaps the real point of this blog post is to warn against letting too much time elapse between starting and finishing time-sensitive writing. I started it August 21, and here it is, just 10 days later, which might as well be a century. I guess it’s in keeping with how time feels these days: both endless and unchanging as well as perpetually upended moment to moment. So I’ll just throw this into the latest time warp, trusting that (a) things will change again and (b) I can get back what was true not so long ago, despite the smoke.
Last year, I couldn’t wait to watch the Democratic debates, and put every single one in my calendar. The first one, with all those candidates crowded onto a stage, made me feel proud of my party and hopeful about how many serious, good people there were in this country. Our alarmingly narrow bench was actually quite wide, even minus the ludicrous contestants (here’s looking at you, Marianne Williamson).
My older brother and I would touch base about politics once in a while, him from western Massachusetts, me from California. He was a Biden stalwart from the get-go, arguing that a return to decency and normalcy were just what the country needed. I begged to differ (probably not that politely): Biden, I maintained, embodied the benign patriarchy, which we’ve all learned is not so benign. Despite having a fondness for Obama’s VP, I found him too arrogant and defensive, too old and diminished, a man from a bygone era who could not rally enough young and progressive voters to offset the swing voters in key states he maybe could.
I loved these conversations with my brother. Subsequent Democratic debates? Not so much. My pride from the first one quickly changed to dismay as month after month we mostly witnessed a made-for-TV-but-not-for-democracy spectacle, the surprise appeal of Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer’s tie notwithstanding. In one of our calls, I asked my brother what he thought of the debates.
“I think the Democrats should stop having them!” he said.
At last we agreed.
So it was with considerable trepidation that I put two hours into my calendar every single night from Monday through Thursday a couple weeks ago for the Democratic Convention. How much of a disaster would it be?
I loved it—every inspiring and cheesy moment. Well, maybe not Tom Perez’s manic energy from Milwaukee Central and the overhead shot of John Kasich at a crossroads, or was it a fork? Plus, I was distracted the entire first night by Eva Longoria’s totally smooth and seamless bust line, wondering if I really should consider Spanx.
But the wide-ranging panoply of America and people who call it home really moved me, from Black Lives Matter protests to the many (some would say too many) Republicans for Biden. I loved the focus on ordinary Americans, one apparently recording himself from what seemed to be a toilet (it was really just a stool). How many shapes, colors, outfits, accents, and tattoos there were, how many different walks of life! But united in common purpose. The tone of somber urgency as well as lightness was just right. Joe Biden and his small chats with people beamed in made me wonder if we will move from someone in the Oval Office who does nothing but watch FOX News and rage-tweet to someone who will spend his days personally calling every American for long, empathetic conversations. Sounds like a pretty good trade-up.
And, of course, the wonderfully weird and moving roll call, a much-needed travelogue for the housebound. Who knew that Rhode Island is the country’s calamari capital? Not to mention the effective telegraphing that wearing masks is the decent thing to do.
Some of the VIP speeches were great, some forgettable. Joe Biden more than cleared the bar of not dropping dead or uttering gibberish. The man from a bygone era really is the man of the moment.
Again, though, it was ordinary people who stood out: The young woman whose father died from Covid-19 because he had trusted Trump; the little girl reading her letter after her mother was deported; the boy with a stutter.
Four nights expertly packaged for maximum manipulation. And yet it felt real. It awakened something in me that’s been dormant for a long time, particularly as the Covid-and-Trump-coping protective numbness has settled in: Feelings of hope, pride, joy.
Then the Northern California fires picked up. Smoke, heat and terror blanketed everything, only to be supplanted by the Republican Festival of Lies and Fear-Mongering. Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times in front of his children by a White cop in Kenosha. The city predictably exploded, with a 17-year-old White militia wannabe killing two people. The teenager is being lionized by the right-wing. Jacob Blake is paralyzed, but not so the racial-violence-incitement machine of Trump and his enablers. Horrors compounded by the added horror that this strategy might just work.
Meanwhile, there are 183,000 dead and counting from the pandemic Republicans choose to ignore. Millions out of work, millions at risk of losing their homes.
By the end of the week, I was so distraught I had to mainline Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” on Netflix. It was the perfect antidote, reminding me of what we had, strengthening my resolve to fight harder to become better again. I made more donations, signed up for more phone banks, more text teams, more outreach.
That is the hard work that drives away the smoke and restores hope.
I don’t take the time these days to let in much emotion. On a day-to-day basis, I feel fine. I am fine. My immediate life is not too visibly touched by the ravages of the coronavirus and Trump’s reign of terror. I worry about others who are more directly in the line of fire, mostly with a sense of numb horror. I channel that horror into a kind of grim determination, signing up for another phone bank, donating again to the food bank or ActBlue. Mostly I maintain an even-keeled numbness, aware of how much energy I put into keeping feelings at bay so as not to get overwhelmed by the grief and rage and despair lapping at the edges.
It’s the exact opposite of how John Lewis lived, and lives on even in death. Beaten almost lifeless countless times; arrested more than 40 times; leading a sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House at age 76 demanding action on gun legislation in the wake of the Orlando massacre; embracing the tens of thousands of young activists pouring into the streets after George Floyd’s murder–John Lewis never succumbed to despair, nor did he stray from the principles of non-violence. The day of his funeral, the New York Times published a piece Lewis wrote just before he died. It’s an homage to today’s protesters and a call to action. It’s a testament to how John Lewis keeps on giving, even in death.
There have been many homages to the civil rights icon himself in the last few days. I read some, heard snippets of others. But I took the time to watch President Obama’s eulogy in full. I needed the piercing of numbness I knew his presence and his words would bring.
Watching President Obama is a heartbreaking balm for the soul in the midst of Trump’s unending and crass malevolence. I, like millions of others, miss him every day. He knows that he would never have gotten where he is without John Lewis. As he delivered the eulogy, he did not mask his grief and anger. Nor did his grief and anger overwhelm his grace and buoyancy of spirit, his ability to lift us up.
Most compelling was his direct linkage to John Lewis’s lifelong work for racial justice and what is happening now, including how often might crushes right. Until it does not. Describing the scene in 1965 Selma, President Obama said, “I imagine initially, that day, the troopers thought they’d won the battle . . . Except this time there were some cameras there. This time Americans saw—bore witness to—black Americans who were asking for nothing more than to be treated like other Americans.”
President Obama helps us see that a nonchalant cop’s knee on George Floyd’s neck is today’s reincarnation of Bull Connor, that federal troops in Lafayette Square and Portland wield the same bloodying batons; and that voter suppression tactics, including sabotaging the post office, echo poll taxes and unpassable tests about how many jelly beans are in a jar. “John Lewis devoted his time on this earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what’s best in America that we’re seeing circulating right now,” President Obama said. “As long as we have breath in our bodies, we have to continue his cause. Everybody’s gotta come out and vote. . . We can’t treat voting like an errand to run if we have some time.”
And then: “You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for.”
President Obama concluded by saying that Lewis “could not have been prouder of this new generation. John, these are your children, they learned by your example.
Thank you, John Lewis and President Obama. And thank you to all those now rising up and persevering in the fight for justice, whether grief-stricken, enraged, grim, weary, exuberant, numb, and–dare I say?–hopeful.
As a pre-teen, my favorite book was Gone with the Wind. I would devour it cover to cover far into the night, a flashlight illuminating the pages. As soon as I finished the book, I’d start over, hoping to beat my previous time. I saw the film many times, too, the screen’s imagery and Margaret Mitchell’s words melting together into memory. Still, it’s the thrill of my late-night, under-the-covers immersion at Tara with Scarlett O’Hara that stays with me.
I think it was Scarlett’s 17-inch-waist that first reeled me in. And, of course, the tempestuous romance between her and Rhett Butler. These sad, misguided fixations alone make me cringe. The backdrop of the Civil War and slavery barely registered. Referring to it now as a backdrop makes me cringe anew, proof positive of how easy it is for me still to retreat from reality.
From an early age, I knew the broad outlines of the Civil War—Confederacy bad, Union good. Slavery was a horror, and Abraham Lincoln was right up there with FDR and JFK in the presidential pantheon. After all, my parents were active in the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps that’s why I read furtively by flashlight. But I didn’t sneak out of the house to see the movie version of Gone with the Wind. I’m sure we watched it together, and I don’t remember any in-depth discussions. My parents pointed out that Mammy, Prissy, and Sam were stereotypes undergirding the fantasy of loyal black people happily serving benevolent masters. But mostly we focused on those incredible hoop skirts and what Scarlett saw in that drip Ashley.
My first misgivings about GWTW came not from a deeper understanding of structural racism but from feminist critiques. That scene where a half-drunk Rhett shows Scarlett how he could crush her skull between his hands, then carries her upstairs to the bedroom, where she wakes up all smiles the next morning? Not long after my dawning horror that the scene depicted rape, I had another rude awakening: Rhett was a charter member of the KKK.
So I relegated Gone with the Wind to all the other things I’d once enjoyed and could no longer stomach: Coming-of-age stories that romanticized child sexual abuse; Last Tango in Paris; Bill Cosby. I moved on without giving GWTW much thought beyond feeling ashamed by my clueless self.
I’ve evolved some from my oblivion over the decades, though I have barely scratched the surface. I still read in bed after midnight. Now the illumination is provided by my iPhone rather than a flashlight—and also by the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her brilliant New York Times Magazine essay, “What is Owed?”:
“If true justice and equality are ever to be achieved in the United States, the country must finally take seriously what it owes black Americans.”
Note: I had intended to write a light-hearted little post to close out the month here on Shrinkrapped, but with all the horrors in our country right now–particularly those visited upon people of color–I just couldn’t. Nor could I find new words to channel my heartache and rage. Instead, here is my latest piece for Airlift, an organization that supports grassroots organizations to engage and expand the electorate in key areas around the country. This post features Michigan Liberation.
Turning non-voters into voters: Airlift’s mission aligns perfectly with Michigan Liberation, one of several grassroots groups our “Lift the Midwest” fund supports. Founded in 2018, Michigan Liberation is a statewide network of people and organizations organizing to end the criminalization of Black families and communities of color in Michigan.
One of the group’s first endeavors was a series of listening sessions that revealed just how widespread the impacts of archaic and discriminatory laws and policies have been among poorer communities, especially among people of color. As one participant noted, “Too often, people are caught up in the system because of financial instability. Between cash bail, court fines, legal fees, and other costs, it seems impossible to escape from under the load of expenses that start to rack up, further oppressing marginalized people. How is that about justice? A wealthy person could pay up and be done, but that’s not true for most of us.”
Those who have been incarcerated and their loved ones—which includes over half of Michigan Liberation’s staff and volunteers–know all too well the long-term devastation caused by criminal-legal involvement. Their leadership is key in healing communities from the pain and trauma of incarceration, and in transforming a broken system.
One such leader is Kimberly Woodson, Canvass Team Leader extraordinaire who was sentenced for life as a pregnant 17 year-old. After the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles serving a life sentence could apply for case review, Woodson was released in 2017, having spent 29 years behind bars. She started the non-profit Redeeming Kimberly to assist other returning citizens with housing, food, clothing, and jobs. Woodson facilitates forgiveness sessions, and inspires everyone at Michigan Liberation with her incredible energy and warm-heartedness.
Deep engagement and multiple conversations with low-propensity voters about issues that affect their daily lives were key to the electoral successes up and down the ballot in the 2018 mid-terms. In just five weeks, Michigan Liberation knocked on nearly 28,000 doors and talked personally with more than 5,000 people in three counties. Those for whom every day is a struggle may not pay much attention to national politics, but they care deeply about who’s elected as local sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges. Michigan Liberation’s education, endorsement, and empowerment efforts create powerful community advocates, and get people to the polls.
Michigan is one of the few states that automatically restore voting rights once people who have been convicted are released from jail or prison. But as Co-Director Meredith Loomis Quinlan explains, returning citizens often don’t know they can vote. Many probation and parole officers tell them it’s illegal, and people are too afraid to do anything that jeopardizes their freedom. Michigan Liberation works hard to change this through education and voter assistance. They’re advocating for registration forms in every release packet in the state. Quinlan even imagines the day when packets include a letter from the Governor saying, “Welcome back to the democratic process!”
Such long-ignored voices matter in rebuilding an engaged citizenry and achieving electoral success up and down the ballot. In 2018, Michigan Liberation helped flip four state Senate seats, three State House seats, three County Commission seats, and a US Congressional seat. Statewide offices turned from red to blue in the Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State races.
“A Vision for a Liberated Michigan” was launched in November 2019. The agenda highlights eight themes vital to resolving the state’s mass incarceration crisis, including the school-to-prison pipeline; police and surveillance; mental health; sentencing; jails and prisons; and re-entry services after release. An example of the latter is Michigan Liberation’s Technology Empowerment classes for returning citizens.
These amazing successes by an increasingly effective movement not only have been transforming families, individuals, communities, and the state; they‘ve also paved the way for even greater voter engagement and turnout for 2020.
Then came COVID-19. The virus has had a particularly devastating effect on incarcerated populations, where overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and inadequate health care are routine. High rates of infection and even death among inmates and staff have catapulted the crisis into the news. Michigan Liberation and others are calling for immediate steps to stop the spread and save lives. On March 30, Governor Whitmer issued an executive order permitting (but not mandating) the early release of vulnerable inmates who pose no risk to public safety.
Earl Burton, a formerly incarcerated Michigan Liberation organizer, said Whitmer is on the right track, but more needs to be done, such as immediately releasing elderly and medically infirm prisoners and those already granted parole. “I personally know a few who are in no way shape or form a threat to public safety. You have prisoners who have been there for decades, and are no longer the same people that they were 30, 40 years ago,” Burton notes.
In addition to highlighting the urgency of Michigan Liberation’s criminal justice efforts, the coronavirus has also shifted the organization’s focus to providing desperately needed services such as water and food to suffering communities.
The political work continues under extremely trying circumstances. The staff switched to working from home before the shelter-in-place order. They all know someone who has died from COVID, and are hearing horror stories from friends and loved ones who are currently incarcerated.
Nonetheless, Michigan Liberation has nimbly pivoted to online community outreach and organizing. The prior year’s experience with Zoom and providing Tech Empowerment classes has come in handy! Michigan Liberation recently hired 14 online organizers and 4 digital communications people to amplify social media content. Canvassers engage in wellness checks, then relate people’s experiences with how their votes are vital in bringing about change.
Co-Director Quinlan notes a silver lining: As COVID has exposed the fault lines of a broken and unjust criminal-legal system, it has generated more empathy. “COVID provides a tangible measure of elected officials’ performance. What did they do or not do during this crisis?” she remarks. “We see it as an opportunity.”
Airlift also sees it as an opportunity. Michigan Liberation exemplifies how building movements from the grassroots up engages marginalized communities, which in turn translates into meaningful and progressive electoral change. Now more than ever, your contribution matters.
I see my client’s face. A bit pixelated, true, but more centrally framed now that the camera angle cutting her off just above the chin last week has been adjusted. I glimpse my own image and “office” in the small rectangle. Oh, no, has the covering slipped from my daughter’s old dresser? How many times will the screen freeze today?
Still, it’s better than nothing. I’m lucky to have a private space, with no children to homeschool or shush—the daughter whose room I’m in is long grown. Cursed, blessed technology exists now, at least for most people with the wherewithal to find their way into somebody’s private practice. I have been on Zoom support sessions for clinicians, and hear horror stories from those who work with people who are impoverished, undocumented, hungry, homeless, imprisoned, sick, overwhelmed by life even in the best of times. Some people they’ve been unable to reach altogether.
The fact that things are so much worse for others is frequently brought up by my clients who can and want to keep seeing me. They feel grateful and guilty. I feel the same way.
Still, we sit and talk. I talked too much at first, trying to compensate for the feeling of disconnection through excess verbiage. Eventually I remembered the value of listening, with an assist from Zoom, which goes haywire when more than one person (or rectangle) is speaking.
Nothing sounds quite right. I read somewhere that the time lag is part of what makes video calls so tiring. Exhaustion turns to panic when suddenly the client’s voice sounds stretched out and underwater, or every other word is dropped. What if they are revealing something crucial, and I miss it? I briefly wonder if bandwidth, too, engages in repression or dissociation, or if it reflects the client’s usual experience of feeling unheard and my own inattentiveness.
Sometimes, I prefer just the phone. I came into the mental health field more than 40 years ago as a crisis line volunteer, and like a duckling, I imprinted on the first thing I was exposed to. I’ve always been struck by how people can often go deeper, be more vulnerable on the phone.
Still, whether via Zoom, doxy, FaceTime, or phone, psychotherapy in the time of Covid has felt a lot like those many check-in calls I fielded on the crisis line. People say the same thing, over and over. It’s the same conversation we’re all having now, as coronavirus infects not only our cells and the economy but every nook and cranny of mental space. My colleague asked two analytically inclined clients if they wished to explore some of what they were delving into before. “Absolutely not!” they both said. I’ve wondered with clients what we might be talking about if we weren’t talking about the pandemic. “That’s a good question!” they say, before returning to coronavirus. Remote video platforms aren’t the only ones with bandwidth issues.
Time feels so strange, endless and fleeting at once. Clients wonder, How long will this last? When can we return? And even if we do, will I ever feel safe? Wondering the same, we do our best to hold people, not knowing how long we can all hold on.
I am almost always way behind in my reading: usual backlogs are six weeks for the New Yorker and six months for the Atlantic. My husband once remarked, “You have many good qualities, but knowing when to stop reading an article you’re not absorbing isn’t one of them.” (Neither is speed reading.)
Taking his words to heart, at least now when I sit down with The New York Review, I flip through the pages, reading only one or two articles between the cover and the Complex, Dynamic Tomboy and New York City Attorney seeking love (or at least lust) in the back-page Personals.
“Damn,” I think to myself as I toss the barely read periodical into the recycling bin. “This is really great and incisive writing. Too bad I don’t do more of it.”
I can’t toss The New Yorker, though. I’ve never been a just-the-cartoons page-flipper. The magazine used to be known for its timeless (and endless), multi-part series on things like corn, or rivers, or geology, so it didn’t really matter when I tackled my piles. But even the hallowed New Yorker succumbed to the reality of shorter attention spans and more topical coverage. So I’m now often in a time warp when I do sit down to read.
After the 2016 election, I savored this peculiarity. For weeks, I was still relishing the prospect of our first female commander-in-chief. President Obama was not ever going to have to turn over the keys and the nuclear codes to someone completely his opposite and unfit for office in every way imaginable. I could live in my alternative reality long before the Trump administration’s insistence on doing so wreaked such widespread havoc.
Now I’m in that surreal space again, my reading lagging way behind the current reality of our Covid-upended world. In my time warp, things exist beyond the total takeover not only of our health and our economy, but of seemingly all news, conversation, and every waking and non-waking moment.
My lagging world isn’t quite as enjoyable as before, when President Obama’s magnetic smile stretched from sea to shining sea. I’m catching up on the House impeachment vote, moving through Ian Frazier’s Season’s Greetings, the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the Democrats in disarray. Mitt Romney hasn’t yet become an unlikely hero/traitor (take your pick) during the Senate impeachment “trial.” The Iowa caucuses are still a quaint if undemocratic trendsetting tradition, not a debacle. There’s still more than a dozen candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. Then, as I make my way through the stacks, Bernie is poised to run all the way to the end zone while his opponents tackle each other, littering the field. Super Tuesday has yet to come, along with all the rest of the brutal primaries before they get postponed. The Democrats are not yet in a state of array behind Joe Biden–Man from a By-gone Era who is, strangely, now the Man of the Moment. There’s nary a hint of the pandemic about to engulf us (although one might take this flu season Valentine as foreshadowing):
I am glad my behind-the-times reading creates corners of my psyche beyond the reach of Covid. I am even perversely grateful to be reminded of how Stephen Miller is one of the most loathsome denizens of Trump’s swamp. The corona virus is not the only devastating force in the world.
My time warp is about to converge with the present moment: I have finished the New Yorker whose cover features Trump with a surgical mask over his eyes as he rages on and on. Just two more issues until the one with the spiky virus balls festooning the cover. I will miss the past times of my so-slow reading, just as I miss our pre-Covid world that seems centuries ago.
But I look forward to a better future, when and if it ever comes.