Turning to Joan Didion in 2017
Consider this: when one is quiet, one can hear what’s coming. Consider this as well: when one hears thunder, one can assume lightning has struck, no? Alright, now consider this: when you hear thunder, do you turn to see the lightning?
I was in Chicago the night of November 8, 2016, at Schubas on Southport Ave to see a show, attention split between the live music I’d come to see and the television above the bar. In fact I’d missed most of the first band’s set while in the front room staring at that television. Divino Niño put on a good show, but by 10:30 Holy Wave seemed eager to wrap it up and no one at Schubas seemed to be having fun anymore, and by 11PM, sitting alone on the platform of the Southport Station, waiting for the Brown Line back to Albany Park, fun hardly seemed to matter. The alcohol was wearing off and I was catching up on a string of panicked text from a close friend. I sat and thought, by myself, quietly.
I stepped onto the train, took a seat; all I could think to reply:
“I’m on a train rn (Nov. 8, 11:29)”
“This feels weird (Nov. 8, 11:31)”
And so followed two months of weary introversion. No one I know personally, that I knew of at the time, could believe he’d won; I suppose that is much more telling of me than of Americans as a whole. Then came inauguration day. One friend of mine, “I’m almost hoping he just hits the nuke button early on, ’cause every single day of this is going to be extremely painful.” Another friend, in reference to the alleged evidence placing the then president-elect in a compromising light, “Pee isn’t that bad if you’re in a pinch. It’s sterile.” Nothing had happened yet, so there was still room for levity.
Following the inauguration, the Women’s March, massive in scale and nationwide, presented for those critical of the new president an opportunity to express their opposition. Then, the following day, the beating of chests with Press Secretary Sean Spicer, concerning the size of the president’s inauguration day crowd, to me, at the time, seemed like more of the same; at very least it was no less disturbing than any news of the last two months. However, the insiders, those with White House press badges, seemed much more concerned. This was evident in the commentary that immediately followed. “It is quite clear that this administration will make whatever representations it wants to on its impression and interpretation of the news,” CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett, speaking to CBSN, “and drive that right back at the news media if it thinks it is being unfair or inflicting damage on the image this White House wants to display.”
This first briefing was odd at best, and disturbing at worst. However, the policy blitz, a series of executive orders and memoranda, this would dominate the cycle. Each order, signed end to end, then ceremoniously photographed, was met with prompt outrage. Then as one week turned into two, the landscape began to look unfamiliar.
I’d like to temper my instinct to frame others’ outrage with suspicion. “Their moral authority is weak and their newfound militancy is shallow,” as Dr. Cornel West acrimoniously described in his op-ed for The Guardian, a piece summarizing his already well-known and diligent criticisms of the then lame duck President Obama; West attributes this newfound militancy specifically to the democratic establishment and progressive leadership, but it could comfortably apply to anyone currently and notably angry. West hurls this as insult, too little too late; however, straining to see a silver lining, I would have liked to harness it. The inertia of American sentiment was budging. Let’s seized this opportunity, I thought, everyone is activated. Then I took some time to read through “Executive Order 13767: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” and it suddenly seemed that doing anything would be extremely difficult.
The lightning rod of this order is the wall; the construction of the wall is the least troubling directive of this document. As I understand it, this order seems to tacitly mandate racial profiling (sec.2), it expands the jurisdiction of ICE (sec.12), it allocates DHS resources arbitrarily at the southern border (sec.5), it directs the Attorney General to prioritize prosecutions “having a nexus to the southern border”(sec.13), and in the name of “government transparency” orders the DHS to provide the following:
“The Secretary (of Homeland Security) shall, on a monthly basis and in a publicly available way, report statistical data on aliens apprehended at or near the southern border using a uniform method of reporting by all Department of Homeland Security components, in a format that is easily understandable by the public.” (sec.14)
They don’t want a wall.
I take a step back to recap the last two weeks, from the inauguration, to the march, to the circus following the march, through the infighting among progressive leaders, then the policy blitz, promptly met with outrage, followed with vehement calls to action, then the think pieces about what’s really going on, then the think pieces on who’s really behind all of this, and now the utter confusion. All who remain outraged are now urging one another to not fall for it. But what then? Now that no one is being fooled, what can anyone do about it? What then if Congress has long abandoned even the appearance of propriety, in favor of a less coy, more tacit understanding, “we shall now do as we please.” That said, I hesitate to paint such a bleak picture. I’ve never found cynicism to be very useful, and perhaps, just maybe, those with quantifiable power really do care, no?
Maybe. As even those who would be in charge, those whom the citizenry might call the establishment, as they too watch the news, they too are stirring in dissent. In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, former U.S. State Department diplomat John Brady Kiesling flatly calls the new administration “a group of idiots who have no idea how the world works,” insisting they are “kicking in the teeth everyone who’s worked for a lifetime to protect the US.” I guess one could say he cares, right? So many who’ve seen behind the curtain are now pulling their hair out, those who’ve dedicated their lives to quietly keeping the world turning are now being kicked in the teeth. Or perhaps I’m giving these insiders too much credit, perhaps they are less concerned with their neighbor and much more concerned with the preservation of their life’s work.
It was then I turned to Joan Didion. I took a moment to again read her 1988 essay “Insider Baseball” in order to find some bearing. In this piece, Didion writes on her time covering the 1988 U.S. presidential election, from the primaries to the general election, and instead of simply rehashing her experiences, she opts to lend context, unpacking the highly manufactured highlights of a presidential campaign, as well as journalists’ subsequent willingness to report these performances as news. She describes those more dutiful reporters covering a presidential campaign as sharing “an enthusiasm for overlooking the contradictions inherent in reporting that which occurs only in order to be reported.” Stranger still, the language of politicians, as well as those reporting, on them and that which occurs only in order to be reported, had grown paradoxically transparent; presidential campaigns are described in the language of performance. She writes:
“They tend to speak a language common in Washington but not specifically shared by the rest of us. They talk about “programs,” and “policy,” and how to “implement” them or it, about “tradeoffs” and constituencies and positioning the candidate and distancing the candidate, about the “story,” and how it will “play.”
“They speak of a candidate’s “performance,” by which they usually mean his skill at circumventing questions, not as citizens but as professional insiders, attuned to signals pitched beyond the range of normal hearing.”
Baked into the reporting itself, the admission that the audience was getting a show. However, what is so striking about this observation is that this language is in fact so readily used by the rest of us, at least in 2017; because of this, I’m somewhat unsure of what Didion is suggesting. Are the “insiders” alienating the electorate by speaking this codified language, or are they feeding it to them? Likely, she’s suggesting neither, as her observation is striking on its own.
Didion then elaborates on this use and appropriation of this language:
“When we talk about the process, then, we are talking increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”
The narrative is “invented,” so naturally the symbols, the images of this narrative, must be fabricated. That’s how one gets to see a published photograph of Michael Dukakis playing catch on a tarmac, beginning with, as Didion writes, “some forty adults standing on a tarmac watching a diminutive figure in shirtsleeves and a red tie toss a ball to his press secretary.” Didion goes on to describe the circular nature of event politics; in reference to the 1988 Republican and Democratic National Conventions, those television events broadcast for, supposedly, all of America to see, even while “roughly 80 percent of the television sets ‘out there’ were tuned somewhere else,” Didion observes the following:
“The great arenas in which the conventions were held became worlds all their own, constantly transmitting their own images back to themselves, connected by skywalks to interchangeable structures composed not of floors but of “levels,” mysteriously separated by fountains and glass elevators and escalators that did not quite connect.”
This understanding of how things work, the unwritten playbook for reporters and the public figures they report on, in thirty years has not changed; everything else has. Now that the internet has gifted us all an audience with the rest of the world, why do we still follow this line? Why do we tune in for these events? Have we collectively given permission, granted license to the insiders to keep that narrative going? If so, what do Americans give up when they insist on not liking politics?
In 2016, it might have seemed that journalistic institutions lacked the imagination to break this cycle, or perhaps the beast was just too big to see all at once, as they continued reporting on staged political events, debates and conventions alike. They, the powers that be, invent the narrative, and they, the reporters, transmit it back to themselves, and they, those in power as well as those reporting on them, toss the ball back and forth while perhaps no one else is paying attention. And there is told that other narrative, of low voter turnout and political apathy. In reference to the Dukakis campaign, Didion writes:
“What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country. The figures are well known, and suggest a national indifference usually construed, by those inside the process, as ignorance, or “apathy,” in any case a defect not in themselves but in the clay they have been given to mold.”
This perceived “national indifference” is seemingly understood to be the moral failing of citizens collectively, a monolithic societal attitude, and candidates are supposedly left with no choice but to play to a small yet vocal hardline base. The result is a showy horse race, and reporting is narrowed to who is leading that horse race; that’s not exactly a groundbreaking revelation, but it’s the media’s role that concerns me most. When projections point to a likely winner, the media reports it, resulting in a consolidation of the public’s attention, onto that candidate.
To this sentiment, Didion herself quotes David S. Broder, then with The Washington Post, from a 1987 piece on the presidential primaries:
“Once the campaign explodes to 18 states, as it will the day after New Hampshire, when the focus shifts to a super-primary across the nation, the existing communications system simply will not accommodate more than two or three candidates in each party. Neither the television networks, nor the newspapers nor magazines, have the resources of people, space and time to describe and analyze the dynamics of two simultaneous half-national elections among Republicans and Democrats. That task is simply beyond us.”
He goes on to suggest that the field must be reduced to “the number of candidates treated as serious contenders.” Alas, the consolidation of attention had a rationale. Compelling analysis in 1987, but what of 2016? Three decades later, when nearly all news is consumed online, what then? What does a primary look like when the communications system’s capacity to accommodate is infinite? The short answer is a circus. In not so few words, the landscape had outgrown the media’s consolidation of attention, more candidates were willing and eager to stay in the spotlight, and the best these gold standards of news media could do to keep up was measure the real story against those now outdated guidelines. I suppose calling it a circus was simpler.
In 2017, with a new administration settling in, the cycle of reporting on policy as event, on governance as performance, never really stopped, as week two under the new administrations brought with it that flurry of think pieces framing the policy blitz as “shock event” and urging the people to not “fall for it.” What is particularly troubling with this reasoning is that somehow the onus was on the people to not fall for it, while perhaps it was the press all along that had missed the story, that the unlikely candidate was in fact a contender. I do, too, recall that week after the election another flurry of think pieces suggesting that very sentiment, that the press had missed the story. Despite the abundance of navel-gazing, nothing seemed to come of it. What good does any of this, the press editorializing about itself, seemingly to itself, do to clarify the bigger picture? And what good is learning to see past the smoke screen of shock event when those telling the story race to report on the event? What good is it when news media is eager to frame just about any development as breaking news, with that same language of performance? When cable news networks broadcast live coverage of sensationalized events, seemingly in perpetuity, that shortsighted view of events, reported as news and framed as emblematic of the state of things as a whole, hardly seems constructive. That’s how one gets to hear Robert Reich hurl unsubstantiated claims on live television, that “rioters” at UC Berkeley were “right-wingers” inciting violence. That’s how the headline “Robert Reich Lies, Claims Breitbart News Organized Berkeley Riots” creeps its way onto facebook feeds. Perhaps when insiders resort to threadbare attempts to reframe the narrative in desperation, they lose at their own game, on account of “outsiders.” The consolidation of attention can’t work in your favor when the attention is not on you, when others can so tidily twist your words in your absence.
I wonder if haste to prognose the intent of this administration by naming each development a “distraction” or “shock event” does little to address the real harm each may cause. How does one not “fall for it” if each event, having clear and quantifiable ramifications, does in fact command attention? When many small fires are set simultaneously, should one label them diversions and then call it a day? Or consider, instead of fires, rabbits. Imagine a rabbit is set loose. Imagine chasing it. Imagine it running down a hole, as rabbits are wont to do. Recall that Carroll’s Alice chased after the white rabbit because she had “never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it.” It commanded her attention, and so, “burning with curiosity,” she was compelled to pursue. Now consider the scathing critiques and hard-hitting analyses concerning Executive Order 13769 (the infamous travel ban) and its impact, and imagine they are traversals through a rabbit hole; the ban, as we see it, commands our attention, because the implications are troubling, because understanding is vital and therefore analysis must be pursued. Consider that rabbit holes are made for rabbits, and therefore, by design, difficult for other creatures to traverse. Now imagine dozens of rabbits set loose all at once.
That said, I’d like to revise my previous statement: the consolidation of attention can certainly work in your favor when you don’t want the attention on you, or, more precisely, on whatever else it is you are doing. If that is true, would it be all that radical to suggest that this narrowing of understanding, this tendency to focus our attention, name our beliefs, classify our philosophies, was taught to us, by those in power in order to stay in power? Or perhaps it’s much simpler, that our tendency, as humans, to classify and organize, by way of evolution and otherwise innocuous, is exploited by those looking at the big picture, those who don’t hunt rabbits. In either case, we are bound by our common language, by our supposed cooperation in defining terms, by how insiders define those words like programs and policy and tradeoffs, by their understanding of terms like racism and elite and feminism. Therefore, we are at an inherent disadvantage when our understanding of our common language lacks congruence, certainly when people can’t agree on the definition of racism, the definition of fascism, and especially when terms like tyrant and terrorism and fake news are reappropriated and weaponized, when that lack of lingual congruence is exploited. The common language is not ours but in fact theirs, because at the end of the day it is they who need to create the policy and implement it. The citizenry follow the narrative invented likely because they’ve (or at least feel they’ve) no other choice, because any other path is seemingly ineffectual, because one can hardly do much all alone. As it were, a narrative invented by insiders, told in their language, is made for insiders, just as rabbit holes are made for rabbits. It would seem to me now, in light of all of this, that the consolidation of attention might not be the moral failing of the citizenry, but rather that of those who report on their leaders and representatives, as they seemingly follow clicks just as politicians follow polls.
One other thing I notice while reading “Insider Baseball” was a very in-passing mention of our now president. She writes, again on the 1988 Republican and Democratic National Conventions respectively, “Minicams trawled the floor, fishing in Atlanta for Rob Lowe, in New Orleans for Donald Trump.” What I find especially eerie about reading his name, in this context, is that he’s seemingly only mentioned to illustrate the absurdity of the narrative, a showy celebrity smile playing his part in the big show, otherwise an afterthought. Trump had always been apart of the narrative, perhaps because those insiders, those privy to “the process,” to this “mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals,” had decided he was. Then again, he made it a point to be seen; his 1989 full page ad in the New York Daily News, urging that the Central Park 5 be put to death, was less than subtle. How aside, the insiders let him in, or perhaps he’d always been one of them, at this point I can’t make the distinction. It makes sense, but I don’t know what to do with this information.
And so here we are, he has transcended being a story to being our story. Why isn’t the arbitrary nature of this policy blitz the real story? I’d imagine it’s because every controversy this administration stirs is a lightning rod, and lightning will strike the lightning rod, by design. Perhaps the insiders share an anxiety regarding crowd wisdom, perhaps they find it difficult to trust the layman’s capacity to understand the complexities of a storm system; lightning has struck, turn to look. Along with this consolidation of power, so will be that consolidation of attention. Here are the choices, follow one story, that the idealistic PC culture of the bi-coastal liberal elite threatens our national security, or follow another, that the immigrants affected by the travel ban are the innovators and bright minds of America. I bristle at these framings, as they ignore so much. One ignores human need, the other conflates an individual’s worth with their skill or education. Each of these stories, these narratives invented by insiders standing in opposition to one another, are likely, by design, turned against one another, for no reason other than it is simpler.
All of this, this string of observations, none of this is novel. Everything I tell my friends, Joan Didion had once told me, in my living room on a Saturday afternoon when I had nothing better to do than sit and read. Furthermore, her observations are shatteringly insightful and yet nothing new. Their novelty lay in that familiarity, they were yet to be articulated truths we’ve known all along, the things we’ve always believed; then Joan Didion speaks, and we are now confronted with them. You cannot hear lightning coming. When you hear thunder, you do not turn to see lightning because lightning has already struck. When you hear thunder, you turn to see the coming storm. We know this because we’ve heard and seen it before. Again, I don’t know what to do with that information.
As I’m typing this I’m trying my best to keep this from looking like another think piece. I’d much rather it be a mindful step back, a reflection on how these mechanisms have worked all along, saying as much as I can while prescribing nothing. Naturally, I’m finding this difficult, it’s very hard to not feel strongly about all that is happening. Following any of the many “narratives” of which we may “choose” hardly seems constructive right now. The deep seated cynicism that points toward that small clan of insiders who’ve all along been telling the rest of us where our journey has taken us and what our story is, retelling that story hardly seems constructive at the moment. It is even more exhausting when framed with your friends’ nihilistic witticisms, your family’s resignation, and work emails of which still must be answered. Inversely, the dutiful optimism, the narrative of overcoming adversity, the language of progress and moving forward, it too seems hardly constructive, as I find it difficult to divorce that story from the reality of privilege, it lacks urgency. Then there’s escapism. I suppose no harm is done when an American adult carves out a weekend to explore Pottermore, dedicates hours to playing Overwatch and Madden, it’s fun and it’s safe, but how does any of that matter right now?
Then again, my eagerness to charge my peers with apathy is likely misplaced, as that narrative of low voter turnout, that reasoning for playing to the base, the civics lesson on the importance of your vote, likely follows those same lines drawn by those insiders. But what about now? Were they right all along? They weaponize our votes to brandish and hurl at one another, but maybe our votes really are our own. Maybe it isn’t reality that discourages us, but rather our fierce individualism measured against that reality, our need to feel like our vote is our own obscures all things we have some control of. Or perhaps it is that lack of lingual congruence, that when we share a common language but not common definitions, the language of governance is difficult to unpack. When citizens have to unpack the language of their representatives, the citizens’ role in that transaction is, at best, ambiguous or, at worst, nonexistent. At the risk of sounding prescriptive, I’ll make one and only one rule: I will hold mindfulness as virtue. With this, only a thread of humanity is needed, that thread is strong enough to tie it all together. I’m unimpressed with brave observations and cynicism, and I’ve no patience for escapism. I want to be mindful. I want to take a moment and turn it all off, to synthesize all I’ve seen and heard. I want to sit quietly alone to think and feel that this was time well spent.
Enrique Echavarria, February 14, 2017