- 10 Nov - 16 Nov, 2018
MY REASON FOR WRITING THIS COLUMN
- 13 Oct - 19 Oct, 2018
- A Letter From America
These are appalling and demoralizing times in America. But I’m going to try this week to avoid yet again revisiting the current specifics of all that. You probably don’t need me to anyway, if you’ve been reading any of my recent columns or otherwise paying attention to the American domestic crisis. There’s also the weekly problem I face of anything I write being instantly overtaken by events. But I have another reason to avoid expending yet another allotment of 1000 words lamenting the state of my country to kind Pakistani readers who – to be candid – have a great deal more experience living in conditions of obvious and chronic national dysfunction than I and my fellow middle-class Americans do.
My reason for writing about anything but what’s staring us in the face this week is not avoidance, but an active personal decision to try to control what I can control, which is my own attention. Long experience has taught me that that’s one of the only things I ever can control. But, as ineffectual as my attention might be in public terms, it’s anything but trivial or insignificant. For one thing, for me personally it means literally everything. It also is the first and most important contribution that I, as an individual, am in a position to contribute to public life. My attention is the only currency I have to spend, so I had better spend it wisely.
The market in which I’m invited to spend the currency of my attention is called the media. In 21st-century society, the media are the circulatory system in which politics takes place and public decisions are made. So what behooves me is to take care how and when I expose myself to media and whatever it might be purveying. Because these days the media are ubiquitous and purvey everything all the time, the challenge for any of us is not how to stay informed about current events, but how to avoid becoming over-informed, saturated and pickled in media, our ability to take an interest, to care, and to involve ourselves drained away by the sheer perpetual onslaught of it all.
The theory of modern media-driven democracy posits that things like – say – a Senate confirmation vote on a lifetime appointment to the United States Supreme Court take place with us, the people, watching, and that somehow our preferences and principles are supposed to register and affect the outcome, which all of us then will respect and abide by. According to the theory, as a citizen I should be paying attention and taking part in the debate on such an important matter sure to affect all of us for decades to come.
But when a retrograde and unpopular faction, in cahoots with a divisive and arguably illegitimate president, pointedly rejects the vision of society that I and tens of millions of other citizens embrace, where does that leave us? It leaves society as a whole in a state of what the legendary journalist Carl Bernstein – whose Washington Post reporting with Bob Woodward helped bring down President Richard Nixon in 1974 – accurately calls a “cold civil war.” And it leaves me as an individual citizen wondering why I should bother taking part in public life at all anymore. Which in turn leaves me wondering whether national public life has much to do with my life and, if it doesn’t, where I should be directing my attention instead.
I actually have some deep and philosophical thoughts to offer on that matter, but I don’t have it in me to try to articulate them this week. For now my answer is that, on the day I wrote this column, instead of obsessively following the political train-wreck in progress leading inexorably to the unthinkable yet inevitable confirmation of the disgusting Brett as a Supreme Court justice, I watched a baseball game. The Milwaukee Brewers, my childhood team, are in the playoffs for the first time since 2011; it’s raining and chilly outside here in Seattle; and I’ve arranged my work and personal life such that I have no reason to be anywhere for the next several days other than inside my cosy little house. Right at this moment nobody needs, expects or deserves anything from me (other than this column). So I happily spent the afternoon in front of the television, watching the Brewers defeat the Colorado Rockies 4-0 to go up two games to none in their best-of-five series.
Sport is more political than we usually want to admit, but within reason it can legitimately function as a balm and a refuge. It also teaches us interesting things about ourselves and each other. In 2003-04 when I taught at Beaconhouse National University, I played tennis regularly at the Lahore Gymkhana, for exercise and (frankly) as a writer’s way of snooping on the private world of the Lahori elite. But I also did it because I believed that a durably interesting way to write about a hyper-political country like Pakistan would be to pay attention to other aspects of its national life. And tennis proved an ideal diversion for a writer. I found it soothing because, although a line call can be ambiguous or wrong, at least in theory every ball is either in or out.
This is not the case in the political world that you and I live in and that, as a journalist, I’m compelled to pay attention to and write about. “I am so sick of this trade of authorship,” wrote my hero William Hazlitt – the most political of early-19-century British essayists – “that I have a much greater ambition to be the best racket-player, than the best prose-writer of the age. The critics look askance at one’s best-meant efforts, but the face of a racket-player is the face of a friend. There is no juggling here. If the stroke is a good one, the hit tells. They do not keep two scores to mark the game, with Whig and Tory notches.” •
- 03 Nov - 09 Nov, 2018
- 27 Oct - 02 Nov, 2018
- 20 Oct - 26 Oct, 2018
- 06 Oct - 12 Oct, 2018
- 29 Sep - 05 Oct, 2018
- 22 Sep - 28 Sep, 2018
- 15 Sep - 21 Sep, 2018
- 08 Sep - 14 Sep, 2018