Sunday, November 20, 2005

Apolitical Blues

It's becoming painfully obvious to me that I'm not political enough. Some of you are probably doing the "no shit, sherlock" face right now. I realize it because when I write a post like this one, and post it at some of the places that have been kind enough to open their doors to me as a guest contributor, I invariably get responses that say, "This is a waste of time. What's your point?"

Because "point," to an awful lot of people, means "being solid red or blue, and making your best smash-and-trash attack on the other side." When they do respond, the commenters react as though I'm attempting to be polemical, and I just suck at it. So they fish out the leftist or rightist "point" they think they smell in my prose, and then go attack the straw-man version of it.

When I write something that says, "this person is a decent and honorable man, but he's wrong," or "this is a big, complex issue, here's an angle on it you might want to take into consideration," or "I'm still trying to figure out which of these two evils is the less" -- I get, "What's your point?"

They've been thinking so long and so hard in black and white they forget what colors look like. At some of those places I hardly even bother to post any more. When I do, I rarely bother to read the comments.

Here, it's been good. People who read this blog seem to get it and I'm grateful for it. Of course there's only a few dozen of you on a given day, if my stat counter works.

Thing is, I knew all along I wasn't political. Literature and history are my first loves. Where's politics? Way down the list, buried deep under stargazing and bellydancers and Anglo-Saxon mythology and British cheeses and Charlie Parker and the Philadelphia Flyers and paleoclimatology and about a dozen dozen other things. When I was young I called myself an anarchist (a philosophical position, not a fondness for throwing rocks) and I didn't vote till I was in my 30s and I still can't seem to vote for the same party two cycles in a row.

As a history writer, I had to understand politics and political thinking. I understand it, but I confess I understand it like a biologist might understand squids mating. It still baffles me how people like Madison and Calhoun and Wilson (Woody, not Joe) can be so high-minded and statesmanlike and at the same time roll around in the partisan mud. If there is a bump of politics, in the phrenologists' model, my skull lacks it.

I'm not going to bore you again with the "jolted into awareness by 9-11" story, but there's a plot twist in it that I sometimes overlook. In my blissfully a-political days I spent a lot of time on the message board of the scarlet leftist British newspaper The Guardian. I was only vaguely aware that it was leftist, and I didn't care; I was there for the literary conversation. There were a lot of smart folks there, talking about historical Christianity and Jane Austen vs. Emily Brontë (Emily by a pinfall in the 23rd minute) and the latest by W.G. Sebald.

When Sept. 11 hit, naturally, that was where I turned to grope for perspective. And the vulgar, gleeful high-fiving and hostility with which the British left greeted the attacks was a key part of my political awakening. The stench of that was part of what propelled me away from the pseudointellectual left as a place to ground a foundation for understanding what happened and what ought to be done.

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