A Preening Nation
Photo credit: Joe Angseesing, from the Internet Bird Collection
The First Amendment is important to me. I think it’s important to most of us. As disconcerting as the now continuing marches in Charlottesville are, I prefer to think less about content and more about unrestrained exercise.
When I think about the content, I realize that it touches off an unrestrained cycle of preening. The white supremacists preen with tiki torches in front of a statue that represents a preening appeal to Southerners with a preening, false narrative about the Civil War, and the response is a preening mass of protest and social media outrage. Preen, preen, preen, preen, preen.
As upsetting as NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem may be for many, it’s a matter of having permission to express outrage or concern regardless of our comfort levels. I’ve been a soldier for a very long time. I’ve helped with ritually preparing the ruined remains of Jewish military peers for burial, transitioning a flag-draped life into a flag-draped coffin. I’ve lost more friends than I can easily count across the last 15 years, both to the immediate ravages of war and the aftermath, as we all struggle to reconcile time spent in hell with our day-to-day. I don’t feel disrespected, and I don’t feel like my friends’ memories are disrespected by the acts of NFL players. Service members especially should have a profound ability to weather discomfort caused by anything, including the exercise of speech.
But the players preen. The coaches preen. Vice President Pence orchestrates a taxpayer-feted preen. The “patriot” with an uncle that served in the Coast Guard Auxiliary preens.
With all of this, I still question the utility of all the 140 characters of moralizing that we’re subjected to. President Trump—and I hate that I have to qualify any statement by saying I think the present Leader of the Free World is a vile and reckless man—tossing paper towels at a crowd in Puerto Rico isn’t something I’m going to get bent about. What concerned me was we had the predictions with enough lead time to preposition recovery assets. The storm event exposes the problems with the Jones Act, but as someone who loves his new gig in the Army’s Transportation Corps, we know we have more than a few cargo-moving ships that don’t require deepwater ports. As someone that has been in the aviation-heavy 101st Airborne Division, as someone that has been in the aviation-heavy Pennsylvania Army National Guard, and as someone who has been a part of natural disaster responses from wildfires to Hurricane Katrina across the last decade and a half, I feel qualified to critique the preparation for and immediate response to Hurricane Maria.
But our concern about the Jones Act will languish. We were happy to use it as ammunition to attack Trump when he didn’t waive it, but our attention span will not suffer us to identify the real problem, that we have legislation like that on the books. Legislation that harms not just Puerto Ricans during disaster recovery, but harms free trade across the board. I’m a Libertarian, and I will press the flesh on repealing the Jones Act now and until the day a repeal takes place. Few others will remember that there is such a thing even a week from now.
The possibility of a dopamine rush from incoming Facebook “likes” has ended. Time to move on.
We have become a nation of unfettered preening, and it’s very difficult to take us seriously, because like birds, we flitter away to the next outrage branch, tend our feathers there, and move on shortly thereafter.
We seriously believe these ostentatious displays of moral outrage are accomplishing something.
Last year, we were subjected to audio of the man who is now our President saying some pretty disgusting things about women, to the point where it sounds like he was advocating sexual assault.
The outrage resulted in pussy hats and marches, well-intentioned and arguably necessary preening at its finest.
A year later, we’re finding out that Harvey Weinstein for decades was sexually harassing women that came across his path. All of that pussy hat solidarity did nothing to empower women in his cross hairs. Each one made decisions not to benefit their gender or even the next woman who would end up on Weinstein’s “casting couch” or bathroom, but out of selfish concern. That’s not recrimination, but rather, the shortcomings of solidarity. Power dynamics leave us vulnerable and exposed when our own value constructs are tested, and we’re on our own as opposed to in a crowd drawing the empowering “you go, girl.”
I’m a cynic, so I believe that the details on Weinstein are furiously emerging now not because of the increasing power of women, but because it is perceived to be safe for the media to do so now, even though they’ve known and enabled him for a long time.
The outrage, predictably, will wax and wane like alkaline flies stirring and landing with the gentle tide of the Great Salt Lake. There will be little long term interest in meaningful criticism of the news. Remember the heady days when the Internet would democratize the media? What we have instead are pathos-appealing, outrage porn outlets, who defy the media template by simply catering to their audience’s confirmation bias.
And our only response can be a colloidal mass of preening.
Every new event or circumstance seems to result in a “response,” but the underlying problems remain unattacked in spite of all of the outrage. Part of it is because we wait for government to solve the problem. The other part is that we truly can’t do anything when we’re held hostage by a partisan narrative from our state legislatures to Congress.
The best responses to the shortcomings in Puerto Rico’s receipt of disaster relief have been organized acts of charity, but they’re small as compared to the online moralizing. Since we can’t all be directly involved in fixing the problem, are we really contributing anything by expressing our moral outrage and fanning the flame of a social media trend? I’m unconvinced, and worse, I do it, too.
I don’t know where we’re headed with all of this. I like solving problems. It’s what I do as a coder. It’s what I’d like to do in government. Limited attention span preening has little consequence if we’re invested in long-term, holistic problem solving.
Running a political campaign for Congress has reminded me heavily how I feel about the self-serving nature of exhibitions of feels. I think we couch a self-satisfying need to not feel helpless and powerless in the 24-hour news cycle with “raising awareness.” I’m trying to be more conscientious of my own response.
Will posting about it yield any purposeful effect? Yes, I find President Trump odious and terrible, but in other news, water is wet. Will anything I say about the Las Vegas shooting make people safer? Will I rally people to some legal cause? Spitballing ideas and creating a dialog about those isn’t a terrible thing. But “gun owners are indirectly responsible for this!” is a terrible thing. Same as “great, people are using this to assault the 2nd Amendment!”
I’ll share an anecdote I shared in social media about gun violence last week. In the 1990s, I watched my squad leader blow half of his face off with a shotgun after his wife left him. Prior to my Guard unit’s mobilization for Iraq in 2008, one of our peers shot himself during a game of Russian roulette. After two deployments, our good friend shot himself. A young former soldier of mine took his own life a few years later with a shotgun. Another peer from our OIF mobilization took his own life a few months ago.
In my work in Veterans court, two court participants in our program shot themselves. Another was shot by his father, who then killed himself.
In almost all cases, alcohol or some form of substance abuse, often self-medicating through diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issues, was involved.
In all cases, many individuals realized they were “ships that passed in the night” with our departed friends and peers. We all say, “if only we had just…” trailing off meaninglessly. We’ll go on about gun violence, we’ll talk about purposeless adventures into legislation that will go nowhere, but we all identify the missed opportunities we had in our immediate, human connections to make a difference, to help someone choose a better path. I’m sure there were a myriad of missed opportunities in the Las Vegas gunman’s backstory. We may never know. But we do know for so many who die by gun violence, there’s someone standing on the periphery wondering what they could have done differently.
“If only we had just…”
Preening is no substitute for whatever comes at the end of that sentence.