This state of moral and spiritual provisionality can be fairly unnerving, since it becomes clear how utterly temporary and groping all our most important judgements must be. Perhaps it is fear of this that leads so many people to think that the sign of a thoughtful mind is that it is well stocked with clear opinions on everything important: a view that I cannot but think of as a fiction and an expression of anxiety about how things really are.
— Christopher Hamilton, Middle Age
Several years ago, in the spirit of Montaigne’s skepticism, I rededicated myself to contemplating the basic question, “What do I know, really?” Like Socrates, but without the irony, I had to conclude, “Not much.” Long before Marie Kondo became trendy, I rummaged through the contents of my skull and decided that none of the sociopolitical clutter in there sparked joy. I grew disgusted with my own ability to maintain an appearance of being reasonably well-informed and threw all those flimsy garments in the trash, vowing to go around silently in a monk’s habit of honest ignorance. I’m interested in many things — many more than I’ll ever have time to fully explore, in fact. But that interest rarely leads to certainty. Quite the opposite.
The same people who sneer at consumerism and escapist entertainment and criticize the masses for foolishly pursuing happiness by way of material possessions think that having a mind well-stocked with clear opinions on current events is a sign of sophistication. Some people collect Franklin Mint tchotchkes, others stockpile convictions about public figures and events which they can never hope to influence. Some people line up outside Walmart the night before Black Friday to jockey and jostle over toys and flat-screen TVs, others flock to breaking news hashtags to line up and verbally assault strangers. One group takes itself far more seriously than the other.
I’m proud to say that I have never read a single article about the Trump/Russia brouhaha. I’d been aware of it, of course, in the same way that living in a college town means you can’t help but be aware of a football game going on, what with all the increased traffic, team pennants flapping from car windows, and the dull roar issuing from downtown where the stadium sits. When the Mueller investigation news broke last Friday, I was surprised. Again, not because I was interested or invested in it one way or the other, but because even I had vaguely assumed that with all the dense clouds of smoke wafting over the web these last couple years, there would probably be some sort of collusion fire discovered eventually. Understand, I go out of my way to avoid coming into contact with anyone online who gives off the slightest hint of #resistance! mania, and still I took it for granted that the popular narrative couldn’t be entirely a delusive product of wishful thinking. The progressive media bubble apparently extends much further than I’d suspected.
At any rate, I spent a little while clicking through various Twitter accounts of those to whom this news was a very big deal. It was like being in a foreign country. Not just because of the asinine, self-referential Twitter slang (which was bad enough, making even serious issues sound adolescent), but because of all the names and events being referenced that had no meaning to me whatsoever. For a moment, I considered how many hours, or days, of my life it would have required to be conversant in all of this, and for what? What possible difference would it have made, other than keeping me in a constant simmer of anxiety and anger? Would I have been called upon to make an epoch-defining speech, or cast a decisive vote? It’s such a strange conceit, this belief that our civic duty requires us to pay close attention to events far beyond our personal control, as if the arc of the moral universe is a spoon we can bend toward justice with the concentrated power of our enlightened minds. Most of us have more than enough work to do in our immediate vicinity, in being better spouses, parents, and friends, but as usual, we’d rather choose abstractions and distractions.