I lapsed briefly the other day, while reading about Eleanor Roosevelt’s course at an English boarding school, into cursing anew my subpar secondary education. I’m tired of the Internet right now, the barrage of too-pat memes that flatten every systemic failure into a hot take with a solution simple enough to fit into a hashtag, and spending 90 minutes every afternoon on a single thought to be discussed later, at tea, appeals.
But: At the turn of the 20th century, a young Eleanor Roosevelt, on a field trip to the tenements, is horrified to see young children handmaking tchotchkes in their airless homes until they collapsed. Those in and adjacent to power were mostly oblivious (willfully or not) to the plights of the vulnerable, a privilege that smartphone and body cameras have all but done away with.
Social media amplifies and accelerates social movements to great effect, but have I read Beowulf? (And what else are cameras recording?) The consequence of a world in which the many plights of the many vulnerable can be made immediate is… TikTok. We can’t have both firsthand insight into every variant of the human experience and be expected to select one for 90 minutes’ contemplation. Complexity costs simplicity.
Speaking of, let’s return to modern discourse. From up here on my high horse, I enjoy staring down my nose at the naïveté of those who would summarize a policy objective in an Instagram story you don’t even need to hold your thumb on long enough to read. I roll my eyes and mumble “something something nuance.” I like the “nuance” meme because it’s very useful for me to gasbag away all the questionable choices I’ve made in my adult life rather than having to summarize them honestly! (“For the money.”)
I think that the rightest thing, morally speaking, is that which can be expressed simply. You shouldn’t need ten paragraphs to explain your value system.
But many right things can be true at once, and the challenge of governance is to build Frankensystems that serve as many of those right things as possible without collapsing. This is the blessing and curse of “hashtivism” (I hate simplicity but I love a portmanteau!) and technology: the speed, breadth, and concision of a given cause leave little room to jostle it into the Jenga tower of all the worthy ones.
Justice requires that all demands are satisfied. Power gets away with catering to a few. Case in point: our fractured Democratic party that pleases no one. (It’s unclear to me why the Democrats are communicating any message other than “A rising tide lifts all boats,” but I suspect they have some overeager digital strategists who have forgotten that there’s life outside their @ mentions.) Case in point: every corrupt government everywhere and every attempt to stem corruption that lapses into either dictatorship or just more corruption.
I like the old saw about the arc of moral history bending toward justice. I believe in the idea that we can build incrementally toward systems of governance that serve more people justly. (Or we could all just move to Denmark.) I think perhaps it’s impossible to do that without muddying each objective. Is that unimaginative? Lazy? An excuse to uphold a system that serves me well? Realistic?
Does it matter? I don’t plan on going into politics — performative all-nighters aren’t my thing — or even living in a swing state. I can see enough of the Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed page through the hands over my eyes to know what I see as pragmatic and incremental is viewed by many as radical. (They are so mad about middle schoolers learning about slavery!) And I only need to spend five minutes thumbing through my Instagram feed to know that most of my friends would think I’m one sensible Ann Taylor necklace away from writing an op-ed for the Journal myself. My politics please no one, and secretly I think that’s the best kind of politics to have.
It’s possible that I spent 90 minutes thinking about this one thing this afternoon. I guess I can say I went to English finishing school now, too.
P.S. Part of me feels like I should apologize for writing about politics, but I’m only going to apologize is if I start documenting my workouts or hawking spiralizers. (Which, to be clear, might happen if I don’t get out of my house again soon. Now that I have mostly learned to cook, it’s only my piss-poor photography skills stopping me from becoming a wellness blogger, and with enough time on my hands I might become Ansel Adams!!!!!)