Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Not long ago I had the good fortune of a leisurely medical consultation with an eminent academic physician, a department head at a major medical school in New York. When I say “leisurely” I do not mean to imply that it was unprofessional or inefficient—far from it. But I realized that I had come to expect that what a “doctor’s appointment” amounted to was a perfunctory exchange of words with a person seated at a computer, briefly and laboriously typing something onto a screen from which his eyes seldom strayed. This man looked at me, listened to me, talked to me as though he presumed I was no longer in the third grade. Hence our conversation did occasionally move off the topic of the mortal frame and its discontents. Very briefly it even grazed the subject of current politics. The supposed health care “replacement” bill (at that point still invisible) was in the news, and he allowed himself the expression of a general sense of dissatisfaction and apprehension. But even this was hedged with diffidence. “I can’t really follow politics,” he said. “I simply don’t have the time.”
It was then that I realized that quite by accident he had accurately diagnosed my most serious problem, which has nothing to do with electro-physiology. I do follow politics because I have fancied that, since I retired, I do have the time. The premise being a fallacy, the action based upon it is a particularly time-consuming form of folly. By “following politics” I mean this. I regularly read the New York Times with tolerable thoroughness. We seldom miss the NPR “News Hour”, and though we continue to grieve the loss of Gwen Ifill, we applaud its journalists and their uniquely intelligent presentations. On Fridays we take in Gwen’s old program “Washington Week”. Most days I survey the offerings of the website “Real Clear Politics,” which aggregates the most widely read current political columns from many perspectives, and includes a large swath of the right-wing press that I would never otherwise see. I often take the time to read through the “Comments” threads of news stories and op-eds, for in them I find revealed, with a clarity nowhere else apparent, the Great Divide running through the center of our population. There are video clips of journalistic debates, shouting matches, and foul-mouthed rants by political comedians galore.
In theory this investment of time and energy was supposed to leave me informed, or woke, to use the Anglo-Saxon equivalent recently certified by the Oxford lexicographers. In fact, it has left me depressed, or downed, to use an Anglo-Saxon equivalent I hope might soon join it. I have several friends and acquaintances who tell me that they actually no longer read or watch much news for the sake of their mental health. I no longer think they are kidding. Like most intelligent Americans I have been wedded to the idea of an “informed electorate;” but sadly it may be time for a divorce. There are practical limits to the willingness to suspend disbelief.
In the ancient monastic literature, in which I have read a certain amount, there is a story concerning a hermit who had been dwelling solo in a cave for twenty years or so. A small merchant caravan, having lost its way in the desert, stumbled upon his lair. Submitting to the law of hospitality the ancient ascetic chatted up the head merchant in a monosyllabic sort of way. “Who,” the monk asked the trader, “who now sits upon the Imperial throne?” The merchant uttered a name the troglodyte had never heard before. “Ah,” said the monk, “thank you,” politely excusing himself and turning back to his reading. What he was reading is not explicitly mentioned, but it was not the “Huffington Post”. He obviously considered that the political information he had gleaned in this brief interchange made him sufficiently woke for the next decade or two.
Despite this fantasy we set out last night as scheduled for our “Six Every Six” dinner, aka the “Trumpian” dinner. We are one of three couples, six very old friends, who are meeting for dinner every six weeks in each other’s homes to assess latest developments, replay favorite moments, and makes predictions. The predictions are actually written down on a piece of paper, then produced at the next dinner to embarrass us with their inaccuracy. The dinners seem to be “evolving”. Last night’s was as delicious as ever, and the eventual consternation as complete. But we prefaced moving in to the table with unhurried drinks and nibbles as we sat outside on the greensward in the lingering, soft summer’s light, as birds flitted about a feeder and we chatted about the normal things of Normal Times.