I saw this piece on Eric Clapton’s sudden turn to COVID politics in the Washington Post, and thought a lot about people in my life (many who are older) who have taken sudden political turns.
“He’s the anti-Bono,” says Bill Oakes, who managed Clapton’s label throughout the 1970s. “He is the epitome of someone who is there for the music, and he’s never rubbed shoulders with world leaders and never wanted to.”
Most of these political turns — in my experience — don’t go very well for a couple of reasons. There’s an art to talking about potentially incendiary issues, and if you don’t spend some portion of your life practicing it, even informally, you’re unlikely to be very good at it. Even worse, if you’ve always been politically quiet, it can be surprising how offensive people can find your views, and that’s often made even worse when you’re not very good at expressing them.
What I often see is a bit of a vicious cycle. A newly engaged citizen dives into the conversation, throws a few quasi-informed haymakers, almost inevitably puts their foot in their mouth and (often legitimately) offends someone. Since they’ve always been quiet, this reaction is completely new and completely unexpected. It feels bad to have your views about life and society itself repudiated, and when it’s never happened before, you’re inherently thin-skinned. You feel attacked, and start seeing yourself as a victim. This doesn’t make you better at making your points or figuring out other people — it makes you worse. Which leads to more offense, hotter takes, and a lower standard for your own thinking (since you feel increasingly okay blaming everyone’s reactions to your uncompelling arguments on how “sensitive” or “brainwashed” they are, or whatever).
People who never veer too far into politics are nodding right now. “That’s exactly why I stay out of this stuff,” they say.
You can stay out of politics, but politics won’t stay out of you
Since I was a little kid, I have always been very interested in why society works the way it does, and why we have the rules and systems in place that we do. Growing up the way I did, that was an itch that was easiest to scratch by following U.S. electoral politics, which I did, although I never got involved in a campaign, or canvassing, or any Young Whatever groups. I liked (and still like) my own history, and I’m an American, so I find American history pretty interesting, and obviously our political and electoral history (as well as the history of our government structures) is all a part of that.
I majored in political science in college, and I thought a lot of it was interesting even though I have no desire to participate in electoral politics other than to vote and maybe share my perspective, when relevant, on various policy issues and things like that. I graduated and never really looked back, although I pay a decent amount of attention to state and federal policy (I should pay more attention to local but I keep moving). I don’t read like, Politico or any of that horserace crap about who won the day or whatever.
Here’s my point. A lot of people didn’t do this, or stopped doing it early in their adult life. They are “not political”, and probably say that with happiness and some amount of pride. And in the sense that they aren’t haranguing their friends and family about the VA governor’s race or how judges get installed in Texas (assuming they don’t live in those places), they are probably right to feel that way.
One of my first political science professors said to me — on our first day — something very basic but very eye-opening to me. She said “Politics is power. That’s it.”
Not politics leads to power, or powerful people understand politics. Politics is power. You don’t need political parties, or elections, or talking heads on CNN to have politics. If you’re in a room with 10 people and 9 chairs, you have a political problem. You can say “oh, I don’t follow politics”, but odds are you’re only going to say that when you have a chair, and when you lose it, you’re probably going to get “political” very fast.
I think this is the real challenge for so many people who are suddenly motivated, for the first time in their life, into speaking up about politics. They don’t think they are political, but almost no one is not political in the sense that they are simply opinion-less and completely neutral on how power affects them. Instead, most ostensibly non-political people are living life, not expressing themselves, and having very political reactions over time, quietly, and often developing increasingly strong opinions about all kinds of things. And then, all of a sudden, they don’t have a one of those chairs I was talking about.
The moral of the story (I think) is simple.
You have to engage! You don’t have to engage with horserace electoral nonsense (you should vote, but that’s another topic). But you do need to engage with what you think, why you think it, and where that plugs into the experiences of your fellow citizens. You may not want to do that, because you might embarrass yourself (God knows I have) and you might find out some things about yourself that you don’t necessarily like. For instance, I’m glad no one wants to be racist in theory, but the sooner we can get over the existential dread of realizing we have dumb racist instincts we can definitely learn to manage with the non-lizard parts of our brain, and that this is perfectly okay, the better. Not engaging with any of this doesn’t keep it from coming out eventually. It just keeps you from refining any of it before it does, and figuring out how to deal the world as it really is, which is a combination of different experiences, and — bluntly — not just yours.
Start with people you know and love. Your commie-hating grampa. Your endlessly protesting nephew. Go in with love and humility. Don’t match the tactics of these people if you find that they want to debate you — not because those tactics are necessarily bad, but just because you are probably bad at them. Just engage, throw in some jokes, and try to learn something. See if you can defuse something, or relate, or whatever. Don’t come at things from the dumb cable news angle. Ask a broader question like “how did school handle the ugly parts of American history when you were there?” You know, an actual question the person you’re talking to can add value to, and provide perspective that you literally cannot. It may start off as work, but you’re a human being. You’re a social creature — you have a natural aptitude for improving at stuff like this.
The alternative is, really, just to stew quietly. You’ll get radicalized in some way (we all do), and then, when you can’t take it anymore, you’ll decide it’s time to take a stand.
And you probably won’t like how that goes.