In 2021, we must make an effort to reconnect with our fellow Americans, creating personal goodwill, rather than anonymous, woke anger.
I’ve been hearing from friends who have been unlucky enough to be in lockdown states. Without exception, they are depressed. The depression isn’t just because of the sad state of American politics, the unseemly power of the woke mob, the saggy economy, or any of the other grim stories in the media. Their depression is because they’ve been isolated from human contact for too long.
One of these friends directed me to Mollie Hemingway’s short post from yesterday, in which she talked about Kurt Vonnegut and shopping. Her point was that Amazon’s horrible sin isn’t just that it’s deliberately destroying smaller businesses and that it made out like a bandit thanks to the lockdowns. Instead, Amazon’s sin, just by existing, is that it forces us away from our fellow citizens.
Hemingway learned that, not long before he died, Kurt Vonnegut made the same point in an essay, and elaborated on that point in an NPR interview. (I can’t find the NPR link, and Hemingway doesn’t include it, but I’ll copy from Hemingway’s article.) Hemingway’s lead-in is that, when Mr. and Mrs. Vonnegut need envelopes, Kurt, rather than going on Amazon as his wife recommends, heads to the store:
KURT VONNEGUT: Oh, she says well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope.
I meet a lot of people. And, see some great-looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around.
And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well you wrote in the book about this. You write; What makes being alive almost worthwhile–
KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: –for me besides music, was all the Saints I met who could be anywhere. By ‘Saints’ I meant people who behaved decently, in a strikingly indecent society.
KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. Their acts of kindness and reason. On a very– on a face-to-face. On a very local.
That resonated with me. As longtime readers know, I grew up in a very snobbish household (European parents). I completely (and without any good cause for doing so) internalized that snobbish attitude. I was judgmental, impatient, and condescending. When I complained that I had problems making friends, my mother commiserated by telling me the others just weren’t good enough for me — and I believed her.
I started figuring things out in my 30s and have spent the decade since working extremely hard to be a nice person. It is a daily effort because I’m not naturally nice. One of the virtues of political writing is that it gives me a place for my venom. I have no trouble channeling all my natural malice toward public figures I believe are destroying my country and making the world a dangerous place.
One of the things that has helped me be a nicer person is discovering that, if you ask the right questions, everyone has something interesting to tell. For that reason, I always start conversations with people — clerks, gardeners, guard gates, whomever. Saying “Hello, how are you?” as if you mean it (which I do) always gets a smile. Then, if there’s time, commenting on something that you know matters to the other person — her artistic nail polish, his looking forward to the coming weekend, her manifest efficiency, his beautifully deep voice — often sparks a conversation. My favorite thing is when I can hear the conversation continuing with other people in line after I’ve moved on.
I very strongly believe that part of America’s falling apart is that we no longer see or speak to each other. Once upon a time, daily commercial transactions bound Americans together. At the grocery store, the butcher’s, the hardware store, etc., we’d see the same clerks and run into the same friends and neighbors. Those small interactions, repeated over and over, create a strong sense of community. I know that’s true because, for all its political leftism, that’s what life was like raising kids in Marin County. I lived in the functional equivalent of a small town, recognizing people wherever I went. Few were friends but all were friendly.
Nowadays, especially thanks to the lockdowns, we do much of our shopping online. Even when we do visit a physical store, such as rising into a grocery store after work, people are masked and turned inwards. Saying “hello” through the mask requires physical effort.
Social media, contrary to its name, hasn’t made us more social; it’s made us more angry. We don’t see each other’s faces so it’s easy to yell and insult. The very nature of a mob is that its very mass makes it impersonal. No one person is responsible for the physical or emotional damage it does. It’s the rare person who, like Clarence Thomas during the race riots after Martin Luther King’s death, looks at what he did while he was part of the mob and is so horrified that he completely revamps his life.
My theory — and I have no way of proving it — is that people who feel unseen and unheard, which is where our society has gone, especially in the last year, aren’t just lonely people. They are angry people. They know that they, their lives, and their opinions have value, but no one sees and no one listens.
In this regard, I think each of us has a responsibility (I know this sounds banal) to be nice. See people. It makes a huge difference. And a little gratitude doesn’t hurt either.
I’ve been blessed in that I’m allowed to be out and about, thanks to South Carolina’s loser restrictions. Even when I’m most downhearted about the political scene, I can remind myself that those Americans who aren’t working overtime as a shrill woke mob on social media are pretty darn nice people.
After I wrote the above, but before I pushed the “publish” button, I watched Tucker Carlson. I think his opening monologue about Meghan’s and Harry’s unutterable self-centeredness, their lack of gratitude, and their blindness to others in the world — a disease that afflicts many of America’s rich and powerful — is an appropriate coda to a post about valuing the people in our world:
Image: Service with a smile, 1923. Library of Congress.