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SHEELA CLARY: How we live our days

I am off to a good start to the new year, writing this essay instead of following the siren call of the (very old) news.

It was 7 a.m. on August 1, 2023 the first time I noticed The New York Times bemoaning the uphill battle President Biden would be facing against Donald Trump on November 5, 2024. “Are. You. Kidding me?” I thought. That was it. Done. I decided then and there that I would not be reading that story, or the 400-some-odd such stories that would follow it over the next 15 months. Each new skim of the headlines on each new day of the latter half of 2023 brought with it the greater likelihood that I would quit reading the Times altogether and replace it with something educational, like a “romantasy” series about shape-shifting werewolf men.

And so it happened. It is 2024 and I did it: I cancelled my New York Times subscription. (Sticking with NYT Games and Cooking, however. I am not into werewolves, but I really like Wordle and sheet plan recipes.)

So, well done, me! I am off to a good start to the new year, writing this essay instead of following the siren call of the (very old) news. Do I, does anyone, do you, really need, this snowy morning, to ingest the predictable information about what happened yesterday in Iowa? Hell, no! (Can I interest you instead in expanding your games horizons with WikiReveal, the game where almost all the words are redacted and you have to guess the Wikipedia page? It serves the double purpose of passing the time, and actually educating me. I have learned about various Indian kingdoms and European revolutions I had never heard of in school, read up about the allosaurus, and discovered the back story of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” It is free, too!)

However you choose to spend your leisure time, doesn’t this election season call for a new approach to news in general? Donald Trump is only 77. He might yet get ahold of some new elixir of life pills available only to billionaires, and run for president in the next four election cycles. (Ditto Joe Biden.)

One of the gifts of middle age is the real value I ascribe to what poet Mary Oliver called my “one wild and precious life” and to the reminder of another beloved writer, Annie Dillard, who famously said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” There is something to reading about our divisions that makes those divisions more real, gives them more weight in our lives than they deserve. All the news wants to do, in the end, is sell you stuff.

The whole notion of political division as it has been popularly defined for us, as we typically conceive of it, is meaningless. I recently learned that the guy we have to thank for the NRA’s lobbying prowess—and thus our inability to do anything meaningful on gun violence in this country—was a lifelong Democrat. I was also just reminded that Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Donald Trump signed the stimulus checks that Americans received during the worst of the COVID pandemic. Surely, the Supreme Court’s striking down of Roe v. Wade meant that the pro-choice movement was hobbled, but instead that decision was very likely the reason that Democrats did so well in the 2022 midterms. Much is not as it seems, or as we assume.

John Adams, our second president, knew—even as he helped to establish it—that a two-party system would be the death of us. “There is nothing which I dread so much,” he wrote, “as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” He was dead right. The two-party, democratic form of government is the worst form of government—except for all the others.

I am not suggesting that there are not consequential distinctions to be made between our political parties. Of course there are, and on the most consequential ones, I side with the Democratic Party. But by now I have grown allergic to hyperbolic claims about the dangerous nature of the other side. The hard right and the hard left are both locked into fixed ideologies, and in their mutual unwillingness to take in other viewpoints, they have a lot in common.

As to the individual public figures, I confess that I am finding very few public figures of any sector worth my attention. I am inspired, impressed, excited, made hopeful, by no one. Politicians are an easy target for our despair, but not even our entertainers deserve our respect. My favorite actors have turned into hucksters. My favorite comedians are shadows of their former selves. I used to enjoy the forays of Jordan Klepper into Trump territory to point out various hypocrises, but now he has gone and made a cottage industry out of mocking half of the country as stupid and ignorant. It’s just gross.

W.B. Yeats delivered what is perhaps the truest, most succinct statement on human nature ever written, in his poem “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” This is surely true, left and right, externally and internally. It is true of the people doing all the talking and of the ones staying quiet, and also of the warring factions within myself—barking and angry on one side, timid and unsure on the other. The only thing I can be sure about is that “the other side”—both out there and in here—quite often makes very good points and ought to be heard. Really heard.

One of my favorite scenes from the 1984 Zucker brothers spoof movie “Top Secret” is the one where Nick, the hero, is being introduced to his Nazi interrogators, the second of whom, “Klaus,” (cue Klaus, dead-eyed, slack-jawed) “is a moron who knows only what he reads in the New York Post.” (The cover of the Post reads, “Maniac stalks Olivia Newton-John.”)

It strikes me, however, that the same could be said for folks today on the two traditional sides of the political divide. There are people I love who know only what they read in The New York Times, and others who know only what they see on Fox News.

Also, as it turns out, Olivia Newton-John actually was stalked by a maniac. The New York Post isn’t a safe, simple stand-in for fake news. In fact, on more than one occasion in the past few years, as I have been searching around to corroborate some half-baked headline, The New York Post has been the unexpected location of the accurate information.

I can find myself retreating to my ideological corner on a host of questions, but those corners are always, ultimately, boring and unsatisfying places to spend time. They are ignorant, closed off, judgmental, resentful, impatient. They are full of self-righteous half-truths. The only way to get closer to the elusive truth is to step into conversation with other people, and by other people I don’t mean a roomful of people who are going to parrot back to you the opinions you are all convinced are irrefutable, and I don’t mean a faceless fight over Facebook.

I don’t intend to read the Times or watch Fox this year. Call me a dreamer, but I would rather hear from you. May 2024 be a time for a new kind of IRL (in real life) gathering, where everyone is welcome, where we can sit down together at the table of brotherhood that Reverend Martin Luther King Junior spoke of, at which we can speak our minds freely, acknowledging our differences, but also re-discovering what we know to be true: that we are all the same. We are right and we are wrong; we are good and we are bad. We can express our convictions convincingly, rather than with the passionate intensity that is so hard to hear. We can choose love in any given moment. This is hope we will have to create from scratch, anew.