When did we decide as a collective that monomania was a virtue? When was it that society stopped diagnosing anti-social obsessive compulsions and started seeing such symptoms as a species of enlightenment? This phenomenon’s inception date remains a mystery, but the evidence of its prominence is a near-daily feature of American public life. The last 24 hours are no exception.
Having just published a book on the white-hot passions that trivial cultural fare arouse in those who steep themselves in the activist’s milieu, I thought I’d seen it all. In dissecting all the ways in which this cohort has imposed soul-crushing politics on sports, fashion, food, entertainment, sex, alcohol, the family, and even casual conversation, I believed I had covered the waterfront. It turns out that I missed a spot. As the Washington Post informed us on Thursday, even the exceedingly banal conversations that you used to have with your neighbors about something as boring as the weather have become a political minefield that only masochists would dare traverse.
“As the political becomes increasingly personal, the line where polite conversation stops and activism starts has blurred,” the Post’s dispatch opined. “Weather is the newest topic—along with politics, religion, and sex—to avoid at those awkward Thanksgiving dinners.” That is not because your family has become hypersensitive to the subject matter, of course. It is because they’re not hypersensitive enough. They must, therefore, be badgered into a state of anxiety that mirrors the perpetual agitation to which climate-change activists succumb.
“It’s time to break with social convention,” one such activist declared. Among the conventions that need breaking, it seems, is the one that rewards basic seemliness. “Any conversation can be viewed as an opportunity for a political intervention,” said another life of the party. After all, as the Post contended, “small talk facilitates denial.” Even if you forego the sanctimonious lecture that you just know your interlocutors deserve, it is an ethical failure to allow anyone in your immediate surroundings to enjoy even one carefree moment. “We all have a moral duty to do what we can,” the activist continued. The alternative is to allow “willful ignorance” to flourish.
The piece went on to quiz etiquette experts about the conflict between endlessly proselytizing the eschatology of climate change and simply being polite. The experts believe that as the impact of climate change is felt more broadly, we will adjust our understanding about what constitutes propriety. Accordingly, you may soon be expected to navigate life with your hair perpetually aflame.
Perhaps. For now, though, those who believe they have been provoked by casual references to the moment’s barometric pressure are still the maladjusted ones. The notion that indulging in or, God forbid, enjoying frivolities that are unburdened with heavy, didactic lessons about the abject state in which we find ourselves is a child’s view of what constitutes sophistication. The same could be said of the impulse to adulterate posthumous retrospectives of a human life with pedagogy and politically fashionable denunciations.
Early Friday morning, Politico’s Michael Schaffer published a lament. In the 20 months that have passed since the January 6 riots, several Republican members of Congress have died. But their obituaries, Schaffer mourns, either soft-sold or failed to mention at all their votes against certifying the 2020 elections. For example, the late Rep. Jackie Walorski, who was killed along with two young staffers in a horrific car accident and who served in Congress for nearly a decade, benefited unduly from the fact that her obituary mentioned that vote only in the final paragraph.
You might think that this is a subjective exercise on the author’s part, but no. This tendency reveals “a Washington culture deeply uncertain about election denial and its legacy.” Really? Are there more than 100 people in the nation’s capital who don’t have a fully formed and wholly negative view of the events of January 6 and the actions that precipitated them? The question isn’t whether that vote is worth referencing. It certainly is. The question is whether a vote defines a life.
This instinct is informed by precisely the same condescension that sends climate-change activists into fits whenever they’re asked if it’s “hot enough for ya?” They don’t believe you’re unaware of climate change. They don’t think you haven’t been properly informed about the Trump movement’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. They’re just not sure these issues have consumed you to the degree they should.
That also goes some way in explaining why so many felt the need to use Queen Elizabeth II’s death to attack her and anyone mourning her. Not to do so would apparently be a failure to display proper anguish over the one-time existence of British colonialism. It is of no importance that Elizabeth presided over a post-colonial commonwealth in which membership was (and remains) entirely voluntary or that the British Crown’s capacity to conduct statecraft is circumscribed to the point of negligibility. You cannot be allowed the catharsis found in grief because your disconsolation passively rehabilitates an immoral system. Somehow.
The point isn’t to think about any of this too hard; none of it is an intellectual exercise. It is to encourage a form of preening self-righteousness that political activists believe is a mark of their sobriety and seriousness of purpose. They are sincere in their misery, and misery loves company. Happy pastimes, trivial pursuits, and even the solace found in mourning distract from the only thing that matters: the promotion of a progressive political consciousness.
This is no way to live. Maybe that’s why those who choose this way of life seem to find no satisfaction in it unless you, too, share their internal torment. After all, they cannot alter the weather, anathematize Republican lawmakers, or go back in time to prevent the British empire from blanketing the globe. But they can take away your small comforts. It’s not much, but it will have to do.