Rand Richards Cooper
Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.
By this author
An article by Jacob Weisberg in the New York Review of Books surveys the state of our smartphone use. The essay is called “We Are Hopelessly Hooked.” I read it with relief. At least a few people see what I see.
A smartphone-abstainer baffled by our mass capitulation to handheld devices, I have written about this topic before (here and here, for instance), attempting to pose the plaintive question, What are we doing? Weisberg reminds us how swift and total the changeover to smartphones has been, and asks the same question. “What does it mean to shift overnight,” he asks, “from being a society in which people walk down the street looking around, to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines?” He traces the answer through family life and marriage, the learning modes of children, the social development of the teenaged self, the cognitive rewiring of the contemporary brain, and the dark power of handheld devices purposefully engineered to addict. Weisberg cites the work of Sherry Turkle, an MIT social psychologist whose book, Reclaiming Conversation, argues that the communication revolution “is degrading the quality of human relationships—with family and friends, as well as colleagues and romantic partners.” Weisberg continues:
The picture [Turkle] paints is both familiar and heartbreaking: parents who are constantly distracted on the playground and at the dinner table; children who are frustrated that they can’t get their parents’ undivided attention; gatherings where friends who are present vie for attention with virtual friends; classrooms where professors gaze out at a sea of semi-engaged multitaskers; and a dating culture in which infinite choice undermines the ability to make emotional commitments.
Weisberg sums up Turkle’s finding that young people, absorbed in digital devices, fail to develop fully independent selves, and that near-incessant texting creates an “always on” mode of being that distorts adolescent development. He notes Turkle’s emphasis on damage to “the capacity for solitude,” which she identifies as the personal attribute that allows us “to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent.”
Without an ability to look inward, those locked into the virtual worlds of social media develop a sensibility of “I share, therefore I am,” crafting their identities for others. Continuous digital performance leaves teenagers experiencing what ought to be the satisfactions of solitude only as “disconnection anxiety.”
What Weisberg calls “our transformation into device people” has happened almost overnight. Touch-screen iPhones are only eight years old, after all. Yet the surveys Weisberg cites reveal that three-quarters of all college- aged people reach for their phones the moment they wake in the morning. Once out of bed, they check their phones 221 times a day—an average of every 4.3 minutes. Female students at Baylor University report using their cell phones ten hours a day.
What is it about music boxes that is so captivating? Do any of you out there share this predilection of mine?
This morning my daughter, who just turned ten, dug from the avalanche of her closet a music box my wife and I gave her five years ago. She wound it up and sat staring raptly into it and listening to the melody. “This makes me think about when I was little,” she said. Funny, a ten-year-old experiencing nostalgia. But it’s true, there’s something ineffably nostalgic about music boxes. Part of it is the time-capsule element of bygone craftsmanship. But there’s more than that.
Music boxes form a small but recurring theme in my life. We had two of them in our house, passed down from my mother’s Ohio-German side of the family. As a boy I would go into the small room, outside the downstairs bathroom, where they were kept, and wind up one or the other. I’d sit there mesmerized, watching the tuned teeth of the comb being plucked by pins on the revolving cylinder. I was entranced by the particular quality of the music, those hollow, quaint, harp-like notes. Even the silences, filled with the faint rasp of gears, fascinated.
If last night’s rowdy slugfest of a Republican debate answered any questions, other than “How is it possible to fall asleep in a room of bellowing men?” (I did in fact doze off), it’s the question of when Cruz and Rubio would wake up and start doing what they have to. The fascinating structural dynamic of the Republican race so far has reflected the near-universal belief that Trump cannot ultimately win nomination. To the other candidates this has dictated two tactics: first, a reluctance to attack Trump, since they hope to pick up his candidates when he inevitably fails; and second, a readiness to attack one another, since each wants to be the sole candidate left standing to finish off Trump. Do you see the Game Theory 101 dilemma here? As long as multiple opponents stay in, Trump prevails; yet none will drop out, because they believe Trump can’t prevail. Kick that down the road long enough, and guess what happens? Last night we saw the partial undoing of this logic, as both Cruz and Rubio at last turned their guns on The Donald. Whether it is too little, too late, remains to be seen.
But it’s the Democrats I want to talk about. I wrote previously about uncertainties regarding Bernie Sanders’ political philosophy – about the blurring of “social democrat” and “socialism” in his rhetoric and program. If you think this is a merely semantic issue, you might want to tune in to this episode of NPR’s On Point, with Tom Ashbrook, which aired a couple of days ago. In it Paul Starr, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, locks horns with Jonathan Tasini, labor activist, Sanders supporter, and author of The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America. Their barbed back-and-forth illuminates a divide between traditional New Deal-style American liberals, and Sanders’ legion of tribunes for... well, for something else.
Last year at a Republican campaign event, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani bluntly charged that President Obama does not love America. “With all our flaws we’re the most exceptional country in the world,” Rudy blustered, announcing his own preference “for a presidential candidate who can express that.”
I’ve already had a say about the ongoing drama of the Scalia succession, but I have to put down a few more words about the dismaying, unprecedented and brazenly unprincipled Republican obstructionism we’re seeing. I know I sound like Jackie Chiles, the adjective-spouting lawyer from Seinfeld... but I’m not being hyperbolic. Leading Republicans are no longer making any secret of their intention, as the front-page headline in the Times puts it this morning, to “shun” any nominee President Obama might come up with. “This nomination will be determined by whoever wins the presidency in the polls,” Mr. McConnell said. “I agree with the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation that we not have hearings. In short, there will not be action taken.”
That “recommendation” came in the form of a letter by Republicans on the Committee, urging McConnell to formalize this obstructionist stance. The letter is worth reading for its bold Constitutional sophistry. Its key passage insists that “the power to grant, or withhold, consent to such nominees rests exclusively with the United States Senate.” The italics are theirs, not mine, and they signal a devious trick: now, instead of exercising their advise-and-consent function by voting on a nominee after hearings, Senate Republicans are attempting to construe the refusal even to hold hearings as a legitimate exercise of that function. The letter continues: “We wish to inform you of our intention to exercise our constitutional authority to withhold consent on any nominee to the Supreme Court submitted by this Court to fill Justice Scalia’s vacancy. Because our decision is based on Constitutional principle and born of a necessity to protect the will of the American people, this Committee will not hold hearings on any Supreme Court nominee until after the next President is sworn in on January 20, 2017.”
Hogwash. And hogwash of a bold, cynical and meretricious nature.
Okay, with New Hampshire behind us in the primary season, and South Carolina set to unfold, lets get down to what’s really at stake in this year’s election. Defying all pundits, the primaries are setting up what could be a potentially historic confrontation between two outsider candidates representing diametrically opposed poles of American life. I’m not talking about what visions float in the heads of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. I’m talking about what’s on their heads -- or what isn’t.
Much has been said about Bernie as a pathbreaking occupant of the White House: first socialist president, first Brooklyn-born president, first Jewish president, oldest president. But another category gets less attention: the bald president. No, Bernie wouldn’t be the first. But he’d be one of the very, very few.
Statistics and history demonstrate our collective reluctance to install a glistening dome in the Oval Office. While serious pattern baldness afflicts roughly 60% of American men in their 60s, its incidence among Presidents is far lower – just 11%. That’s five men, in other words, and all but one of them pre-modern: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, James Garfield, and Dwight Eisenhower. (There’s also Gerald Ford, who was not elected, and who lost to the notably hirsute Jimmy Carter.) The last time we chose a bald president was sixty years ago – and he had to be a conquering global war hero to overcome the hair hurdle.
Like many a battered idealist I’m alternately wearied, irked and darkly amused by the relation of political reality to political principle. I’m talking about the gap between what individuals, institutions and governments do, in doggedly pursuing their interests, and what they say they’re doing.
Here’s a typical example. In the middle of a close political race, the challenger suffers some embarrassing revelation about his past that drives him down in the polls. Desperation afflicts his campaign. And now, suddenly, the incumbent decides there will be no more debates in the campaign. He issues a high-minded announcement. “We’ve all seen that debates do little to help clarify issues,” it goes, “so I have decided to use other forums to help voters more clearly contrast my candidacy and that of my opponent.”
In theory – in principle -- it shouldn't be difficult to get candidates to agree that debates helpfully contribute to voter education, or that they don’t, irrespective of who is winning or losing. But the reality is that only those candidates who judge that they have something to gain from debating (or, at least, something to lose by not debating) will take part. The incumbent in my scenario has calculated that he has nothing to gain from further debating, and everything to lose, so he won’t debate. Please wait for the relevant principled explanation.
What is it that requires the fig leaf in these situations? A right-leaning economist friend of mine reminds me that “the pretense of open-mindedness and principle is really just a part of human nature.” Everyone likes to think of himself as open-minded, she observes; no one wants to look selfish or petty. “I don’t want to sound jaded,” she chides me, “but as a seasoned citizen you must have seen these things many times.”
Though some of its conceivable outcomes have me shuddering in dread, I have to acknowlege that the current presidential race is shaping up as the most fascinating one in my lifetime, and the most consequential. What’s fascinating in part is the populist tinge it has taken on, the notes of resentment being struck by voters (and caucusers). Populism in American history has swung both right and left, but this time it’s oscillating both ways simultaneously, and to some extent overlapping. Comparing the county maps in Iowa after the caucuses, I was surprised to note that Bernie won in pretty much exactly the same places Trump did. This suggests that Bernie’s appeal may be broader than I’d thought—not just a kind of super-campus-rally-plus-limousine-libs thing (Gene McCarthy redux), but an effort capable of drawing on disaffected blue-collar workers and the barely-hanging-on lower middle class: the same elements, or at least overlapping with them, that are also behind Trump.
This shouldn’t be surprising, I guess. It shouldn’t be all that hard to imagine lower-middle-class white people having their animus as powerfully stoked by, and aimed at, the Masters of the Universe who engineered the vast Ponzi scheme that plunged their homes underwater and trashed their retirement plans, as by the prospect of hordes of Mexicans crossing the border to work as fruit pickers and janitors.
Populism is a political form of tribalism. The “us” and “them” dynamic is strong, reinforcing group retrenchment and solidarity, focused by a powerful sense of which other groups are keeping yours down. For right-leaning populists, this opposition arrays along ethnic, racial and national lines. For the left, the dominant tribe is the rich. Does the terminology sound strange? Over the past thirty years, the upper 20 percent has become blatantly tribal. Their earnings outpace the middleclass far more heftily than before. They are ever more securely immured in lives that don't touch the lives of the middleclass people voting for Trump and Bernie. They don't go to public schools (or they live in towns where the public schools are essentially private schools); they travel globally; they secure professional futures for their children through elite connections; they inherit money; and so on.
“My father told me we don't hate the rich; we want to be the rich.” Where did I hear that recently, in what novel or movie? My middleaged mind can’t quite place it—but the sentiment represents the traditional American escape hatch, the individual hope for making it big that has so often put the kibosh on radical/progressive approaches to politics. But most of you probably saw the studies that came out a year or so ago showing that upward mobility is now easier in many European countries than in the US. Part of the anger currently percolating through the system surely arises from that key point. We have far more overall wealth than we did in the 1970s—as my conservative economist friends lecture me—yet we are hugely more unequal than we were in the 1970s. And the escape hatches are being closed.
One by one, the gridiron gods of my youth are proving terribly mortal. It is not just that a lot of ex-football players are dying. It is how they are dying. Their brains, to put it non-technically, have been turned to mush by the game they love. What’s taking these heroes out is not the silent artillery of time, but the loud cacophony of shoulder pads, helmets and human bodies.
Every week, it seems, the ranks of pro football players lost to chronic traumatic encephalopathy acquires a new victim. This Super Bowl week it was Ken “The Snake” Stabler, the former Raiders QB, who died last summer and whose family offered up his brain for study. And many of those still living are sunk in hopeless dementia -- like Willie Wood, the superlative defensive back for the Packers of the Lombardi glory years, who can no longer recall the stellar interception he made in the first Super Bowl fifty years ago. Or anything else, for that matter.
I’m staring at an enticing and intimidating pile of packages on the floor of my study. It’s enticing because those packages contain the sixteen novels that are finalists for an annual fiction contest called The Tournament of Books. It’s intimidating because I have to read those novels – all sixteen of them -- in the next six weeks. That’s the deadline for a ToB discussion I’m joining on Connecticut Public Radio’s Colin McEnroe Show.
I did the show last year (you can listen here), and it was both fun and productive. Inevitably in reading a basket of novels, you encounter writers you haven’t read before, and if you really like one, you gratefully begin that strange, charmed, one-way relationship with a writer whose fiction you fall for: this kindred spirit you know only through his or her words.
I love books; they’re both my profession and my passion. Over the years I’ve written two of them and bought thousands. You know the kind of house where every scrap of wall space hosts a bookshelf? That’s our house. But too much of a good thing can become, well, too much, even for the booklover; and every now and then I feel overwhelmed, not merely by the number of books I have to read, but by the number of books, period. At these moments I’m afflicted by an acute form of bibliophobia.