“I don’t know about this, JoJo,” said the supposedly socially liberal landowner with royal ties. He was speaking to Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-1400s. “I’m just not sure this is the best idea.”
“The printing press will bring radical ideas and untold knowledge to the masses. It is the very best idea!” said Herr Gutenberg.
“Yes, but what if someday we have not ginormous physical printing presses, but digital words on tiny screens that lead people to create ideas and fake news and share them broadly and instantly? Won’t they be falsely lulled into believing that what they say matters? We know that what the masses say will never matter to kings and lords and their chosen lickspittles!”
“Digital? Like made of little fingers?” queried Herr Gutenberg.
Maybe that exact conversation never happened. In a perfect world, centuries of developments in mass communication would stimulate ever more healthy debate, leading to a more enlightened population and electorate. That’s not happening. We don’t live in a perfect world (understatement of the century?). Recent events have revealed social (and “regular”) media’s uncanny ability to do little more than amplify and multiply our divisions. My wife quit Twitter this week! Great Leonard Cohen’s ghost!
Hillary Clinton is probably the best presidential candidate we’ve ever had, experience-wise. She is also insanely unlikable, and all elections, even the U.S. presidential election, are popularity contests. You know how sometimes the class clown or some random goth kid wins the high school class presidency, just to shake things up? That just happened to America.
Over the medium to longer term, we will revert to the mean. Our saving grace is a system built to move slowly, often not at all. In grade school we learned about the checks and balances built into our democracy. I might describe such things in more profane terms now, but in general this labyrinthine miasma should prevent any one person or cabal of cronies from proceeding at will. One can hope. Wasn’t that a slogan once?
Let us now bathe in the unstoppable deluge of unfiltered, unsupportable speculation. Maybe Trump won’t be that bad. Maybe he’ll hire smart people. Maybe he’ll enact the purge. Maybe I’ll have more money in my pocket from his tax cuts so I won’t care about all the other terrible things he does. Maybe the electoral college will suddenly become a good thing and save the world. The unsatisfying truth is, no matter how convinced our Facebook friends seem that the apocalypse or universal free ice cream is nigh, we just don’t know. We have to wait for history to happen, and we’re not a patient bunch.
Social media has probably led us to overestimate our ability to change history. But who cares? Whatever we believe in, we are still Americans, and whether we go down or go sideways or go to Dairy Queen, we do so swinging. Vigorously and metaphorically. We defend what we hold dear, what will make our families safe, what will pass along the most Taco Bells and 7-Elevens to the next generation, even when a good chunk of our fellow Americans disagree with us. We toss the tea in the harbor; we take action.
Step one is a more civil and open-minded public dialogue. I’m not sure we’ve ever performed this spirited discourse in a very civil manner. To state the obvious, the Civil War was anything but. The good ol’ days that many red-hatted souls long for weren’t exactly idyllic: unrest over race in the 1950s, repeated civic turmoil and the invention of millennials in the 1960s, political crises and economic malaise in the 1970s, a nation highly divided and embroiled in cold war in the 1980s, the rise of boy bands in the 1990s, and a new brand of global terrorism and terrifying jingoistic reactions since. All of this happened across multiple presidents and on the watch of both parties. Nothing is so simple as red and blue, so forget all that. Be purple. Go Cats!
Despite our incestuous information vortex, the same rules of general human decorum hold true, as they have for millennia. Do unto others, and whatnot. Don’t say They.
I live in Texas now, so my neighbors have guns. I will be nice to them, no matter their political leaning or NFL allegiance, in return for their protection. Poor white working class hicks from Ohio who morph into smug liberal coastal elite Silicon Valley jerks and then move to Texas don’t have guns, you see. We might as well be Canadian.
I want to go back to worrying about important stuff, like why in 2016 our iPhones default to “home fax” when you try to add a new phone number in contacts. Until last week, that was my biggest problem.
Come to think of it, that’s probably also the bigger problem.