ON POLITICAL AND CULTURAL BOREDOM
With apologies to Alberto Moravia
Boredom is pervasive, yet so is panic. I could list off current events to prove the latter point and they would include shootings, rollbacks of abortion rights, wars transpiring across the ocean. The suffering caused or to be caused by these events, as well as that caused by other instances of violence, impoverishment, imprisonment, pollution, illness, disablement, and premature deaths are cause for outrage. The outrage is just. The panic is not fake.
Before this begins to sound like the lede of a silly New York Times culture trend piece, I’ll get back to the boredom. The Biden administration, though preferable to the predecessor administration, has been boring. It is too soon to call it a failure, but it has been ineffective in achieving its stated legislative goals. It has seemed to escalate the conflict in Ukraine rather than seeking a ceasefire. It has taken pride in reducing the federal budget deficit, as if austerity were a virtue at this or any time. It withdrew from Afghanistan, then threw the country into famine by freezing its assets. It boasts of diverting leftover pandemic relief funds into policing. But the actual Biden administration isn’t so much my concern here. Symbolically it represents a temporary defeat for the left, and its doldrums open the way for a restoration of the predecessor administration.
The GOP is a bad party, bad for the country and its citizens and everybody else, and I hope it’s defeated everywhere. It’s been pretty worthless and destructive for a long time. The only thing that might be said for it is that it will occasionally buy off the populace shamelessly without the qualms Democrats have about balancing the budget. Something like that happened during the early phase of the pandemic, though perhaps the Democrats would have done better. Both parties are imperialist warmongers and probably will be throughout our lifetimes. They both love the cops and turning Americans into debtors. But only the Democrats have a real left faction and are vulnerable to a takeover by that faction. It didn’t happen with the Sanders wave but it could. Perhaps barbaric rulings on abortion rights will give the Democrats a permanent electoral advantage. No doubt they’ll squander it by pandering to suburbanites nostalgic for Reagan. No doubt they’ll fail to achieve national gun control laws. Perhaps they’ll even fail to restore national abortion rights. Failure on such fronts is arguably to their electoral advantage.
There was outrage at Russia’s predatory imperialist invasion of Ukraine. But there was also the sense that America had finally come to a real confrontation with Russia and that it didn’t even have to do its own fighting. It could just send its billions of dollars worth of guns and weapons systems to the plucky Ukrainians and they could weaken the Russian bear to the tune of decades, a la the Taliban. Hilary Clinton pretty much said this on television. Coming only months after the evacuation of Kabul, it was an expression of American imperialist boredom.
One of the more misguided strains of commentary I’ve seen from the center-left during the Ukraine war has been the tendency of pundits to chide or disparage leftists for not cheering on the escalation of hostilities until Russia is brought to its knees, nuclear brinksmanship be damned. Why aren’t leftists signing up for a new Lincoln Brigade and shipping out? Why are they not submitting workable policy alternatives? The left is out of power and has been since at least the Roosevelt administration (if then). To suggest otherwise is akin to moral blackmail. The role of the left in this crisis is analysis. It seems to me the New Left Review has been doing the best job of it. Meanwhile in America, the most interesting and effective political journalism has been Jacobin’s coverage of unionization efforts and victories at Amazon and elsewhere. These are meaningful interventions.
The outrage that was so evident in the summer of 2020 during the uprising after the murder of George Floyd was not only a response to police brutality but to the sitting president himself. That it was structurally encouraged by lockdown and work-at-home policies is obvious but not explanatory: it was simply convenient that people didn’t have to be in the office. At the virtual Democratic National Convention, the Biden campaign coopted images of the protests and set them to the tune of a corny late-period Bruce Springsteen song to make them palatable to the aging and provincial electorate. Kamala Harris insisted that Americans needed to “do the work” but indicated nothing about what that meant aside from voting for Biden. That protests have not continued during the Biden administration isn’t hard to understand. He has been given the benefit of the doubt. Liberal horror at the prospect of a Trump restoration is real. Yet the uprising could kick off again any day, and I bet if the GOP sweeps the midterms, it probably will. Until then we have political boredom, punctuated by random mass murders and regressive state legislation to do with reproduction and education.
Hand in hand with political boredom comes cultural boredom. Hollywood movies are boring. Television is boring. Pop music is boring. The art world is boring. Broadway is boring. Books from big publishing are boring. All of these industries are averse to risk and chase trends mindlessly. They ignore difficulty. They are humorless. Occasionally they try to make a buck by ginning up controversies, which are also deeply boring and highly repetitive.
Here this essay will take a personal turn.