The conservation of outrage, attention, and care in urgent conditions

A month ago, I was so close to cleaning up my act. In the long gaping months of election season, I had become more and more addicted to news and commentary, sometimes spending hours each morning reading about the latest Trump obscenity or enthusiastically nodding along to some analysis of the plight of globalization. In March, I had quit Facebook in order to finish my dissertation, but Twitter still offered an unlimited supply of Hot Takes and Righteous Tweetstorms. As the election rose up in front of us, this all seemed not only captivating but also useful: it felt like watching history unfold in real-time. But I had other things to do, too, and the habit of clicking over to Twitter whenever the slightest breeze of boredom or distraction puffed through my head was starting to make me feel not only irresponsible but also slightly insane. (What else to call a page that scrolls infinitely, never reaching a bottom, than an abyss—Nietzche’s famous Abgrund?) On November 9, I swore, when Hillary Clinton became president and the world became boring again, I would finally say No to the distractions. I would go back to writing academic articles and organizing my archives and drafting out new projects.

It didn’t turn out like that. Instead of becoming boring the world became horrifying. And I started reading and reading, no longer out of excitement, but out of desperation, in hopes that I would finally find something that would ring with the true sound of a convincing explanation, and also to indulge in the rage and frustration which echoed everywhere. This didn’t feel like the time to tune out and go on long lonely walks listening to contemplative music. Instead, what had once felt merely timely now felt urgent. It was important to know what the incipient administration was planning to do about immigrants, about minorities, about the atmosphere, and it was important as well to howl with outrage at every new threat.

The election also suddenly made my own work seem pointless, or even petty. How do you keep writing about nineteenth century landscape architects at a time when the whole American experiment seems teetering on the edge of failure? Of course, I have always thought and still think now that scholarly work, and especially history, forms the mortarwork of ideas without which a democratic society cannot function. And given the way ‘globalization’ stirs up our current upheavals, geography also has an indispensable role to play in explaining how politics rankle against the spatial incursions of the modern economy. Yet it still seems almost cruel to bury oneself in books and data while the society around you crumbles. May as well play the fiddle.

What to do in a time of unlimited outrages? How do we conserve outrage, attention, and care, and meter these resources out in a wise fashion? Often this is posed as an emotional and moral question—a question about how not to slip into despair. But there’s also a practical question: how to spend your time, how to divide up your days? In moments of extreme urgency (9/11 is the major American example in living memory), the mundanity of everyday life grinds to a halt. Students are sent home from school, businesses close up, we gather our loved ones close. But what about if extreme urgency stretches out over days, weeks, months … decades? It’s now possible to read from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep about major crises, to bury yourself in interesting analyses and discussions. You’d probably learn a lot if you did this, and yet you’d still probably find yourself unable to consume even a fraction of what’s produced in a given day. And there’s a risk akin to the music industry’s ‘loudness war,’ in which the increasing volume of recorded music ended limiting the dynamic range of the sound. Similarly, if I whip myself into a fury over Trump’s awful cabinet of oligarchs, generals, and know-nothings, if I sound all my alarms when plans to gut health insurance and Medicare begin making their way through Congress, what will be left over for a possible future in which even worse things happen?

I have been reminding myself many times in the past month that the sense of urgency which I now feel, nightmarish as it may seem, is still nothing compared to people who have struggled under generations of oppression and adversity. A black American during the height of Jim Crow, even without the firehose of Twitter, could still have buried him or herself in an inexhaustible storehouse of depressing and infuriating studies, descriptions, and denunciations of the racist system. (In many ways, the Trump election does nothing more than give a taste to white liberal Americans of the kind of alienation and fear which many other groups have felt for centuries, uninterrupted by which party happens to control Washington.) Yet even in the low points of these horrifying conditions, so many people have had the courage, the wisdom, and the self-discipline not to let themselves be consumed by passive outrage. They have found ways to act. And, perhaps more importantly, they have found ways to live lives that are not entirely the unfree subjects of historical and political circumstance.

To temporarily stop gazing at the innumerable horrors that surround us must be a positive choice and never an act of self-deception or exhaustion. Whether looking away means taking formal political action (attending a rally), weaving informal political ties (chatting with a neighbor), or attending to life itself in an assertion of autonomy (planting a garden), these acts help us conserve ourselves for what is certain to be a long fight—infinitely long, in fact, insofar as there is no steady-state Utopia awaiting us at the end.

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