Politics: the end

Imagine you’re in a job that you’re not enjoying, a job that’s sucking up your time and energy and affecting your emotional state. One day it occurs to you that you don’t actually have to do the job: you can walk away and do something different. Doesn’t that feel good?

Or suppose you’re in a relationship. You drifted into it without ever really making a deliberate choice, and a couple of years in you realise it’s making you unhappy and irritable. You know what? You’re not married or anything: you can just walk away.

I started this blog at the end of February 2010. For its first year, I didn’t write anything at all about politics. In April and May of 2011 came a brief flurry of four posts on the AV referendum [first, second, third, fourth]. Then that was basically it until a couple of years ago.

At which point — for reasons I can’t really explain even to myself — I suddenly became deeply concerned about a whole bunch of stuff, most notably the EU Referendum and the Trump regime. And do you know what I’ve noticed? Knowing about these issues, getting informed, adopting coherent positions, all that … it hasn’t made me happier or more productive. The exact opposite, in fact. I’ve increasingly become miserable about the state of the world, disheartened by my patent inability to do anything about it, irritable at home, distracted at work.

Keeping up with political news probably burns an hour a day on average — which amounts to a whole extra working day that I could be spending on finally getting some more palaeontology done (my publication record for the last few years has been miserable). Or I could be spending it finally writing one of those novels that have been floating around inside my head since forever. Or taking those guitar lessons that I so badly need. Or actually mowing our poor, neglected lawn. Or a hundred other things.

I had forgotten C. S. Lewis’s observation (in Surprised By Joy):

I can hardly regret having escaped the appalling waste of time and spirit which would have been involved in reading the war news […] to strive to master what will be contradicted the next day, to fear and hope intensely on shaky evidence, is surely an ill use of the mind. Even in peacetime I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn.

He’s right. I’ve been wasting my time, making myself less available to the people I love, and crushing my own spirit — all to essentially no effect, since nothing I say or write about politics is likely to make the slightest difference to anyone. Along the way, I have lost the friendship of a blogger who I liked and admired, who has blocked me because he objected to something I tweeted about politics. It’s been all downside, and I’ve achieved nothing.

So I am walking away.

Yes, I have tried to do this before. It didn’t work out well. So this time I have a specific plan. And I ask you all to help me to stick to it. Here’s what I will do:

  1. I will go through the politics list that I created on Twitter, unfollowing basically everyone on that list. No fault of theirs, no offence intended, I just need not to read about the issues that they tweet about.
  2. Once that is done, I will delete the list itself.
  3. I will temporarily block the Guardian and the New York Times, to remind me not to follow politics links that I stumble on elsewhere on Twitter.
  4. I will write one final politics post on this blog, summarising the things I have learned during the last couple of years.
  5. From then on, I will not blog about politics, tweet about politics, or discuss politics on Facebook. (Exception: issues directly related to intellectual property and civil liberties, which I have always had a stake in.) Nothing about Brexit, nothing about Trump.
  6. And I will make every effort not to think about politics, either.

I ask you all to hold me to this. If I blog about politics again after the lessons-learned post, call me a hypocrite in the comments. If I tweet about politics, reply telling me to shut up. I need to go cold turkey: if I slip, help me.

In exchange, I will write interesting academic papers about sauropods, learn to play guitar properly, be nicer to my wife and sons, and maybe even write a novel. Seem like a fair deal?

Thanks, everyone.

Update (the next morning)

I have completed tasks 1-3 in the list above. I will get that final politics blog-post written soon, maybe this afternoon, and then I’ll be out.

It remains only for me to say this: to everyone who reads this blog for the non-political stuff, apologies that I’ve wasted so much of your time with politics in the last couple of years; and to anyone who reads this blog for the politics (if there any such person), apologies that there won’t be any more of it. To such people, I recommend that you read the much better political discussion on the blogs of people like Andrew Rilstone, Andrew Hickey and Richard Flowers. (Not coincidentally, they all also blog about things other than politics: that is part of what makes their political insights interesting.)

13 responses to “Politics: the end

  1. Glad to hear it’s following politics, not writing the blog, that you’re walking away from.

  2. Don’t know, man, I think we need more informed, intelligent voices talking on these subjects, not fewer. I’ll be sad to see you stop.

    But it’s your blog, your life, of course, and you’ve got to do what’s right for you.

    I won’t call you a hypocrite if you change your mind, though.

    Good luck.

  3. Good post, Mike. I heartily agree with you and would like to take your lead and apply the same to my life. I’ve also somehow got snared by the political world but by and large, it’s not a subject I enjoy, it involves a lot of people I don’t really care for, I have my own typically rather obstreperously-expressed opinions that nobody else cares for and I make myself even more grumpy than I would be already. Where the news is concerned, I’ve mostly sworn off the “serious” papers because they all contribute to that annoyance, though it’s not as if now restricting myself to Metro fills my life with joy and enlightenment either, mind.

    I think my time would be much more productively spent actually attempting to get my bass skills a bit more than… well, just more, and making 3D models of shoes for video games, and cooking and whatever else I fill my time with when I’m not getting irate and stroppy about something. Maybe I could actually start reading some stuff. Stuff that doesn’t involve politics.

  4. Happy for you Mike, it’s true you can’t influence the way the political world works and I would hate for you to become s poitician, look at the examples around you. Your lovely wife and sons are worth more of you so………….Another wise decision. Happy Sunday.

  5. As someone who already do this (in fact, for all kind of news, except maybe tech news which I get as a side-effect from checking hackers news for programming stuff), I agree wholeheartedly.

    What I realized is that you don’t miss anything. You’ll end up learning about the important things from colleagues, family, etc anyway.

    You also realize, that weeks, months or years later, most things didn’t really matter anyway.

    Finally, and the real reason I don’t watch the news: I can’t do anything about it. Well, theoretically I can, but it would require setting up a platform, making a compelling case for people to join my cause, spreading the influence… Basically, becoming a career politician.

    And even then, I’m not sure that’s enough. What politics need is nuance, not polarization and extremism. Admissions that some issues are hard and do not have easy answers (e.g. immigration, social inequalities, …) and willingness to try promising solutions and evaluate them honestly.

    But I suspect this doesn’t work. People are more easily seduced by the extremes and the easy solutions. Most people. Even most liberals and “smart” people (higher-educated, high paying jobs).

    I’m not so cynic to think all politicians are rotten to the core by nature. But we only seem to see the rotten one. My hypothesis is that there is a natural selection process that arises, where all reasonable politicians cannot compete with the discourse of the rotten ones.

  6. I’m not so cynic to think all politicians are rotten to the core by nature. But we only seem to see the rotten one.

    A fundamental fact of politics — as Douglas Adams and others have noted — is that the skills needed to attain a position of power are completely different from the skills that will enable someone, having achieved power, to do something worthwhile with it. So leaders tend to be vain, self-seeking and dishonest, because those are the qualities that get them into that position. There are exceptions, but this is the rule.

  7. Pingback: Post-politics life, day 1: status update | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  8. Good luck with your endeavor. I read only a few blogs and your technology posts were actually the ones that brought me here to start with. Blog about what you want to blog about – it’s yours – use this one freedom you’ve been granted to do as you please. I’ll keep reading! I look forward to more tech and music posts in the future. Good Luck!

  9. Good luck and congratulations! I think it’s important to recognize when something you’re doing just isn’t worth the metal cost. It’s not easy to walk away from something, and I think you’re making the correct decision.

    That said, I also want to make the case for politics a little bit. I sincerely hope that this _doesn’t_ convince you. I don’t want to try to drag you back in, but I also want to see if I can plant a seed which might be helpful if and when you decide to re-engage with politics.

    But first, I will say, there’s a song by Chris Smithers, “Outside In” which has this verse which I think about frequently.

    Don’t worry ’bout the future, you can’t afford the price
    There’s madness to the method when you pay the piper
    Twice once when you start to worry
    Once again when you begin to take the future on the
    Chin I know that you think worry is your ever-faithful
    Friend cuz nothin’ that you worry over ever happens in the
    End . . .

    There are lots of times when worrying about something can feel like an activity in itself — “I’m worried about this and that means I’m engaged.” But that’s silly, if worry is a substitute for action, what purpose does it serve? I feel like politics is particularly prone to that. Because it’s so hard to accomplish anything (or even convince anybody of anything) worry can feel like the only way to be engaged and, by all means, walk away from that if you can.

    But, having said that, I think there are reasons to be involved with politics.

    First of all, there is an element of, “if you’re not the customer, you’re the product” to politics. One of the deeply frustrating things about politics is that, almost inevitably, nobody is running on a platform of things that you want — you’ll get somebody campaigning for 10 things you want, 5 things you don’t want, and not even mentioning the other 10 things that you really want. The older I get the more I feel like that’s inevitable, because any coalition that’s big enough to matter in politics contains a lot of internal disagreement, and politicians are trying to manage those contradictions. But there are plenty of examples of grassroots efforts which succeed in getting new issues into the political conversation. So I think being a squeaky wheel does matter, and that there is use to just saying, over an over again, “why can’t we even talk about [X].”

    Secondly, part of how I stay sane is to think that the larger an issue it is that I’m trying to address the lower the odds are that I will either make a difference or can control the outcome. If I’m trying to do something which will help 2 or 3 friends I can be almost completely confident that my energy will not be wasted, and that I will do something that they appreciate — but it only benefits those 2-3 people. If I’m trying to something for my neighborhood, I might be able to benefit a few dozen people but there’s a decent chance that I’ll fail or that I’ll accomplish something but not quite what I wanted and some people will like it and some won’t. If I’m trying to engage in national politics it’s overwhelming likely that I won’t accomplish anything but, if I do, it could affect hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people. So it’s like buying a lottery ticket; the potential for a big pay-off with very poor odds. Not an investment strategy, but there’s nothing wrong with buying a lottery ticket if you recognize that’s what you’re doing (and if it’s not taking away from more immediate concerns).

    Or, the flip side of that, is that in politics you have to be happy if your words or actions can change one or two people’s minds. If one of your blog posts gets somebody to think slightly differently about politics that’s a success! Changing minds is difficult.

    Finally, and most abstractly, I think there is some virtue to engaging with politics as a way to try to understand how other people experience the world, and what they are concerned about. To pretentiously name-drop, consider this summary of Hannah Arendt:

    Arendt [identifies] three fundamental activities of our being-in-the-world: labor, work, and action. Labor is the activity which is tied to the human condition of life, work the activity which is tied to the condition of worldliness, and action the activity tied to the condition of plurality. For Arendt each activity is autonomous, in the sense of having its own distinctive principles and of being judged by different criteria. Labor is judged by its ability to sustain human life, to cater to our biological needs of consumption and reproduction, work is judged by its ability to build and maintain a world fit for human use, and action is judged by its ability to disclose the identity of the agent, to affirm the reality of the world, and to actualize our capacity for freedom.

    Plurality, to which we may now turn, is the other central feature of action. For if to act means to take the initiative, to introduce the novum and the unexpected into the world, it also means that it is not something that can be done in isolation from others, that is, independently of the presence of a plurality of actors who from their different perspectives can judge the quality of what is being enacted. In this respect action needs plurality in the same way that performance artists need an audience; without the presence and acknowledgment of others, action would cease to be a meaningful activity. Action, to the extent that it requires appearing in public, making oneself known through words and deeds, and eliciting the consent of others, can only exist in a context defined by plurality.

    Which is just to say that politics is one element of one of the most important aspect of being human — to be and act in public. I’m not happy about this, personally. I’m deeply introverted and often dream about living a completely private life. But I do think there’s something to that idea.

  10. Its interesting, and a lot of us I gather are going through a similar thing; I don’t come here for the politics, but it does rile you up and rope you in. The car crash of it all — I don’t want to spend any time on it, but it is such a tragic mess that you want to desperately repair, or be knowledgeable about. But there in lies madness. If everyone stays clear, we end up i this mess or worse.. but you know, at the same time, we must stay sane and be useful people. So, after it gets you sick to your tummy and mind a few times… move on. To heck with it :O What have we become that we wish to remain ignorant of something…

    … but I am with you.

  11. Pingback: The only thing I have to say about Thursday’s election | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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