[This post is more personal and doesn’t really concern libraries, so be warned and feel free to skip. Just stuff I’ve been thinking about.]
Princeton students sometimes talk about something they call the Orange Bubble. Though not as restricted from the surrounding communities as the students often are, I seem to be living in a bubble myself, but what kind? You’re probably familiar with the concept of the Daily Me and possibly of some of the criticism aimed at the phenomenon, especially political criticism of the echo chamber effect that comes from being able to filter out of your information feed anything that you don’t already agree with. I agree with the political criticism, and am willing to believe that the increasing polarization of the American electorate over the last decade or so has partially been caused by this effect, and that the polarization is a bad thing. I’m just not sure what I’d be willing to do about it.
I had a similar concern about myself years ago and fought against the echo chamber. When I was in grad school in the mid-90s, I grew frustrated that the majority of my vaguely leftish friends and I could talk a good game about Marx or Gramsci but knew almost nothing about mainstream political thought, much less any politics to the right of Raymond Williams. I set about remedying this ignorance with a multi-year reading project, starting with fascism and working my way left. I also practice a sympathetic hermeneutic, which means that the first time I read something, especially something I’m likely to disagree with, I read it as sympathetically as possible, then again critically. What I learned along the way was that there’s something sympathetic about most political positions depending on your point of view and historical circumstances, and that people who radically disagree with you aren’t necessarily stupid, irrational, or evil (though they very well may be). I read a number of worthwhile writers who are part of the conservative intellectual tradition, such as Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Michael Oakeshott, and Friedrich Hayek. Oakeshott and Hayek in particular had a profound effect on my thinking.
The conservative intellectual tradition, such as it is, is in pretty dire straits these days. After all, you don’t need intellect if your solution to every political problem is to eliminate the government. I can only imagine what the thoughtful and cautious Richard Weaver would think of some of the buffoons currently writing and speaking about something they’re calling conservatism. The kind of Bircher craziness that was part of the lunatic fringe in the 1960s has gone mainstream. Nevertheless, despite the Rush Limbaughs and the Glenn Becks there are intelligent and thoughtful conservative writers, and I read them. I’m particularly fond of Theodore Dalrymple and Roger Scruton, whose senses of cultural despair and nostalgia (respectively) I don’t share, but whose writing I usually enjoy. Their versions of conservatism aren’t especially American, but of living Americans I’d also include Roger Kimball (his cultural criticism in The New Criterion, not the shrill protests against academia that first made him famous). And thanks to Arts & Letters Daily and the Bookforum Omnivore, I’m as likely to run across interesting essays from The New Criterion or City Journal as from Nation or Dissent.
After all that, I thought I was safe from the political isolation of the Daily Me, at least until a traumatic incident in a dentist’s waiting room last week made me question myself. Because I couldn’t escape from the blaring television, I encountered something that I later learned was The Five, which Wikipedia calls an “American talk show” but I can only describe as a shouting roundelay of idiocy. The idiots weren’t just shouting their baseless opinions at each other; they were also yelling about and disputing completely factual questions. “The Bush tax cuts were passed at this time!…. No, they were passed at another time!” My god, people, stop the show and do a bit of research. I’d never seen anything quite like it before, and I was literally cringing every moment while the people around me passively consumed it. How could anyone tolerate that stupid junk? That’s when it hit me. I was the odd man out. I’m in a bubble, sort of a smart bubble. It turns out I’ve almost completely removed stupid from my life. Generally, I think that’s good for my happiness and sanity, but are there negative consequences?
First are the people. I rarely interact with stupid people. It helps that I work where I do. My colleagues are generally pretty smart. And the students are smart. And the professors are smart. Basically, in my working life, I have no significant interactions with anyone who isn’t intelligent and educated. It’s nice. Then I get home to my wife and daughter. They’re both pretty smart, too. Maybe it’s genetics. The family members I interact with the most are my in-laws, retired college professors in the sciences, and they’re also pretty smart. Then there are my friends. I don’t have many close friends, but the ones I have are smart. Come to think of it, so are my less than close friends.
Also, I haven’t watched commercial television for 25 years, which has eliminated all manner of stupid. After a childhood of voracious TV consumption, I fell out of the habit for a few months after high school and after that couldn’t abide commercials interrupting the narrative flow of anything. In my adult life, the only television newscasts or political talk shows I’ve seen have been fake ones in movies, which I mistakenly thought were parodies until I saw The Five. For a few years, I still had cable and just watched movie channels, but I haven’t had cable TV for about 20 years either. That means that all those dumb TV shows and reality TV and garbage people watch just because it’s on and they’re tired I’ve never seen. If I don’t get it through Netflix, I never see it. After a 20 year hiatus, I’ve discovered some really smart TV, but I’m always a season behind at least, and I don’t have to watch commercials. I know some really stupid shows exist because occasionally they rise up to the mainstream news from the celebrity gossip, which I never read. Living in New Jersey, I’m aware there is a show called Jersey Shore, but I’ve never seen it. It sounds stupid. A friend told me he turned on his TV one day while cleaning and working around the house, and later realized he’d inadvertently watched eight hours of some dumb fashion model reality show. That can’t happen to me.
My anticommercialism extends to radio as well. I’m not sure I’ve listened to an explicitly commercial radio station since high school. In college, I usually listened to my university’s radio station. In grad school, I started listening to a lot of classical music after I had a roommate with a great classical collection and a willingness to share. Other than NPR and the BBC World Service, I usually listen to classical radio at work and in the car. I also listen to other kinds of music, but that’s what iPods are for. So the shock jocks and the morning DJ shows and the stupid commercials that I know exist because I’ve sometimes been forced into proximity to them in public are almost completely absent from my life. It’s very calming.
As for reading, my tastes since my freshman year in college have been relatively serious. I read a lot of literature in college and grad school, but these days I mostly read essays and books on history, philosophy, or politics. Recently someone saw me reading this book about Nietzsche with my lunch and said, “a little light reading, huh?” I never know how to respond to that without sounding condescending, which I don’t mean to be. The honest answer is that for me, yeah, that’s sort of light reading because I’ve been reading books like that for 20 years. If not light, it’s certainly pleasurable or I probably wouldn’t read it. It’s not heavy reading by any means. Of the topics I actually know something about (and thus can understand the books at all), my heavy reading would probably be books with both complex ideas and tedious writing, books by people like John Rawls, which I very much appreciate having read, and which I’ve also taught, but to which I rarely turn for pleasure reading. My political views have been influenced by Rawls, but leisure reading over lunch? I don’t think so. Then there’s all the reading that’s so heavy I can’t even lift it, like anything dominated by equations.
It sounds like I’ve deliberately removed the majority of pop culture from my life, but it was more accidental in my quest to eliminate stupid distractions. It means I’ve removed a lot of stupid, but also that I’ve divorced myself from my culture enough that I wonder if I even understand what’s going on anymore. In all honesty, my knowledge about a lot of pop culture is based on what I read at Cracked. How could someone watch The Five or Jersey Shore? I just don’t get it. Add to that all the other things I don’t really get that I don’t equate with stupid, like sports fandom, and I’m seriously out of touch with something, but I’m not sure if it’s something worth touching. Am I as naive and uninformed as the people who get their news only from Fox News or from their carefully selected friends on Facebook? Probably not. But am I guilty of the same insularity that I would normally criticize? If I am, that wouldn’t make me unusual. Hypocrisy, or at the very least a serious lack of self-awareness, is hardly unique in the human condition.
If I have a saving grace in this regard, it might be movies. Though I’ve enjoyed numerous highbrow movies over the years, I’d usually rather watch Die Hard or Anchorman for the 10th time than the latest indie art house film. Some of my very favorite movies like Casablanca might be old, or even “classics,” but they’re not particularly highbrow. Casablanca is schmaltz from beginning to end. Yet I’m right there tearing up when Rick gives his speeches to Ilsa and Laszlo at the end, laughing when Ron Burgundy plays jazz flute, and cheering John McClane when he puts a bullet in Hans Gruber. I’m not sure if my cinematic philistinism counts as stupid, though. John McClane might be a mouthbreather, but Hans Gruber?
Is this enough to avoid the possible negative effects of the Daily Me, especially the political ones? Is avoiding stupid morally equivalent to, say, avoiding even the mention of any political view you don’t like, or never encountering people not of your “class”? I’d like to think not, but then again of course I would. That’s exactly the sort of moral high ground I enjoy standing on. Nevertheless, my bubble is similar in some ways to the class bubble that Charles Murray wrote about last year, especially in my lifestyle habits. He argues that a class bubble is tearing apart white America. (He learned to avoid talking about black America after The Bell Curve.) You can take his quiz on how thick your class bubble is. I scored 34 points (out of 100, the higher the score the lower the class), 22 of which came from the first four questions about my Life History. When it comes to People Who Have Been Part of Your Life; Sports, Pastimes, and Consumer Preferences; Some American Institutions; and Media and Popular Culture, my bubble is pretty darn thick, despite my taste in movies. For Life History, even though I had a lot of crappy manual labor jobs when younger, I had to answer no to #6 because I’ve never had a job where something hurt at the end of the day, unless “my soul” counts as an answer.
Based on my score, Murray predicts I’m a “ﬁrst-generation upper-middle-class person with middle-class parents.” Technically, according to Wikipedia, I am upper-middle-class based on my work, my wife’s work, and our household income, but that’s very recent in my life and came about as I was avoiding stupid, not cultivating upper-middle-classness, whatever that is. (It also ignores wealth, debt, and the NJ cost of living, but whatever.) My parents for a time achieved (barely) lower-middle and went downhill from there. So I think I escape Murray’s class bubble even as I technically have similar habits. He’s talking about the people increasingly born that way, who go to Ivy League universities, marry fellow Ivy League graduates, work in high prestige professions, and live in exclusive and wealthy parts of the country. But that’s not me. I went to a middling state university in the south, work in a middling prestige profession, married a Seven Sister grad, and live in Trenton, NJ. And that’s totally different, sort of.
I don’t see my bubble as a class bubble so much as an anti-stupid bubble. If my bubble resembles Murray’s, it’s because many years ago I decided I’d rather be an impoverished scholar than a rich anything else and had the luck not to end up destitute. Does that make me the part of class divide? Am I the part of the upper-middle-class isolating itself from the masses with no understanding of how most people live, and thus, presumably, lacking any sympathy for or understanding of their lives? I still don’t think so. After all, I’m pretty much the same intellectual snob with exactly the same habits now as when I was a grad student living on $12K a year.
Instead of upper-middle, I’d prefer to be part of what the late Paul Fussell called “category X” in his amusing survey of the American class system. He believed that academics and intellectuals and artists sort of opt out of the class system because they care more about ideas and creativity than about social status as such. (And by his Living Room Scale, I barely make it into the middle class.) According to Fussell, you are born into a social class, but “you become an X person, or to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable. And in discovering that you can become an X person you find the only escape from class.”
That sounds appealing to me. I want to be an X person living in an X bubble, isolating myself from stupid rather than from other classes. However, I might be fooling myself. Isolation is isolation, perhaps. If I can’t watch The Five without cringing, am I missing something important about contemporary America? If, as a friend of mine commented, that’s what passes for political debate these days, should I be concerned that I’ll have none of it? It doesn’t matter much anyway, because I’m as unlikely to change my ways at this point as the anti-me, whoever that might be. I’m thinking one of the Jersey Shore people, maybe that guy “The Predicament” or whatever his name is, but even my concern over the insularity of the Daily Me won’t make me watch that show, so I’ll never know.