I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been having that adrenaline-rush tunnel vision about the presidential election. The debates were the light at the end of the tunnel, and, as should be expected this far into 2020, they turned out to be the lights of an oncoming train.
It seemed last night that Chris Wallace didn’t know how or when to ask questions, and neither candidate knew how to answer them in a way that accurately represented their positions on critical issues (Biden clumsily evades questions about court-packing; Trump can’t land the punch on his blockbuster CRT executive order). Debunked “news” stories in place of answers; more crosstalk than straight talk. It’s fine, or at least expected, because, again, 2020.
This “Unpresidential Questions” column plans to address the problem of bad questions and bad answers like these, though indirectly. This is a time of massive upheavals in our country, and, despite politicians’ “answers” and the media’s overconfident “narratives,” mostly our lives are full of unanswered questions. In the next five harrowing weeks and onward, I want to come to terms with a year of pandemic, civil unrest, Supreme Court turnover, and a presidential election through the ways these events prompt a rethinking of daily life.
I’d like to talk about these questions with you, too. You’re welcome to respond by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or in the comments below. I hope you do, and I may respond to your thoughts in future articles.
I’ve always been a walker, but never a walking music conductor. This morning I found myself heading out from my house in Arlington, listening to Mozart (I’ve lost my taste for pop music for now), rediscovering that this guy really gets G minor, and finding myself unable to stop my fingers from twitching and tracing the music. I’m not totally oblivious, even after months of fairly isolated living, so I tried to stop myself. But I found that the social pressure of middle-aged dog-walkers crossing the street to avoid any sort of contact wasn’t enough to keep me from playing an invisible accompaniment on a tiny, invisible piano keyboard and dredging up the briefest of conducting lessons from a college choir instructor to keep time. No one noticed, and I wouldn’t have cared if they did. Blame Mozart.
Music has always moved me more than any other art form, but it has come markedly to the foreground in the past few weeks. Last week Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — which long ago wore grooves in my mental record — brought tears to my eyes. The glorious sound of Beethoven’s fight against his oncoming deafness is enough to put despair right back in hell where it came from. Victory! I get it now, or feel like I’m closer to it. And I see how desperately we need to revisit the heights of human expression, especially in these iconoclastic times.
Sadly, because of coronavirus restrictions, Beethoven’s 250th birthday celebrations have been delayed or canceled at music halls across the world. But at least there’s Spotify. I miss live concerts more each day, but I’ve also found myself choosing my music more independently, responding to it more strongly, and moving more freely to it. I wonder if, in a quieter world, the noise-scars heal and ordered sound has an easier job of getting to us.
This seems to apply more broadly: I’ve found myself seeking out simpler refuges from politics: music, books, walks, talks. The external stresses are so much higher than ever before, but the moments of calm are deeper and more reflective. Those moments are brief, but they’re also the start of a huge realignment in how all of us spend our time, whether we like it or not. And we have a massive backlog of difficult adjustments to come to terms with. It’s possible, looking at it in one way, that we’ve developed all sorts of superpowers — of endurance and resilience, especially — that we’re not even fully aware of yet. I admit, though, that much of the time I see things much more dimly.
Right now, for me, it’s music. I’ve talked with a few friends who, like me, went through a strange, silent period for a few months, starting in February. The shock of the COVID crisis made everything go silent. All music, but especially many of the popular genres that I listened to casually, felt wrong.
The ears that emerged were different. Pop music has lost its kick, for now. My mind wants real relief, and my spirit wants uplift. No more emotional sugar rushes. Nothing about partying, obviously; too upsetting, and unreal. No shallow love songs; from months of trying to stay connected with friends, family, spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, we know there’s more to it than that.
This shift could also be because I’m not in the car so often, distracting myself from the commute. Or it could be that classical music is more deeply rooted in me than I knew, as a (briefly, I hope) lapsed musician who started piano lessons in kindergarten, sang in choirs since the church ladies could recruit me, and so on. And in times of struggle, people return to what sustains them. (Here’s one picture of what musicians are going through to bring back live music.)
Whatever it is, I’m in the market for a piano again. I find myself dancing around instead of banging my head to the beat. It’s a subtle, but important difference. Something about the forced silence of the last few months has made me want to be a part of music again, and to know and share the best of it.
And less of the other stuff. It’s interesting that while I’m at home learning about listening, our presidential debates are devolving into three-way yelling matches. Why is this? It has something to do with the media bubble, which is much too noisy and much too full of answers in the form of dueling “narratives” about how exactly COVID is ruining your life and how your preferred punching-bag candidate would destroy the country and the world.
Biden says the election is about “you, the American people,” but continues to repeat lies and insults about the president he believes is such a liar and villain. This “American people” suspects the handlers doing debate prep spent too much time pumping Biden with lines based off of their media buddies’ headlines, and too little asking about what “the American people” want to know. (A colleague made the interesting point this morning that Trump did a better job of targeting his debate points: calling out swing states and touting his record in helping certain voting blocs he’s courting.) This “American people” was interested in Biden’s court-packing plans, for example, but not as much as, a few minutes in, she wanted to mute the whole thing and turn back to Mozart.
Okay, most of them. Bots and trolls, I’m not talking about you, so no angry notes to the editor.
Here’s a SCOTUS-fight experience that hit close to home for me: last week, early in the freakout about Amy Coney Barrett’s unbelievably massive, too-big-to-count, probably infinitely huge Catholic family, my husband tweeted a provocative statement: seven kids isn’t that many. He’s one of a family of seven. His mom responded with a few ridiculous comments “helpful” strangers used to make in the grocery store, among them that “they know what causes that” (multiple pregnancies??) and concerned questions about whether or not she owned a TV. That was gross enough, but then the real dogmatists showed up and insisted that no, seven is, in fact, too many, unless you’re adopting children born in poverty (interesting how that narrative changed when we found out that Barrett adopted two children from Haiti). Otherwise it’s selfish and a waste of resources.
My husband and I had a long talk about where this “having kids is irresponsible; having kids is killing the Earth” theory showed up, along with the idea that harmful methods of birth control “fix” it. It’s fascinating how that rhetoric has been repeated almost verbatim since the Sexual Revolution. That revolution didn’t make a better world for women and families, but it certainly spun heads around. It told lies like these — if you think people who have to provide for a bunch of kids are less responsible and more wasteful, you haven’t seen my mom dressing up leftovers or making price comparisons about milk prices at Super Saver v. Sam’s Club — plus many others, about what family should mean for young people’s lives. These lies were conveniently abstract, and based on negations — about kids you shouldn’t have and families of certain sizes that you shouldn’t allow yourself to get to know, God forbid support. This made them incredibly simple to repeat, verbatim, no matter how little they had to do with those actual people.
To the point that a Twitter dude from nowhere can tell a family that some of them shouldn’t actually exist.
That’s just one tactless guy’s response, but I can’t stop thinking about it, how public and shameless it was. If Twitter is the public square now (I’m not sure it is, but that’s a conversation for another day), then it’s probably best to think about whether something you say suggests that the person you’re talking to, or someone he loves way more than you, should be deleted for the sake of your politics. It may not be convincing. They may start thinking that actually, this sort of response to a human shouldn’t exist.
I wonder what you all think about the way the political and media world presents Christian supermoms. I’ve been interested in, but not surprised, by the glaring spotlight Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination has brought on her family, both on the left and the right. Lots of people are attacking her because she’s a mom, or cheering for her because she’s a mom. But shouldn’t learning about her family be a way to understand the character behind her judicial principles and record?
I think moms, and anyone with a full and creative family life, get a lot assumed about them based on a few external facts. And basing opinions on stereotypes and statistical oversimplifications can take the humanity right out of the political conversation. Twitter guy would have gotten a better response had he said something like, “Wow, seven kids sounds like a lot. How do you not drown in debt and keep your sanity and help other people too?” Barrett probably has a good answer to that, as well — though Twitter guy might not like it because it may have something to do with the kingdom of God, or Christian charity, or teaching children generosity and humanity.
The Year of our Lord 20-forever is a time of hard questions and few non-terrifying answers, but it is revealing where our strength comes from. Not the noise, but the human creativity and energy that produces it. Not the stereotypes, but the people who constantly exceed the limits lazily or cynically placed on them.
Hannah Rowan is managing editor of The American Spectator.