Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation—the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”
I know it’s fashionable for young people (and some not-young people) to dismiss national politics. I remember quite a few people my age during last year’s election “choosing not to vote” from one ethical highground or another. A lot of that skepticism is probably justified. Occasionally, though, something worthwhile climbs above the fray.
I suggest that everyone who hasn’t already catch up on the civil war in Syria, the August 21 chemical attack outside of Damascus, and the current state of the White House’s campaign for punitive strikes against the Syrian regime.
Watch Secretary of State Kerry’s and President Obama’s public addresses.
Find recaps of the hearings before the House and Senate.
President Obama will be making an announcement today in what looks to be the most formal address of his public outreach effort. Tune in.
I’ve been struck lately by how difficult it is to communicate in the “communing” sense of that word—how miraculous it is when two or more people actually manage to share an idea, to get excited about the same thing, maybe only for a minute. That might just be a polished way of saying that I’m often skeptical that what I’m interested in at any given moment will be interesting to my friends (I’ll restrict it to friends, because I think most of us are conditioned—apparently to the misunderstanding of everyone who’s ever cut my hair—to actively inhibit “connecting” with strangers). Regardless, it seems that at least as often as people connect with one another, they talk past, through, and around.
It’s even hard to transfer excitement about small things. I can’t count the number of times friends—people whose judgment I trust!— have told me about an album, book, or movie that I need to get my hands on, and I, not for a lack of time, never get around to it. A part of me even takes a little offense at being presumed upon. Of course, if I had discovered it myself, I would be championing it everywhere I went. Pride is a strange thing.
There’s something natural, instinct-driven about being skeptical of others’ advice or opinions, even feelings—skeptical insofar as you may doubt that they mean anything to you, do anything for you, or are otherwise valuable to you in any way. Mark Zuckerberg has been famously described as being particularly afflicted by this seeming-apathy. “His default expression is a direct and slightly wide-eyed stare that makes you wonder if you’ve got a spider on your forehead.” Maybe he is a bit more robot-hearted than the rest of us, but I suspect that this is a relatively standard-issue state of mind, even if we paid enough attention in the “active listening” portions of our speech classes to throw off a few signals to the contrary.
I’ve read every article there is to read about the chemical attack in Syria last month, about all the responses (or lack thereof) proposed by U.S. and world leaders, and all the hypotheticals about what could happen to whom as the result of whatever. I listened to the hearings. I went in thinking one way was the better way, and I suppose I expected that thought would either become clearer, or that I would learn enough to change my mind. Neither happened. I’m less certain than when I started. But I can say now that I understand both sides of the debate.
And in some ways it’s frustrating to be in that place, where you can’t answer “Well, where do you stand on this whole thing?” clearly—where being informed somehow feels like indecision. I want it to be simple rather than complex. It complicates things to let other voices in. It’s complicated and good to listen. The world is bigger than we want it to be.
David Greendonner (’12) is an MFA candidate at Western Michigan University where he teaches writing and is the managing editor of the literary magazine Third Coast.