What’s happening in Japan right now is heart wrenching. There will be families who will never fully recover. Can you imagine what it must be like to be separated from a loved one? A daughter? A son? One day goes by. Then two. Hope dwindles.
Such is my clumsy metaphor for what political writers often do. We write from careless beltway heights. We hurl our opinions down upon the crowd. And we usually don’t care if someone gets hit. The faces, after all, are a blur from such heights.
Recently I heard someone relate an anecdote about two World War II veterans. (Advanced apologies, I can’t remember who related this, but the story stuck.) Anyway, each of the veterans had a very different attitude about war stories. One was a bomber pilot. The other was a G.I. For the former, war stories came easily over the years. But the latter kept his stories to himself. Why would this be?
The bomber pilot had been vaguely aware there were people dying beneath his warplane. “The enemy.” But they were abstractions. And they remained so in his memories. For the G.I., the people on the ground had been much closer. He saw their faces. He heard their cries and those of their fallen comrades. He watched his own buddies maimed and killed at his enemy’s hands, but at the orders of superior officers barking much like his superior officers had barked. For the G.I., memories of World War II were grave things to be respected, but kept mostly locked away. For the bomber pilot, bringing home memories of glory was like bringing home so much cargo.
Abstraction and Crisis Opportunism
Statisticians in government bureaus or economists in Washington offices suffer from a similar affliction. It’s so easy to transform people into abstractions. Why? Because Its easy to abstract people when they’re far away from what we do. I fear this happens all too often with opinion writers of all stripes.
And we are guilty -- left, right and center -- of cashing in on crises. It’s tempting. The story is big. It’s on everyone’s mind. (If it bleeds, it leads and all that.) Crises offer many scraps for our sausage grinders. With some salt here and a little seasoning there, it’s easy to cook up our own takes on a big event. A thousand branches from the underlying story will be made by lazy-but-creative commenters eager to meet a deadline.
Climbing down from the Monument
When a crisis comes, we should try to climb down from the Monument for a moment before starting to write. Try to take on the perspective of those on the ground, letting our minds travel down to earth. For example, we can try to imagine what it must be like in Soma, Japan right now. For that brief period, we make that thought more important than our opinions.
And in those moments, if we can’t make it all the way to the ground, we should try coming down half way. That way we can at least make out people’s faces. (I realize I’m beating up this metaphor. But bear with me.) Making out faces means reminding ourselves of the humanity of our subjects.
Maybe Facebook can help with this. You can toy with ideas by posting them for your friends to see. Although it often seems there is still just a big nebulous crowd there, as well, real faces will pop up and holler at you if you need hollering at. Sometimes they’ll remind you to look more closely, to consider that those on the ground -- or even they themselves -- are not just teaming abstractions, but individuals with thoughts, feelings, problems and perspectives.
I’m not suggesting writers give up on writing about what they believe in. Our doxa animates our work. Nor am I suggesting we go out and write a bunch of squishy human interest stories. At some level we all understand pain. A story of suffering for suffering’s sake is an exercise in self-indulgence. Even stories of ‘tragedy overcome’ can be just chicken soup for the soul. But carefully relating to, or even relating, the experiences of real people -- and connecting them to real readers -- will make our abstract political points stronger. More importantly, it can allow us writers to get out of the way, which is pretty much where we belong.
So let’s all resist the temptation to make a crisis some kind of exemplar for our pet issues. And if we must tend these pets, let’s at least search for a common thread somewhere -- a unifying element that lets two people stare through one set of eyes if but for a moment. When we do, we transcend partisanship and priggery and allow ourselves the humility to be human beings on the ground.