John McCain and the Distorted Lens of Now
The following column, by Mike Cosper, originally appeared in The Roadstead, our weekly newsletter. To have Mike's column delivered directly to your inbox, subscribe here.
The national news this week has been so dense that it’s hard to know where to start to comment upon it. Perhaps the best thing to do is simply to point to this piece by Alan Jacobs and be done with it, as I think it responds to our current situation with clarity. Jacobs is a professor at Baylor University, and has written wonderful books on C.S. Lewis, The Book of Common Prayer, and more recently How to Think.
In the short article, he talks about recency bias. This is the tendency to think that what is happening now is far more important than it actually is, and that tendency is nursed along by the 24-hour news cycle and social media, where what’s happening now is always placed in the foreground. As Jacobs describes it, we lack “temporal bandwidth”, a phrase he borrows from Thomas Pynchon, who described it as “the width of your present, your now … The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.” You could call it historical perspective, I suppose, or maybe historical consciousness – the degree to which present events are tempered in your thoughts by the past and future. It’s sorely missing in our day, and as a result we are anxious, ever-feed-refreshing people, constantly distracted by whatever just happened, and unable to hold in our minds what happened yesterday.
It also might explain why we are so severely misinformed, or why we act so severely misinformed. We refuse to allow enough space in our minds for complicated ideas. Seth Godin wrote something along these lines on Monday:
Teaching complicated ideas to people on a phone is like trying to teach geography to a bunch of sugared-up kids who just had a triple espresso while they are standing on one foot being bitten by a swarm of mosquitos.
There could be a direct correlation between smart phone usage and underinformed mass behavior.
Sometimes it’s worth opening up a laptop and slowing down just a bit.
Yes, opening up a laptop might count as slowing down a bit.
As Jacobs points out, President Trump is keenly aware of these tendencies, and knows that any political crisis or pressure he might face can be virtually erased by taking to Twitter and shouting at Iranian leaders, calling a Senator “Pocahontas”, or simply distracting from one disaster with another (like posing with Q Anon conspiracy theorists in the Oval Office).
Jacobs’ reflections place these issues in the context of the death of John McCain, a man who suffered terribly as a Vietnamese POW, refused early release, and spent a lifetime in public service as a noted “maverick”, governed far more by conviction than by party. Somehow, a character so revered not only by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle but – as press coverage has noted over and over – by a press corps that could often be adversarial to him… somehow this man became the object of derision by a man that “had taken great care to avoid serving in the military, and who indeed had never done an hour’s work of public service, denied that McCain was a hero, mocked him for having been captured, cited McCain’s experience as proof that torture “works” — and in spite of such monstrous perversion of spirit was elected President of the United States with the overwhelming support of the very people most likely to say that they “support our troops.”
Jacobs asks, “How did this happen?”
The answer is: Gradually and then suddenly. We all saw the “suddenly.” But we have not thought nearly as carefully, as rigorously, as we should about the “gradually.” It’s too late to avert Trump, of course. But we damn well better be asking ourselves what else is happening gradually that will spring upon us with shocking suddenness if we don’t develop more temporal bandwidth and personal density. And do it now.
In other words, we need to give more time to understand how, as a culture, especially amongst the conservatives who elected him, we became so indifferent to moral character, honesty, courage, and decency.
We shouldn’t let liberals off the hook, of course. If you think moral bankruptcy and a lack of decency is only the property of the right, I would urge you to look at the cesspool of replies to (the new darling of the left) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet showing her respects for McCain. It ain’t pretty. Neither were the replies to Russell Moore’s tweet of the same nature. We are in a dark place, and social media brings that darkness to the surface in disturbing ways.
And yet I can’t help but wonder how many of those who are saying vile, dishonoring things about McCain would nod vigorously to someone who lamented the state of our political discourse. Because there’s another kind of recency bias that most of us share: a lack of awareness of our own actions. We can be provoked to the worst kind of outrage online one moment and engage in acts of kindness and compassion the next. Maybe that’s just part of being human. Probably, it’s a product of the fall: a blindness to self that leads us down the road to the worst kinds of hypocrisy.
What we desperately need, in the light of this kind of hypocrisy and in the light of Jacobs’ broader observations about culture, is to “think what we are doing.” This phrase comes from Hannah Arendt, who in the late 1950’s was observing a kind of thoughtlessness that would lead us to the mindless mass culture that plagues us today. Or as Jacobs put it, “we damn well better be asking ourselves what else is happening.”
This starts with our own hearts and minds. If we’re living off the thrill of “owning the libs” or watching one of our political icons “destroy” someone on a YouTube clip, we should ask ourselves why. If we’re indifferent to the process, we should ask why as well. We should think what we personally are doing before we start drawing conclusions about what we, culturally, are doing.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that two of President Trump’s allies and advisors have been found guilty of various crimes of fraud and conspiracy. In Cohen’s case, the President is named as an unindicted co-conspirator. Adam Davidson has a clarifying article about the two cases and their implications at The New Yorker. Given what I’ve said above about recency bias, though, one has to wonder whether any of it will matter. We’ll be on to the next scandal or tweet-du-jour in no time.
David French has a heartbreaking article about adoption at The Atlantic. In it, he traces how people on both the left and the right have attacked families like his for adopting children of different races. It’s been a bit of an evolution. In years past, people on the left accused adoptive families of “cultural imperialism” or “cultural genocide”. More recently, the attacks have come from racists on the alt-right, who have subjected families like French’s to horrible attacks online. I remember, during the 2016 election, witnessing those attacks on French’s Twitter feed. It was awful.
In better news, True Detective is coming back and the first teaser makes me hopeful that they might recapture some of the magic of Season 1. I didn’t hate Season 2 as much as some people, and I think if it hadn’t come on the heels of Season 1, it would have gotten more credit. But no one should have had to follow up the incredible performances by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
Lastly, we’re home from vacation and I’m back to making podcasts. Not just for Cultivated, but also for a bunch of folks we work with at Narrativo. Did you know we make podcasts?
Cultivated is back next week. See you then.