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Sunday, September 13, 2020

Withdrawing for "moral health"

Robert Gressis at the Electric Agora discusses in The New Abnormal his decision to "withdraw" from some political discussion. After analyzing why someone might support Mr. Trump enthusiastically and after explaining why he disagrees with them, he says,

I have withdrawn. I’m trying to keep myself as ignorant of politics as possible, partly for my mental health. Hearing about our current political scene is deeply disturbing. It reminds me people are not handling each other well, which scares me; “when is someone coming for me?” is a question that abides after spelunking into the caverns of politics.

But I’m also doing it for my moral health: a lot of times, learning about people’s reactions to politics makes it almost impossible for me to see them in the same way. I lose respect for them. I fall into the fundamental attribution error: I judge them as evil, demented, or dangerous because of the things they say in the one sphere of our lives where we can feel like we’re part of a conquering horde, where we can crush our enemies, see them driven before us, and hear the lamentations of their women.

My withdrawal, then, comes from my own personal failings. It’s too hard for me to be a mensch to you when I see you being so unmenschlich. If I were a better person, I’d talk more about politics. But I avoid it when I can, because I don’t want to be a worse person.

I am more and more adopting Gressis's approach. I've found that I do better when I abstain, at least partially, from politics. By saying I "do better" I mean the choices I make when I abstain are more morally justifiable than the choices I make when I don't. Or more accurately, the choices are less morally unjustifiable.

For example, when I engage, I find that I choose to criticize "anti-anti-Trumpism" much, much more than I criticize the more morally compromised Trumpism itself. I choose to indulge whataboutism. I get snippy. I sometimes do the discourtesy of offering to clear the speck from others' eyes.

For further example: Dr. X, who I link to on my blogroll, posts repeatedly on Trump's outrage of the day--sometimes the outrage of the hour--and my reaction is not to acknowledge that what he says is true or to thank him for doing the otherwise mostly thankless and needful work of chronicling such things. Instead, I choose the path of anger and feeling defensive. And while I believe I'm civil enough and sometimes express agreement--and while I have a lot of respect for him, from what little one can know of anyone "virtually"--I choose more frequently than not to raise counterpoints to what he says. And no matter how needful or accurate I believe the counterpoints to be, I cannot deny I offer them more from an impulse of defensiveness and hyper-criticism.

Worse still is the way I choose to treat those persons (at Ordinary Times) who I dislike personally, if "personally" can be used in reference to people I've never actually met in person. I find I get angry just to read a comment from them, even if it's on a subject as innocuous as what they plan to do this weekend. While I can't blame that wholly on my engagement with politics, politics and political discussion are quite fruitful avenues for choosing enmity over friendship.

Sometimes deciding NOT to read what others write makes me feel better, or prevents me from feeling bad and, worse, from choosing to do bad. I find that I feel better when I don't comment. I rarely regret not saying something. I more often regret saying something. Or to put it slightly differently, the sins I regret more are sins of commission than sins of omission.

Sins of omission are real, though. That's how I interpret Gressis's penultimate sentence above. If I were a better person, I would both engage politics more fully AND make choices that really, truly serve to advance what is right. But I sense my own moral weakness. I despair of being up to the task. I'm at a point where I find it morally more "healthful" to be less bad than to be more good.

No, I'm not withdrawing completely. I don't keep up with the news as much as I used to, but I still keep up. I've curtailed some of my commenting activity on other blogs and at Ordinary Times, but I still choose to comment, and sometimes in exactly the way that makes me a "worse" instead of "less worse." I may continue to blog about the issues of the day, either here or at Ordinary Times. In fact, I have a post pending at Ordinary Times that, if approved, engages politics. (I'll let you know when/if it's available.) And of course, I plan to vote this November (for Mr. Biden).

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

"Marriage Story" is not a good movie

[Note: My original post misspelled "Story" in the title. I've corrected that error on 7/5/2020]

[Spoiler alerts: I reveal key plot details in "Marriage Story."]

"A Marriage Story," starring Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson, documents the divorce process a couple and their son go through. The husband is an up and coming New York theater director. The wife is an actor who may like to direct.

I did not like "A Marriage Story," but I'm not sure why. I enjoyed it while watching it. But the movie as a whole left me with mixed feelings, and not in the way that a movie about divorce is supposed to leave me with mixed feelings. I felt that the movie wanted me to like and care about the main characters but that the main characters were unlikable, even on the movie's terms. Johansson and Driver each has legitimate grievances against their spouse and the way their marriage has played out. Maybe those grievances are even divorce-worthy.

But the characters don't seem to care about anything other than themselves. They don't seem to care about their son. The films creators don't seem to care about their son, either. He's a prop in a "children are the real victims of divorce" sermon, but even that sermon, as true as it is, falls flat. We don't see either the father or mother make any decisions for the interests of their son. Instead, they pursue their own interests and by the end their son seems to be adequately happy with the new way of doing things. We don't know why or how, we just know, to paraphrase the summary Netflix gives us, they're now a family coming together after it has fallen apart.

There's also a ridiculous scene where Driver's character sings what is probably a movie or theatre classic. (The--mostly fawning--reviews of the film I've read so far say that it's a Sondheim song.) It comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere. Its function seems to be to tell us that Driver's character is suffering emotional pain. As the old adage goes, the film should show, not tell, us that type of thing.

One success of the film is Alan Alda's character. He plays the husband's first lawyer. As a lawyer, he is appropriately expensive (requiring a $10,000 retainer), but he has his client's interest at heart and realizes that going for the jugular in the divorce proceeding doesn't serve his client or his client's son very well. Alda further realizes that divorce laws, as inconvenient as they are for Adam Driver's character, were designed to help women who's exes skip out on child support.

That's a commentary on the upper-class bias in the film. That bias goes over the heads of the characters and maybe even the heads of the show's creators. One challenge the film faces is to make the audience care about people who in real life would look down on them, with jokes and tsk-tsk's about culturally insensitive philistines or inhabitants of flyover country who "probably voted for Trump anyway." (My words, not theirs.) No matter how well-done the film, that challenge would be there regardless. I'm not sure it's even possible to overcome that challenge completely. But the film, with the exception of Alda's observation, doesn't seem to try, and the film's creators don't seem to even acknowledge it's a challenge.

Should you see it? Well, if you have Netflix anyway, it's probably worth spending the two hours or so to see if you agree with me. But I wouldn't recommend going out of your way.