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The politics of apolitics

cultural q's

Last month, when I decided that I wanted to learn about the upcoming presidential election, I did what I thought my politically conscious friends would tell me to do—re-download Twitter, unfollow Kim Kardashian and find a few senators, a few journalists, a few left-wing news publications and all twenty-something candidates that were running at the time. For good measure, I followed Trump and Fox News. In about 20 minutes, I compiled a stream of tweets that seemed educational at first but quickly turned into a firehose of opinions. So I stopped checking Twitter for a few days. 

Sophomore year, one of my best friends told me that despite our best-friendship, she could never fully respect me because I was someone who “doesn’t care that much about politics.” I was stamped as apolitical, and it became a part of my brand. 

We’re seniors now, but not much has changed. She attends protests, writes letters to inmates, was one of the students from People’s State who disrupted President Price’s alumni address in 2018. 

I feel weird walking down the street holding signs. I travelled to Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March after Trump’s election in 2017 because it felt like something I’d remember. I couldn’t get out of my own head enough to chant slogans. I remember men peddling pink beanies along the trail, and walking with a crowd of mostly white women who’d reached their 10,000 steps that day and stood in line for their Starbucks after the march. There were a lot of cute Instagram posts later, as if it were a good day to protest. 

I almost went to San Francisco Pride this summer but decided against it because I didn’t want to inadvertently get roasted as a “straight who attends Pride.” I went surfing instead. Perfectly benign, a good-feeling Instagram moment rather than a hot-take Twitter moment. Waves pummeled against me as I paddled into the ocean. I was phoneless and had no idea what was going on in the world. In the case that I missed breaking news and everything was about to go up in flames, I’d be floating in the water.

I was probably trying to escape to the safety of my a-politics. I’m a beach girl, an art girl, outdoorsy, someone who knows more about celebrity scandal than the upcoming election, a free-spirit, generally optimistic. Keeping up with the news or scrolling through Twitter feels like work when I’d rather read fiction in the New Yorker

I’ve been wondering what it means to think of myself as apolitical. The popular answer is that I’m privileged enough to not care, or I’m one of those “centrist chads”  who won’t take a side. I don’t want to be either of those things, but I’m having trouble figuring out what it means to be political.

I’m in awe of my friends who declare their opinions on the latest news cycle with an urgency that I seem to be missing. It feels like everyone already has their opinions, and to admit to being unsure is to be apathetic towards all the suffering and pain in the world. 

Information overload is unavoidable if you get your news through social media like I do, and filtering out what’s real and what’s not is disorienting. I’ve tried to be more attentive lately. I decided I’d start with the election. I scroll through Twitter semi-regularly, read articles about the democratic candidates, watch clips of late night television on YouTube. 

I see the left destroy Trump on Twitter like some WorldStar fever dream, and I know that Beto O’Rourke can change a tire: 



Tulsi Gabbard works out: 



And Andrew Yang wants so bad to be a cool tech dad, not a lame tech dad: 



I suppose displaying these “normal people” activities are likable qualities for a future president, but they seem like frivolous diversions from the serious news in my feed. Pop culture and politics are incestuously close. Kim Kardashian tweets, and so does Joe Biden. Trump used to be just another celebrity. What I’m seeing online is edgy reality television where I can sign Bill Clinton's birthday card and watch people bully each other on the internet in the name of a moral high ground. 

Being a good consumer of politics at the very least requires sharp attention, an ability to tell what’s viral entertainment and what’s reliably reported news. The differences aren’t so clear sometimes.

One source I’ve found that filters my chaotic feed is Wake Up to Politics, a daily newsletter written by a very precocious high schooler in Missouri. It’s a no-b.s. rundown of the day’s politics and serves as a friendly starting point for people learning about politics. I feel good knowing that it’s in my inbox when I wake up in the morning. But the work of reading it—and then clicking on the hyperlinks to read more—feels tedious. I try to do it anyway since it seems important and good for me, but it’s not always exciting in the way that attending a protest might be exciting. 

Staying politically informed is largely invisible work. Caring about politics isn’t something that has to be validated through social media or shouted out on the streets. It starts with spending time on the news, being patient enough to find reliable sources, feeling motivated to do it all again the next day. 

I’d like to stop internalizing the idea of being apolitical, for my own sake. I care. I can’t give myself the instant gratification of knowing where I stand, or who I stand with. Sometimes I’d rather watch a movie than read the news, and I feel guilty even though caring about politics shouldn’t have to consume me in order for it to be true. I can’t promise consistency of thought, and that seems okay as a 21-year-old who’s confused about most things in life. But still, it must be frustrating for those who’ve already formed their opinions. 

Before I surf, I tell myself that the water’s only a little bit cold. Don’t be scared. 

Alice Dai is a Pratt senior. Her column, “cultural q’s,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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