I've been thinking a lot about Abigail's recent post, "Banish the Guilties," particularly in the context of the last presidential debate. Watching McCain's facial expressions (someone please tell this man that the camera records you even when you're not speaking, and the mike picks up every little snort and impatient, fussy exhalation of bewilderment) I thought a lot about engagement and disengagement. For a long time, I've considered myself disengaged. I've responded to the kind of politics McCain represents (insincerity disguised as earnestness, entitlement disguised as no-nonsense, take charge altruism) by diving deeper into myself and my interests, instinctually regarding the political system as something hopelessly divorced from my interests or well-being.
I felt guilt for buying perfume when people are starving, for writing about it when people like McCain are waging war on foreign soil, plunging the country into despondency, division, and baseline instability. Maybe I represented everything I hate, I thought; mindless consumption, resigned acquiescence to a dismal state of affairs. I had my nose buried in bottles while every day my cousin, called back to Iraq so many times I lost count, ran the risk of again watching a truck he might have been in but for a slight, circumstantial twist of fate, explode on the road ahead of him, killing all his friends.
I was cynical about Obama at first. It seemed like hype to me, the celebration of all things Barack--in the media, on facebook, in coffeeshops, on car bumpers. I'm so used to the kind of politicians I've grown up on that anything approxomating recognizable intelligence, sincerity, and real human experience seemed impossible to me. If you've never eaten anything but MacDonald's, the concept of gourmet is a little tricky, if not unimaginable. Yet, seeing Obama speak, I instantly understood what people mean when they try to describe how revolutionary JFK was when he first appeared on the American political horizon.
Whatever you think of Obama, it's clear he's a good speaker, that he speaks truth in some fashion heretofore unknown in contemporary politics, that he values thinking, reasoning, and deductive muscle in the face of blanket stupidity. It might be this more than anything that makes his name sometimes seem synonymous with hope. It's clear, listening to him, that engagement and disengagement are fairly elastic terms. Does an instinctive, bullshit-detector dismissal of politics as usual mean disengagement, or survival, a commitment to refusing insincerity until by miracle something more authentic comes along?
Look, I'm not going to argue that buying perfume and getting lost in its finer points isn't at least slightly precious. But I do think it matters, and not just because it makes an indivual happy. I think it's bigger than that. Making a movie last week, I suddenly realized that, far from doing something silly and removed from real life experience, I and the four people working with me were committing to the unlikely, against all odds. In a culture which disregards intellect, community, and feeling in equal proportions, we'd committed ourselves to the ultimate transgression: an attempt to reach out to each other and beyond, to speak to people on a level we all have the capacity to understand. The fact is that to make a movie is a huge endeavor. Keeping a blog is too. Everyone who reads the latter has joined you in a space of thought and feeling no corrupt politician can touch. Everyone who sees the former has the potential to be touched, reached, or moved. You can call this escapism, but maybe, looked at in a slightly different way, it means escapism from the forces which conspire to keep us alienated and immune to the difference between sublime pleasure and deadened apathy.
To adore perfume, enough to read or write about it, enough to allow the magical properties of its scent to transport you back into your memories and ahead toward your potential, to flex that muscle of emotion and imagination is, to put it in the simplest possible way, to care.