My sister-in-law, who lives in Manhattan’s East Village, recently e-mailed me about the moment the power, out for nearly a week, suddenly returned. With the neighborhood in darkness, the computer and TV screens all black, life had seemed to stop. “And then without warning or fanfare, the screen jolted back on like nothing had happened, and it all was a giant black dream.”
It’s a perfect image of a binary world, on what happens to be our most binary day. Today, we step behind a curtain and choose: him or her, him or him, yes or no. That privilege has obvious limits. When my daughter’s third-grade Brownie troop met last weekend, we talked about the importance of voting, and a few girls asked, “What if you don’t like anybody on the ballot?”
Well then, the grownups answered, you vote for the person you dislike the least. It sounded depressing, put that way. But the girls’ question betrayed a certain innocent wisdom: Of course no candidate is going to be perfect, and none is completely imperfect, either.
This fact is often obscured by campaign rhetoric — the rabid tone of attack ads and mailings, the binary system of networks and websites, all insisting that a victory for one side is either a certain triumph or a grave disaster. And yes, elections are meaningful, with policies and principles at stake.
But elections aren’t the end of the world; as third-party candidates are quick to tell us, the two contenders are often, for better and worse, beholden to the same interests, beset by moderating forces, moved by similar ideas. (Just think: Romneycare.) If one side oversteps, the pendulum will swing, and another election will come. (The best bet for Democrats to take back the House? Let Mitt Romney win the presidency.)
The cycle of politics can be hard to remember, in the thick of a very close fight. And American elections have always been viciously partisan. But this season, the proliferation of screens has had a trickle-down effect. Now, partisanship is less a matter of distant entertainment and more of a personal badge. People tend to avoid politics at parties or family gatherings, but they’re brutally honest to their screens — as evidenced by those stories about the dark effects of talking politics on Facebook.
Opinion, filtered through a keyboard, can lead to a certain kind of ugliness, and not just in the realm of elections. A friend who had been set to run the New York Marathon was despairing late last week, less over the cancellation than over the hatred piling up on the marathon’s Facebook page, the invectives heaped on runners who expressed any remorse about their disappointment, in terms of money and time and anticipation.
The decision to cancel the race was probably right, given the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy, the prospect of resources being sent to the race instead of to New Yorkers in need. Still, it was possible to despair for hurricane victims and still have a degree of sympathy for the runners. And, despite the anger heaped on race officials and Mayor Bloomberg, it was possible, for a while, to envision the race as a symbol of recovery.
As it turns out, there was a happy ending, of sorts, to the marathon story. On Sunday, hordes of would-have-been runners took the Staten Island Ferry to some devastated neighborhoods, carrying food and water and toiletries and clothes, and spent race day immersed in disaster relief.
That outcome wasn’t surprising. As a reporter in New Orleans in the ’90s, I covered hurricanes in Louisiana and Florida, communities walloped by nature, and I always found the experience to be heartening. In the aftermath of a storm, as people surveyed the wreckage, the boats atop of docks and the roofs ripped away, the best of humanity came out. People took each other in, changed each other’s tires, offered each other food.
When you’re standing beside an actual person, it’s much harder to see the world in terms of good versus bad, haves versus have-nots, winners versus losers. Shutting off screens isn’t easy, but it can be a valuable exercise. And after tomorrow night, when election returns are finally in, shutting off the screens will be a very big relief.