Not All Families Are Dysfunctional, Right?

February 15, 2024

As the world continues to spiral out of control, I find myself leaning on my friends. Some friends, though, I fear, are part of the problem. I’m thinking of the MSNBC crowd, who have become my companions in the wormhole. I can hear Glenn Kirschner’s voice, “Friends, I know it’s been long coming, but accountability in on its way.” He’s a comforting dad, a wise advisor, a trusted friend. He, like many in the MSNBC stable, dissolves the barrier between lofty expert and fellow sufferer. It’s remarkably humanizing; but it’s seductive and addictive too. How could we not be drawn in, and obsessively?

Andrew Weissmann is another who brings a dose of humanity to the cold and troubled world of law and politics and ultimate threats. His podcast, Prosecuting Donald Trump, with Mary McCord, is an unusual synthesis of legal reasoning and … giggling. The two hosts are comfortable talking through the maneuvers and principles and case history and possibilities—so much so that they have no fear letting their guard down in their podcast, showing at times their ignorance or personal quirks—and always their warm friendship and gentle teasing. The silliness is never that silly; it’s homey; it’s what it might feel like to have such experts living with you, sitting at your kitchen table, just being in the moment, along with all the momentous decisions and events they are committed to explain as best they can. I commend Andrew for his ability to turn on and off his professional expertise mode. I shouldn’t say “turn off,” since it’s never off; it’s just that he adds his personality and humanity in the podcast in ways we never really see when he’s on camera, where he’s pretty much all business. The subtext here is a kind of statement on how to manage all the baggage, the fallout, the potential despair of the topics being dissected. There’s logical principle, yes, but there’s also some larger, kinder, softer context. The two sides aren’t at odds. The full human being can be both analytical/world beating and humble/relaxed—and sweet with a friend sitting alongside you, even if she is in another state. 

The tone of so many of the MSNBC hosts promotes this humane integration.

And so, what chance do I stand in not becoming too dependent on them? I think my first plunge into this milieu was motivated out of a desire to check something off—to get finished with this Trump business so that I could get on with my life. I find I have often approached life’s problems with a “just get this thing done,” or checklist, approach, as though progress were possible, if only, if only. What I needed to realize then, and now, is that what is needed is an “acceptance of the process” as the default state. It’s an illusion that we can ever get beyond [fill in the blank]. What is needed is the right processing of things.

Journalists have always gotten this. Part of their business is to keep the “news” new—and continuing. There are no endpoints. All that matters is the production and consumption of the stories. The pressures of these realities lead to conditions of sensationalizing and controversy-mongering that are all too well known by anyone in a literate, modern society. In the context of my current condition, I have come to rely on MSNBC folk to be my family. We’re never done with family; we don’t check them off. We just plan to be with them through the years.

In the throes of these dynamics, I sometimes glimpse a version of things where a good balance is found among (1) finished, checked-off outcomes; (2) humanizing “being with” the experts; (3) other things—all mixed together in the right proportions to round off a fully human engagement.

Finding this proper balance has always been a need or an endeavor to be embraced—whatever the world conditions and whatever one’s politics. However, the current state of communication (in general) and social media (in particular), in a hyper-connected, hyper-technologized, hyper-threatened world has made our present moment unlike any in history. Add the destabilizations of Covid, with all its isolations. Add further—perhaps most of all—the growing pains associated with the unearthing of bigotries that for so many years in a pre-technologized world were allowed to fester unseen, unknown. 

The upshot: Psychological survival seems to demand that we retreat to our respective echo chambers, our “families,” just for the purpose of maintaining basic mental health.

Literature, philosophy, linguistics, and rhetorical theory—the stuff of my classes—should offer touchstones and foundations and routines on which to recover some stability. And while I feel empowered by the massiveness of uncertainty and method and humility (and appreciation) fostered by humanistic studies, I look on with sadness as the time for higher education seems to be receding. The reification of the university—like the reification of the fourth estate, or the reification of “democracy”—is dissolving before my very eyes, at Saint Xavier University, yes, but throughout our society, in its shorthand approaches to “information,” if not knowledge.

Maybe the term “growing pains” provides some hope? We’re always on the way to somewhere else, someplace that, if not an endpoint, might at least be a kind of benchmark or banked competence for “leveling up,” to borrow a concept from gaming culture. Even though we’re ever processing, surely some changes have registered. Maybe nothing so grand as an “arc of history bending towards justice.” But who can deny the improvements that the centuries have brought in regards to education and democracy and the good life? My family today is much larger than it ever could have been—even at earlier points in my own lifetime. Thank you, YouTube and MSNBC app and Xfinity. 

I have always been optimistic that the changes being wrought, especially by technology, portend more benefit than threat. But the pains of growing towards that benefit, not to mention the existential threats of a world on fire, have tempered that optimism. If only we can survive…. Survival-—be it for today, the 2024 election, the tipping point—is more than a “check-off” outcome on my list, right?

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