the bore war

Pundits bleat that American politics are stuck in a rut. But boredom can be good for you: Here's why.


David Futrelle
May 9, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

i'm not sure you've noticed, what with those big floods a few weeks back and the slow collapse of the Mobutu government in Zaire and the Heaven's Gate suicide sequel, but it seems we've run out of news. Or so, as Norm MacDonald on "Weekend Update" might say, the pundits would have you believe. Back in April, you may recall, Michael Wines of the New York Times declared that "news stopped happening, oh, a good two or three months ago," shortly after President Clinton's less-than-riveting Inaugural address. Now a number of pundits have taken up Wines' whine as their own. "The ominous fact hanging like a storm cloud over every newsroom in the country is that there is nothing going on worth reporting and analyzing," writes Stephen Chapman in the Chicago Tribune. "All the great stories of our time seem to have played themselves out."

Nowhere is life so tedious, the pundits suggest, as in the world of politics. In the New Yorker, Joe "I'm not Anonymous" Klein laments the "strange emptiness," the "un-Clintonian inactivity," of Clinton's second term. "This is his last try at governing," Klein writes, "and he seems to have no grand agenda; indeed, not much at all appears to be happening." Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd sighs that the Clinton presidency has grown "so becalmed, so shrunken, so defeated, so aimless, so anomic, so technical" that even George Bush has started to look good by comparison.

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And on the other side of the political aisle, things aren't much better. Conservatives bemoan the current torpor, but have no clear idea of how to get themselves, and the country, revved up again -- especially since their most revved-up representative, Newt Gingrich, has managed to trundle himself into the basement in the opinion polls. Congressional conservatives await the arrival of the post-Newt era with some trepidation; eager as they are to dump their unpopular Speaker, they're not much inspired by the alternatives to Newt. These days, writes Major Garrett in the Weekly Standard, "Everything about Republican Washington reeks of stupefied self-doubt." One Republican activist tells Garrett that "everyone is looking for someone or something. We are all in a lethargic type of stupor." (And that, as we all know, is the worst type of stupor available.)

What's the root of this malaise? No one is quite sure. Klein blames Republican "inquisitors" and the president's bum knee ("which, by most accounts, has depleted him both physically and spiritually"); Garret blames Republican timidity and the "atomization" of the conservative coalition. And what to do about it? Some pundits and pols have attempted to hustle up a sense of National Purpose in a hurry; they have, of course, failed. In March, a manifesto in the Standard called for "A Return to National Greatness"; now, several months later, it seems that no one has been terribly inspired by the idea. The collection of past presidents, present president and possible future presidents in Philadelphia last week attempted to raise volunteerism up as a new American ideal. The volunteerism "summit" made more than its share of headlines, but it doesn't seem likely to leave much lasting impact.

It's true that some of the manifestations of the New Boredom are not exactly what they seem. The easiest way to make another person's political enthusiasms seem vaguely ridiculous is to noisily proclaim yourself bored by them -- even if you are not. Thus many of those made most uncomfortable by homosexuality have yawned the loudest at Ellen DeGeneres' emergence from the closet. A case in point: R. Emmett Tyrrell, the editor of the American Spectator and a man who is generally fascinated by the alleged sexual peccadilloes of Democrats and other perverts, described DeGeneres in a recent column as an "artificially aggrieved ... bore." Similarly, those most agitated by the endless accusations being leveled at the Democrats are quick to declare the accusations "old news" and to impatiently suggest we get on to some "real issues" -- as if the apparent corruption of a head of state were somehow less interesting than, oh, vapid speeches about volunteerism.

Still, much of the current ennui is legitimate. But it's less of a problem than the pundits tend to think. In limited quantities, boredom can actually be good for you. Indeed, as psychologist Adam Phillips suggests in his engaging essay "On Being Bored," "the capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child." And for the rest of us. Faced with endless stimulations, we have no time to think; we have no time to reflect; we have no time to ourselves. When the stimulation stops, and we no longer have excitement thrust upon us, we have to decide, perhaps for the first time, what we really want.

"Every adult remembers ... the great ennui of childhood, and every child's life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire," Phillips writes. "In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurring sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize ... Not exactly waiting for someone else, he is, as it were, waiting for himself."

Those without a capacity for boredom are stunted indeed. Consider, again, the twin pillars of our contemporary political malaise, the two men who have done the most to bore us all silly: Gingrich and Clinton. Both, ironically but hardly coincidentally, lack the capacity to be bored themselves; both are, essentially, oversized children.

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Gingrich generates all the stimulus he needs inside that big head of his; like some precocious child, he's only really happy when he's explaining something to someone. Now that he's lost his audience, Newt's gone limp.

Clinton, by contrast, is addicted to external stimulus; as has often been observed, he's never so happy as when he is campaigning. But when the artificial frenzy of the campaign trail is gone, he simply has no idea what to do.

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If we complain too loudly about being bored, Clinton or Gingrich or both may concoct some new enthusiasm and try to shove it down our throats. I rather hope they don't. At their best, attempts to make politics artificially exciting are merely irritating: Think, for example, of George magazine. At their worst -- well, consider the Nazi Party in Depression Germany, which aroused what historian William Sheridan Allen described as "mass intoxication" among a bored and discontented electorate with its incessant propaganda and carefully planned rallies. Nothing boring about the Nazis; you've got to give them that.

We can and should learn to savor the New Boredom. The only way to really get beyond boredom is to go through it. Forget the shortcuts; let's take the long way home. The really long, torturously slow, incredibly tedious way. Maybe then, instead of asking "Are we there yet?" over and over again, we'll actually stop to wonder where in the hell we're going.


David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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