Neal Pollack has written a follow up to his 2003 essay “Just Shut Up,” this one focused on the 2016 elections. Apparently he’s still proud of the original, proud enough to reprise its tone and link back to it anyway, but dear God it hasn’t held up well. Let’s review shall we?
It was written in the run up to the Iraq war and it has the kind of “pox on both houses” faux-evenhandedness more commonly associated with the DC press corps. Pollack looked around, saw people in favor of the war, others opposed and tensions running high. Worst of all some people were rude, and that was terribly upsetting. So instead of trying to think through the pros and cons, he declares himself 70% anti-war and 30% pro-war and then deplores the noise from both camps.
It really was two sides of the same coin. In the pro-war camp were the president, big Congressional majorities, the entire right wing media and internet infrastructure, pretty much all news outlets not named Knight-Ridder, nominally leftish publications that were eager to show off their big boy pants, and hand-wringing liberals like Bill Keller who, as Pollack notes, were members of the “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-A-Hawk Club” (and included “op-ed regulars at this newspaper and The Washington Post, the editors of The New Yorker, The New Republic and Slate, columnists in Time and Newsweek.”) On the other side: Phil Donahue (pre-cancellation), Michael Moore, Lewis Lapham at Harper’s, Anne Lamott, and contributors to the e-book 100 Poets Against the War (per Neal, “available on the Internet”).
So he hears is this terrible cacophony from equally matched sides and just wants it all to stop. Did anyone really think all that shouting would change anyone’s mind, anyway? Well, considering that protest can ripple outward in completely unknowable ways, and shaming and coercion are more likely to do the trick than logic and persuasion, sure! Sadly, it didn’t in this case. The war began as scheduled, thousands of Americans died and something in the low hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed as well. But at least all that terrible shouting quieted down, in America anyway.
I’d have thought if Pollack wanted to remind everyone of his little exercise in mental masturbation he’d have first looked at how well it held up. If it wasn’t obvious at the time(!) perhaps now it’s clear that the two sides weren’t evenly matched, and only an exceptionally lazy or simple mind could accept such a framing. Maybe the powerful were launching a war of aggression resting on a bed of lies and a certain amount of yelling at them was justified. With hindsight we might note that those protesting the march to war, who by and large were on the outside looking in, were correct. Maybe they should have been heeded even if it disturbed Neal’s beautiful, tranquil mind.
Well that’s all water under the bridge now, except of course in the region our war destabilized and plunged into a horrific and bloody chaos that continues to this day. It’s a new day and Pollack is once again ready to apply his penetrating insight to the political landscape. Here it is, and you might want to hold on to your hat first: Everyone is being loud again. He goes on and on about how bad Bernie Sanders’ supporters are, and Trump’s are even worse. And while he’s a Hillary supporter, this is an All Sides Do It special so he even includes a vague half sentence insult for her fans too!
I guess it’s fine to adopt a hipper-than-thou pose - to pretend to be floating over it all and not subject to getting caught up in the day-to-day whirl of big, important issues slowly unfolding. Do what you need to do to convince yourself you’re a cut above. But God damn is it irritating for someone who has a platform to use it to preach that gospel to those who aren’t so happily placed.
Sure, social media can be a tough slog. Things go viral, people swarm to hashtags, I get the frustration that can go with getting caught up in that. Not everyone is good at watching what they say, so you have to watch what you hear. Over time you’ll find voices you trust. Turn the volume up on those. Mr. Egg Avatar with eleven total tweets? Feel free to ignore him! If that doesn’t work, here’s a thought: Step the fuck away for a bit until you feel a little more composed. For some people, the only real voice they’ve got to the wider world is a Twitter or Facebook account. It’s not up to Neal Pollack or anyone else to tell them when they’re allowed to speak.
“Shut up” is the status quo talking. It’s the voice of of complacency, acquiescence and resignation, a way of saying: just let everything keep going as is. In 2003 it was an implicit endorsement of the Iraq war. Today, with Hillary Clinton the likely Democratic nominee and general election winner, it’s an endorsement of her. Pollack’s a Clinton supporter so “shut up” is as natural a position for him now as it was then, and I’m sure he has lots of Shut Uppy-related thoughts on how those columns might relate to the ongoing nightmare in the Mideast.
Fortunately, no one has to heed that message, and I hope no one does - not now, not when the nation contemplates war, not ever. If you don’t like the way things are, speak out. Some folks will do so on issues that cry out for justice. Others will make it all about themselves. Listeners need to develop the skill of discerning the good ones from the bad ones, and crediting each accordingly. But don’t shut up, don’t ever shut up. There are places that are nice and quiet just like Pollock likes, and they aren’t democracies. Make precisely the amount of noise you feel inspired to create.