I don’t usually write about myself. It’s a boring subject. If I depart from this practice today, it’s only because I have contracted a condition from which many Americans suffer, often in shame and silence, and not infrequently, strange to say, unawares.
I’m an Unlabeled Man. The symptoms of this condition are subtle. I never feel rage at those who disagree with me politically, for example. I try, but the best I can muster is a sort of grumpiness. Sometimes I am even filled with doubt, with the haunting sensation that I might be wrong and they might be right. Anything is possible! But the most pervasive symptom is puzzlement: whereas the media and politicians orate from an Olympus of certitude, almost everything comes to me in the form of a question.
Are we doing the best we can in Iraq? Does religion foster virtue? Is a show called Desperate Housewives good for its audience? Who knows?
The more questions I ask, the more inexplicable and unmoored my condition feels. I have questioned myself right out of being a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal, a libertarian or an establishmentarian, a femenist or a masculinist, an idealist or a materialist. . . On the other hand, I’m pro-religion and pro-Darwin. I think both are neat. This sounds vaguely disgraceful, I know, but there you have it.
It isn’t easy being an Unlabeled Man. Every day I suffer bafflement and confusion. I understand differences in politics, but I have trouble making sense of the screaming. Ted Kennedy and Howard Dean are always screaming at the President (who, to his credit, rarely screams back). Rush Limbaugh is screaming at the Democrats. The blogosphere, it sometimes seems, is one sustained howl of rage, the state of nature converted into html coding. TV is trying to catch up. During Katrina, a natural catastrophe, while people were dying, everyone on TV screamed and made rude gestures and paid no attention whatever to the situation. “Well, who are you angry at?” CNN’s Anderson Cooper yelled at Senator Mary Landrieu. Cooper became the hero of the hour.
A premonition torments me. From now on, people will meet at bars and burger stands and, instead of saying “Hi” or “Hello,” will great each other with “Who are you angry at?”
My condition makes me blind to the causes behind all the sound and fury. I sometimes think the screamers aren’t really angry, but are afraid of making a bad impression with a display of reasonableness. People may accuse them of moral turpitude. People may mock their lack of fashion sense. Most appalling, people may stop paying attention to a bunch of Socratic mumblers.
The general belief is that the public wants a good screaming match. If Abraham Lincoln were seeking office today, instead of preaching “malice toward none” he would have to scream, “You secessionists have really pissed me off now…”
Don’t get me wrong. I have my own labels – I even have opinions about who fits into them – strong opinions! But since they are never reflected back at me by Anderson Cooper, I worry about their reality. I may be afflicted with categorical hallucinations.
For example, I believe in right and wrong. Consequently, I believe in the supreme importance of moral education. I judge people by their character, which comes in two flavors: good and (yes) bad. I expect them to do the same with me. But I harbor doubts as to whether any of this truly happens. I wake up in the dark of night, overwhelmed by the panicky feeling that I want to watch Desperate Housewives.
Most embarrassingly, I feel a sneaking respect for people in office. I try to hide it, but it sometimes slips out. For example, I think President Bush showed great moral courage leading up to the invasion of Iraq. I think he made an honest mistake about WMD: that he was factually, not morally, wrong. I think the burdens of office in an age of screamers are crushing, and I’m glad anyone not visibly depraved is willing to take them up. And I feel that way because I secretly root for my country, which in my afflicted judgment appears to be the greatest force for good in the world.
Like a hard-core alcoholic, I don’t want to be cured. A wise Unlabeled philosopher once said, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam,” which pretty much sums up my condition. On occasion, I dream of coming out of the closet, starting a protest movement, marching for the right to Unlabeled self-expression, maybe with my own special month declared by act of Congress… Right. Who am I kidding? Being an Unlabeled Man means precisely an inability to mess with other people’s business or make a noise about your own.
So I’m down to my last gasp. It’s probably part of the disorder, but I am frequently cheered by this fantasy: that most Americans are unlabeled too. That my neighbors, who behave so strangely like I do, are unlabeled too. That outside the world of TV and the movies, beyond the tiny circle of political actors and talking heads, deep inside every community in America, tens of millions are staring at one another and wondering, “Is he one too?” Could it happen that, in the land of the Label, the Unlabeled Man is king? That in the age of the screamer, the mumbling moralist rules? Is this possible?
Nah. . .