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Why Pundits Scare Me

“But, Mabel, you really think The New York Times will review my book? Masha Gessen will write a blurb? WOW!”

That’s me on the phone, Dear Activist Diary. I’m talking to my literary agent – in my mind. In real life, I’m here at my proofreading job at Penguin Random House – where you can’t stop me from fantasizing about my surefire success as a world-famous pundit once my book is published!

“What, Mabel? My book translated into fifteen languages? You’re right! People everywhere must absolutely read what I say about Trump and his fascist administration. MSNBC will interview me? My global book tour will make me how rich? Oh, Mabel!”

I stop fantasizing and go back to proofing book jackets: “Lyrical Literary Blockbuster! Destined to Become a Classic!” Is “blockbuster” one word?

Publishing, as you know, Diary, is a dying industry. That doesn’t seem to bother us writers. In fact, death probably eggs us on – especially in the age of Trump.

See, I live in a left-to-liberal world of information and opinion, where every sentient being believes that they possess a unique, individual Voice, capable of naming and nailing global and domestic crises. This is a world where ego collides with altruism, and you’re only as good as your last humanitarian sound bite.

I confess, Dear Diary: my ego is mangling my altruism. I secretly think, “If only I can write about climate change correctly, the Earth will be saved. Heck, even if we all die tomorrow in a nuclear blast, at least I’ll have published something!”

Never before have so many people competed to convey, in just the right, resounding words, the devastation of what the U.S. president and his ilk are doing to the world. Word-use, we believe, is the last remaining way to fight Trump. Ergo, I must join the ranks; I must become a pundit!

Every minute, people like Arundhati Roy, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Masha Gessen, Robin D.G. Kelley, Noam Chomsky, Trevor Noah – name your own favorites, Diary – speak truth to our powerlessness. These are people of brilliance, even genius, who offer us newspaper columns, poems, essays, interviews, standup comedy, and books that educate, inspire, clarify. Every day, I learn from them.

It’s just that I can’t talk to them, Dear Diary. And I want to join the conversation!

Lunchtime. I head for a sushi joint I frequent, bringing you, Dear Diary, and a new book on U.S. foreign policy by Noam Chomsky. Aware of cultural ironies, as my chopsticks pile pickled ginger on California rolls, I glance through Noam’s preface.

I imagine myself attending a televised Noam Chomsky lecture. I see myself stand and, for nine minutes, struggle to articulate a trenchant question about Iraq. I see Noam take maybe nine syllables to eviscerate my premise and convince thousands of strangers of my morbid stupidity. I realize, Dear Diary: Pundits scare me.

Wait. I have options. Instead of trying to impress Noam with my question, couldn’t I stand up and ask how we can connect Noam’s lecture with what we might do to stop the U.S. destroying the Middle East? And why am I eating alone?

Back at work, I reflect. Inside or out of the pundit-world, we allhave Voices. We non-pundits think things, too: some brilliant; some not so. But way too often, we don’t really talk to each other. Sure, I suggest that my friends read a great Charles Blow column, or post a Samantha Bee routine on Facebook. I tweet about immigrant children in the U.S.: “Trump – Kidnapper in Chief.” But even if my tweet goes viral, what does it fucking DO?

It’s like we’re kettling ourselves with competing social media memes. Offline and away from media, we sometimes discuss issues we care about, but we tend to focus more on our favorite pundits, and less about what we can do to change anything.

I return to proofreading: “A Pathbreaking Account of the Deep Equality of EVERY HUMAN BEING, Told by a Guy Who’s Way Smarter than You, so buy this book!”

I stop. I call my agent.

“Look, Mabel. We both know I’m not writing a book. It’s not that I shouldn’t – but the system is rigged. In order to succeed, I must convince the world that I’m the greatest, most eloquent and perceptive being alive today. I’m not; I just have a Voice. Also, Mabel, stop making me think that I’m nobody unless I’m famous. Shut up, Mabel.”

On my way home, I run into a demonstration in Inwood. This is a community protest against a city rezoning proposal that would allow 30-story buildings to gentrify one of the last affordable neighborhoods left in Manhattan. The people here are neighbors – some of the thousands of residents and small business owners who’ll likely be displaced if rezoning passes. I decide to join them.

“Vote No! Protect Immigrant Working Families!” we chant. OK, maybe not “Lyrical Literature.” But honest, inclusive, angry – and spontaneously beautiful. Noam Chomsky couldn’t possibly improve on this. Who knows; maybe every protester here would love to have a book contract. Who cares? Our lives in Trump’s America are being consumed by consumers richer than we’ll ever be, but here, we’re together, hearing each other, begging NYC to listen, some of us getting arrested… It’s like: “BE the Pundit You Wish to See in the World.”

Epilogue: NYC didn’t listen, Dear Diary. We lost. But every day, I see people like those at that demonstration. Every day: in laundromats, bodegas, restaurants, on line at the bank. This is our Voices – this is where the conversation – needs to be.

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