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America 2016: Weary to its bones

An observer reacted while listening to proceedings of a meeting in which Republican Electoral College voters gathered to cast votes for President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis.
An observer reacted while listening to proceedings of a meeting in which Republican Electoral College voters gathered to cast votes for President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. Associated Press file photo

In 1973, musician Paul Simon released a song called “American Tune.” In the lyric, written as the Watergate scandal consumed the nation, Simon sings of mistakes and confusion, shattered dreams and battered souls.

Mostly, though, he’s tired. “I’m all right, I’m all right,” he sings. “I’m just weary to my bones.”

As 2016 draws to a close, Paul Simon’s exhaustion is our own.

There have been worse years in the United States — 1861, 1929, 1941, 1963, 1968 and 2001 come to mind — but for sheer mind-numbing fatigue, 2016 may be unsurpassed. Terror killings. Police shootings, and shootings of police. The sad deaths of athletes and entertainers, and our friends and colleagues.

And the continuing dysfunction of government, and the wipeout of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Really — has an American presidential election ever seemed so joyless? There was sound, and fury, fake news and real news, charges and counter-charges, debates, commercials, secret videos, adding up to — what? The two most unpopular major party candidates in history, and not much else. Half the nation was mad, the other half was angry.

For those who still believe in the importance of community, there will be a great temptation to use 2017 to rest up from the calamity of 2016. Pull back, and act locally: focus on neighborhoods, local concerns, friends and family. Leave the Washington circus to others. Make the world better, one block at a time.

There is much to recommend that approach. Obsessing over every Donald Trump tweet or contradictory statement for the next four years will exhaust even the most dedicated community servant. Taking careful notes won’t help, as we now know, because we’re not expected to take the president-elect’s words literally.

Indeed, Trump may be counting on exhaustion as a political tactic. It worked spectacularly during the campaign, when many voters succumbed to outrage fatigue.

Yet ignoring the big picture seems short-sighted and potentially dangerous. Changes are coming, to health care and insurance, education, the environment, foreign affairs. To look away in favor of a quick nap is pretty risky.

As always, the answer seems to be balance: pay attention to the important stuff, and let the less important stuff pass. This will be harder than we think, because you can’t know if something is important unless you spend some time studying it. You can’t separate the wheat from the chaff without knowing which is which.

At the same time, mental energy is a finite commodity. That makes context, intelligence and judgment more important than ever.

Last week a Missouri Trump supporter told me he wasn’t worried about Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory in November. “When you have 97 million aliens in the United States, you’re going to get a Democrat vote,” he said.

I started to argue with the man, then thought better of it. He seemed pretty convinced 30 percent of the nation’s population is illegally here, and nothing I could say was going to change his mind.

Better to save my energy for other, more important discussions to be had next year.

Paul Simon seemed to understand this 43 years ago. “You can’t be forever blessed,” he sang, in his American tune.

“Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day, and I’m trying to get some rest. That’s all. I’m trying to get some rest.”

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

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