London is all in a twist over this week’s UK elections, which turned the political order on its ear and sent more than a few Brits into fits of ecstasy or fits of dread, depending on their political persuasions. As an expat from the States, it’s been an interesting experience, like you’re sitting in the cheap seats watching two teams you don’t care about do battle. It also reminded me of a couple of old mates of mine, and in a strange way made me understand them better than I did before. So this is for them…
Two of my oldest and best friends are what you might call “radically apolitical,” meaning they go to great lengths to avoid contact with the political arena. They don’t like to read about politics, talk about it, think about it, hear about it, worry about it, see it or breathe it into their lungs.
They do their civic duty by voting most of the time, though I doubt they put much thought into it other than to tell themselves, “Well this candidate doesn’t seem as bad as the other one,” or “That candidate probably won’t screw things up too much.” Then they go home and forget it about until the next election.
These attitudes have stirred a mix of emotions in me down through the years. Sometimes I’ve been annoyed by their political indifference; other times I’ve been fascinated by it. I’ve been puzzled, mystified, angered, envious, curious, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.
A couple of times I came right out and said: “How can you not care about this? Don’t you understand what’s at stake? The decisions being made by our elected leaders have HUGE consequences and ramifications! The very future of our planet hangs in the balance and you sit there yawning and bored by it all? A pox on you, my friend! Have you no sense of responsibility, or humanity? I beseech you to change your ways! Verily, I demand it! Are you not part of the social order? For the love of God: ARE YOU NOT PART OF THE HUMAN RACE???!!!!”
Then they’d shrug and say something like, “I dunno. Got a beer?”
These two people aren’t exactly alike in their attitudes toward politics. One is an optimist who believes that no matter how bad things seem in the U.S. of A, it’s a resilient country with a strong system of checks and balances, and everything will turn out fine in the end. So he chooses to ignore the sturm und drang of the political world. The other is a pessimist who believes most politicians are opportunistic blowhards who are mostly full of crap and mostly in it for themselves, and so he can’t really be bothered too much by it all.
I can find something credible in both points of view, though I don’t guess I’ve ever subscribed to either. More often than not I’ve been fully invested in politics, both emotionally and intellectually. Part of that has to do with my professional career. I spent many years as a newspaper reporter covering politics and government. I had a front-row seat to the inner workings of the American political machine, and consequently saw just how complex and maddening it can be. You could spend a couple hours covering a city council meeting and see just about every human characteristic at work: intelligence, stupidity, greed, compassion, bravery, cowardice, narcissism, cynicism, optimism, honesty, dishonesty, straight talk, bullshit, integrity, more bullshit, thoughtfulness, more bullshit and then more and more and more bullshit.
I’ve been enraged by what I’ve seen and witnessed in the political arena, though I’ve also been heartened by it. I’ve misted up over certain election results and become physically ill by others. Politics can embolden me one day and depress me the next. What I’ve never been is indifferent.
Today I know what it feels like not to care a great deal.
That’s because today is Dec. 13, 2019, and the UK just held a historic election that has everybody abuzz here in London, where I live. The conservative Tory Party won in a landslide, notching its most resounding victory over the left-leaning Labour Party in more than three decades. It wasn’t just a victory for conservatism and nationalism. It was a victory for Boris Johnson, the British version of D. Trump, and for Brexit, the movement to leave the European Union.
Conservatives are understandably euphoric, and progressives are understandably distraught.
Me? I’m on the sidelines, feeling not much of anything. I favored the progressives and oppose Brexit, but I couldn’t give five intelligent reasons why. I didn’t pay much attention to the election campaigns, never registered to vote and couldn’t name more than two candidates. I just decided I didn’t want to be involved, so I didn’t get involved.
I tell myself it’s because we’re just temporary visitors here, sort of renting England for a few years on a work visa and enjoying the expat experience of living abroad and seeing Europe. But I doubt that’s true. Even if we were here permanently — which we won’t be — I’m still not sure I’d decide to care about British politics. One lifetime of political involvement is enough, and that lifetime has been lived in the U.S.
In that respect, I’ve become the expat version of my radically apolitical friends.
This attitude of indifference doesn’t sit well with some people. I’ve expressed it before, on a Facebook community for American expats living in the UK. Many related to my desire not to get involved in another country’s politics, but a few took me to task for it.
I was told that political indifference is a “privilege” many people don’t have. Poor people can’t afford to be indifferent, I was told. Neither can minorities, women, the underprivileged, the disenfranchised, people with health issues, the young, the poor, the immigrants.
Honestly, I can see their point — up to a point. I suppose I am a pretty privileged person. I’m the product of a middle class background who grew up in the richest country in the history of the world. I’m an older, mostly white male (my paternal grandfather was Filipino. The rest is mixed between Armenian, English, Scots and Swiss-German. I have dark skin and dark hair. Most people think I’m either Hispanic or Italian).
My wife and I have had pretty successful careers (her more than me) and don’t lack anything of material value. I’ve known hunger and what it’s like to be broke, but that had more to do with me and my decisions than anything else. I’ve never had any serious health issues.
There is privilege in all those things.
But I contest the point that not being involved politically means I’m privileged enough not to have to care. That seems to assume that people who aren’t privileged must by definition be deeply immersed in politics — and that’s just not the case.
I’ve known and worked with plenty of women who don’t care about politics, just as I’ve known African-Americans who don’t care about it, and lower-income people, and physically challenged people, and Asian-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans, and Haitians, Native Americans and Polynesians. None enjoyed white male privilege. None cared that much about politics, either.
Some people just don’t care about it, and nobody should expect or insist that they do.
If you ask me which I prefer personally — getting riled up over politics back in the States or being neutral about it over here — I’ll take the latter any day of the week. It’s nice not having my blood pressure on a constant boil because some idiot politician tweeted something idiotic for the benefit of his like-minded idiot followers. I’m happy to sit it out this go round. Others in the UK can fight these battles a lot better than me, and I’m confident they’ll work it out.
If things turn really hinky — if, for example, the government initiates the kinds of policies that might lead to merciless death and destruction — then naturally I and others have a duty to step up to the plate and fight it.
Until then, I’ll happily stay out of the fray here in the UK.
Maybe my old friends were right all along. You don’t really have to care.