The Importance of Things That Are Not Politics

I had two conversations today about, basically, why I’m not interested in making a career in politics or political journalism or Washington, and because of the way my social life looks today I suspect that I might have more of this type of conversation later on. So I figured some of this bore rehashing and explaining, because here in Washington I feel sometimes as if it’s very difficult to justify an interest in anything other than politics and policy and government. What follows may seem unbearably personal and navel-gazing, but I do believe it’s relevant and something that deserves to be unpacked, so please bear with me.

In short, it comes down to preference. I’m interested in history, in things that aren’t happening right now. I try to keep up with the events that happen every day, but I find it exhausting, and I don’t think it always gives me the perspective I’d like to observe longer-term trends and patterns. I think I can help inform what’s going on every day by providing the historical context, and that’s something I want to do as a professional historian when I grow up. Somewhat secondarily, I’m interested in doing cultural history, and while I find political history interesting (I’m currently a research assistant on a really cool project that has much more to do with politics and Washington, and that’s fun), it’s not my main research interest. It’s not what I want to write my senior thesis on, for example, or eventually my dissertation. And mostly I think that’s okay—I think it’s okay to agree to disagree on what is most interesting; we do that on a daily basis. I also don’t follow sports or television, and I don’t have a lot of qualms over the fact that I don’t find those things very interesting.

But here in Washington, where I work (albeit in a very small insignificant capacity) in progressive political journalism, I am inclined to feel that the stuff I write about in this space, in particular, is quite uninteresting, quite insignificant, and quite irrelevant. I see this break down along a line I can almost gender: I feel as if the world which values an understanding of policy and political science and academic political theory is concrete, physical, quantitative, precise, aggressive—masculine. And I feel as if the world I inhabit of queer theory and social history and literature and countercultures is wishy-washy, abstract, irrelevant, and sort of “soft”—feminine. I know what sexist territory I’m running into by breaking things down that way, but I’m doing so because I think it goes a long way towards explaining why I get the sense that educated Washington society values one and not the other. It’s no secret that “masculine” things are valued more highly over “feminine” things in our society, which is a perfect example of why our society is sexist and that’s something anyone who does gender studies could tell you (though of course gender studies falls into that “insignificant” realm that I feel my stuff falls into). So it doesn’t seem like that illegitimate of a claim to make. But it sucks.

Of course, if I feel insignificant, it’s because I am, but not for systemic reasons. For example, if I don’t want to make a career in political writing, my friends in progressive political journalism don’t want to make a career in academic history and cultural studies. Why should they read my blog? Why should they link to it on their blogs? It doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with sexism or with politics or with how the rest of the world perceives academia. It’s just that what I do doesn’t really pertain to what they do. And that’s okay too.

Or is it? Because what I came away thinking after the two conversations I had today is that political journalism and academic history/cultural studies have more to teach each other than we might otherwise think. Both professions live in worlds which are at risk of being dreadfully out of touch with the real one, and I think we’re all aware of that. But that means we have a moral imperative (I believe) to try to engage with the larger population of the country, to write things that will be relevant and meaningful and comprehensible to people outside our immediate communities, to try to address the issues that other people are facing and not just the ones that we face. I very much want to go into academia, for example, but if I can’t find a way to make whatever I choose to focus my academic career on relevant and interesting to a wider audience, I’m going to have to find another line of work. Likewise, I believe that if a political blogger’s blog is incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t have the same depth of knowledge of current events that the blogger does, that person is doing something wrong.

And as much as we have to engage the outside world, I think that we specifically have to engage each other. The connections between politics and history are very strong even when you’re not studying political history, because a knowledge of the development of the country’s social landscape is necessary to assessing the motivations of political factions and the impact of policy upon the world outside of Washington. “Continuity and change” is the mantra of history, and for someone like me who’s interested in modern history, that arc of flux and stability runs right up to the present, where a map of the cultural and ideological layout of the country is an imperative.

So, in short, I don’t think I’m wrong to do what I do, and I don’t believe it’s less legitimate than what my friends do. I’m glad that I have friends who do different things, because it means we can have interdisciplinary communication. I hope that all us college kids with our different career tracks don’t grow up and bury ourselves so far in our towers (ivory for me, digital for my political blogger buddies) that we cease to acknowledge each other’s relevance and importance.

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