Magazine | December 31, 2015, Issue

The Philosopher Suffers a Toothache

Like many writers, I spend a fair amount of time each day combing through Twitter, one of the planet’s more frenetic social-media locales. In case you have never darkened its door, I’ll explain that Twitter offers a frothy, unholy mix of breaking-news updates, on-point opinion pieces, barely-there hot takes, giddy Internet absurdities, and a daily crop of short homemade videos, often featuring things such as piano-playing cats — or, in the case of one recent viral sensation, Donald Trump getting struck by fake lightning, his orbital sockets lighting up from inside his skull like a macabre, half-price Christmas ornament.

Twitter, in short, has its highs and its lows. If Twitter magically became sentient one day and you asked it the classic job-interview question “What’s your greatest weakness?” it certainly wouldn’t be smart enough to reply, like the hundreds of thousands of college graduates in the decades before it, that it works too hard or cares about the job too much or can’t stop secretly bringing the boss-man giant, sagging bags of untraceable gold doubloons.

Twitter couldn’t answer the question at all, in fact, because of its greatest weakness: It simply can’t focus. You could ask any question six ways to Sunday, and Twitter, a hive mind of millions, would be way too busy talking over itself, interrupting its own sentences, and splitting into multiple runaway trains of thought weaving on and off the tracks like a bunch of haphazard Harlem Globetrotters. No, no; that’s not quite right. What’s the hapless team that plays the Harlem Globetrotters, and always loses, and is constantly changing its name? Twitter is that team, but more popular. It is a basket case, with a bad habit of bounce-passing important questions to the craziest guy in the room.

I kid, I kid. I like Twitter, most of the time. Here’s the bad news: As 2015 shuffles to a close, many Americans suspect that social-media outlets, for all their insanity, serve as a symbolic and revealing microcosm of our greater national debate. Here’s another dose of bad news: There is certainly no shortage of craziest guys in the room.

We have Mr. Trump, of course, a crafty, plotting sort who lurks and waits until the national conversation reaches a tipping point — just this close to veering into a substantive, crucial discussion — before he kicks in the door, bellows something mean about all of our mothers, shoots out the chandelier with a paintball gun, and sucks all the air out of the room. There’s President Obama, who, judging by his last nationally televised address, appears to have launched his aura onto some more peaceful planet, or at least into some luxurious, first-class lunar orbit. He is adrift, serene, detached, and patiently waiting for the first tee time of January 20, 2017.

Then there is Bernie Sanders, who should need no explanation.

So what’s the good news? It starts with a trip to the dentist I made last week. No, really, bear with me. It was a workday, and I had spent all morning on the Internet, reading and researching for my next column. Everything was dreadful. The news was dreadful. Politicians were dreadful. College students were dreadful. The world was dreadful. If one were to judge by the dour parade of content popping out of the Intertubes like a sad stream of forlorn digital prairie dogs, America was going down the drain, and fast.

Well, I can tell you this: American dynamism was alive and well at my dentist’s office. The staff was friendly, competent, and diverse. Everyone got along and seemed to like America. There was even a smiley college intern who did not look like she wanted to punch anyone over some microaggression. This multiracial bunch also somehow, amazingly, did not seem on the verge of holding a random outrage-based sit-in. There were even a few jokes drifting through the air, gently wafting above the buzz of the drills.

I walked into the appointment room, sat in the dreaded dentist’s chair, and was immediately treated to the musical talents of Enya. Remember Enya? She was all over the place in the 1990s. Enya has, according to Wikipedia, a “distinctive sound, characterized by voice-layering, folk melodies, synthesized backdrops and ethereal reverberations.” She’s kind of spa-like and Zen, I guess. No offense, but she’s also kind of terrible.

“Ugh, Enya,” said the dental assistant, rolling her eyes, before putting approximately 67 different sharp-ended instruments into my mouth. “Want me to change the channel?”

“Oh, no!” I mumbled, grateful. I thought about politics; I thought about the news. “Keep it. Keep her. Keep Enya!”

And so I spent an hour at the dentist, listening to Enya and getting sharp instruments applied to my teeth, and I’m not going to lie: I have never been more relaxed in my life. Next, just for fun, I went to the neighborhood grocery store. There, again, I saw it: Americans of all races, ages, political affiliations, religions, and levels of craziness working together, at peace, united.

You find this, it turns out, when you step out into America. Our country is still an incredible place, even if certain Internet bubbles might hide that fact. A new study published in Public Opinion Quarterly and authored by political scientists from Penn and Stanford notes that “Americans perceive more polarization with respect to policy issues than actually exists, a phenomenon known as false polarization.” Similarly, numerous studies have shown the simple, clarifying mental-health benefit of taking a 90-minute walk outside.

Next time you feel on the brink, remember these things. Take a walk. Head to the hardware store. Talk to some people. If you’re really, really desperate, maybe listen to some Enya.

Okay, maybe not. Maybe I just did that because I was at the dentist.

Heather Wilhelm writes from Austin, Texas. She is a syndicated columnist with RealClearPolitics and a senior contributor to the Federalist.

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