Identity, Politics

by Tom Swift

I have been trying to understand what makes people abandon their principles/beliefs in order to stay loyal to a knowingly corrupt politician — specifically, why they would continue to support that politician (you can guess which one) as ardently as ever even after he has committed a long list of illegal/immoral/ unethical/racist acts and statements — and very possibly I put my finger on an answer in an essay about “Star Trek.” And Star Wars.” And SpongeBob. And Stephen King.

“The Force is With Them” by Michael Schulman in The New Yorker (September 16, 2019) describes the ways in which pop culture fandom has changed, and largely intensified, in the past ten or so years. Schulman tells stories of people who take their favorite musicians, television shows, authors, and the like extremely seriously. Hardly coincidentally, the raised intensity from fans has come about during the rise of social media. Personal passion now has a platform from which to be displayed, harnessed, fomented, and wielded like a weapon with economic and social image-shaping implications. Fans today have more power than simply whether or not they tune in or buy a ticket.

It used to be, Schulman points out, that super fandom was reserved for young people — think of girls who screamed over Elvis and boys with baseball cards in the spokes of their bicycles — and a some adults on the fringes (Trekkies at modest-sized conventions; Schulman notes a memorable 1986 “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which William Shatner appears as himself at such a convention admonishing attendees to “get a life, will you, people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show!”). Now, as one of Schulman’s sources points out, fandom has, for many, “replaced religion.” The thing that stands out in the various illustrations — Schulman comes at the subject from various angles and ages, including scenes from the most recent Comic-Con International — is the way in which people personalize that with which they have no personal hand in creating and with no direct relationship with the subjects. For example, Schulman tells of the ways in which devoted fans of pop star Ariana Grande publicly hounded her ex-boyfriend after she wrote a “break-up anthem,” as if these fans themselves were the jilted lover rather than what they are — people who buy music and tickets and send tweets and sing to no one in their cars.

Growing up in a sports-intensive culture, I can identify with what it’s like to take on the fortunes of others as yourself. My mood on Sundays used to be directly influenced as to whether the Minnesota Vikings won, for example, and I died smaller deaths when my hockey and baseball teams disappointed. Yet reading Schulman’s piece I had no idea that fans at present take things to the level they now do: grown adults who devote themselves to the happenings of people they almost certainly will never meet — responding with vitriol as if a negative word against Justin Bieber is a lashing against them. I read the piece twice. Schulman strikes the right tone: sympathetic — we all like music and movies; we are all fans of something — yet shining a light on a phenomenon that no doubt has a dark side.

What kept coming up for me was the word identity. I wonder how much people’s passion and reflexiveness is tied to their own sense of self. The outsourcing of self — what must be missing in us during those moments when we react as though a celebrity were an extension of or a reflection on us. It is easy for me to look down my nose here and I no doubt did some of that while reading the piece. Yet their is a serious line of inquiry: the search for personal identity is certainly one I identify with. It’s a challenge for many people — it certainly has been for me. It’s a common struggle, part of being a human being, to search for who you are and what you are about. Especially in a free society, when the possibilities seem limitless, self-definition is no small endeavor. As we struggle to define who we are, we use the outside world to help us do that. If you are a Beyoncé fan, or like “Star Wars,” or follow the Maple Leafs, you are engrossed in something, and some part of this speaks to how you see yourself and how you position yourself in the world. Your interests inform your days and influences how you spend your allotted hours. Some part of this is common; we aren’t silos; we interact with the world — we must do so in some form or fashion and these art forms and cultural touch-points are instruments of our expression and means of connection. Yet this can go too far. I am not trained to know where that line is — certainly not for people I have only read about in a magazine piece, albeit a well-written one. Yet it seems the illustrations help me better see the line for myself. We all need distraction, to be sure, but we do want to be conscious of the difference between distraction and identity.

Now, I did say this related to politics — that it speaks to these Trumpian times. It’s a statement worth further scrutiny, but I suspect it does in this way: people aren’t abandoning their principles/beliefs when they stand up for Trump even when he trashes the same Constitution that gives them the right to do that very thing — even when he lies to them about anything and everything (even when the truth would serve him better that the falsehood and even when lives are literally at stake). Perhaps they are standing up not for him but for themselves. An attack on him is an attack on them. Never mind what he did — it’s about what the put-down of him says about me. And if I allow you to speak ill of me, then what do I have? Who am I?

Call it a theory — loose and not fully formed, to be sure — and one that is open to revision and, if need be, correction. For I would like to think that I am — that part of the way I identify myself — is that of a big fan of understanding.