Notes on a Change of Season

Twitter is dying. The birds are returning. An electorate comes alive.

Notes on a Change of Season

Note to readers: I usually write about movies and popular culture but occasionally about other things that move me, as is the case here. Feel free to share it if you’d like.

Every so often a spring comes along where you palpably feel hope pushing up through the hard ground alongside the crocuses and spring beauties. This is one of those springs, in part because so many of the previous ones have felt like the continuation of a long, dark winter. A former President was arraigned in a Manhattan courtroom yesterday on 34 felony counts, and the news media was beside itself at the unprecedentedness of it all, as if the wholesale subversion of the country’s highest office into a criminal shell game of sedition and corruption had been in any way precedented. More charges await in Georgia and at the Department of Justice, and it seems that something like accountability could finally blossom into being, and then punishment, and then – is it too much to wish for? – silence. Oh, to never hear that voice ever again, or to never see him inveigle another news cycle away from the people who are doing the hard work of running the country rather than running it into the ground.

In Wisconsin last night, a judge won an election that will flip the balance of the state’s supreme court and almost certainly guarantee an end to an abortion ban, radical gerrymandering, and electoral skullduggery local and national, but the news wasn’t so much the win as the whopping size of it – an 11-point margin in a state that’s generally frozen at the 50-50 mark. In Nashville, thousands of schoolchildren are marching for gun control, and the Republican-led legislature can only respond by trying to boot the officials who joined the protests. It won’t work. People are fed up. The ice dam feels as if it’s on the verge of breaking.

Oh, and Twitter is heaving its dying breaths, which doesn’t sound like much compared to the real-world developments above but does represent a sea change, I think, in the tenor and pitch of our daily discourse. Admittedly, I am – or was until very recently – a full-fledged Twitter addict, on the platform since 2009, a verified user as soon as they offered it to media professionals, and, in general, a glaze-eyed doom-scroller getting my daily nips of outrage like a lab rat pressing the food bar. There were (and are) a lot of film critics and movie-minded academics on the service, which has made for some healthy arguments and some lasting friendships; at its best, Twitter has given a platform to a new and appreciably diverse generation of cultural writers who have welcomed the exposure at a time of drastically dwindling job prospects. They alone have given me hope for the future of the form. At its worst, the service encourages a quick-hit response as a movie’s credits roll that has become the blight of film festivals and is the opposite of actual, engaged criticism.

Otherwise, I used Twitter as my news canary in a crowded coal mine, the first signal of something important breaking, at which point I would wait until posts from official news gatherers arrived to confirm matters. (I do not watch cable news. Period. I’m a newspaper guy and of the firm belief that, Rachel Maddow aside, the format is a sensationalist circus of ratings whoredom. Well, so are newspapers, but they’re less noisy about it.) And I still find my index finger twitching Twitter-wards on a day like yesterday, when it would have been so easy to digitally gawk at the scrum and comeuppance in lower Manhattan. Reader, I resisted. Why? Maybe because I’m tired of feeling like one of the mob. Maybe because I’m learning that the dopamine rush of instant information doesn’t actually translate into greater comprehension, just a sugar high that craves endless renewing.

That said, Twitter, like the Internet in general, has been a sociological game-changer in bringing us proof of injustices that in previous generations were ignored or covered up or swept under the imprimatur of civic authority or just simply lied about. Citizen video is a weapon of truth and, for a lot of people who are lucky to live lives of comfort and complacency – guilty as charged – it has become an unassailable wake-up call as to how the less lucky and unprivileged live. But Twitter has also been the source of wholesale lies and mendacity, of charlatans and foreign sock-puppets and toxic man-boys. It has hardened the bubbles we live in as often as it has burst them.

And since being taken over by the biggest man-baby of them all – a vaunted entrepreneur whose insecurity and egoism are literally coded into the software – Twitter has become part of the problem rather than, at its best, a qualified response to it. Elon Musk has gutted staff, promoted conspiracy theories, raised up the paranoid ragers and suppressed the truth-tellers, and he has sold proof of identity for a monthly fee to anyone who wants to pose as anyone else. All this has rendered Twitter into a daily train wreck, and – more crucially – unnecessary. More and more respected voices are leaving the platform, bound for glitchy but functional alternative communities like Post and Mastodon. The few times I return, I find my outrage as easily stoked by the Villain of the Day as before, but without the sense that I’m getting the pulse of a real and ongoing cultural conversation. Maybe I never was; maybe that was Twitter’s great illusion. If so, the illusion has been dispelled, leaving only a tiny man pulling levers behind a tattered curtain.

Yesterday I walked through my local woods and meadows listening to a different kind of twitter. Other than the winter birds – cardinals and blue jays, chickadees, titmice, a handful of stubborn grackles – it’s been silent where I live these long months, but suddenly there’s proof of life everywhere. A barred owl winging across our path as we walk Bodhi through a pine forest; a phoebe darting from tree to tree at the edge of a field. A wood thrush temporarily lost in the middle of a city park; the silhouette of a great blue heron winging away in the distance. Goldfinches singing everywhere, their burble a promise of drab December plumage turning rowdy and yellow. The world is waking up again, as it unfailingly does after every natural and political season. New songs and sensibilities are streaming in. What are my responsibilities to the coming spring? What are yours?

Thoughts? Don’t hesitate to weigh in.

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