The Joy of Low-Stakes Outrage

In Biden’s America, we can sweat the small stuff again

The Bidens at the Korean War Memorial Park in Philadelphia on November 11. Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

This week, the biggest controversies on the political internet have been: A Wall Street Journal op-ed deriding Jill Biden for going by “Dr.” when she doesn’t have a medical degree; whether the New York Times should have published a vaguely sympathetic piece about a well-known man who accidentally masturbated on a work Zoom; Joe Biden’s selection of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary; and whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

So this is what it’s like to feel almost normal again.

The Trump era is, blessedly, in its last days, and as the attention shifts to an incoming Biden administration, we’re getting a little taste of what our day-to-day over the next four years might feel like. And it’s delightfully boring. The very highest-stakes problems haven’t ceased to exist, but very soon they will no longer be at five-alarm-fire levels of emergency. Donald Trump failed to steal the election and take American democracy down with it. Covid-19 continues to rampage across the nation, but a vaccine is being rolled out, and adults who take public health seriously will enter the White House in a month. A new president will mean a repeal of the most devastating and cruel Trump executive orders — which will, in turn, mean expanded rights for women around the world, more opportunities for refugees to find safe haven in the United States, and a renewed commitment to free speech rights, including in the diversity training this administration dislikes. We are far from out of these deep, dark woods, and a Biden administration is not going to fix America. But we can see the light filtering through, and we can start to move toward it.

That’s the fundamental shift here: For progressives, these last four years have brought a feeling of helplessness as the president and his party changed the rules of the game and pushed policies that were beyond extreme. No one expects that Biden will be a left-wing dream. But what a difference it makes to be thinking about how we push a president to do what we want (and perhaps wind up disappointed), rather than worrying how we can most effectively curtail the worst of the damage to America.

The emergence from a defensive crouch also seems to have given us the space to be angry about issues that are not insignificant, but also not matters of life and death. Take the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed, which condescendingly called Dr. Biden “kiddo” and “Dr. Jill” in arguing that no one other than medical doctors should use the title “Dr.” — and that Dr. Biden’s choice to use the honorific “sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” It was a bad and sexist op-ed, and it deserved the critique it got. But compare it to the last opinion piece to generate this much fury and discussion: Sen. Tom Cotton’s New York Times op-ed arguing that Trump should deploy the military against citizens protesting the police killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans. The outrage was hot and sustained because the stakes were as high as can be: A U.S. senator was calling for military force to be turned against his own countrymen, under a president who was cruel, racist, and reckless enough that he just might do it.

Being in a place where we can get mad and push back against the relatively small stuff is how we go about doing the slow work of long-term culture change.

I never thought I’d be relieved to be mad about something that is “just” sexist drivel aimed at a prominent woman, but here we are. It almost feels like the pre-Trump era, with its uproars over tan suits and Ariana Grande licking a donut while saying “I hate America” (an act so disreputable it apparently cost her an opportunity to perform for Barack Obama at the White House).

None of this is to say that we should now rest just because we can almost exhale. But it is to say that progress is made in forward motion, and for the last four years, we’ve been going backward. It’s awfully hard to make progress toward a more gender-equal world when the commander in chief stands accused of sexual harassment or assault by some two dozen women, uses all the powers at his discretion to make life worse and more dangerous for women around the world, and appoints Supreme Court justices he expects to set women’s rights back for generations. It’s awfully hard to make progress when you find yourself swimming in terrifying news stories that leave you either simmering in impotent rage or wallowing in deep existential dread. Compared to the enormous wrongs of the last four years, one sexist op-ed about a pretty powerful woman does not seem to merit days of angry tweets, a defense from the Wall Street Journal opinion editor, and a response from Hillary Clinton.

But being in a place where we can get mad and push back against the relatively small stuff is how we go about doing the slow work of long-term culture change. The fact that we are collectively in the realm of relatively low-stakes outrage is a good sign: It means we’re at least imagining the ability to move forward again.

Trump, of course, is still not out of the White House, which means terrible things will continue — it was just this week that we learned about one of Trump’s top appointees lobbying for a “herd immunity” response to Covid-19. Having Biden in charge will not mean an end to terrible things (he may very well bring us brand-new disasters). And media outlets now used to daily outrages and no slow news days will surely seek out controversy and conflict even in what will inevitably be a much less chaotic administration.

There are disappointments and frustrations to come. But what a joy, as the Trump administration packs its bags, to go back to sweating the (relatively) small stuff.

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