Top note: This is an essay about turning to the Internet when we’re seeking validation. It’s also about learning to become a bit better at hearing and validating others. As long-time readers know, this little italicized note is where I make my pitch to become a paid subscriber. One of the biggest reasons to do so (besides the fact that I need and appreciate the support) is that you get access to two different online communities— our weekly Wednesday discussion threads and the “always open” Flyover Politics discord. Both are spaces that have stretched my “being seen while also seeing others” muscles. I’ve grown and learned a ton from sharing both of them with many of you. If you’d like to exercise those muscles too, it’d be great for you to join us.
I’m the fifth of six kids. My brothers all arrived in a rush— for much of the 1970s, my family’s tiny South Dakota and Montana houses were packed to capacity with young Bucks brothers. There was a big gap before I finally came around. By the time I was in eighth grade, the oldest Bucks—Eric— had already gotten married and started graduate school. He was the perfect aspirational age for me— clearly an adult, but not in the way that mine or my friends’ parents were adults.
He and my sister-in-law lived in a hot, tiny, second-floor apartment in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Their place was right down the road where Garth Brooks and his first wife used to live. You knew it was Garth and Sandy’s place because it said so on the front porch. It all felt so important, so official, so verified. Nobody famous had ever lived on my suburban Maryland cul-de-sac. Eric and Kendra’s apartment was packed with cool tapes and records and books that were funnier and more interesting than the books my parents owned. When I visited, Eric took me to Oklahoma State’s football stadium and we tossed a frisbee around on the field. Then we went back to the apartment and ate quesadillas with so much cilantro in them, the culinary product of a household that didn’t have to account for the tastes of small children. His life was literally everything that I wanted mine to be.
The problem, of course, was that he was a twenty-something setting the course of his adult life. Meanwhile, I was in middle school— an institution that rewards certain ways of being over others— and I was learning the hard way that “modeling yourself after your former college radio DJ older brother” wasn’t a ticket to popularity and social adoration. My fellow Dunloggin Middle School attendees were unimpressed by my knowledge of Superchunk singles. I was already clumsy and spoke with a stutter and I’m not sure why I decided to call further attention to myself by wearing army surplus shorts in the winter, except of course that particular sartorial choice looked so cool on Eric.
Middle school was rough, but that’s not the point of this essay. That’s far more common than uncommon. It’s a weird age to have to share space with other human beings. I was one of the lucky ones, though. I had a cool, safe older person in my life to assure me that this too would pass. And though perhaps I could have saved myself some gruff if I hadn’t tried to literally act— as a 13 year old— as if I were a 25 year old with a liberal arts bookshelf, holy cow was I ever blessed that the 25-year-old in question took seriously his role as an appropriately boundaried older mentor.
What mattered, in practice, were the emails. Whenever I had a cruddy day, I could head up to my parent’s room, walk those convoluted, early 1990s Internet Access Stations of The Cross (with all the attendant plugging and unplugging and buzzes and beeps), log-on to my father’s Compuserve account, and write it all out for my brother. I’d then wait for him to get access to a computer— either in an OSU lab or at my sister-in-law’s job— so that he can reply.
My God those replies were exactly what I needed. They weren’t preachy or saccharine. They were filled with enough Simpsons jokes or commentary on Fugazi albums to make me feel like I wasn’t talking to a guidance counselor. He knew what I needed to hear. In his very first message, he told me about how— even just a few years removed from middle school— the only way he could even remember who had been cool during those years was that the once-popular kids were a little better at roller skating. He assumed that was because they got invited to more parties at the local rink. It wouldn’t matter, he was telling me. It already didn’t matter. And I believed him.
In that single moment, the then-nascent Internet fulfilled its core promise. A human being who wasn’t feeling seen or understood could log on, wait for the buzzes and beeps, and end their day not feeling alone any more.
My brother and I exchanged those emails over 25 years ago. Since then, I have cycled through at least three careers and far more distinct political personalities. I have been a teenager with dreams of joining the ministry, a strident undergraduate radical, a do-gooder White teacher, a jargon-spouting nonprofit manager, a social-entreprenuerey pitch-making hustler, a born-again socialist, and an online polemicist. Now I write this newsletter and run organizing trainings and wave my arms too much when I talk.
If there’s a single story there, it’s of trying to stare down a world full of pain, trauma, and systems designed for my benefit at the expense of others and saying “I care.” But that’s only part of it, of course. The other through-line has been me consistently skipping the step of being OK with myself and instead screaming at the world, “Look at how much I care! Look at how much I know! Please tell me I’m doing OK!”
Back when I taught fifth grade, I would stay up late at the pastel colored iMacs in the back of my dusty classroom. I wasted a lot of time procrastinating on various message boards and proto-social media sites, but I also spent a fair bit of time applying for grants and teaching awards. I told myself I was doing it all for my kids. And that wasn’t a lie. Those awards came with real, tangible benefits. We really did get to brand new classroom library thanks to one particularly lucrative grant. But I was also a young long-haired White teacher on the reservation with only a summer’s worth of training under my belt and enough Frantz Fanon books on my shelf to make me worry that I was just another dangerous missionary colonizer. I wanted to do well by my kids, but that’s not all I wanted. I sat down at those computers, taking immense pride in the fact that mine were the only classroom lights still glowing throughout the whole school building. I typed— trying not to acknowledge the doubt in my stomach— hoping that some anonymous administrator on the other side of a grant application would assure me that I was one of the good ones.
I have been writing about race on the Internet (in one form or another) for nearly a decade now. My first strident, racism-decrying Facebook post was published on July 13th, 2013, the night that George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. This newsletter is, in many ways, just the latest iteration in a long line of electronic diatribes. Every time I’ve pressed send, I’ve hoped that my motives have been pure, but I’ve always been not-so-secretly terrified that they weren’t. Every piece was written with care and concern for other human beings, with a hope that my words could be useful for somebody besides me. So too, though, was every piece written with the implicit or explicit desire that all that care would be noticed and affirmed.
I have enough self-awareness to know that my self-consciousness will never fully go away. I am (like all of us) a descendent of cave people. My brain (like all of our brains) is wired to obsess over whether I belong, whether others are judging me, whether I’m accepted. I truly hope that’s not all I’m doing, though— that I’m not just chasing whatever form of alchemy I must believe can convert dopamine into silenced doubts about the human condition. It’s just hard to tell some days— when I feel despair about the state of the world and its so tempting to obsess over page views or new subscriber counts rather than truly having to evaluate whether I’m part of the problem or the solution.
The easiest thing to do— when I doubt the extent to which my political and professional motives are anything more than self-serving— is to judge others. And there is always plenty to judge. I feel as angry as any of us that contemporary conservative politics is just naked demagoguery— one megalomaniac after another placating reactionary fears with a new villain-of-the-week. I feel nearly as hopeless about so much of contemporary left-liberal politics— be it our self-serious affinity groups and book clubs or our clubby little socialist cliques masquerading as political parties. Of course I get angry every time Ron DeSantis bolsters his 2024 campaign by banning books or coercing migrants onto planes. Of course I sigh a bone-deep sigh when I see a headline on Foxnews.com about how Biden’s response to the Chinese spy balloon was “too woke.” And of course I feel defeated when people who agree with me hunker down in our little collective affirmation and flagellation burrows: the Twitter threads where self-righteous White leftist dudes congratulate each other on their impeccable, irony-poisoned opinions or the Instagram accounts where White liberal women attempt to critique other White women (“53% of us voted for Trump!”) vociferously enough to attract the validation of Black and Brown social justice influencers.
I get frustrated and hopeless because it all feels like nothing but “Look at me! Notice me! Affirm that mine is the correct opinion!” I want to retreat to my little newsletter and harangue the rest of the world for doing politics ineffectively, for having the gall to engage in the kind of actions that remind me of my own shame.
But then I think back to every time I have actually knocked on a door, every time I’ve turned to a stranger at a school board meeting, every time I’ve asked somebody at a training (either one I’ve run or participated in) why they showed up. Those conversations have always been lovely. And naturally, at their core, they’re always about another human being’s need to be seen. They’re no less thirsty or validation-hungry than all of our anonymous online flailing. But when my only job is to empathize and care rather than furiously type my response, I get to hear the gift behind their longing. I am reminded— in the other person’s longing to be seen— of that middle school version of me, that younger self for whom I have nothing but grace.
There is an easy counter-point, of course, one central to so much contemporary left-liberal online thinking: We all have a desire to be heard, but in a world where straight cis White men with money always get to exert our voice and power, redistributive judgment requires us to heed that request when it comes from a marginalized voice and shun it when it comes from somebody more privileged.
That may be ideologically and philosophically right, but I don’t think it holds up psychologically. Of course it’s ridiculous that I— a straight cis White American guy with all the unearned advantages in the world (and a platform to boot)— still harbors a “look at me! look at me! look at me!” voice in my head. Of course it’s healthy to have others remind me when that voice is out of proportion to my experience in the world, to prod me to shut up and listen a bit.
I’ve been thinking about that voice a lot lately, though. I’ve been thinking about how I can’t silence it with shame. I’ve been thinking about what’s beautiful about the part of us that seeks both to understand and be understood. I’ve been thinking about how dangerous it is if that’s the only voice I ever pay attention to, if I have no interest in seeing and hearing others. But I’ve also been thinking how blaming and ignoring that voice—either in myself or others— isn’t going to help build a better world.
We all deserve a politics beyond a naked quest for our own validation. But so too do we all deserve a community— locally and globally— that sees us, hears us, and is grateful that we’re here.
The contemporary Internet isn’t the same as the one I turned to twenty-five years ago when I sent those emails to the one person I knew wouldn’t judge me. We’re all much more likely to be chasing ghosts now, to not quite know who we’re reaching out to or towards what end. We’re much more likely to see and judge one another’s flailing, thirsty performances. We’re much more likely to be get on each other’s nerves.
The core instinct hasn’t changed, though. That need to be seen. That need to be less alone. And it isn’t enough. We do owe each other more than a million plaintive “look at me’s.” But that doesn’t make that instinct wrong.
You do deserve to be seen. You do deserve to be understood. I do too. And we don’t all need it in the same way, nor do we all deserve the same level of continued attention. But if we all know what it feels like to want to be heard, that means we all have the skills to offer that attention to others.
Song of the week: “Seed Toss” by Superchunk (the acoustic version, which better highlights one of the most plaintive, needing-to-be-seen-and-perhaps-not-going-about-it-in-the-right-way lines of all time. “I put a stick in your spokes/You better laugh at my jokes”). If I’m remembering correctly, this was the third song on the first ever mixtape Eric ever made for me, right after a novelty cover of the Batman theme and “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” by The Clash. That mixtape is where I learned that if you care about somebody, you share music with them. This means, of course, that if you hate that I share a “Song of the Week” at the end of an already long email, please direct your criticism to my oldest brother. Like all younger siblings throughout history, I am blameless.
As always, you can find the collected song of the week playlist on Apple Music or Spotify.
I would like to issue a retroactive thank you both to all my far-flung college friends for flocking to Friendster at the same time, which did in fact make rural New Mexico feel less distant from the various cities where most of them congregated. I would also like to thank Friendster for dying a quick death before social media could become what it would become. Oh, and thank you to everybody who used to post in the Decemberists fan forum in the early aughts. I should have been writing lesson plans, but instead I was reading your song rankings.
Love you, Garrett. Also there's no such thing as too much arm waving while talking. <3
Garrett my friend, this was such a nice read. I hear you, I'm glad to know you, and I appreciate all I'm learning from you and the folks in this community you're fostering.
Also--and I hope this isn't obnoxious to do it in a comment--I noticed a glaring typo in your end note. It should say that *oldest* siblings are blameless and I await your correction!