The Case for Wasting Time

It's not a coincidence that I am so enthralled by the pleasures of our culture. These pleasures remind me that our cultural heroes bring out the best in our country.
January 27, 2024
Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

About a quarter of my life is devoted to stuff that won’t help my career, my income, my family, my causes, my cardio or my community. It’s devoted to enjoying the pleasures of our culture.

Instead of doing practical things that will move my life forward, I can spend long hours obsessing over the U.S. Civil War or the Russian Revolution. I will read hundreds of essays on issues that have nothing to do with my life. On many nights, I will watch lectures and debates on Youtube on everything from Greek philosophy to Genesis to the Federalist Papers.

Being a film nut, I also enjoy watching and rewatching movies. Recently, I’ve rewatched “Magnolia,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and “Deconstructing Harry,” among many others.

One of my favorite ways to pass the time is to watch reruns of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It’s my go-to source for guaranteed laughs.

I have an unending variety of music that I love, from The Beatles to Beethoven to Leonard Cohen to Dylan to soulful Israeli singers to countless others. Melodies like “Moonlight Sonata” or “City of Stars” or “Golden Slumbers” make my heart surrender to their beauty.

Oh, and I almost forgot: I’m a diehard Lakers fan, which means I follow every game and will usually watch post-game shows on Youtube.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because there is another, very serious side of my life that has nothing to do with a craving for pleasure. This is the important stuff that impacts our lives and our society, stuff like the alarming rise in antisemitism, the war in Gaza, the decline of our politics, the loss of trust in our major institutions, the unraveling of academia, an ugly presidential election, and so on.

How can I watch Larry David agonize over losing his sunglasses while the world around us seems to be falling apart?

But following the news is my profession. No matter how much I feel like getting on Netflix or Amazon, my priority is publishing and editing a weekly paper and a daily news site. I swim in current events, whether dark or pleasant. That is my life, and I confess that I get deep satisfaction from publishing great stories and commentaries knowing it will please our readers.

Journalism aside, however, I’m also vulnerable to feeling the blues. The news has a way of owning us. When it triggers outrage, revulsion or fear, it gets even more all-consuming.

In recent years, one stream of the news has hit me especially hard: a certain contempt for America. This is not criticism of policies; it’s contempt. We’re told, over and over again, that our country is irredeemably and hopelessly racist. We’re pitted against one another: oppressors go here, oppressed go there. The underlying theme is not that we’re a messy work in progress but a failed work in progress. Indeed, progress itself must be downplayed lest it undermines the “America is failing” narrative.

Maybe, then, it’s not a coincidence that I am so enthralled by the pleasures of our culture. These pleasures remind me that our cultural heroes, the ones who entertain us rather than indoctrinate us, bring out the best in our country. I’ll take Larry David’s antics any day over the self-righteous preaching of a divisive, anti-racist agitator teaching our kids to judge themselves by their skin color.

One thing I’ve learned by immersing myself in world history is that angry revolutions rarely lead to positive outcomes. It’s a lot easier to tear down than to build up. Utopian movements invariably fail because they end up depending on the whims of human beings who are corrupted by power. There’s a telling scene in the film “Lincoln” where honest Abe loses his cool and unleashes his passion on his cabinet. He must at all cost pass the 13th Amendment that will officially outlaw slavery. Lincoln knew that this amendment would outlast any one person; that the power of America lies in our founding ideals and our constant aspiration to repair our flaws; that our own revolution created a nation of laws, liberty and opportunity where immigrants the world over dream of entering.

That liberty cuts both ways: we can use it to bring down America or to improve it. My heroes are the lovers and innovators who want to improve our country. Maybe that’s why I’m so attached to the pleasures of our culture– it keeps me in touch with the creative side of America that represents the antidote to haters and destroyers.

For that, I’ll gladly waste a little time.

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