Recently I was scrolling through Twitter (never a good idea) after a Patriots game to see what the beat reporters were saying about the game and look for any takeaways I had missed.
Interspersed amongst these tweets were those of other (non-sporty) accounts I follow. Like many people, I follow a range of media outlets, individuals, sports teams, brands, journalists and celebrities. In the couple of years I have had a Twitter account, I have deleted the app on several occasions and only recently found myself using it again when I learned there are some really interesting accounts that track what’s happening in my local Newton community.
I’m always interested in what’s happening locally. I followed some of these accounts, and the act of doing so in turn suggested similar accounts to follow, and before long I was seeing tweets about roadwork, Zoom city hall meetings, polemic diatribes on bike lanes, and voting locations.
I was genuinely stunned however (which is saying something in 2021) when I happened upon the tweets of a few city councilors posing for a selfie together inside of the newly opening Tatte Bakery & Cafe on Centre St. in Newton—an upscale eatery for the Greater Boston bon vivant that boasts only four locations in the state, in the enclaves of Newton, Brookline, Boston, and Cambridge, as well as a de rigeur location in Washington D.C.
I was confused about what I was looking at, and why. Sure, we’ve all seen politicians at ribbon cuttings for schools and hospitals and senior centers and the like.
What is it that’s so profound about an early access tour of a restaurant that touts on its menu something called “Croque Madame” such that it requires posting online? What are our elected officials trying to signal to us?
Part of my confusion had to do with the fact that just days before I had seen some friends of mine from law school post nearly the same selfie at a different Tatte location, and a few days after the Newton location opened saw the same Tatte selfie at the Newton location from classmates.
Another source of my confusion was the fact that the newest Tatte, which may as well be a stand in for the Contessa, or the Mariel, or “Sweetgreen” or any of the other places in which the well-to-do spend their time flexing top down geo-tagged photos of their food and beverages on Instagram, used to be a Panera Bread until it closed down.
I fondly remember the Centre St. Panera Bread, a hang out for high school kids from Newton North, Newton South, and BC Law’s neighboring schools Newton Country Day and Mount Alvernia High School. Each day at lunch time, kids would descend on the Panera Bread, bouncing basketballs on the sidewalk and drinking lemonade while standing on the pedals of their bikes.
The trick used to be getting to the Panera Bread with your mobile order already in, so you could run in and out and wouldn’t have to struggle for a permanent parking space on Centre St. or in the lots out back. Unless you got there early, you wouldn’t be able to find a table because all the kids were hogging the place. It was always a disaster going in there. But it was uniquely Newton and it was uniquely wonderful.
Today the Panera Bread is no more. The kids will have to find another place to hang out.
But we do have a Tatte now.
I don’t think I have ever seen anyone post an Instagram photo in a Panera, or a Dunkin’ Donuts, or a 99, or an Outback Steakhouse. It’s unclear what differentiates the sort of eatery one posts about on social media from others. Perhaps it’s because those are blue collar chains. But the only real palpable factor seems to be what the places that we are posting about signal to others.
Posting a photo in a place that carries the aesthetic and associational cachet of what one’s perceived peers relate to seems to matter. It would appear this phenomena is as much about broadcasting that we fit into the cliques we desire to be in and showing that we are enjoying similar experiences to them than anything genuine about our daily lives. Otherwise we might see city councilors posting selfies at Dunkin’ Donuts—perhaps the one they’ve spent ages stonewalling through municipal bureaucracy to prevent from building a much desired drive thru? And we might see our friends and peers portraying their lives more authentically, with less of an effort to signal in-group associations and lifestyles.
Seeing a clique of city councilors posing for selfies at Tatte like law students at fancy restaurants was silly, sure. But the blurred line between how we communicate and identify with one another, with we being twenty-somethings on the one hand and middle aged elected officials on the other, reveals a lot about our politics—which President Biden described not long ago as a “battle for the soul of our nation.” While the President was certainly referring to issues far more grave, the way we talk about our issues and form the cliques and political identities that keep us in our corners—unable to solve much of anything that requires going outside of our comfort zones—on either Team Tatte Snobs vs. Team Blue Collar Outback Steakhouse for instance, are a microcosm of the dynamics that provide the foundation of our factious political warring.
In the weeks since, and as local elections drew near, some of the conversations online I’ve seen ranged from the absurd to the impossible to the inane.
These days it seems like everywhere we go, people are pressed to demonstrate outrage about something lest they be criticized for not being angry enough, or are expected to espouse a certain point of view lest they be criticized for demonstrating a certain type of -ism.
It turns out, many folks don’t think in any of these ways—they’re just trying to live their lives and be happy.
At the local level however, there seems to be no political conversation that routinely evinces more animus and deep-seated bureaucratic dread than urban planning and the topic of bicycles.
The extent to which contentious residents and city officials can litigate every inch and line marking and raised curb and pylon and proposed bike lane of an intersection can seem unfathomable.
On the one hand, there are many local leaders I like to refer to as members of “Big Bike”—the folks that seem to think regenerating the built environment to frustrate the movement of cars in favor of bikes will somehow cause everyone to run to the Schwinn store.
These folks spend their days trying to impart upon the world these new intersections—bizarre amalgamations of green bike lanes, bus lanes, walking lanes, car lanes, and other treatments that are at times so confused that MC Escher would not be able to find his way. Why is this? Depending on who you’re listening to, it’s to promote green transportation, or to improve walkability, or the general furtherance of the “smart city” aesthetic.
Anyone who follows local politics by now has seen their fair share of HGTV “Love it or List It”-eqsue 3D mock-ups of proposals like this. In the Greater Boston Area, the “Live Work Play” “4 over 1” story mixed-use apartment building with the obligatory Chipotle and the CVS and the Bluebikes and the Pure Barre and the taproom and the Lululemon is nothing new. We see five new ones being built every time we go down the street. They’re all the same.
On the other side are the opponents of this direction of zoning policy, folks that despise density, have questions about the ties between major corporate real estate developers and elected leaders, get angry every time a bike acts like a car but then goes through a red light for some reason, and by and large, just want things to stay the same.
In the same way that powers devolve from the federal to the state to the local level, so too has our broken political messaging system and all of the heat coming out of national political conversations, where the very idea of coming together, or agreement, or unity, has become of little interest.
Instead, accentuating our differences and amplifying that which keeps us apart, obsessing over whose side one is on, and diving relentlessly into the chasms of national divisions, seem to be all we are good at these days. It’s manifested itself in even the most basic building blocks of government and what otherwise seem like unremarkable local issues, to the point where it is often unclear why folks are disagreeing, for any reason beyond walking a party line and not alienating the motifs of one’s sociopolitical clique.
Last month, the Boston Globe reported on a rift between e-bike/scooter users and state lawmakers about the legal status of the former as it relates to their access to bike lanes. In short, e-bike and scooter riders are people too, and want to share in the safety of vaunted bike lanes. In Massachusetts, however, unlike 36 other states, e-bikes are categorized as mopeds and prohibited on bike paths. In the city of Boston, whose recently elected progressive mayor is Michelle Wu, a proponent of “sustainable transit” and “multimodal transportation systems,” popular scooter sharing services like Bird are banned outright.
Despite being functionally and operationally similar as well as oftentimes more desirable than bikes—with electric bike/scooter sales up 240% during COVID– they receive not nearly the fanfare and adoration laid upon the altar of bicycling from those most fanatic about urban planning and policy.
In fact, the notion of reconciling the legal status of e-bikes and scooters, which currently is languishing in what the Boston Globe described as “legal purgatory” before state and local lawmakers who seemingly demur to the topic, both acknowledging the need for legal clarity and feigning safety concerns about e-bike and scooter speeds—despite the fact bikes and scooters all travel around the same 15-20 mph, doesn’t seem to make sense.
Instead, from conversations with many local leaders, developers, and those among us that tend to be most outspoken about these issues, a different conversation tends to occur. What usually takes hold is a non-specific conversation that revolves around the conclusion “bikes are really the way to go.” In other words, for all intents and purposes, the bikes, like the Tatte, are dogma—part of the starter pack of the second estate, and a means by which to signal that we’re “on the program” politically.
This need to signal what side you’re on seems to transcend politics.
Last month the pharmaceutical giant Merck announced Molnupiravir, an experimental antiviral drug that “reduced the risk of hospitalization or death” of Covid-19 patients by as much as 50%.
As journalist Matt Taibbi recently observed:
“The stories that rushed out in the ensuing minutes and hours were almost uniformly positive. AP called the news a ‘potentially major advance in efforts to fight the pandemic,’ while National Geographic quoted a Yale specialist saying, ‘Having a pill that would be easy for people to take at home would be terrific.’ Another interesting early reaction came from Time:
‘Vaccines will be the way out of the pandemic, but not everyone around the world is immunized yet, and the shots aren’t 100% effective in protecting people from getting infected with the COVID-19 virus. So antiviral drug treatments will be key to making sure that people who do get infected don’t get severely ill.’
This is what news looks like before propagandists get their hands on it. Time writer Alice Park’s lede was sensible and clear. If molnupiravir works — a big if, incidentally — it’s good news for everyone, since not everyone is immunized, and the vaccines aren’t 100% effective anyway. As even Vox put it initially, molnupiravir could ‘help compensate for persistent gaps in Covid-19 vaccination coverage.’
Within a day, though, the tone of coverage turned. A CNN lede read, ‘A pill that could potentially treat Covid-19 is a ‘game-changer,’ but experts are emphasizing that it’s not an alternative to vaccinations.’ The New York Times went with, ‘Health officials said the drug could provide an effective way to treat Covid-19, but stressed that vaccines remained the best tool.’
If you’re thinking it was only a matter of time before the mere fact of molnupiravir’s existence would be pitched in headlines as actual bad news, you’re not wrong: Marketwatch came out with “‘It’s not a magic pill’: What Merck’s antiviral pill could mean for vaccine hesitancy” the same day Merck issued its release. The piece came out before we knew much of anything concrete about the drug’s effectiveness, let alone whether it was “magic.”
Bloomberg’s morose “No, the Merck pill won’t end the pandemic” was released on October 2nd, i.e. one whole day after the first encouraging news of a possible auxiliary treatment whose most ardent supporters never claimed would end the pandemic. This article said the pill might be cause to celebrate, but warned its emergence “shouldn’t be cause for complacency when it comes to the most effective tool to end this pandemic: vaccines.” Bloomberg randomly went on to remind readers that the unrelated drug ivermectin is a “horse de-worming agent,” before adding that if molnupiravir ends up “being viewed as a solution for those who refuse to vaccinate,” the “Covid virus will continue to persist.”
In other words, it took less than 24 hours for the drug — barely tested, let alone released yet — to be accused of prolonging the pandemic. By the third day, mentions of molnupiravir in news reports nearly all came affixed to stern reminders of its place beneath vaccines in the medical hierarchy.’
What Taibbi is illustrating here is that while of course, people should receive their COVID-19 vaccinations, the advent of a seemingly effective treatment for people suffering with symptomatic COVID-19 infections, which have killed almost 40,000 people in the United States in the last 30 days, is a tremendous development.
However, in a politico-media environment where the pandemic is just another partisan battleground, and anything that may nuance the prevailing narratives is verboten, it’s more important for some folks to use this as another opportunity to signal which side they are on, in this case which side they are not on—the side of those with any misgivings about vaccines or masks and the like. For a pretty incredible development about a treatment for a highly contagious, deadly disease that for some time has had no known cure—this profound takeaway before long was entirely lost in the coverage.
The overlap between this pattern of signalling and litmus testing anything that can be made into an issue, seems to be everywhere.
But as I think more about this, I feel like since I’ve been in law school it’s felt all the more ubiquitous.
Of course, politics, at least to some extent, is based in the law, and that’s what law school is supposed to be training us to understand. American law schools serve as the academy—the crucible in which issues of law and policy are studied and criticized in order to color the education of many of those who will go on to become leaders in the political sphere.
So it makes sense, to a certain extent, that there exist similarities, at times unfortunate, between the dynamics of the two domains—between us, and our potential future selves.
Though the similarities that exist, between how we communicate about facially unremarkable topics about our lives, such as the restaurants we go to, and political topics—primarily this need to constantly signal to others that we’re “cool,” “elite,” and “in” and reside in the upper end of the bell curve that at some point was allowed to become the measure of our worth by many of the same people that rail against inequality and rally for social justice—makes not only our social media timelines, but our lives, our politics, and our world, so much more toxic than it needs to be.
We all know what we do.
We’ve seen Instagram posts where people tag the law office they’re working in, tagging their employer if it’s an elite firm, or leaving it out and perhaps not posting about it at all if it is not.
We’ve seen people post the “swag” they received from firms, and the meals they eat from the fancy restaurants frequented by the sort of people working at these places.
We’ve seen people post about how exhausting law school is, but not before they fit their “BC Law” merch into the shot to preclude the horror of someone not being continuously reminded they go to an elite school.
Dispatches from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir or SoulCycle classes replete with the 6 am timestamps and running shoes in the bottom of the frame—a signal that not only do we exercise but got up early to do it and are therefore somehow better than other people (despite the high likelihood the poster slept until noon the previous day) fill our timelines.
Humble bragging, posting photos of the same handful of rooftop downtown hangouts that are overpriced, oversubscribed, and have seemingly captured the hearts and minds of our ilk only because of their metropolitan, epicurean aesthetic, comprise the id of many a law student, and an unyielding desire to signal to our peers and the abyss of social media that we’re elite, at least as we’ve come to understand it.
We’ve all seen it. We know what we’re doing. Many of us are probably sick of it.
And the thing is, there’s a whole world out there beyond this. If we were not so myopic, not so neurotic, and not so self-obsessed with our politics and our in-group signaling and have our world be more than a 10-mile radius around the nearest Clover Food Lab or Tatte, we might find we aren’t as different from others as we think, and that the world we live in is not as polarized as the world on the screen in our pockets.
Recently I was sitting inside The Cracker Barrel in Tewksbury, MA, a blue collar country themed restaurant in a blue collar town close to New Hampshire. At the table next to me was a large family with some extended family members in from out of town. One of the relatives was a man from middle America, in what some would call a “flyover state” who was skeptical about vaccines. The man sitting directly across the table from him and across the aisle from me was a doctor from Boston.
Naturally, one could imagine these folks would not have much to agree about. But as the breakfast progressed, the two men got to know one another, discussed their favorite sports, their favorite TV shows, what their kids were up to and aspired to be one day, and their shared love of the Naked Gun movies. They also discussed the vaccine. The man was worried about the risk of some yet to be discovered vaccine risk, a result of rushing vaccines to the public before they could be fully tested. The doctor acknowledged the man’s concern, and described, in layman’s terms, the mRNA technology, how the vaccines were developed, and how they were in fact quite safe. By the end of their meal, the man agreed to go and get vaccinated.
The remarkable simplicity with which two people from entirely different walks of life, who in our conventional political thinking would be expected to have been screaming at one another about any manner of hot buttons, instead resolved their differences and got along, was amazing. In fact, we’ve come to believe it can’t happen.
When we aren’t just trying to signal to others how great we think we and our cliques are, and actually try to think of each other as people who actually have dreams and goals and feelings and fears that are not too dissimilar from our own, and that not everything is an opportunity to bring out a tribal political identity and think of life as a bell curve we’re trying to “win,” and a “right side” we’re trying to signal that we’re on, it’s amazing what we can accomplish, and how much better we can feel.
We just have to want to.