As some of us allow ourselves to imagine a time in the comprehensible future when we don’t feel like we’re hurtling through history backward, forward and sideways in a tumbling time machine …
… it’s natural to ask, about a return to some kind of navigational equilibrium, “How will we know when we get there?”
Here’s how I will know: Boring speeches will be boring again.
Online or in person, I will attend a business conference where the honored guest waxes lengthy about his career achievements and the thin ideas that fueled them, thus entrapping the audience in an escape room made to look like a musty personal library of decade-old business trends that sound as irrelevant to us now as—well, as the business trends of any other era sound to us now.
(And yes, the speaker of this speech will most likely be a he. Not that women can’t give boring speeches, too; just not the kind that give me a feeling of numb nostalgia that I’m trying to conjure here.)
There will be no early attempt, even in passing, to connect the speaker or the subject or the message to the immediate historical moment—no mention of the muffled wail of sirens outside. After about five minutes, I will realize that this talk might have been delivered at any time in the last 50 or 75 years—and also by any communication executive who ever lived—and to any communication association audience who would pretend to be pleased to hear it.
Actually pleased, as a matter of fact. In normal times, such a speech is like an unexpected afternoon off, with nothing to do but stare off the stern of a sailboat in a soft tailwind, into the negligible wake, watching the eddies make their timid case and disappear. When but during a terribly dull speech does a middle-aged adult ever achieve such mesmerizing, meditative peace as this?!
And I will find myself comforted by the predictability of the speech, not enraged by the urgent moment it is self-indulgently consuming. All those blinking faces on the Zoom screen—what could these vital Americans be doing right now if they were not doing this?!
I will be amused by the ritual, not galled by the intellectual flaccidity, which is airborne and contagious.
I will savor the conventional wisdom as comfort food, rather than spit it out as the bitter poison of complacency and smug authority that contributes to so much explosive American rage these days.
Judging from my own increasing overreaction in the negligible wake of such a talk that I attended virtually last week, we’re not there yet.
Not even close.