At first, the experiment didn’t have a name.
Right after the election, Erik Hagerman decided he’d take a break from reading about the hoopla of politics.
President Donald Trump’s victory shook him. Badly. And so Hagerman developed his own eccentric experiment, one that was part silent protest, part coping mechanism, part extreme self-care plan.
He swore that he would avoid learning about anything that happened to the United States after Nov. 8, 2016.
“It was draconian and complete,” he said. “It’s not like I wanted to just steer away from Trump or shift the conversation. It was like I was a vampire and any photon of Trump would turn me to dust.”
It was just going to be for a few days. But he is now more than a year into knowing almost nothing about U.S. politics. He has managed to become shockingly uninformed during one of the most eventful chapters in modern U.S. history. He is as ignorant as a contemporary citizen could ever hope to be.
James Comey. Russia. Robert Mueller. Las Vegas. The travel ban. “Alternative facts.” Pussy hats. Scaramucci. Parkland. Big nuclear buttons. Roy Moore.
He knows none of it. To Hagerman, life is a spoiler.
“I just look at the weather,” said Hagerman, 53, who lives alone on a pig farm in southeastern Ohio. But, he added, “it’s only so diverting.”
He says he has gotten used to a feeling that he hasn’t experienced in a long time. “I am bored,” he said. “But it’s not bugging me.”
It takes meticulous planning to find boredom. Hagerman commits as hard as a method actor, and his self-imposed regimen — white-noise tapes at the coffee shop, awkward scolding of friends, a ban on social media — has reshaped much of his life.
Extreme as it is, it’s a path that likely holds some appeal for liberals these days — a DIY version of moving to Canada.
Democrats, liberals and leftists have coped with this first year of the Trump presidency in lots of ways. Some subsist on the thin gruel of political cartoon shows and online impeachment petitions. Others dwell online in the thrilling place where conspiracy is indistinguishable from truth. Others have been inspired to action, making their first run for public office, taking local action or marching in their first protest rally.
Hagerman has done the opposite of all of them.
The fact that it’s working for him — “I’m emotionally healthier than I’ve ever felt,” he said — has made him question the very value of being fed each day by the media. Why do we bother tracking faraway political developments and distant campaign speeches? What good comes of it? Why do we read all these tweets anyway?
“I had been paying attention to the news for decades,” Hagerman said. “And I never did anything with it.”
At some point last year, he decided his experiment needed a name. He considered the Embargo, but it sounded too temporary. The Boycott? It came off a little whiny.
Hagerman has created a fortress around himself. “Tiny little boats of information can be dangerous,” he said.
He decided that it would be called the Blockade.
Behind the Blockade
For a guy who has gone to great lengths to essentially plug his ears, Hagerman sure does talk a lot. He is witty and discursive, punctuating his stories with wild-eyed grins, exaggerated grimaces and more than the occasional lost thread.
I recently spent two days visiting his farm on the condition that I not bring news from the outside world. As the sun set over his porch, turning the rolling hills pink then purple then blue, he held forth, jumping from English architecture to the local pigs’ eating habits to his mother’s favorite basketball team to the philosophy of Kant. He can go days without seeing another soul.
This life is still fairly new. Just a few years ago, he was a corporate executive at Nike (senior director of global digital commerce was his official, unwieldy title) working with teams of engineers to streamline the online shopping experience. Before that, he had worked digital jobs at Walmart and Disney.
“I worked 12-, 14-hour days,” he said. “The calendar completely booked.”
But three years ago, he decided he had saved enough money to move to a farm, make elliptical sculptures — and, eventually, opt out of the national conversation entirely.
He lives alone and has never been married. As for money, a financial adviser in San Francisco manages his investments. Hagerman says he throws away the quarterly updates without reviewing them.
Hagerman grew up in southeastern Ohio, and after years spent in Brooklyn warehouses, San Francisco tech bubbles and Nike-land in Portland, Oregon, the idea of a quiet life became more and more appealing. His mother lives nearby; he sees her a lot since he moved back in 2016. She reluctantly adheres to the Blockade, although they do discuss the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Hagerman begins every day with a 30-minute drive to Athens, the closest city of note, to get a cup of coffee — a triple-shot latte with whole milk. He goes early, before most customers have settled into the oversize chairs to scroll through their phones. To make sure he doesn’t overhear idle chatter, he often listens to white noise through his headphones. (He used to listen to music, “but stray conversation can creep in between songs.”)
At Donkey Coffee, everyone knows his order, and they know about the Blockade. “Our baristas know where he’s at so they don’t engage him on topics that would make him uncomfortable,” said Angie Pyle, the coffee shop’s co-owner.
Hagerman has also trained his friends. A close friend from his Nike days, Parinaz Vahabzadeh, didn’t think he was quite serious at first and, in the early days of the Blockade, kept dropping little hints about politics.
The new administration compelled her to engage more deeply in politics, not less. She had only recently become a U.S. citizen, and she was passionate about the immigration debate. She did not let Hagerman opt out easily. “I was needling him,” she said.
And in response, she received, for the first time, a stern text message. “I’m now officially cross with you,” he wrote. “As you know very well I don’t wish to hear about current events. I know you don’t agree with my wishes but I do expect you to respect them.”
They now speak on the phone several times a week, but never about the news. “I’ve gotten used to it,” she said. “It’s actually nice to not talk about politics.”
Conversations with Hagerman can have a Rip Van Winkle quality. He spoke several times about his sister, Bonnie, an assistant professor, who lives in, of all places, Charlottesville, Virginia.
While he and I were talking, I looked over at him at every mention of Charlottesville to see if the name of the city, home to perhaps the ugliest weekend of the Trump era to date, made him flinch.
“So, do you associate Charlottesville” — I would say the name deliberately and with emphasis — “with anything besides your sister?”
He didn’t bite. I think he really didn’t know about the Nazis.
Later, he pointed to a house on a hill and said that before the election, the neighbor had decorated his lawn with an effigy of Hillary Clinton behind bars. I wanted to point out that the recently unveiled Mueller indictment found that a Russian troll had paid for a Hillary impersonator at a Florida rally. But I bit my tongue — Hagerman didn’t know about Mueller, or Russia, or trolls.
Last winter, Hagerman spent several weeks visiting his twin brother, a tech CEO, in San Francisco. Strict arrangements had to be made — the Sunday newspaper kept out of sight, the TV switched off, his teenage niece and nephew under special instructions.
“The bigger challenge was when we would have friends come over and visit,” said his brother, Kris. “We had to have Erik not be there, or we would give them a heads-up that Erik has this news blockade going and we gave them the guidelines.
“They were always a little bemused by it. And to some extent a little envious,” he said. “The prospect of just chucking all that for a period of time felt somewhat appealing.”
To be fair, Hagerman has made a few concessions. He reads The New Yorker’s art reviews but is careful to flip past the illustrated covers, which often double as political commentary. He watches every Cavaliers game, but only on mute.
He counts two boats that have sailed past the Blockade. He saw a picture of Kim Jong Un on a newspaper at the coffee shop, signaling that something was up with North Korea. And he overheard someone saying something about Obamacare, which meant health care was back in the news. His brother alerted him to the Equifax breach for his own protection.
“But the blockade has been pretty damn effective,” Hagerman said.
He said that with some pride, but he has the misgivings about disengaging from political life that you have, by now, surely been shouting at him as you read. “The first several months of this thing, I didn’t feel all that great about it,” he said. “It makes me a crappy citizen. It’s the ostrich head-in-the-sand approach to political outcomes you disagree with.”
It seems obvious to say, but to avoid current affairs is in some ways a luxury that many people, like, for example, immigrants worried about deportation, cannot afford.
“He has the privilege of constructing a world in which very little of what he doesn’t have to deal with gets through,” said his sister, Bonnie Hagerman. “That’s a privilege. We all would like to construct our dream worlds. Erik is just more able to do it than others.”
What if, he began to think, he could address his privilege, and the idea of broader good, near to home?
He has a master project, one that he thinks about obsessively, that he believes can serve as his contribution to U.S. society.
He calls it the Lake.
At the Lake
On a recent spookily warm day, Hagerman clambered up a steep bank of woods, pushing past vines and stepping past fallen logs.
Wide-eyed, giddy with excitement, he led the way to a flat stretch of brush where he spread his arms and began talking even faster than usual. “This is where we’ll build a giant barn. It will feel like a cathedral. The cloister will be here,” he said, making reference to Chartres, and Oxford, and the grandeur of medieval cathedrals.
About nine months ago, he bought some 45 acres on the site of a former strip mine. The property, untouched for decades, has been reclaimed by nature — deer, beavers, salamanders and canopies of majestic trees are thriving.
We walked further to the edge of a steep drop-off. Below, a bright blue lake shimmered in the February heat like a secret. He’ll debate as long as you want whether the body of water counts as a lake or a pond. It’s easier if you just agree it’s a lake.
“You wouldn’t believe how great it feels to go swimming there,” he said. He added, with almost rapturous glee, that the lake sits in the spot where the mining company dug deepest.
Hagerman sees this land as his life’s work. He plans to restore it, protect it, live on it and then preserve it for the public. “I will never sell this land,” he said.
He wouldn’t put it exactly this way, but he talks about the land in part as penance for the moral cost of his Blockade. He has come to believe that being a news consumer doesn’t enhance society. He also believes that restoring a former coal mine and giving it to the future does.
“I see it as a contribution that has civic relevance that aligns with my passions and what I do well,” Hagerman said. “I’m going to donate it. It’s going to take most of my net worth. That’s what I’m going to spend the rest of my money on.”
He has filled an entire room of his house with a 3-D rendering of the property to better envision his plans. He has hired Gary Conley, a local landscape ecologist, to advise on the project. Conley, a gentle bearded outdoorsman who can speak at length about the preferences of the local amphibians, believes that the land could become something special.
Conley indulges Hagerman’s fantasies for the land. A walkway modeled on an ancient Mayan ballgame! Land art inspired by “Spiral Jetty”! Windows and concrete blocks, so many blocks! But Conley mainly serves as the straight man to inject ecological reality into the plan.
Conley respects the Blockade. After all, the project of the Lake might not exist without it.
In those carefree pre-Trump days, Hagerman would settle into the coffee shop with his newspaper and dig in. But after the Blockade, he could only read the weather — “for elderly men it’s endlessly interesting” — and the real estate listings.
It was during one of those long boring mornings, with no news to read, that he found the listing for the Lake.
“The first time I saw it, I said, ‘This is it,'” he said.