I’ve been down in Baton Rouge this morning, meeting with Jay Dardenne, the lieutenant governor of Louisiana, who is in charge of the state government’s culture and tourism efforts. I was there to give him a copy of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, and to talk to him about the book’s themes. Turns out that he’d read my essay making the cultural case for coming home to Louisiana, and was eager to read the book and talk about it around the state. That was great to hear.
On the way back to my car, parked near the Capitol, I ran into an old friend who’s a veteran of state politics. We talked for a while about my coming back home, and about Louisiana politics. He said that it’s really toxic now, between Republicans and Democrats, way different from how it was when he first entered the political world. “People got along then,” he said. “You might fight like cats and dogs on the legislative floor, but at the end of the day, you could have a drink together, because you genuinely liked each other. That’s not true anymore. It’s all about Republicans and Democrats now, and being loyal to your tribe. I’m so disgusted with both parties now, on the national level too, because nobody can compromise to get anything done.”
Everybody says that, it seems, but this is a guy who has spent his long career working in politics at the sausage-making level, if you know what I mean. And he’s worn out. Things really have gotten worse. He said he gets so weary of the darkness that drives so much political energy these days — people sitting around thinking the absolute worst of their opponents.
“They don’t see the other side as opponents, but enemies,” I said. “They don’t see the other side as wrong, but evil.”
I went to get lunch, and afterward ran into another friend. Because I was downtown, not far from the Capitol, we talked about politics. He’s a liberal Democrat, and knows I’m a conservative Independent who writes for a conservative magazine; neither of us care about politics enough to let it come between friendship, ours or with anybody else. He mentioned that he had been over at a pal’s house the other day, and spent an hour or two watching MSNBC with him.
“Good grief, you ever do anything like that?” he asked. No, I told him, I don’t watch TV news.
“Don’t,” he said. “After a couple of hours of that stuff, you either hate everybody or hate yourself. It’s poison. I can’t imagine what filling your head with that stuff does to the way you see the world.”
We agreed that it probably makes you frightened and furious — and that that feeling can be deeply addictive. The world is always ramped up to high drama. I told him that a decade ago, when I would get on cable TV from time to time to talk about issues, I learned quickly that the media didn’t want to have an actual discussion; they just wanted people on to yell at each other, and to repeat talking points. This is a cliché, I know, but when you actually go on those shows, and see how it so often (but not always) works, you understand that the cliché really is true. Passion sells. Passion retains viewers. Passion gets eyes on the webpage (and shame on me for falling for the bait, e.g., yesterday’s post about that jerk who wrote the “I hate my unborn twins” piece for HuffPo). The thing is, passion is so easy to gin up when it’s based on fear and hatred. It’s a lot harder to get people passionate about faith, hope, and charity, even though that’s what most of us crave, and need as much as we need the air we breathe.
On the long drive home, I was thinking about the way our media work to obscure reality from us by confirming our own biases, and by confirming their own biases in the way they frame issues and what they choose to report (and what they choose not to report). People always say, “The media always report bad news; how about some good news?” As a career journalist, I hate hearing that, because I know that they don’t really mean it. Bad news always sells, and news and commentary framed not to challenge our preconceived notions, but to confirm them, is usually more popular than news and commentary that make us confront our own misconceptions, and maybe even see that the people we thought were our enemies are more like us than we thought. I know, I know, I’m risking being sentimental here, but living in a small town in south Louisiana this past year and a half, and living outside the cultural bubble of the news media, especially the TV news media, has really made me reflect on how falsely constructed the “reality” of the mediated world is — and how destructive to community that false construction can be. I say this in particular thinking of people in my small town and all over the country who allow TV and the Internet to tell them who their neighbors are, and how their neighbors are trying to screw them over, instead of getting out there and actually meeting their neighbors, and understanding them as human beings.
We think we see the world through the TV screen, and the computer screen, but what we see is the world passed through a distorting lens, and it’s poisoning our politics and everything else.
In comments on a post below, a reader of this blog quoted from the late David Foster Wallace’s 2005 graduation speech at Kenyon College. This:
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
You get the idea.
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
The media — what you see on TV, what you watch at the movies, what you listen to on the radio, what you read on the Internet — tell you what to think, and (more to the point), what to think about and how to think about it. And not “think,” mostly, but rather “feel.”
The thing is, you have the freedom to say no. We all do. I struggle with this. I don’t struggle with this as hard as I should.