A reader writes:
I feel compelled to write today because of the overwhelming attitude of negativity not just in the news this week, but in comments on the blog. I’d like to offer a gentle rebuttal and assert that things are not nearly as bad as they seem.
I’ll admit up front that I have long been deeply skeptical of social media. I deleted my Facebook account in 2010, because I thought it had gotten too creepily dystopian. I deleted my Twitter account last year, because I found myself drawing a disturbingly large sense of self-worth from the retweets and the likes. So I come to this from a starting point of opposition, but I nonetheless assert that we still have not taken seriously what a pernicious force social media is in our daily culture. I knew that journalism was lost when the Times – the Times! – started running news articles that were basically a three-paragraph summary followed by copied-and-pasted accounts of what Average Joes were saying on Twitter. I can’t be the only person who thought: what on earth? Why should we care what “JoeyInPhilly” thinks about health care reform? And yet, this is where we are. Journalism worships at the foot of Twitter, which means every journalist in America is trapped in a self-referential feedback loop in which you follow people who think like you, and when everyone you follow is saying things are getting bad, then of course you can only conclude that things are getting bad.
Even though I deleted my account, I will occasionally wander through the Twitter feeds of the usual suspects: you, Douthat, Ahmari, Vermeule, Dougherty, et al. And the result is, in all seriousness, physiological: my pulse quickens, I grow short of breath, I feel queasy. Twitter’s business model is to make you feel as frantic as possible all the time, because if you’re frantic you’ll keep coming back for more. In the same way, the mainstream media’s model is to constantly trumpet division and discord. But make no mistake: the extreme is not the norm. The tussling protester and counter-protester are the exception, and when we treat them like the rule we make both a metonymic mistake and a dangerous conflation of outlier with average.
I’ve had probably 40 conversations this week with average people: neighbors, fellow dog-walkers, fellow cyclists, colleagues, and so on. Not once has politics come up. Not once. People talk about the hot weather here in Kansas. They talk about local sports. They complain about traffic and laugh about the unpleasantness of lawn-mowing. The weeping and tearing of hair over Kennedy is taking place almost exclusively on social media, because on social media you are rewarded for being loud, showy, and extreme. It’s a platform that values showboats who are willing to proclaim everything THE BIGGEST DEAL OF ALL TIME. I’ve lived through probably six or seven Supreme Court nomination battles, and in each one – without fail – both sides have proclaimed it to be The Most Significant event of our generation. And it never is.
About a year and a half ago I wrote to you about the importance of seeing the world around you. This was early in the Trump days, when all the talk was about social collapse and billionaires escaping to New Zealand. The fog of fear lifted in a few days, because everyone moved on to something else. Life went on, because life always goes on. Social media, as I said then, really and truly is the Eye of Sauron, focusing relentlessly on one thing and driving everyone crazy before simply moving on to something else.
I cannot say this strongly enough to everyone I know: we have got to look up. We live in an attention economy. You are what you pay attention to, but you get to control it. Shady corporations and sleazy politicians can cause much sound and fury, but they cannot control what is in your head. Look up from the screen, relax the endlessly scrolling thumb, let go of what this or that commentator said, remember they are paid to generate views and that views come with controversial fearmongering – and look up. Your family is there. Your neighbors are there. Trees and birds and sunsets are there. Did anyone bother to look at the full moon last night, in all our Kennedy-obsessing? It was stunning. And it shone down on the trivial events of political life just as it always does, uncaring and uninterested.
So Kennedy announced his retirement yesterday. I could not care less. It will have very little effect on my life. Here are things that mattered yesterday: playing with my son. Cooking salmon with my wife. Watching my dog slowly stalk a rabbit who sat under our bird feeders, as grackles complained noisily from the power line. Here is what matters today: having lunch with an old friend. Telling a joke to cheer up an overworked colleague. Going to a neighborhood meeting tonight to plan our next potluck. Tomorrow morning, with the day off, I will go fly-fishing on the Wakarusa River here in eastern Kansas. The smallmouth bass will mostly ignore me, but I will be in the water waving a fly rod and feeling the cool current and watching the sparrows and it will be glorious, because all of life is glorious. Every day is a gift, and every day we spend obsessing over this or that tweet – and how sad that word is no longer associated with birds – is a day wasted.
They can dominate the news, but they don’t get to dominate your thoughts. You can only allow them to do that. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Each time someone moans that he can’t believe how bad it is, I look around at families and neighbors and full moons and think: I can’t believe how good it is. Look up. Look up. Look up.
That is a wise man. Last week, I was in the Azores, reveling in the natural beauty all around me. How easy it is to fall back into the social media hole. Like a dog going back to its own vomit…