The Fierce Tyranny Of Now
People regularly get freaked out by stories than turn out to be false, and by the time the facts are known a good deal of damage (not least to personal relationships) has often already been done — plus, the disappearance of the cause of an emotion doesn’t automatically eliminate the emotion itself. In fact, it often leaves that emotion in search of new justifications for its existence.
I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out. Taking the short view has burned me far too many times; I’m going to try to prevent that from happening ever again (even if I will sometimes fail). And if once in a while I end up fighting a battle in a war that has already ended … I can live with that.
I was standing on the sidewalk in Washington this afternoon, checking my Twitter feed. I saw several tweets that said this, as captured in the NYT’s headline:
An hour later, sitting on the metro headed to the airport, I actually read The New York Times’ story. The full quote, and its context, is:
Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s chief White House strategist, laced into the American press during an interview on Wednesday evening, arguing that news organizations had been “humiliated” by an election outcome few anticipated, and repeatedly describing the media as “the opposition party” of the current administration.
“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” Mr. Bannon said during a telephone call.
That’s a different message, isn’t it? But I had an hour to fume over how absurdly authoritarian the White House is.
In Washington, I heard from Washingtonians that people from the city’s professional class, both Democrats and Republicans, are in a constant state of panic over Trump. Seriously, I heard this from at least five people in these past two days. The last time, someone told me that the sense one has is that for a lot of people, this is an existential crisis. I was reminded of what a reader (who cannot stand Trump) e-mailed me the other day:
I have never seen the Left this unhinged – and that’s saying something. We are seeing violence, calls for assassination, immediate impeachment, claims that the duly elected President is not legitimate, and so on. This is all so far beyond the customary norms of contemporary American political discourse and opposition – as bad as it’s been in recent decades. Something very sinister and ominous is taking place.
I have my theory why this is so, one that goes simply beyond the widely-shared agreement on the awfulness of Trump. If Liberalism is the new religion of the “secularists,” then the election of Trump represents an existential apostasy. If History (with a capital H) has an “arc,” then deviation from its course is a worse threat than global warming. Progress is supposed only to move in one direction, and like a ratchet, can’t go “back.” Politics isn’t politics – it’s movement toward the eschaton.
I brought this up to my interlocutor — not a Trump fan, by the way, or even a Republican — who said yes, that’s exactly it.
There’s this one liberal academic, a woman I don’t know personally but whose opinion I respect so much I followed her on Twitter. She has become deeply and truly crackpot over Trump. Yesterday she retweeted a call for liberals to telephone Trump hotels and ask to be put through to the White House. She urged her followers to do this. Can they possibly believe that this is going to do any good? Is there a single person who will be converted to the cause of anti-Trumpism because of this? Or will it just really tick off Trump’s supporters? I don’t get this at all. It’s just so counterproductive and stupid. I unfollowed her. I’m going to do what Alan’s done, and start unfollowing and deleting a lot.
I agree that we are living in a dramatic time, and that attention must be paid. But it’s hard to think clearly in this media (including social media) environment. More information is making us less informed, and less smart — this, when it is more important to be smart and prudent in the face of the present challenges.
Can any of you suggest “monthly magazines, quarterly journals and books” that are worth reading to give one real and valuable perspective in this moment?