PUTTING TOO MUCH WEIGHT ON THE NEWS


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NEWS AS A PERSONAL NARRATIVE

For most of us, reading the day’s news is one of the first things we do after awakening. We grab a cup of coffee and go online. Many of us also glean what’s happening from social media. In this way we attempt to construct a narrative that allows us to feel responsible and informed. We’re trying to act like adults.

We’re also trying to protect ourselves from being blind-sided by some new tragedy. Social pressure leads us to want to be among the group of those who have been informed about the latest developments. Otherwise we would seem like those poor souls who are out of the loop. The process begins in Junior High. You don’t want to be caught dead not knowing about the latest trends in fashion and music.

The “legitimate” news sites all cover the same ten or fifteen stories of that day. They are considered legitimate because somebody gets paid to research and write the articles. They attempt to provide “balance,” whatever that is. On the other hand, Social Media is a hall of mirrors, a closed system which seems open to its users but is really the best example of confirmation bias in action anyone has ever devised. Instead of being a forum for discourse, it’s a pep rally. Hooray for our side. Your “friends” read your posts and you read theirs. You share and like memes which are created by others. In this way you act like boys trading baseball cards at the playground. It’s a form of self-expression based on identifying with something bigger than you.

In Playwriting, they suggest that if a fact is presented in the first act, it must matter by the final act. We have all seen plenty of movies and TV shows, and we’re hip to foreshadowing. We know how to infer causality. We can even imagine reverse engineering plots in order to make a neat story with a tidy ending. What we can’t comfortably deal with is unscripted reality. So we imagine meaning where there is none.

We become irritated by news that doesn’t suggest a plot or a probable outcome. If we can’t tell the good guys from the bad, or get an emotional release from the climax, what’s the point in consuming this entertainment called “news?”

There are computer programs that help struggling authors write by suggesting the elements of creative writing. Plot twists, character traits, motivations, climaxes, resolutions. They are like those programs that help you do your taxes by asking your questions about your financial affairs.

We use these programs and forums in order to make sense of today’s world and because we’re lazy. Thinking and writing are hard.

At least lately, there is a palpable sense among most of my social media “friends” that the world is on the brink of collapse. Hurricanes, Global Warming, nuclear threats, an insane President, earthquakes, Planet X, solar storms, predictions about an imminent stock market collapse. People share a generalized fear that the world is out of kilter and wobbling uncontrollably.

I, however, think that this is normal for the conditions we’ve created. 24/7 news access and the ability to comment on it via social media have made Nervous Nellies of us all. When I was young, my family watched Huntley and Brinkley in the evening, after supper. The dishes washed and put away, the children in their pajamas, we would cluster in front of the TV and watch sober, middle-aged white men tell us what was happening, often in somber tones. Walter Cronkite was grandpa, providing assurance that all was under control, and that tomorrow would be no crazier than today had been. But now, those avuncular guys are gone. Now, we’re on our own.

Oh sure we have some assistance in selecting which memes we will like or share. We have Fox and Friends or NPR depending on our political bent, but the main stories of the day have been agreed upon by all the legitimate news sources, and it’s only up to us to judge their importance and their concordance with our beliefs. Is today the day I believe I should quite my job, cash out and run away? My general sense is that things are out of control and getting worse every day. Can I hang on much longer?

I think the reason we have the arrogance to construct these narratives is because we feel we have been abandoned by the experts we used to trust to do this work for us. Nobody trusts politicians anymore. Anybody who wants to can start a YouTube channel for free and use his smart phone as a camera. Nobody wants to be Chicken Little, believing every rumor and running about clucking in terror. So we reluctantly construct a narrative that seems to embrace or at least explain the main news developments of today.

But we are often dogged by doubt. I forget, is ISIS real or a construct of Israel and the Saudis? Which events were false flags? Is President Trump a successful businessman or a mentally-ill loser? Should I be buying Bitcoins? Is it time to upgrade to a better phone?

No matter which decisions we make and which we postpone making, we will never feel safe or assured that we have not completely gotten it all wrong, because we’re relying on a self-constructed narrative with occasional input from a peanut gallery of social media “friends” who also have no clue. Whether you’re a teenage girl agonizing over which shampoo to buy or a retired geezer wondering whether to start ticking off the items of his bucket list, we’ll still be fraught with anxiety because that’s what this whole news/social media thing was designed to do in the first place.

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BEWARE OF THE DESIRE TO BE CONSTANTLY ENTERTAINED


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Bach had twenty children, yet still found the time to write more and better music than a hundred of his contemporaries. When he was fifteen, he walked two hundred and fifty miles from home to attend school in another town. For a while, when he attempted to resign a post as a court musician, he was thrown into prison. I don’t know if he was ever bored. He certainly never played a video game or became addicted to a television series. 

Something has developed in my country and culture that makes me think that nobody will ever again be as profoundly creative as Bach. We don’t have time for it, because we’re spending all our efforts looking for comfort and diversion.
 

The expectation that life be entertaining is a new phenomenon, one that has blossomed like an algae bloom in the last thirty years or so.  I remember one day I was receiving a massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and on either side of me lay Thais in their twenties, who spent their massages playing with their smart phones, furiously scrolling up and down, hoping to be distracted from this deeply pleasurable and therapeutic experience by catching sight of a photo of a cute puppy or a meal one of their friends just ate. Certainly, given the rate they were zipping through these posts they weren’t doing much real reading, nor could they be noticing their massage, the thing that they were paying for and was happening to them here and now.

 

When the novel was first created, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, some warned that it would encourage the foolish and impressionable to waste their valuable time on trifles instead of concentrating on and working for what mattered. Nowadays, we would praise anyone who had the concentration to read a novel. We would declare that person a student of the arts, an intellectual.  Try teaching a college class that requires reading a novel and see how many of the students voluntarily submit to such torture.

 

Constantly seeking distraction or entertainment becomes addictive, and as with most addictions, you can never get enough of what you don’t need.  You end up trading the Real McCoy for its shimmering substitute. And when that trade proves unsatisfactory, you find there are no refunds.

 

Family life is more than a few good-looking actors sitting on couch trading witty comebacks. Romantic love is more than the titillation of a first kiss.  We all know that at least theoretically, but when faced with an opportunity to choose the real over the virtual, most of the time we leap for the illusion. This is why so many hope to enter the Entertainment Industry. Everyone is vaguely aware that there’s big money to be made there for simply goofing around and creating ghosts.

 

When you ask young people what they would like to be when they grow up, a discouraging proportion volunteer “a celebrity.”  The idea that a person would not be celebrated for outstanding achievement in a certain area, but rather that the state of being celebrated would itself become a full-time job is a relatively new one.  Think Paris Hilton, role model for a generation.

 

Entertainment is a first cousin of advertising, that all-pervasive enterprise which seeks to invent heretofore unknown needs and then fill them. Again, the end result is wasted time and resources, disillusionment, and bondage.  Far from being a lofty goal, the chronic thirst for entertainment proves the greatest obstacle to achieving any lofty goal.

 

But this process of fooling Pinocchio into becoming a donkey on Pleasure Island begins in his seemingly simple desire to be distracted.  Please, amuse me, now, this instant, or I’ll die of boredom! So you turn back to your smart phone, hoping this time the voyeuristic hit will satisfy. Most of the time it fails to, but intermittent reward is the essence of addiction. Usually, when you yank of the slot machine handle not much happens, but every long once in a while…jackpot!

 

 

It hasn’t been difficult for cell phone providers to peddle the myth of connectivity because the target audience is already pre-sold. They’ve long ago accepted the idea that connectivity beats physical presence. Experience has taught them that illusions on small screens are preferable to seeing the real thing. In fact, the smaller the screen and the tinnier the audio, the more compelling it is. All their friends agree, and the younger you are, the more that matters.

 

I fear for the young people of the world, whether in developing or developed economies. The Man has you by the throat and you don’t even know it. In fact, you’re grateful. The harder he squeezes, but more you’re willing to give up.  As it says in the Bible, Esau sold his birthright or bowl of porridge, and when he wanted a refund, it was denied him, though he sought it with bitter tears. Youth and health are a gift, a temporary gift that will eventually be taken from you. Wasting it chasing phantoms is grim folly.

 

 

I’m sick of watching BBC and Al Jazeera


When we watch the news as a source of entertainment, it is chronically disappointing, for unfolding real events are not plotted dramatically. Civil wars and famines have a timeline of their own, and lack the familiar dramatic arc leading to crisis followed by denouement. Instead, they just drag on and on. At least in certain familiar stories, like the baby trapped in a well, death will mercifully step in the end the story if rescue cannot, but those kinds of self-contained dramas are rare in the real world, which is the source of news.

The rapid rise and proliferation of news as entertainment lies in its cost benefit. It’s cheaper to eliminate the writers, directors and actors demanded by theater, and there is an assumed seriousness and relevance in the “reality” of news that the fabrication of drama lacks.

Finally, the very act of watching anything on television is nothing most people are proud of, so watching news gives them the justification of self-education. “I’m not just wasting time, I’m watching the news.”