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Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Sane Man's Guide to Paying Attention

Hi guys. It’s been a minute. Let’s talk about things.

For a couple of weeks there, I was summarizing the news for you. I thought, before I began doing that, that I was consuming a lot of news. Boy, howdy, was I underestimating how much noise is out there when you actually turn your ear at it. Besides quickly turning my works into dry, meandering, unreadable documents that affected their readers similarly to a mainline injection of MSG (panic, sweat, double-vision, vomit, diarrhea, and in rare cases, death), immersing myself fully and actively in the wash of contradictory and individually useless information that is the modern news cycle felt akin to being slowly dipped into a molten vat of my own paranoia, as narrated by Wolf Blitzer. I don’t regret doing it, but also wouldn’t recommend it to anyone that hasn’t already watched their entire family – dog included – murdered by white supremacists, and then walked cross-country to exact their revenge. Basically, unless you’re Arya Stark, you’re probably not enough of a bad-ass to stare directly into the sun of current events. I couldn’t do it, and I spent even the Obama years yelling at the television. (Still waiting on that Change we Hoped for.)

But as everyone, even those with their heads two feet below sand level, is well aware, we are through the fucking looking-glass. The 2016 Presidential Election was successfully influenced on a propaganda level by wealthy businessfolk from another country (one with its own Trump-esque strongman). The FBI is investigating the winning campaign for potential collusion in these efforts. As a result of this, the majority party in both Houses of Congress – led by the President none of them wanted until they realized he was just an honest representation of everything they’ve stood for since the early 1970s – has engaged in a smear campaign, not only on their usual targets across the aisle, but now on the very law enforcement they have so long built their platform around supporting. The President himself is closely following the strategies of every demagogue in world history: rise to power on a wave of fearful, nationalist populism; demonize racial, religious, and social minority groups, along with anyone that differs with you politically; slash funding for social programs, while dumping it into military spending and defensive infrastructure by galvanizing xenophobia. These things are happening right now. Also, the stock market is more de-regulated than it has been since before the Housing Market Crash of ’08, and there were 3 mass shootings at schools in the first 45 days of the year. It’s reasonable to say current events are alarming.

Several extra Horsemen of the Apocalypse

But it’s also important to remember that news reporting has become an industry whose financial viability is directly tied to its ability to unsettle you emotionally. We’ve cultivated a society in which, now that all the information is freely available to everyone all the time, those that have been paid for generations to curate that information are facing an existential crisis if they can’t hold our attention. It’s certainly true that we need someone to do this curating, as we learned in the last election cycle, but I’d argue that commercial media outlets are far from a perfect candidate. In fact, getting one’s news from CNN is almost certainly as bad for their ability to maintain a rational outlook as getting it from Breitbart, FOX, or some lunatic making YouTube videos about Hillary’s Pizza/Child Sex Slavery Ring. That’s last part isn’t a joke, but a thing that people legitimately believe is real, and while likely every single one of them was sexually abused at some point in their childhood, they are now fighting what they genuinely feel is a Zeitgeist-altering crusade to expose what they view as a legitimate cancer at the center of our political structure. Laugh all you want, but consuming all the information on all the networks, trying to find the Truth in the middle somewhere will inevitably take you down a similarly dangerous rabbit-hole.

The fact of the matter is, while all the networks have a bias, when you try to find the Truth they’re basing their reporting on, you will discover the bias isn’t what’s dangerous about “The Media.” What’s dangerous about commercialized mass media is that they depend on your fear to keep you coming back for information at a rate that will make their sponsors feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. What makes FOX or CNN or ABC/NBC/CBS untrustworthy isn’t their political bias; everybody has one. What makes them untrustworthy is the same thing that makes the politicians they criticize untrustworthy: they are loyal to and serve only those that fund their continued existence. 45 years ago, there was no money to be made by a channel that talked about the news 24 hours a day. There wasn’t enough news to make that kind of programming compelling. The change that happened between now and then has less to do with a greater availability of information, and more to do with the fact that the companies that have sought profit in making that model feasible, have done so by intentionally making the information terrifying.

So what can you do?       

  •  You can spend less time paying attention. That sounds like crazy advice, but I’m not saying don’t pay attention, just ration the time you spend doing so. I promise that you can get all the same information catching up in an hour at the end of the week, as you would refreshing Google’s news feed every 15 minutes; I tried. Plus, that way you get the added benefit of letting a situation fully develop, as opposed to living in a constant series of real life cliffhangers.
  • When you do read the news, avoid Analysis and Opinion that comes from a source that is paid to manufacture it. Meaning, when possible, read the straight news from Reuters and AP, and if you need it broken down further or are curious what someone else thinks about it, seek out either local news outlets that are barely staying afloat (the more independent of corporate/political funding, the better), or bloggers who either only get paid through generic banner ads and direct contributions, or make no money at all (Hi, again!). That said, it's then doubly important to check those people's interpretations of the facts against the facts themselves, and only integrate the bits that make logical sense into your outlook. It's very easy for me to spew my opinion. It's much harder to base it on something. Remember that many people, even professionals, don't hold too tightly to that principle.
  • In case it wasn’t obvious in that sentence, DO NOT WATCH THE NEWS ON TV (or on any website owned and operated by an entity that is primarily a broadcaster). Confusing news with entertainment is how we started down this road 40 years ago. Television news is where information goes to die.

It is vitally important to the survival of our Democracy for everyone to realize they are being manipulated by people who are trying to sell them an explanation of what is going on. The only reason you can trust me is because nobody is paying me to say this. Even then, you can’t trust me to be right – because I might not be – but you can trust that I’m not intentionally misleading you or trying to manipulate you into agreeing with me. The people who make their living – and, more importantly CONTINUAL PROFIT FOR THEIR INVESTORS – off selling you information know that you will only pay at most once a month or so for an update on what is happening in the ongoing obstruction of justice investigation focusing on the Trump White House. They cannot run their multi-billion dollar machine on that. So they will spend the rest of the month terrifying you by reporting seriously every off-the-cuff tweet that buffoon shoots out with the utmost seriousness as if it’s a valid rebuttal. Just because the man is the President of the United States does not mean he is immune from the due process of law. It just means it takes FAR longer to process, if you want the fucking charges to stick. And in the meantime, these paid entertainers are just trying to keep the crowd roaring between spectacles. 

So don’t freak out. I did, and it didn’t help anything. Shit is going to get WAY more intense over the next six to eight months, and we’re gonna need to be rational at the end of that period when it comes time to vote. Between now and then, Democrats and Republicans will continue to demonize one another over immigration, military spending, and gun laws. As the mid-terms approach, that shit will reach a fever pitch, and likely around when the crescendo peaks, some serious bombshells will start landing from the Mueller probe. At that point, the White House will go on total lock-down and all out offense, like a rabid dog in a corner, potentially trying to bring down the very systems set in place to make American Government function, or even stirring up nuclear-war-level crises abroad in a last ditch distraction attempt. This is all the speculation of someone who probably has no place making such predictions (and has admittedly failed to follow the guidelines for preserving one’s rational outlook described above), but my point is that if you’re overwhelmed now, you have to find a way to cope with that without disengaging completely. Because November of this year may be the most pivotal month I will witness in my lifetime for this country. If we act irrationally, or allow ourselves to be manipulated by organizations to whom our support is only a means to a financial end, there is no outcome – even if it entails what I perceive to be the inevitable Fall of Trump – that will actually serve our interests. Remember every day from now until then that just because someone uses blue donkey graphics and has a big D next to their state doesn’t make them any more interested in your well-being than the guy that’s being obvious about only representing folks that look like him and can pay for his attention.

I guess what I’m saying is you don’t need to, and probably shouldn’t stay focused. Just be alert. Trust your gut. And don’t believe everything you read.