no news is good news
the splendid and the vile
My family and I recently listened to The Splendid and the Vile by Erick Larson. It's a spectacular biography of Winston Churchill during the British involvement in the second world war. In that book, we tangentially learn quite a bit about Joseph Goebbels, chief of Nazi propaganda. At various points during the war, he infiltrated England's centralized news outlets to plant Nazi-sympathetic agents. His agents usually reported the truth. For all intents and purposes, they were perfect reporters who raised no suspicions about their allegiance. Goebbels only occasionally asked them to report falsehoods in an attempt to destabilize public support of the British government.
Fortunately, the British people weren't so easily fooled. When air battles erupted over all of England and eventually reached London itself, all they had to do was look out their windows to see what was happening. Over the course of two chapters, Larson reports that Londoner's were more heartened by hearing anti-air guns firing and more enraged about tea rations than they were about any news report. What's more, as citizens stood on the rubble of their bombed out homes, Winston Churchill personally walked the streets. People watched him both stand strong in the face of German bombers, and weep over the senseless loss of life in his city.
The people who had shells fall through their roofs didn't need someone to tell them what happened. They didn't seek out someone to interpret the larger social implications of their homes' destruction. Larson read passages from their diaries discussing the low rumble of the approaching aircraft followed by the long, high whistle the bombs made as they fell. The planes were bright streaks in the sky, and the bombs they dropped sparkled like glitter in the sunlight. When a bomb burst, the shockwave rattled the ground, the heat burned their skin, the dust filled their mouths and noses, and the gas from broken pipes made the air putrid and toxic.
The people who kept diaries during the whole thing did a spectacular service for the rest of us. We don't even have to wonder what it smelled like at the time because they were so careful to preserve every facet of their experience.
While I would never want to live through such a dark time in history, I envy the certainty with which victims of German bombing recorded the events they lived through. Even though every single day of the past four years has been "unprecedented," there's still a huge disconnect between my life and what's happening in the news.
When hurricane Harvey hit my city and dumped feet of water that damaged over 130,000 houses near me, I was safely tucked in to my dorm room. I studied for my first chemistry lab of the semester, played Monopoly tournaments, and ate food that some people claimed was helicoptered in just for us. All my friends and I watched the news closely to keep tabs on the state of the storm. I had friends and relatives call me to ask how bad the storm was, but I didn't have anything to report to them.
When the polar vortex made it all the way to the coast of Texas and left many people in my state without utilities, I made hot chocolate and watched low-budget movies with my friends.
Don't get me started on the pandemic.
Finally, I even visited and moved to a city that largely defunded their police department in the midst of the worst protests and rioting of my lifetime, but I didn't see any of it.
It seems like there are major events happening all around me and right next to me, but I only hear about them in the news. Is this some kind of luck? Privilege? Maybe ignorance? Am I in the minority here? Or could it be true that most people are largely unaffected by things in the news?
so why do I care?
I'm not very good at small talk. The weather's usually not very interesting, and it's so hard to talk about current events. I'm afraid to hit a touchy subject or stumble on someone's pet hot-topic. If I let my own opinion slip through, it might offend my friends and family. On the rare occasions when I actually have a substantial disagreement with someone I love, I typically retreat to common ground of accord.
The news doesn't change my life in any more than reading the diaries of civilians during World War II. I only bring up such things in conversations where I'm trying to fill silence, and even then I only address the "easy" topics. This indicates that, for me, the news isn't a source of practicable information, but a social tool. It gives me context to help me understand events in my life, but it doesn't tell me much, if anything, about what's actually happening to me.
Both the diaries and newscasts make me grateful for my safety and comfort. They keep me humble in my interactions with others. They remind me that other human beings fill the whole wide world around me.
which window matters more?
When I visited my hometown recently, it was like I saw it through new eyes. I forgot how much fun it is to sit on the porch and watch my favorite childhood friends, teachers, and mentors pass by on the street.
I also forgot that the TV in my childhood living room sits opposite our front windows. In an interesting turn of irony, we close our front curtains, blocking the view of all the real people passing by on the street so that we can have a better view of the people on TV. I even block out the sun with my hand so I can see the screen of my cell phone when I'm outside.
It's quite poetic that I have to block out the world around me to see what's happening on my screens. Both my house's windows and my screens are windows to big, wide worlds. Strangely, only one of those worlds seems to have any effect on my life.
I took this post, almost verbatim, from a journal entry I made around this time last year. I added the parts about Erick Larson's book for further, specific illustration of the topic.
I'm not anti-news, but I'm getting closer to it every day. Whether it's adopting Tim Ferriss' low-information diet or taking a media fast, I discover more and more that I don't need to be constantly worried, excited, or even stimulated by information. I especially don't like it when that information is curated to elicit a strong negative reaction from me (like most so-called news today).
I wanted this post to discuss the dangers of media bias (to which I will return later), but it turns out the old saying really is true:
No news is good news.
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