February 23, 2017
I was told this week Trump was “against science.” I was told Trump “gagged the scientific community.” I was told, “government data is no longer available for civilian use.” The New York Times later informed me that what actually happened was not a noteworthy story at all and that it’s “standard practice” for an administration to do exactly this during a transition. The Department of Agriculture transition letter was even based off the last administration’s transition letter. I needlessly got excited that something was happening in Washington.
I was told this week with the same shock and outrage “The whole senior management of the State Department has resigned (these are not partisan people)” and was later told that “Trump replaced the State Department’s senior management.” Already there were two stories – did they resign or did Trump replace them? Either way, I was actually excited to learn that there was massive turnover at the State Department because my experience is that the place is so terribly run.
I was let down though, as it turned out to be #FakeNews based on #AlternativeFacts to use the trendy monikers of the moment being used by status quo fundamentalists to describe a wide range of ideas such as lies, spin, the unfamiliar, differences of interpretation, and differences of opinion.
With a few minutes of work I found out more credibly that the afternoon’s news actually only pertained to the firing or resignation of four people at the State Department, which didn’t sound so significant. I also found a State Department organizational chart to identify what exactly this meant. The report was about the Under Secretary for Management, which is one of the six Under Secretaries at the State Department, and was also about three of the twelve administrative positions that serve directly below that Under Secretary for Management: the Assistant Secretary of Administration, the Assistant Secretary of Consular Affairs, and the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions. We are talking about four of the sixty-two people at the upper echelons of the State Department – hardly a reason for me to get excited. With luck, this story is still developing.
There was so much uproar blowing up my phone all at once that I initially went against my best judgment to ignore it all. Even as I went online looking for a few credible sources and spending the twenty minutes doing some background reading that those behind the uproar clearly did not, even as I was doing this, I said to myself “It’s too soon. There’s barely any point in looking for any well thought-out writing on breaking news because it’s just too soon. It takes thoughtful people time to put together well thought-out articles.”
Initially ignoring some of those stories I really care about takes discipline, but is a huge time same. Finding a thoughtful analysis takes thirty seconds one week after a story breaks. It takes twenty minutes one day after a story breaks. It takes hours as a story is breaking. That’s a pretty significant difference. Plus, how can one even imagine that thoughtful analysis would take place where facts are not even known and reports are in flux and so contradictory? Naturally inquisitive, I’ve certainly found myself in that situation.
Immersing myself in that process while it happens is simply a bad use of time. A few days after a story breaks, I can know everything about a story with ease or I can struggle through the process as information breaks as if I were a paid journalist, only with the significant disadvantage of neither being a paid journalist nor being on location. A few times a year I do that. The rest of the time having the patience to ignore a breaking story pays rewards.
It becomes my mantra through that process to profess ignorance as the wise Socrates did. I can’t pretend to know everything and I won’t attempt to. It feels good to give myself permission not to know everything. The more I do that, the more I find myself drawn toward the highest quality, most insightful news sources. The more I seek higher quality news sources, the more transparent these half-truths and heavily spun versions become. It took me a lot of work to get there, and if I’m not careful I can pretty easily slip up and spend a few hours with a bad news source. In this information-heavy environment that we live in, it’s important to be judicious about what sources we allow to have use of that most finite and precious resource of ours – time.
Most importantly of all, there’s no value to knowing everything, because the resources that allow me to use that knowledge with a clear affect on the situation are limited. How can it possibly make a difference to me or virtually anyone else whether I hear about some State Department shakeup either as it’s happening or a week after it has happened?
In 2008, after completing a run for US House of Representatives (IL-10), I was exhausted and gave myself a little bit of a break. That break included a “news fast”. I stopped reading the daily papers and started getting my news piecemeal from discussions with friends. When something sounded important, I paid closer attention and did a little research. From time-to-time I would immerse myself in the news to catch up. During the catch-up, the important-sounding issues were given deep dives into expert sources. You miss surprisingly little by not picking up a newspaper, not turning on a television, or not visiting Facebook for months at a time. At the same time you gain quite a bit of useful distance.
The hysterics that accompanied the news I received this week are one reason democracy was abhorred by so many of America’s founding fathers. Yes, the Founding Fathers were old and in a different time that looked a lot different than the present. I understand that. I understand how very out of touch they may seem to some in our era. Also, I know that “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” But that does not make a difference in this context. The Founding Fathers too knew the evils of an activist media constantly riling people up to boost sales, increase advertising revenue, and achieve political gain.
They did not have a 24 hour news cycle or the immediacy of social media, but they understood the tendency of some people to succumb to that manipulation and the fallout that results. They had the foresight to encourage a free press, at great cost to the short term control of those in power and at risk of immediate stability, while leaving it the responsibility of the people to decide for themselves how to interact with that freedom. It’s quite a responsibility.
Noam Chomsky wrote a book on the concept and industry of manipulating the public, calling it Manufacturing Consent. In it Chomsky describes American media as propaganda. An extensive field of mind control and manipulation grew out of the linguistic field of transformational grammar, which Chomsky is generally credited with creating with his earliest work. Linguistic manipulation that melds Chomsky’s studies with the work of others is so prevalently used that to find examples, one need only turn on the television for mere minutes and not hours. It is not without intent that the media is so effective at attracting and holding attention.
In a discussion with a young Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, 25 years his senior, warned Hemingway that he would never be able to think through things as clearly, to be a meaningful and lasting writer, if he continued to engage in the daily work of writing for newspapers.
Time and distance are needed to think. Immediate, impassioned reaction is a bad response to new information that begs analysis. Generally, no topic, unless immediately threatening to life, requires your immediate attention let alone your consent to rile you up.
My news fast that started in November 2008 continues more than 8 years later. I check in on the news from time-to-time and I keep myself aware of current events; I even subscribe to a daily paper that others in my life end up reading much more than I do, but I much prefer the distance that is offered to me by refusing to allow neither any news editor nor the whole industry of news editors to dictate what topics my mind is going to think through. That is exactly what you do when you allow the TV to always be on in the background or you routinely scan headlines.
Recognizing that impact that the prevalence of information has on me, and that it has on many people if those people are being honest with themselves, I take it a step further than a news fast. Seldom do I consume media before noon, seldom do I read social media before noon, seldom do I look at texts or even pickup the phone before noon. That time from sunrise into the afternoon, as much as I can protect it, is my time to produce work of my own and to determine very consciously what I am going to think through and write about. Entire weekends, weeks, and months of my life are designed to unplug from the bustle.
This does not mean that I do not read. It just means I’m just very judicious about what. At the same time as I maintain a relative daily news fast, I read as many as 300 books some years, attempting to engage in ideas from people who took time and distance to process. Spending less time obsessing over breaking news leaves so much more time for the reading of well-thought out analysis that has received the benefit of time and distance. I attend conferences to listen to, challenge, and surround myself with thought leaders in their chosen fields. I always have research assistants at my employ to help facilitate this process. I dig into ideas that have stood the test of time and spend more time with those lasting ideas than whatever is momentarily trendy. Even my sabbath time is spent in churches where pastors steeped in the classics with theological rigor know how to give intellectually stimulating and spiritually inspiring sermons.
There is a vigorous flow of ideas around me at virtually all times. Those ideas are carefully curated though and that curation is not being done by whatever anonymous team of network programmers CNN has working this week. That would be silly because those programmers don’t exist primarily for my interest. They exist to keep me watching, and they exist to shape my opinion, often using sophisticated techniques. Time is precious and the media generally exists to take that precious resource from each of us.
Wouldn’t I be better off spending a minute studying those techniques rather than spending a minute having those techniques used on me? Yes. At least that’s what I’ve thought these past five years, in which I’ve spent no fewer than four hours a week, and sometimes more doing just that – studying the sophisticated techniques of marketers that Edward Bernays, Noam Chomsky, Robert Cialdini and many others have written about.
There’s a war for your mind. I have no doubt about that. There’s a war for my mind. The many minds out there form a great battlefield to those who seek to view us as a collective. Most of the time many of us individuals don’t even know we are involved in that war for our minds. No thank you. I’d prefer not to give a network programmer, a newspaper editor, or an Internet algorithm the power of curation. That’s exactly what a regular media habit is likely to cede. I’ll reserve that for myself and like Josh Davis points out in his book Two Awesome Hours, those seemingly innocuous and common daily decisions can come to affect an entire lifetime.
Donald Trump was just made President. I get it. It’s time to act a little crazy because you have plugged your mind into the matrix and have surrendered your emotions to the manufacturers of consent. They really don’t like him and are going to use their influence among the general public to fight him, whether that be as a candidate or as an elected official.
Trump threatens their political worldview, but far more importantly, he threatens the industry and its power structures that have become so wealthy from their ability at influencing individuals. Some of Trump’s stated views are not my first choice politically, but the cultural significance of what Trump is doing makes him a uniquely skilled individual for the job of President at this moment in time, and perhaps the best American I could possibly imagine in that culturally significant position in our culturally significant times. America is undergoing a revolution of ideas and as paradigms shift, there is friction, as has always been the case in all paradigms shifts I’ve ever studied.
If you are one of the people blowing up your friends’ phones with the latest Beltway drama or getting totally depressed at work because of the latest click bait about what Trump just did, it might be time to give yourself some time and distance to think. Maybe read a book about the successes and failures of the Byzantine Empire with special attention to their currency or Murray Rothbard’s four volume pre-Constitution era US history “Conceived in Liberty” or one of my favorites from childhood “The Senate of the Roman Republic” by Democratic Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. I don’t agree with everything the man wrote, but damn was he so respectably well read, especially for a politician.
It’s said that if you give a child time, silence, and a library of classic books that you have given that child more than any classroom can offer. Only with time and distance does that library mean anything. If you are constantly plugged in, all the wisdom of the ages is meaningless.
Cicero famously said “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” That library represents collections of wisdoms, information thought out by people with time and distance in a form that can be transported and consumed by others, while that garden that Cicero speaks of is time and distance for you, the person with the library and the garden, to study, pause, and reflect.
Perhaps time and distance are just too much of a luxury to expect of anyone these days. I feel that way as well sometimes, so I’ve figured out that in the occasional absence of time and distance, the Hinlicky Rule can be a reliable short cut, for it helps provide an emotional and intellectual distance:
“You shall not criticize the position of another…until you can state that position with such accuracy, completeness and sympathy, that the opponent himself declares, ‘Yes, I could not have said it better myself!‘ Then, and only then, may you criticize. For then you are engaging a real alternative and advancing a real argument. Otherwise you shed only heat, not light.”
The partisanship. The bickering. The immediacy of information, is all so far removed from the place where knowledge is had. If you are getting swept up in all of this, it is likely your information supply is very high and your knowledge supply is less than adequate. Your ratios are off.
If you feel uncontrollably swept up in any of the minute-to-minute drama right now, be that emotionally or intellectually, please reduce the data coming in, reduce the information around you and seek knowledge. Seek wisdom. The data will always be there and easily accessible. That easy data is forever out of Pandora’s Box and the human pursuit of that data has replaced a far more valuable pursuit. The raw data is neutral and useless without a structure of knowledge. The world looks so bleak without a structure of wisdom. Data is cheap. There are more valuable pursuits that require great effort. Time and distance help you find them. Seek knowledge. Seek wisdom.
You are certainly a very smart person. And as such, given time and distance, you will soon understand the wisdom of these words.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.