Is it Just Me? (Rant No. 947)
Long-time readers of this column know that I try, at least in anemic fits and starts, to keep up with what the larger culture is doing and thinking. God forbid that I should one day know so little of the world around me that I can’t make a few intelligent comments in the course of a week! So among all the solid Catholic publications I read, it is my habit to toss in a subscription to a Time or a Newsweek, just so I know what’s going on in the mainstream.
The answer, of course, is not much. As a case in point, both of America’s major news magazines have become, in the main, intellectualized versions of People, preoccupied with personalities and, well, gossip. Even serious political issues are most often viewed through the prism of the personalities-in-charge, and coverage of the current First Family takes the cult of personality to new heights. Most hard information is presented in snippets, charts and graphs. More often than not, longer articles focus on key players more than anything else. To some extent this is justified; after all, the personalities of key players do have a significant impact on events in their respective spheres. But perhaps more to the point, the publishers have to sell their magazines…somehow.
The market for serious reporting and serious discussion of serious issues is clearly pretty small, and apparently getting smaller. In its issue of June 15th, Time essentially pronounced itself dead by announcing the importance of Twitter in shaping how we think. Both the editorial and the feature story strongly reflected Marshall McLuhan’s famous insight that the medium is the message. If so, then the message is discouraging. It is hardly good news that Twitter, like Facebook before it, is largely built on the cult of personality. Its core principle is that there will be “followers” for the various personalities who send out their “Tweets” (140 characters or less). Is this really to be taken seriously? In most cases, it is just another way to waste time by living not in the real moment but in an unending series of virtual moments.
Medium and Message
While each medium may send a message of sorts, when all is said and done the medium is not really the message at all. Certainly, each major shift in communications media has a profound impact on culture, and the Catholic McLuhan was quite right to call attention to that fact through his now notorious catch-phrase. But shaping culture in various ways is not quite the same thing as having a message, and ultimately our endless fixation on the delights and distractions of modern media does a great deal to ensure that nobody has a real message to communicate. So much of this is such meaningless fun—and so satisfying to our unbridled egos—that we shouldn’t be at all surprised to see these forms of communication constantly changing as fads come and go. Earth to Twitterers: The only constant is our endless hunger for something that will satisfy permanently. When we don’t know how to find that, we tend to Tweet.
Now don’t get me wrong. Every form of communication can serve a variety of useful purposes, and some people will always find ways to use new forms of communication to solve real problems, especially simple logistical problems, in their families and social groups, and in their work. (Consider the treacherous distractibility of the web, and then remember you are reading this brilliant column.) In some respects Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, the web generally, email, the telephone, and even air travel, are all a great deal like heavy vehicular traffic. We understand why we ourselves have to be out on the road, but Lord knows most of those other idiots can’t possibly have a good reason. It goes without saying that this is a selfish and short-sighted attitude. But put the thought in God’s mind, and it is probably more often right than wrong.
God, however, is more tolerant than I. He is apparently quite content to allow an avalanche of useless communication for the sake of those who will actually do some good by opening their mouths, or their pens, or their keyboards. This gives the rest of us quite a job of filtering to do, and I am here to tell you that the easiest way to filter the mainstream media—even so-called traditional serious print media like Time and Newsweek—is simply to ignore it. Those of us who can’t quite ignore it completely will only find, increasingly, how little substance it contains. Among many other difficulties, there are severe problems with the mass media model, and most of the problems have to do with something called the lowest common denominator. The LCD of life is spelled D-I-S-T-R-A-C-T-I-O-N.
The Old Curmudgeon
Sports Talk Radio is, I hardly need to point out, an honorable exception, because it is what I listen to while driving, when I need a distraction. This is intended as a joke, but it does suggest that we all need breaks, we all need entertainment. What concerns me is when the breaks become continuous and the entertainment actually becomes a more or less permanent substitute for the serious business of life. It is very difficult to find anything in the mainstream that is not dominated by an endless fascination with distractions and an endless toying with the trivial. (Next time you’re in the grocery store, check out the check out. Things don’t get any more mainstream that that.) The modern world is rapidly becoming a surrealist’s nightmare in which every effort is expended to satisfy our slightest whims, including all our vicarious whims, because we tend to believe that satisfying whims is the essence of happiness.
But happiness consists more in finding meaning than in fulfilling whims. It lies more in the message than in the medium, more in filtering out all the millions of wayward words in order to find the one Word. When it comes to deep, genuine and lasting happiness it is not the quantity of communication that matters, but its quality. The late Cleveland Amory used to write a weekly column called “Curmudgeon at Large”, but for sheer curmudgeonliness I doubt Amory on his best day could have held a candle to yours truly. I try to keep this in mind when I start ranting, but surely our devotion to frivolity must be checked at some point if we want real happiness once again to float within our grasp. Instead, we are becoming an astonishingly narcissistic and frivolous culture, as evidenced by everything from the desperate reader-keeping measures of traditional media to (may the saints preserve us) reality TV.
So much of this is cheap, and I don’t mean just financially, though it is also that, cheap and easy. Unfortunately, this absorption in ourselves, in celebrities, in personalities, and in useless distractions resembles nothing so much as adolescence. We rush around, perpetually excited, captivated always by the latest thing, and utterly convinced that the latest thing is vital. It is as if we are constantly telling God what teenagers invariably tell their parents when they balk at purchasing something their children want: “I know I lost interest in those other things I wanted last year (or last month or last week), and I know I’ve never really used my X, Y or Z, but this new thing is RITM (Really Important To Me).”
Is it just my pathetic curmudgeonly self that finds modern life conspicuous for its great load of vanity? Christians, at least, ought to know better. For we are called, as St. Paul says: “To put off the old man, who is corrupted according to the desire of error. Be renewed in the spirit of your mind: Put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth” (Eph 4:22-24). Indeed, we are called to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its concupiscences” (Rm 13:14). That’s where heavy-duty happiness is found. If we really want a message and not just a medium, let’s Tweet about that.
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