A 30-Day News Embargo for Mental Health: No News Is Good News
Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July, his exceptional play from 1978, abounds in memorable lines. After I saw the Broadway production at the New Apollo Theater during a trip to New York in 1981 (the unforgettable version with Richard Thomas, Jeff Daniels, and Swoosie Kurtz), I invented a tradition to make sure I remembered at least some of them: I’ve re-read the play on every July 5th since then. This year, only a few months after Wilson’s death in March, my reading brought a special kind of nostalgia.
Fifth of July takes place at the Talley family farm in Lebanon, Missouri, on Independence Day, 1977, and on the day after. The family has gathered for a ceremony, ostensibly because dotty, elderly-savant Aunt Sally has decided—after carrying the ashes of her late husband, Matt, around in a cigar box for years—that she is finally ready to spread them at the lake-edge of the family compound.
At one point in Act I, as Aunt Sally is reminiscing about Matt, she says,
They all hated him…. They said he didn’t love this country because he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. I think they were right. I don’t think he loved this country a bit. He loved the countryside….
I think that just about sums up where I am these days. I do love the countryside. I don’t much love my country. I haven’t for quite some time—but as far as I’m concerned it’s my country that done me wrong.
And that is, at least in part, why I’m taking this occasion to announce a month-long News Fast and Information Detoxification Program, a sort of a colon-cleansing, psyllium-husk treatment for the soul.
I’m not sure I could point to a precise trigger for this decision. I’ve been thinking about it for months. But when we came home late on a Sunday night a few weeks ago—following a relaxing weekend getaway during which our most pressing concerns had involved snorkeling and alligator-viewing—the news that Michelle Bachman had won the Ames, Iowa, Republican straw poll spread a dark, oily slick along the shores of whatever tiny island of tranquility we’d managed to inhabit while we were away.
Long before we went, though—and, in fact, one of the reasons why we needed to get away in the first place—were weeks and months of news in which I seemed unable to avoid a single conclusion, as I looked at what was happening around the world: Evil is winning.
There was the triumph of the Tea Party’s falsehoods and malevolence in the debt-ceiling negotiations. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s decision, in back-to-back cases, to order the deportation of the non-US-citizen partner in two long-term same-sex couples and (I knew I shouldn’t have read them) the hateful, depraved, vicious comments of my “fellow” citizens on news articles about the decisions (“fucking faggots haven’t done enough to ruin the country—now they want their foreign “lovers” to get citizenship? I say hell no!”).
There’s the continued refusal of any political party to address the war on the poor and the disenfranchised around the world, or to take even the smallest steps to reduce the speed by which the rich and powerful are tightening their stranglehold on the rest of us.
The early-August uprisings in England were no more than a case in point: Every single mainstream news outlet insisted on labeling them “riots” (because, while rebellions and “people-power movements” can take place in Egypt and Syria, they cannot occur in the West) and further insisted on maintaining a focus on the “thugs” and “looters” to the resolute exclusion of any analysis of the racism, systematic impoverishment, and lack of education that are the lot of the working-class in London’s modern-day slums. Suggest that those factors played at least (can we say that? “at least”?) as large a part in the “riots” as did some looter’s desire to score a free flat-screen TV and you’re a coddler, you’re politically correct, you’re a pinko dinosaur.
Or, to say it with John Steinbeck, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
And the media increasingly appear to see themselves as the defenders of the millionaires, of the embarrassed millionaires, of the millionaires who refuse to be embarrassed, and of the millionaires manqué.
Of course, none of this is new. I lived through Anita Bryant and a string of demoralizing defeats of fledgling gay-rights protections between 1977 and 1978: my coming-out present from the United States. St. Paul, Minnesota; Eugene, Oregon; and Wichita, Kansas all fell, and it was hard not to see them as dominoes. That was especially true when we got to California’s Proposition 6 in 1978—only three years after the state had “decriminalized” homosexuality—John Briggs’ attempt to outlaw gay teachers and anyone who “advocated” homosexuality in the public schools.
The election of Harvey Milk in November 1977 and the defeat of Proposition 6 a year later (one of the only times in my life that I’ve voted for someone or something that went the way I wanted), were dazzling points of light in a gloom that threatened to obscure the horizon.
And I lived through the Reagan Years, though most of my male friends didn’t. Up until now, I would have called those my darkest days in America—as I watched friend after friend waste away and die because money for research, for most of Reagan’s eight years, wasn’t forthcoming and, when it finally was, new drugs couldn’t be developed fast enough for them. In the meantime, the heinous William F. Buckley talked of forcibly tattooing HIV-positive individuals and still other politicians proposed mandatory concentration camps—the first and last time the AmeriKKKan right ever thought Fidel Castro had a good idea.
I lived through the first Gulf War and the threat (which thankfully never materialized) that biological and chemical bombs were about to rain down on Israel. I lived through the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and, like all of us, am still living with the legacy of the methodical dismantling of American civil liberties in the name of increased security. Republicans convinced Americans of a pack of lies, Democrats did precious little to stop them, and voices of protest were marginalized and pathologized.
(The other day, I watched Dolce Metà pass through the TSA checkpoints at the airport on his way to catch a flight overseas. Because I wasn’t going with him, I had the opportunity for the first time to stand apart and observe the process. Though the whole thing only took a few minutes, I had to consciously push down a knot of panic in my gut. There he was naked (literally, for a moment), his belongings handed over to someone who could paw through them or even confiscate them; there he was at the mercy of those machines, of those people with guns, of “experts” who could demand an explanation for anything—a bottle of aspirin, a book, the files on his laptop; of “officials” with the power to decide he could be frisked or stripped or held in a confinement cell for hours or days—and I couldn’t do anything about it. If you want to know what terrorism is, Donald Rumsfeld, it’s that.)
So the way I see things these days is this: Evil is on a winning streak and it has been for a while. Sometimes it looks like Ronald Reagan, sometimes it looks like Dick Cheney, and sometimes it looks like Michelle Bachmann. And all of them quote scripture for their purpose.
I see Evil almost daily among my students—they are not Evil, let me hurry to make clear, but their minds are hopelessly colonized. The more I get to know them, the more I am convinced that greater access to information has not only not made us smarter and better informed, it has had the opposite effect. Nowadays, in fact, the media (which includes the internet and its billion monkeys typing on a billion typewriters) are capable of recontextualizing any issue as a “controversy” rather than making clear that it is instead a dispute between people who are right and people who are, quite simply, wrong.
And that’s not the result of any effort on their part to be “objective” (because media objectivity, my friends, went extinct a long, long time ago). It’s a concerted attempt to usher in an era of total nihilism. My students, in fact, are perfect nihilists, though they probably don’t even know the term, because this is exactly what they believe: That nothing is ultimately right or true or moral. That everything is an opinion. That lies and falsehoods are simply “alternative viewpoints.” The famous Voltairian (or perhaps only Voltaire-inspired) proposition, “I will defend to the death your right to say it,” has been corrupted to mean “I have the inalienable right to make shit up.”
Think about what happened to Shirley Herrod. Think about the so-called global warming “controversy.” Think about the “theory” of evolution. Think about the “debate” in the “culture wars” regarding basic civil rights for people who are queer.
Think about how, every time we discuss welfare (cue the Cadillac-driving “welfare queens”), we can count on someone frothing at the mouth about “welfare cheats” or about all the money welfare recipients “take” from hard-working taxpayers (most welfare recipients work and, thus, also pay taxes, by the way). Or about how, whenever we have a conversation about immigration, we must contend with the “alternative viewpoint” that immigrants are stealing jobs from Americans. We’d sooner give up believing in Santa Claus, apparently, than let go of that much-beloved myth.
Or think about recent surveys in which 18% of Americans say they believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. Yes, still. Three years after his election. It’s a discouraging figure. First of all, because he’s not and, second of all because, even if he were, it turns out that it’s actually okay to be a Muslim.
I’ve never been more discouraged.
Meanwhile, we’re on the eve of the tenth … “anniversary” seems such an ill-considered word … let’s say “observation” of the September 11th attacks in 2001. The patriotic hysteria began weeks ago and is reaching a crescendo, and I simply can’t bear it.
Hence the decision: There’s never been a better time to go on a News Fast.
Starting Friday, September 9 and lasting through October 9, here’s what it means: No more reading the New York Times, the Washington Post, La Repubblica, Il Corriere della Sera, or any other newspaper online. (I’ve never read the local
Tea Party propaganda sheet fishwrap anyway, even though they keep attempting to foist it on me for free at the entrance to the grocery store.)
No more listening to NPR in the car. (Full disclosure: I’ve been considering going off NPR for a while, even before I started formulating the idea of a News Fast. You might say, in fact, that the idea for a News Fast started with NPR, because I long ago realized I’d reached the point where, if I heard another low-brow, soft-ball interview by Terry Gross or another smarmy, lame-brained commentary by Tavis Smiley, I was going to end it all and drive directly into a drainage ditch. No, I didn’t care who I took with me.
Then there was the fact that the local voice of NPR in South Florida is WLRN announcer Bonnie Berman. IMHO, Bonnie Berman should be kidnapped, at gunpoint if necessary, and sent to a speech therapy deprogramming center where they will (we hope) cure both her Peewee Herman-esque nasality and teach her to stop elongating her consonants (yes, consonants) at the ends of syllables. Really. She also holds her vowels, if that’s the issue. Apparently, she thinks she’s performing recitative. Every single freaking time she opens her mouth. “Toodeiiiiii on NPRrrrrrhh, we’ll heerrrr from a man who rescuuuuues alligaterrrrsss rayzeddd illeeeegallyyyy in the staaa-aate of Florrridaaaaahh.” Bonnie, nails on a chalkboard is Handel in comparison.)
It means no more newsgroups or email lists, which means per forza della cose no more messages in my in-box with subject lines like “Where The Presidential Candidates Stand On LGBT Issues” or “Rick Santorum: Marriage Equality is Equal to Slavery” or “Economic Illiterates Step Up the Attack on Social Security and Medicare.”
And it also means—this one is scary—no Facebook for a month. And that’s because, after some three years on the site (hating Mark Zuckerberg for almost the entire time—as Zadie Smith recently put it in the New York Review of Books, we’re “500 million sentient people entrapped in the careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore”), I’ve honed my friends list into what amounts to a kind of progressive/liberal/Commie clipping service.
The result is that my truly wonderful politically active and committed friends are constantly posting things I want to read (“Why Won’t Supposedly Progressive Trader Joe’s Sign an Agreement Not to Sell Slave Labor Tomatoes?” or “GOP Hopeful Exposes Republican Anti-Jobs, Anti-Middle Class Agenda,” or “Protest Police Terror in London” or “Corporations Deny Free Speech,” or “Dan Choi Blasts Obama, Prepares for Trial”).
But the fact is, Facebook has got to go, too, at least for the next month. I am going to miss it, as I will miss all my other “sources,” but here is a truth I’ve come to realize: All this information is making me sad. In fact, I increasingly see the “news” as an assault, and I need a break.
Of course this is only temporary. It’s a 30-day fast to clear my head and regroup, to lighten my heart, not a sustained hermitage. I can’t imagine living in permanent ignorance regarding what’s happening in the world. Knowing, in fact, may be the last defense that’s left to us. We might be going down, but at least I won’t go down saying I never knew what hit us.
I’ll be blogging occasionally during my “30-Day News Embargo for Mental Health,” assuming there’s something worth saying. I realize, of course, that there’s no way to seal oneself hermetically away from the world, and one thing that will be interesting is what manages to cross my “threshold” anyway. Das Information kennt verschiedenen Wegen.
By the way, I don’t expect my friends to modify their behavior in the least. You don’t have to treat me like a San Francisco vegan at a Texas barbecue. The only difference is, between September 9th and October 9th, you’ll have to email me directly if you want to reach me — Facebook messages won’t come through.
As for me, I’m fastening my seat belt. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Posted on 5 September 2011, in AmeriKKKa the Bootiful, Florida Sucks OK!, You Can Always Count on a Little Homophobia and tagged Harvey Milk, Immigration, John Briggs, Lanford Wilson, Mark Zuckerberg, Michelle Bachmann, Ronald Reagan, Tea Party, Zadie Smith. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.