One-dimensional man

George Saunders could have been eavesdropping on our class last night, when we talked about Thoreau and how to get off the news-cycle “treadmill.” Baton Rouge is just the latest tragic instance, but it’s the same sad old story.

In the old days, a liberal and a conservative (a “dove” and a “hawk,” say) got their data from one of three nightly news programs, a local paper, and a handful of national magazines, and were thus starting with the same basic facts (even if those facts were questionable, limited, or erroneous). Now each of us constructs a custom informational universe, wittingly (we choose to go to the sources that uphold our existing beliefs and thus flatter us) or unwittingly (our app algorithms do the driving for us). The data we get this way, pre-imprinted with spin and mythos, are intensely one-dimensional. Drumpf Days

Thoreau thought it best to ignore most of the news, most of the time. “If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident… we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip…”

How many iterations of the generically-same horrible event (usually involving firearms) must we rehearse? I wouldn’t agree with Henry that one’s enough, if those iterations reflect systemic corruption whose only cure is collective outrage and a refusal to take it anymore. It would be immoral to ignore that news.

But the news-cycle is something else, not a call to concerted action against injustice but a continuous looping screaming headline of astonished impotent distraction. The killing never stops, the hand-wringing never works. We fret about it until the next thing comes along.

What to do? Look away from the gossip, get the facts, muster and share your outrage when that’s the right response, fix the broken system – or at least notice that it’s broken. Listening to the same screaming headlines, spun this way and that without regard to what can be known of the facts, until those headlines are displaced by tomorrow’s, gets us nowhere.

5 am/5:39, 71/93, 8:05

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