The Real Crisis of Our Times is What Crisis Does to Us

By Al Giordano

A wonderful essay is circulating by Alain de Botton in City magazine (I came across it via Andrew Sullivan), titled, On Distraction. In just 333 words, de Botton captures one of the central problems of this present moment in history:

“One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.

“The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties—something that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellows.”

De Botton – who has an interesting project in London called The School of Life - recommends “diets” or “fasts” of the mind, which may or may not work to alleviate such alienation depending on the individual, but do not address the larger societal problems described. Plus, the counsel sounds a little bit too much like a “self help book” prescription (and the constant overdose of media stimulation has different effects on different minds: not all suffer from bloated obesity) when his analysis can also serve as a trampoline with which we can also jump toward some additional inquiries and ideas.

Fourteen years ago I wrote a kind of manual and manifesto about arming ourselves to fight the “24-hours-a-day war between Media and Self,” and in recent months I’ve picked back up the unfinished project of that work, The Medium Is the Middleman: For a Revolution Against Media, dusted it off, and with other collaborators have set parts of it into praxis again in the realm of daily life (which especially includes what happens away from the Internet and other screens). Back then, a lot of the conclusions and ideas put forward in that document were a lot less popular and a lot less easily understood than they are now, at this present moment that de Botton describes so well. Today, there is an emerging and wide societal consensus on many of them. History has been kind to that once inconvenient analysis of “media” as the central problem of our era.

What I have often smacked down from this corner as “the poutrage of the week” and the panicked Chicken Little behavior of those who follow the commercial media’s constant feedbag of crisis and attention-seeking, is really, all of it, a consequence of the harms that de Botton describes. Like domesticated oxen, the population is yanked from media stoked crisis to crisis, all of which carry a whiff of apocalypse: an oil gusher in the Gulf now comes with underwater 24-hour live stream cameras, all available online and to TV networks, as experts – real and invented – jump onto our screens to tell us their version of what is happening. “We are continuously challenged to discover new works of culture,” says de Botton, “and, in the process, we don’t allow any one of them to assume a weight in our minds.” A few weeks later comes Israel’s raid on an aid flotilla (the Middle East being, for many, a Pavlov signifier for “apocalypse” and thus an easy ruse for the media to get all sides drooling and barking according to an age-old script) and the cycle starts anew. And next week or the following week, when fatigue sets in on those obsessions, it will be something else altogether.

De Botton describes the debilitating effect of all this crisis-mongering on the media consumer. But we had also better study what it does to the media worker – not just journalists, per se, but communicators and artists of all kinds – who are now reduced to typing monkeys that have to go out and find those “instant experts” or cram to be able to at least play them on TV, or on a blog, or any other media. You’re expected to write or talk or shout about every crisis of the week, so you - I'm talking to you, fellow and sister media workers! - run to Wikipedia and the rest of the online library to pull up some factoids and buzzwords that fool the crowd into thinking the reporter or communicator really knows what he and she are writing or talking about. The formulaic nature of this kind of frenetic activity at work stations is killing so much of the creativity of the formerly “creative class”!

The bigger crisis of our time is, thus, Power's need to create constant crises, generated first and foremost by the commercial media, all competing for our dwindling hours of free time and attention span, and exacerbated by every kind of interest group, advertiser, opportunist, politician, "activist," aspiring tyrant or con artist who know that a person who perceives himself or his community or his world in crisis can be sold all kinds of products and ideologies to serve the salesman. When we “lose our heads” we are easy prey for the predators.

The more I live the more I keep concluding that we, as a society, as a public, need a kind of intervention or vaccine that inoculates us to panic and crises (or that at least arms us to deal with perceived crises with a methodology very different than that of running in circles, screaming and shouting, or the opportunist's impulse to make money or fame out of them). Some weapons available come with creating a better show outside of the crises that instead of fostering panic interrupt the spiral-of-doom with a smile, a joke, a song, a dance, a creation, those surprises that remind everyone – participant and spectator – that nobody is, or needs to be, alone in our “24 hours-a-day war between Media and Self.”

You can see in the recent letters from Jesse Freeston and Edwin Álvarez and Jillian Kestler-D’Amours – and you’ll be receiving more such letters from others soon – about their experience at the School of Authentic Journalism in February. That’s one tool that, thanks to your support, is changing lives and inoculating communicators to impede the process by which most become typing monkeys and crisis junkies. To revive a free press we need to first revive the existence of free pressmen and presswomen!

But I’m also thinking a lot these days that in addition to the vital work of preserving and expanding an authentically creative class, one communicator or authentic journalist at a time, that we need to be plotting such interventions on bigger and bigger levels: the in the terrains of the home, the neighborhood, the community, the city, the country, the region, the world: A reopening of the Situationist project of “creating situations” that awaken the most powerful human instinct there is: the will to live, not just to survive, but the will to pleasure. Because if there is anything defining about a crisis mentality it is that it is anti-pleasure: it cripples its adherents and since its technicians are the former members of the “creative class” it is crippling the creativity of society as it makes them extinct.

As a graffito from that project said, “We will have good masters as soon as everyone is their own.” To resist the siren call of panic and crisis we need to rise up an army of warriors skilled at fighting that 24-hours-a-day war against the commercial media-imposed crisis mentality.

So if I’m not always typing about whatever the rest of the media and its junkies shout is the crisis of the day, it’s not out of sloth or cowardice (usually in the cases when some asshole says “you’re censoring the story,” it is precisely when a thousand other typing monkeys are addressing that supposed crisis furiously anyway, so why bother adding to the noise?). The accusation of fear always comes, anyway, from those who have taken less physical and personal risk for their shouted beliefs in an entire lifetime than I've taken to report a great many single stories. It’s that there are other, more compelling, games afoot.

Some, like the ongoing work of the School of Authentic Journalism, we update you about all the time. Others are still being gestated to birth. It’s always hard to know, in advance, when an unfamiliar or new kind of fruit will be ripe. But when you’ve been to the banquet already, and you can detect the wafting scents from the kitchen sent out like clues and hints, you know that the chefs are busy, and you are going to enjoy the meals to come.



If not now, when?


Because if there is anything defining about a crisis mentality it is that it is anti-pleasure: it cripples its adherents and since its technicians are the former members of the “creative class” it is crippling the creativity of society as it makes them extinct.


That is exactly why I left TV about ten years ago. The fun of developing new ideas, making things for the sheer pleasure of it, the creative process in short - it had been replaced almost entirely by the race for ratings, the need for ever more stringent formats to score immediately, endless copying of those programs that would guarantee market share and so on.

And I really loved making TV, telling stories, the photographic side of it, piecing it together in editing, the technical stuff, overhearing people talk about it the day after it aired. My problem wasn't that it was a mass medium - I liked that actually - but that instead of discussing new ideas with another creative you now had to pitch it to an ever increasing number of marketing types whose only interest was if they could get it sponsored one way or the other. Their focus was not on "is this interesting", but on "will it score and sell" and "will the grocery seller on the corner understand it" - assuming of course, in their own condescending way, that being a marketeer made them much more intelligent then someone who actually sells tomatoes. In short: The fun was gone. It still is. Not just gone, they actually stole it, it has been disappeared, thrown in an anonymous grave. When I talk to former colleagues they tell me it's only gotten worse. Whenever I come up with an idea I hear that, no, this or that is the trend right now and anything you want to produce needs to fit that mold.

I haven't owned a TV set for over two years now.

Beyond the day-to-day hype and news cycles and crises lie other, more fundamental stories that the media beast doesn't tell us about and doesn't allow its workers to look into. This is especially true in television and, given the fact that it is more complicated to produce than a written piece or a book, coming up with alternatives is also more of a challenge (I don't want to be misunderstood here; when I say "more complicated" I don't mean that it requires more effort or more creativity. It's largely the technical side of creating it; if you want to jump from one location to another in a written piece you simply do so, while for TV you will actually have to move physically, set up the camera, get people in front of it etc.).

So in those ten years, I've mainly been writing, done some radio work and some photography, experimented a bit with "new media", obeyed to the rules of capitalism to feed myself and those who depend on me as best as I could, and waited for something new to come along - a new tool, a new channel, a new vibe, anything. And there are some new tools out there, but these so-called "new media" have quickly seized upon them to abuse them for exactly the same stuff they were doing already (the Huffington Post comes to mind, which seems to increase its level of hysteria every day - "WATCH VIDEO: Naked Gaza activists kill whale and eat it!"). So you're right, we have to do this ourselves. And I will.



Woke up crying...

Things are getting tight. Steve, (my 28 year friend&husband, whose job was outsourced for 2nd time in 6 years, unemployed, again, for 1 year) has started to work part-time with our neighbor with good possibilities for him.  Best part:  we do not need the 2nd car.  That is good.

I'm in the middle of researching the "High Risk Nobody will even take our money Pool" because of every "thing" that is "wrong" with this 53 year old woman.  COBRA may bite our ass on the way out.  Thus the research.  To jump into the Pool of drowning folks, on July 1, you have to have been uninsured for 6 months.  COBRA is the high$$safety net so you can find another job WITH insurance and not break the chain of fools coverage.  Too bad. So Sad.

My medication, delivered via needle, for now, keeps me alive.  That "borrowed time feel" all the time. Chronic. COBRA.  Going back to my roots and berries and barks.  Cinnamon Girl, indeed!

Have you heard Sharon Jones:  a. yet  b. lately?  My birthday gift from my friend was a ticket to her STL show many months ago. Sharon is my age.  I felt strong...danced real I sing along.

Woke up crying with this song singing in my mind.  I've included a quick fanfone vid and the song on her new album.

A few words from Schopenhauer

The legendary pessimist caught a whiff of what was happening--in 1850:

"The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. -- A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short."

Strategic thinking

Just yesterday I had a couple of discussions at work about the need for strategic thinking. That's probably why its on my mind, but I think it fits with what Al is writing about here as well.

It strikes me that the skill to think strategically is one of the things necessary to deal with this culture of constant crisis.

To me that means being able to step back a bit from the immediate crisis and look at the big picture...also being able to prioritize what is actually important and what is a distraction that can be disregarded.

Anyway, I love where you're going with this and you've set my mind off wandering in many different directions. One is to think about the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that the constant crisis enables. Recently I read something that Tim Wise wrote a while ago about that titled "The Threat of a Good Example: Reflections on Hope and Tenacity."

It's difficult...

...for those of us who gravitated to the internet during the dark BushCo years, seeking others also aghast regarding what was becoming of the USA and found them, to set that aside for want of less, shall I say, in-your-face daily outrage.  To assuage my fear that I may need to leave this place, I found sprouts of sanity amongst fields of "patriotic" fervor dripping with thoughts of revenge; these kept me sane and hopeful that there were (and are) those who wondered, as I did, WTF was going on and where we were headed.

Now that those dark days are (supposedly) 'over' I find that I cannot easily set aside the mouse and not remain constantly informed; being informed necessarily requires the ability to wade through the daily outrage to get to the stuff that is important.  Certainly, I like to think I can quickly dispense with that which is 'manufactured' poutrage and focus on the truly important (assuming I can do that objectively), but I still find myself setting work aside several times a day to find out what is going on, usually politically, so that I can, well, what?  What exactly drives me?  Is it to be able to regurgitate to my spouse the craziness of the day, and explain why it is crazy and what is being done (if anything) to mitigate it?  I just don't know.  I only know that I like to be informed.  As for TV, we only watch DVDs and live sports (e.g., World Cup coming up!); perhaps that represents our daily wind-down but I don't think that is the flavor of respite Al mentions.  Although we both read for pleasure (me SciFi, she historical fiction) each night before we turn in.


Like Okke, I felt like making a comment on this part of the article:

A reopening of the Situationist project of “creating situations” that awaken the most powerful human instinct there is: the will to live, not just to survive, but the will to pleasure. Because if there is anything defining about a crisis mentality it is that it is anti-pleasure: it cripples its adherents and since its technicians are the former members of the “creative class” it is crippling the creativity of society as it makes them extinct.

Funny that this anti-pleasure is addictive, isn't it?  It has to be addictive, on an instinct level, from the evidence of all the pull it has on people.  I can feel the seductive tug of the anti-pleasure of daily fear, myself.  Your "will to pleasure" is aptly named.  It takes will to break an addiction.  We, as thinking beings, should take the trouble to be able to break ourselves free of instinct, to achieve freedom for ourselves and others.

Having a 'crisis of the day'

Having a 'crisis of the day' not only benefits the corporate news cycle, but it also serves to benefit the 'kingmakers' of the blogosphere. It drives the left and the right to read their outrage/poutrage blogs further stoking the flames of hysteria.

A media kibbutz?

Yes, that's one of the ideas I've been playing with. Not the antiquated pick-oranges and dance-the-hora stuff and not Jewish either, nor in Israel, but a modern community somewhere in América where people live and produce media, be it books, a newspaper, photography, film, TV, whatever. It would also be a more permanent version of the J-school. There are agricultural kibbutzim, there are those that produce electronics or chemicals, but I've never heard of such a set-up that produces and educates media.

It's certainly endemic on the left

What was the left's message to the progressive base on Blanche Lincoln? That it would be the end of the goddamned world if she won the primary, of course. Labor spent $10 million and the internet left millions more. They bought ads with messages like, "Lincoln opposed card-check and the public option."

Which leads to my point: the culture of crisis robs us of perspective. The internet left and, to a somewhat lesser extent, progressives in general, seem to think people in Arkansas know what these buzzwords are and care about them. Obviously, they don't, and it's unsurprising, as Nate Silver discusses at much better length and detail(and insight) here:

If they had gotten behind Halter's campaign and ran ads that were "on-message" and were more active on the ground making their case to the voters, they probably could have won. But that sort of thing just doesn't occur to people anymore.

@ Lori - do you know of this program for COBRA

Hi Lori,

Do you know of this new COBRA program? COBRA Premium Reductions under ARRA. It came out in the Dept of Defense appropriations act, 2010. The laws give "Assistance Eligible Individuals" the right to pay substantially reduced COBRA premiums for up to 15 months. or call 1-800-444-3272.

@ Al. Incisive and intuitive piece.








@ Tonya

Hi Tonya!

Thanks for the post concerning COBRA.  Yes, I do know about this.  We have been receiving the "benefits" of this since July 1, 2009.  Yes, we still have time for these reduced benefits. ($700 a month instead of $1400; family of 4)

I am finding out if the high-risk/pre-exist pool, opening July 1, 2010, thanks to Healthcare Reform, is open to this family because we had insurance via COBRA.

I didn't have insurance when I had my first kid in 1982.  I needed an emergency c-section after being at home with my Midwife, whose services were paid for with bartering.  It took me 5 years to pay off the OB; the hospital bill covered by a fund for the poor.

Al's thoughts, and the photo as I put on my glasses to read, makes me smile, keeps me "healthy".  This site/sight keeps me focused.  I learn.  I share.  I keep going.

Crisis?  What Crisis?

Love ya.  Mean it.

Thanks for that!

That's good stuff, Al. Thanks.

Of Salmons and Chicks


Lucidity is an offshoot, a derivative of absurdity. The former leans on the latter for affirmation and confirmation; the latter spins reality for that unfathomable soothing of a soul sore. They synchronize as ultimate 'pas de deux' dancing partners, having a Ball at the serendipity give little and take all.

As nonsense takes to the Floor, common sense shrinks it to size in a nutshell. Takes two to Tango. Passionate they are, one on top of the other, whichever one it is, whenever Life's whimsical summon pulls a broadside on the C Chord.

Mozart turned the Classical Period on its head. 'Dead end' on Choir for transitional Finale, hop on Clarinet and on to 'deus ex machina' mélopée. Non sense says he, hollow pretenses must ultimately be fulfilled.

Brew Infinity with relativity yeast. Trample and expand on Newtonian's certainties. Break the mold and be quantum stricken in the process. Be Einstein. A gauntlet thrown at Classical Physics, a bouncing check to the Principle of Uncertainty.

Who would have thought technology to be part of Liberation Theology? Catcalls from peers, jeers from downfalls, Steve Jobs sells breathing spaces for random, unchained thoughts. Manichean in Form, protean in substance, a Jobian structure frees the darts for the equalizer sting. Not a moment too soon.

I watch some sturdy salmons swimming up river. They are on the dying end of the Cycle. Obama, Giordano and cohort are no spring chickens but they sure are coming home to roost!


@ Terraformer, the Citizen

Terraformer, you are totally normal.  Many of us are exactly where you are:  We give priority (even over our work, on some days) to ingesting information about those unresolved problems in the World that we believe are important.  Historically, being able to do this is the blessed result of having rights, the incentive of a democratic opportunity to have a say in how we are governed (marginal in its effect though that may seem sometimes), and mass education and mass media.  I'd go so far as to say that we're living in a still-expanding Civic Era, which began probably about the time of the Glorious Revolution in Britain in 1688 (which began the modern parliamentary era, after ousting a monarch). That was also about the time that blacksmiths and carpenters as well as farmers and property-holders began building a bottom-up civic culture in the American colonies.  So, Terraformer, don't apologize for wanting to consume and talk about what concerns you.  Apart from those who use the subject-matter of politics to channel their rage or their desire to dominate or impress others, and whose motives to stay informed may be based on ego, you are the prototypical Citizen, and you should be proud of it.

And now we're all taking it global.  Almost every day, I meet or communicate with people all over the world who share the need to know and the desire to participate.  There's a global civil society emerging, and it consists mainly of those who want (or want to exercise) their rights, on behalf of making their societies fairer and more just and on behalf of saving lives and nature. The news about this global civic culture and the movements it spawns will increasingly be covered by the kind of authentic journalists trained and encouraged by Al, because this is not coming about because elites (including the mainstream media) want it to develop, it's evolving because people like you, Terraformer, are joining the throng.

All civic movements need organizers, but they also need others to listen, talk back, participate and course-correct.  So in answer to your question, "What exactly drives me?", I'd suggest that you and hundreds of millions like you are being summoned by a new kind of civic consciousness among people in most societies (just today there was a front-page New York Times article about spontaneous campaigns for free trade unions in China). It's going to remake the way we organize society and the way we govern ourselves, in this century.  And it's going to happen everywhere.

I'd submit that the daily-crisis agenda of the mainstream media may be helping  unintentionally to recruit more people to this civic consciousness, but there's a point of diminishing returns that is quickly reached, of course, by an informational diet restricted to the MSM, since the latter never gets around to much in the way of constructive deliberation.  It's rip-and-read shock-and-awe, and on to the next.  So we do have to cut the umbilical to that content, to have the necessary time for reality to be seen accurately and to give space for new ideas of ours to germinate. I'm one of those who believes that this larger, global civic phenomenon is going to break down the old ideologies and their polarities, and eventually do an astonishing remix of ideas and norms.  Maybe it'll be less revolutionary than that, or maybe more.  But "the times, they are a changin'..."

Al Giordano is the anti-Carville

As usual, you have articulated for me why the media continually disappoints. For the most part, they are not incentivized to do anything but "win the day", the louder the better, on and on, ad nauseum. If it wasn't for people like Al and Andrew Sullivan who manage to keep their heads, I would feel positively hopeless.

@ Jack DuVall

Your beautiful comment reminded me of this video of Paul Hawken talking about "Blessed Unrest."

And then, of course, there's the powerful quote from Arundhati Roy:

"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quite day, I can hear her breathing."

Perhaps its those moments of quietness from "the next great crisis" that will allow us to hear.




So you're saying that this

So you're saying that this situation in the Gulf (and this administration's responsibility for it)  is really not that big a deal, just one of the daily crisis manufactured by the media? Boy, that's a relief.

@ Mutaman

Mutaman - Show me where I said what you claim I said! But since you've stopped by and "entered the vortex" I can make use of your attitude as a textbook example of what I *am* talking about!

Scroll down a few Field entries and you can read exactly what I think about the Gulf oil gusher and that all of us who participate in the addiction to oil are to blame. It is something that was set in motion long ago, before this administration, before the previous one.

But you seem to be laboring under the illusion that if you just "care" enough, and loudly enough, the problem of the Gulf leak will be solved! That's what the media generated in you and so many others. And what if, next week or month, a nuke melts down (like in Chernobyl in 1986), or war breaks out between the Koreas, you'll be on to the next disaster.

What you obviously don't "get" is what all this crisis is doing to you and how it is diminishing the cognitive, strategic and tactical powers of you and so much of society, especially of the media worker!

"A reopening of the

"A reopening of the Situationist project of “creating situations” that awaken the most powerful human instinct there is: the will to live, not just to survive, but the will to pleasure. Because if there is anything defining about a crisis mentality it is that it is anti-pleasure: it cripples its adherents and since its technicians are the former members of the “creative class” it is crippling the creativity of society as it makes them extinct."

It does matter a great deal what each of us do in our personal lives.  I've been reading a great deal of chaos theory, complexification theory, and dynamic systems theory lately, and scientists are coming to believe that the entire cosmos is unpredictable because everything is based on feedback, which is why the flap of a butterfly's wings in Australia can eventually change the weather across the globe in Wisconsin.  If this is true of the natural world in general, it certainly should be true of humans, since most people consider the human race to be apex of terrestrial life (this is up for grabs, in my estimation).

If one truly wants to reform the world, one begins with one's own world and one's place in it.  One learns what makes one deeply happy and how best to express one's own creativity, which encourages one, to the best of one's ability, to be kind to everyone one meets, including those in the blogosphere and one's grumpy old mailman, whether they disagree with one or not.  One attempts to give everyone a sense that they have worth in their place in the cosmos.  If everyone who professed to care passionately about progressive values carried this into their own lives, there would be an amazing change in the zeitgeist almost immediately.  Only by changing the minds of the populace can one change the country, and one can only change the minds of those who are currently uninformed, narrow-minded, or willfully ignorant by first gaining their trust and supporting them in gaining more fulfillling lives.


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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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