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.