One of my favorite albums of all time is Switchfoot’s The Beautiful Letdown (2003). In addition to the radio smash hits Dare You to Move, This is Your Life, and Gone, the album also featured a song that I initially found a little strange. Here’s the chorus:
If we’re adding to the noise
turn off this song
If we’re adding to the noise
turn off your stereo, radio, video
Why would the band be telling you to turn off their music? Is this some weird reverse psychological tactic?
Listening to the rest of the album, Switchfoot seems to be trying to express their humility: Are we really worth listening to? If we’re just adding to the cacophony of modern life, turn us off. Here they are in Ammunition expressing a similar point (with shades of GK Chesterton):
Blame it on what you’ve been through
Blame it on what you’re into
Blame it on your religions
Blame it on politicians
We’ve been blowing up
We’re the issue
It’s our condition
We are the fuse and the ammunition
If 2003 was cacophonous, 2016 is all the more so. And it’s all too tempting to blame it on the politicians, the religious leaders, but we need to recognize our own role in this. We’ve been blowing up for a while now, and it isn’t contributing anything good to the world.
I’m ashamed of how much I revel in reading about politics and hoping for Trump’s downfall. Even as I link to these songs on YouTube, its top recommendation for me is a Stephen Colbert asking “Did Rex Tillerson Call Trump a ‘Moron’ or a ‘F***ing Moron’?” And I have to admit, YouTube knows me well — I am tempted to watch that just to bask in the schadenfreude and speculate about its implications for… yes, that’s what they’re calling it these days, “Rexit.”
Unpresedential, yes. Unprecedented, yes. But ultimately so much of the news out of the Trump White House is noise, if especially juicy and addictive noise. We need to recover a healthy sense of when what we’re filling our minds with is merely adding to the noise, and if so, mute it. Here’s David Brooks a couple of months ago:
For the past two years Trump has taken up an amazing amount of my brain space. My brain has apparently decided that it’s not interested in devoting more neurons to that guy. There’s nothing more to be learned about Trump’s mixture of ignorance, insecurity and narcissism. Every second spent on his bluster is more degrading than informative.
Now a lot of people are clearly still addicted to Trump. My Twitter feed is all him. Some people treat the Trump White House as the “Breaking Bad” serial drama they’ve been binge watching for six months. For some of us, Trump-bashing has become educated-class meth. We derive endless satisfaction from feeling morally superior to him — and as Leon Wieseltier put it, affirmation is the new sex.
The analogy is apt; I clearly feel addicted. But don’t a lot of other important people feel the same way? One of the lessons of 2016 is that our leaders aren’t all that different from us. Every celebrity who is drawn in to comment on the political situation is getting the same information we are and responding in the same way.
It’s also worth repeating that the relationship between Trump and the media is actually rather mutually beneficial. Non-Fox media executives may have seemed to be trying to tilt the election in Clinton’s direction, or at least underestimated Trump’s chances, but it’s pretty clear they benefit from everyone being glued to the television wondering what the reality TV president is going to do next.
To be clear, I don’t have a problem with reporting on the president. As Maggie Haberman of the New York Times put it, what Trump says is news because he is the president. But that doesn’t mean we have to pay attention, to “catch up” on the news regularly.
To pick one example in particular, I’m convinced that it is completely useless to spend any time thinking about the Russia scandal. Unlike the election itself, the means for justice to be served in that area generally does not involve the broader public.
Yet when Garry Kasparov and Julia Ioffe came to MIT to speak at the Starr Forum on the “Trump-Putin phenomenon” our biggest lecture hall was completely packed:
It was an interesting forum because both of the speakers were rather surprised and in some ways disappointed at the level of interest. As Kasparov commented, he had just written a book about AI, but when he got invited to talk at MIT, it was about Russia. Ioffe, a Russian-American reporter, was more direct, berating the media for their poor understanding of Russia and for painting a picture of Vladimir Putin as hypercompetent and installing Trump as a puppet. This environment has led to some horrible reporting on the subject, with multiple major news stories about the apparent scandal falling apart, forming what Glenn Greenwald describes as “an incredibly reckless, anything-goes climate when it comes to claims about Russia. Media outlets will publish literally any official assertion as Truth without the slightest regard for evidentiary standards.”
Given that it doesn’t directly matter what we think about information we’re not fully privy to, and the advance media reports we read on the subject are actually reasonably likely to be fake news, this forms all the reason to simply turn off that segment of the news.
For me, I realized upon reflection that my Twitter account was merely adding to the noise. It was this really strange hobby that both made me more anxious and helped me accomplish none of my goals in life. I’ve since deleted the app on my phone and tablet, and I’ve logged out on both of my computers. It’s only one such channel; I still have to figure out what to do about YouTube, but it’s been a good first step so far.
How are you trying to turn off the noise?