Sunday, March 11, 2018

Nota bene: Ignorance is bliss

By now you’ve probably read Sam Dolnick’s lovely piece about Erik Hagerman, “the most ignorant man in America”. If you haven’t, you should! It’s great! Both on its own terms, and also as a view into what you might call the journalist’s-eye view of the world.

Dolnick, of course, is a member of the Sulzberger clan, steeped in journalism (and specifically the New York Times) since birth. As you read his article, you see the utter incomprehension with which he approaches Hagerman, a rich, successful, well-educated man who has decided to cut himself off from the news entirely.

He is now more than a year into knowing almost nothing about American politics. He has managed to become shockingly uninformed during one of the most eventful chapters in modern American history. He is as ignorant as a contemporary citizen could ever hope to be.

The message is clear: For Hagerman to be uninformed about current events is, in some sense, to be un-American, and when there’s lots of news going on around him, it’s downright shocking.

Hagerman isn’t particularly ignorant on any axis except the news. He can talk about English architecture, or Kant, or the Cleveland Cavaliers. He reads the art reviews in the New Yorker. He can even criticize his own decision, saying that he’s “a crappy citizen” and that his actions are “the ostrich head-in-the-sand approach to political outcomes”.

Yet there’s no reason not to believe him when he says, firstly, that he feels emotionally healthier than ever, and, secondly, that he “never did anything” with most of the news that he ingested in the past. He’s a liberal Democrat; when it comes time to vote, I’m sure he will do exactly what he would do had he been following the news closely, and vote for the Democrat in all of his state and federal elections. In that sense, his priors don’t need reinforcing. And while his news blockade certainly precludes him from becoming politically active, the fact is that the vast majority of Americans are not politically active. By all means celebrate the activists, but don’t kid yourself that they’re the norm.

What makes Dolnick’s article so good is that it raises an uncomfortable question for journalists: if Hagerman is not harming anybody by his actions, and if he himself is better off as a result of them, why do we find them so shocking? Why the anger?

The most common answer to that question is some variation of the “privilege porn” response. As Dolnick puts it:

To avoid current affairs is in some ways a luxury that many people, like, for example, immigrants worried about deportation, cannot afford.

This is a little bit unsatisfying. Can immigrants worried about deportation afford to be ignorant when it comes to Dolnick’s list of issues? (“James Comey. Russia. Robert Mueller. Las Vegas. The travel ban. ‘Alternative facts.’ Pussy hats. Scaramucci. Parkland. Big nuclear buttons. Roy Moore.”) Yes, they can.

There are, to be sure, certain very narrow and targeted pieces of information which can help those immigrants try to minimize their chances of deportation, both before and after they are arrested. But that’s a separate issue from being broadly informed on the news of the day. And when Hagerman needs narrow and targeted pieces of information himself, he gets them — he was told about the Equifax breach, for instance, by his brother, in a manner not dissimilar to the way that immigrants find out about strategies enabling them to remain in the country.

All of which is to bring up a truth which is rather uncomfortable, for journalists: while a vibrant free press is certainly a social necessity on a national level, it’s far from being a necessity on any given individual level. Unless you work in one of a pretty small group of occupations (journalism, politics, activism, international diplomacy, that kind of thing), you really don’t need to stay on top of the news. And even if you are in one of those occupations, you probably consume significantly more news than you really need to do in order to do your job.

What’s more, on a personal level, news consumption really isn’t good for most people. Especially not right now. Yes, if the news makes you angry, and then you channel your anger into the kind of political activism which ends up improving the future of the country, that’s great. (On the other hand, if the news makes you angry, and then you channel your anger into the kind of political activism which ends up electing Donald Trump, that’s not so great.) But if the news just makes you angry and cranky and generally ill-humored, then at some point it’s worth asking: Why are you reading so much of it?

The Hagerman response — to listen to white noise at the coffee shop so as to avoid even overhearing a conversation — is, to be sure, extreme, and far from admirable, and something which requires a substantial degree of privilege. Still, I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines from William S Burroughs:

If, after having been exposed to someone's presence, you feel as if you've lost a quart of plasma, avoid that presence. 

I’m a journalist, I’m loathe to tell anybody to avoid exposing themselves to journalism. Expose yourself to more! As much as possible! And pay for it!

Even if, I guess, doing so isn’t actually very good for you.