I woke Wednesday morning, like I do most mornings, with two conflicting gravitational pulls. Should I check the news and listen to pundits dissect the president’s tweets and congressional antics? Or should I take a break from the cultural chaos and amble around the house, double check my Christmas lists, and count how many tins I can re-use for this year’s cookie deliveries.
On this morning, the news found me. I woke to NPR reporting that NBC’s “Today” show anchor Matt Lauer had been fired for sexual harassment. If I’d chosen to stay away from the news that morning, I still couldn’t have avoided this particular bombshell. My daughter texted me on her way to work, “Matt Lauer gone!!” She’s recently been texting me each time a prominent man is accused of (and usually fired for) sexual misconduct. It’s become an all-too-frequent exchange. Later the same day, she texted, “Garrison Keillor?!?”
This was just the daily dose of sexual harassment news, which could occupy its own cable channel these days. But the 24-hour news cycle had just begun. Also that morning, President Trump retweeted anti-Muslim videos from an extremist organization in the U.K., known primarily as a racist hate group. The validity of at least one of the videos was quickly called into question. But the anti-Muslim sentiment Trump conveyed was clear — and deeply disturbing to Republicans and Democrats alike, not to mention our closest international ally. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May wasted no time with her response, “It is wrong for the president to have done this.”
Later the same day, the tax bill passed a critical milestone in the U.S. Senate, clearing the way for a vote on a bill that will hand more money to the wealthy and balloon the deficit. It will also remove a key pillar of Obamacare, sending the Affordable Care Act reeling into a steeper downward spiral. A swelling deficit will likely be followed by a call to gut Medicare and Social Security. These are not inconsequential impacts for most Americans. But the unpopular bill is being hastily rammed through the Senate in what appears to be a political move fueled by the Republicans need to score a legislative win and appease donors. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) confirmed this motivation, saying that "financial contributions will stop" if the GOP fails to deliver corporate tax cuts. Oh, did I mention that North Korea launched a test to prove its missile ranges now extend as far as Washington, D.C. Or did that news tidbit break the day before?
It’s exhausting. There is not enough yoga, meditation, or long walks in the woods to keep me from feeling anxious and overwhelmed. One of my friends put it beautifully when she posted a link to a story on the dismantling of the State Department’s foreign service. Her post read simply, “For those with the bandwidth to consider yet another crisis.”
It’s hard not to bury our heads in the sand. Mimicking our polarized society, there’s a binary approach to deal with the cascading chaos. Some of us choose to engage with the news full on by seeking multiple credible sources in an attempt to find the truth. That is, if we still believe in the truth and have the energy to pursue it. Or we choose to avoid the news completely and let only the most critical of news events bubble to the surface through friends or the stray Internet post.
But social media doesn’t seem like a good way to siphon news. I remember in college, the only news that made its way to our electronically deprived dorm one semester was that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane had crashed. I doubt this was the most newsworthy event that took place during those few months. But for our subculture (college-age kids fairly obsessed with sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll), it was an important, possibly critical, piece of information.
It reminds me of our news landscape now. We’ve retreated into our subgroups and each little tribe decides what’s important to them and clings to it, holding it to the light as a filter through which they view the world. The difference is that college kids know they are in a bubble that at some point will burst, dropping them into the real world filled with jobs, family, and other responsibilities. But our American political subcultures keep digging in with a vengeance, tunneling away from those who disagree with them. Leaving a maze of disconnected Americans.
I wish I could look away from our cultural train wreck. But I can’t remove myself from the fray and be the citizen I want to be. There are people to talk with about the political issues that matter and opposing voices I need to understand. Bearing witness is the least I can do. It’s the best I can do. For now, it has to be enough to be informed, armed with the truth, and ready for action.