Studying the news

For about five years I have been “studying the news,” you might say.

After the 2016 election, many of us myself included were grasping at ideas for what we should do in response. I joined organizations, attended protests, got a VPN, started calling Congressional offices… I also took the advice to “keep track of what’s changing around you,” a warning to us that the unthinkable can become “normal” without us even noticing, absent an effort in that direction.

I didn’t actually start until early January, 2017 the file which eventually surpassed half-a-million words of news and events, but over time I entered many earlier occurrences and now is probably as good a time as any to reflect on the experience.

I guess that to start with, I don’t think that there is really any substitute for doing something like this. Plenty of people don’t really pay attention to news, politics, government, etc., but I think even for those who do, the default is essentially passive consumption. I have used the phrase “studying the news,” here, because I think that it’s fundamentally different to spend time taking notes, organizing them, and living with this day after day after day for years.

A few times I shared my file as it stood, with some other “resisters,” and one expressed astonishment and discomfort at how much she had forgotten within just a couple of years. Building that up, daily, over years, provides a perspective which I don’t think that the end product can provide any more than can default consumption of news as it’s served up.

Perhaps this is a bit like the Duolingo model. I’ve been studying Portuguese in Duolingo for a little over a year, and I haven’t learned a ton—but I suspect that if you sustain it for five years, even brief daily study will lead to an outcome meaningfully different than not doing so.

It seems like news and events washes over most people like a rushing stream, an observation which I don’t think is really new or controversial. Many’s the time in recent years people have expressed dismay that something awful amounted to a one-day story, if even that. In a 24-hour news cycle, a story might be said to have staying power if it’s an object of attention for even six hours.

Studying the news extensively over years is, I think, a bit of the historian’s work, and a role which seems needed, especially from a general perspective. Journalists, institutions and some others who spend years on a particular issue or “beat” will gain depth of understanding (at least some times) of that topic, but I think that there are bigger-picture patterns which go unnoticed.

I’m mulling over a potential book, about one particular example. More generally, I think this kind of prolonged study eventually reveals an extent of flailing, of bumbling, of nonsense, which is challenging to face. The typical good citizen doesn’t really suspect it; the disengaged cynic might claim to have believed that all along, yet perennially avoids dwelling on it.

It’s difficult. There have been times when I had to look away, just to get some temporary relief. (This week I donated some money to Working Families Party, not because I’m convinced the organization is much better on this score overall, but simply because one of their emails was a refreshingly honest recognition of prevailing noise and silliness.) Gradually over the past few years I have pulled back from actively going to the news, and reached a point where I just see what makes its way to my attention by Twitter, email, and various other channels. I have still, by this means, made more than 20,000 words of notes just in the past few months.

But I discount a lot as nonsense and noise, these days; I have written about that repeatedly this year. Much of my study at this point, I suppose, is an effort to figure out what is still meaningful amid so much empty hype; to avoid either constant bewildered shouting or “savvy style” nihilism, to take news and politics seriously but not 100% literally.

Beyond this I’m not sure how much I can capture effectively, here. Again, I have real doubts that some things can be learned or understood without working them out, personally, through extended study which most people will never even attempt. I probably shouldn’t start teasing a book which I may not write, but as I make notes toward the possibility, I’m thinking in terms of a handful of total concepts, because I think nudging someone else’s thinking out of its routines on even one or two concepts would be a big accomplishment. One of those concepts may be the extent to which Trump-as-anomaly seems waaay off. I have written of this before, too, but I think Trump both disrupted American politics’ normal a lot less than most people think, and to the extent that he has been unusually corrosive it has all been normalized more than most people think. Less than a year since my review of “The Resistance,” I already suspect even that analysis of overestimating the phenomenon.

I suppose on that note, I will observe how difficult it is trying to get anywhere with difficult, abstract, unfamiliar ideas. In the short term it’s probably even more frustrating than trying to redeem a corrupt failed state with signs, clipboards, testimony, and peer to peer organizing. It’s just that in the longer term, after years of participation in and reflection on the latter, it doesn’t seem like the concept can even meet the standard of credible possibility of functional.

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