March 14, 2017

Nota bene #7

As I sit in my Chinatown home office, looking out at a desolate snowscape, let me be the first to wish you a happy summer.

We're used to breaking the year up into 365 parts, or 52 parts, or 12 parts, or 4 parts, but right now I like to think of it as split up into 2 parts: Standard Time (winter), and Daylight Savings Time (summer).

Pretty much everybody is in agreement that switching back and forth between the two is silly and harmful and expensive: you're basically imposing minor jetlag on hundreds of millions of Americans simultaneously, for no good reason. 

On the other hand, nearly everybody I know is in agreement that summer time rocks: an hour's extra daylight in the evenings, when you can enjoy it, rather than in the early mornings, when you're asleep.

The solution to this problem is pretty simple: extend summer time so that it's a year-round thing. I know what you're thinking – that isn't allowed under federal law. States can adopt Daylight Savings Time for the summer, or they can stay on Standard Time year-round, but they can't be on Daylight Savings Time year-round. But that's really just a technicality. The only question is which Standard Time they want to adopt year-round. California should adopt Mountain Time, Texas should adopt Eastern Standard Time, and New York should adopt Atlantic Standard Time, which is used in Puerto Rico.

What this would mean, of course, is more dark mornings and fewer dark afternoons during the winter; that's a trade-off I'm happy to make. More conceptually, it would mean devaluing the concept of noon as the time when the sun is highest in the sky, and basically pushing that back to more like 1pm. Which is also fine by me. I generally think of 1pm as being the middle of the day anyway, don't you?

In any case, if you're snowed in today, or even if you're not, you're probably consuming lots of news. Most of us are, these days. And you're probably outraged about a lot of it, and wondering what you can do.

Let me suggest: paying less attention to the news, and getting outraged about fewer things.

The point is that outrage, in and of itself, generally achieves very little, even when it goes viral on social media. It’s a strategy worthy of the Underpants Gnomes:

Phase 1: Raise awareness. Phase 2: ? Phase 3: Problem solved!

The idea seems to be that every problem has to be framed as an outrage, and every outrage needs to be shared and clicked, to reach as many people as possible.

Just don’t ask why.

Outrage is of course a key part of the business model for outlets like Twitter and Facebook, as well as the news organizations which are parasitical on them. So if you’re working on some kind of good cause, and you want to get publicity, then ginning up some outrage is often a good way of doing that.

In general, however, neither the causes nor the public are particularly well served by this tactic. All too often, charitable organizations consider public attention to their problem to be an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Similarly, the public themselves think it worthy and worthwhile to be educated and outraged on a broad range of contemporary issues. But neither proposition is obviously true, and, increasingly, both of them turn out to be false. Publicity is not always good – not for the cause, and not for a public which is suffering from unprecedented levels of outrage fatigue.

For the next four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, there is going to be a daily deluge of outrageous acts and statements coming out of Washington. It’s the job of the press to report on those actions, and it’s the job of their social-media departments to frame those reports in such a way as to maximize the probability that you’ll want to click on the story and share it. Which is to say, to push the outrage meter as far as it can sensibly be pushed. After all, if they don’t, some other news organization will.

The result is an exhausting outrage arms race. What makes sense for the news and social-media organizations is not healthy for readers, especially since, in the vast majority of cases, there’s nothing they can really do to help. Indeed, if you're an individual trying to substantively address a particular problem and make a difference on the ground, then the stream of stories is mainly just a distraction from the task at hand.

I'd go further still: in order to stay sane and focused, what we need from our news is more fluff, not more 24-hour outrage cycles. A cleansing blast of celebrity gossip, for instance, does much more good for our general mental health than does disappearing down another rabbit hole of Trump malfeasance.

As for the organizations doing all that good work on the ground, it's wrong to assume that they always welcome publicity. Rachel Maddow has spoken at length about her time as an AIDS activist, for instance – a time when she actively shunned any kind of public attention. When she wanted something specific, like hospice care for HIV-positive prisoners, she would very narrowly target the relatively small group of people who could make that happen, and do everything in her power to change their mind on the subject. Trying to persuade the world at large, and thereby those few individuals, was a silly way of going about the project, and indeed would quite possibly have been counterproductive. Similarly, if you're trying to persuade a government to increase its foreign aid budget, you'd be well advised to do so quietly, given that most of the public thinks there's too much foreign aid already. 

So: Consider the situation of an international human rights lawyer who is working on behalf of Yazidi who are suffering and dying in ISIS-controlled territories. The number of international governments and institutions which have any ability whatsoever to intervene in this tragic state of affairs is very small, and all of them are entirely cognizant of what is going on. There might be people who think that a grand coordinated public-pressure campaign might have some positive effect within those institutions; such people tend never to have actually worked at a place like the State Department or the United Nations. A smart lawyer, then, has no particular interest in public opinion generally: instead, she will take her case, in a very well-prepared and targeted manner, to places like the UN which might be able to deliver with certain well-defined actions.

What about press coverage, I hear you ask. What’s the best and highest way that we journalists can write about (you probably saw this coming) Amal Clooney?

The answer, surely, is to concentrate on her status as a beautifully-dressed wife to long-time bachelor and gossip-page denizen George Clooney. She’s pregnant! With twins! When he used to say that he never wanted any children at all!

This kind of gossip serves many important social functions, and Amal Clooney is happy to play the game whenever she needs to. She doesn’t sneer at the fashion press, or consider them to be superficial; she loves fashion, and understands its role in the world. And you don’t end up dating George Clooney if you’re not content in the world of glamor and celebrity.

As for her professional work, well, Amal Clooney doesn’t need your Likes, or your clicks, or your support. If you want to donate to a good cause, there are lots of them out there, knock yourself out. But Clooney has a narrowly and clearly-defined job, which she’s doing very well, almost entirely out of the public eye. Every so often she’ll make an appearance which is in some kind of public forum, but her target audience is never the public at large. Frankly, if it takes Amal Clooney for you to get interested and outraged about the subject of the Yazidi, then you’re really not going to be much help to her.

So, let’s leave Clooney to her day job, which she does very well. And let’s also talk about her baby bump, because, hey, the world needs a few good baby-bump stories right around now.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go read about Nicki Minaj.

--

Thanks for reading! Do feel free to forward this on to your friends. The link to subscribe is here. And the permalink for this letter is here.