We Don't Need a National Conversation about Guns (or Anything Else)

Can knowing less national news, somewhat paradoxically, make for a broader, more accurate, and healthier perspective as a citizen?  Does promoting a "national conversation" about this or that problem do more harm than good?

Social media, despite its ostensible purpose, are in fact tearing us apart.  Anti-American forces, foreign and domestic, know this and are doing what they can to exacerbate the problem

It would be hard to exaggerate how much this sense of social unrest primes us to embrace leftist philosophy: the problems seem so many and beyond control that we might begin thinking that only something as big as the federal government can have the solutions.  So we give it more power.  Don't miss the irony: in response to our sense of powerlessness, we relinquish more power.  This is how Leviathan grows.  It would quickly starve if we just removed ourselves from the "national conversation" – or at least what is commonly meant by that term.

In another sense, engaging in a national conversation is our civic duty.  This is, in effect, what national elections and congressional voting sessions are.  But apart from our limited and infrequent contributions to those, there really is no national conversation to be had precisely because of our impotence at a national level.  This is a good thing.

Think about it.  When someone close faces a problem, there is a sense, beyond merely being empathetic, in which we take their problem on as our own.  We have a shared interest in each other's flourishing, and by virtue of our intimacy, we have privileged authority and insight into the conditions of our flourishing.  The more intimately acquainted we are with someone, the likelier we are to know just what they need. The converse also holds.  The less intimately acquainted we are with someone, the less likely we are to know what he needs, and the less authority we have to speak to his problem.  There is a point of distance when other people's problems cease being our own – not because we don't care, but because we are impotent to solve them

National news media outlets of all varieties conspire to create the illusion of intimacy in matters that are almost always distant, and with it the illusion of authority and insight into those matters.  If they're telling us about something, we suppose we ought to know about it.  If we ought to know about it, we suppose we ought to do something.  But when we discover we are powerless to do anything with the information we've been given, and yet dissonantly believe we need to know it, we get frustrated.  At last, we feed the Leviathan.

The philosophical underpinnings of the irony here were perhaps best articulated by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death.  When it comes to national news, which largely consists of information irrelevant to us, knowledge is not power.  It leads instead, in Postman's words, to "diminished social and political potency."  Prior to the advent of mass media technologies, the value of information was determined by how it affected my actions and was disseminated and consumed accordingly. Back then, "the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives."  Contrast that with the sense of control we get from information that has little to no action value by asking yourself a series of questions like the following:

What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East?  Or the rates of inflation, crime, and unemployment?  What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war?  What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Bahá'is in Iran?

The answer is none, really, and nothing.  The most a civilized person can do is cast a vote every few years and hope for the best.  Thus, the excessive consumption of national news encouraged by mass media technologies has served to only "dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence."  While mass media "may have made the country 'one neighborhood,'" Postman observes, "it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other."  If we need proof of how quickly we can get nasty with strangers, just consider road rage.  As common as it is, its virtual equivalent on the worldwide roadways of the web is all the more.  Armed with nothing but the most superficial facts about each other, we reconcile our belief in the importance of national news with our powerlessness to do anything with it by engaging in a "national conversation" – a correspondingly superficial conversation consisting of little more than impulsive snark, slogans, memes, and misinformation.  It does more harm than good.

To combat the increasing sense of social unrest, we should replace the norm of interest in national affairs, created by excessive devotion to national news by mass media outlets, with an interest in the local affairs of our own state, county, community, and family.  It was, after all, the conviction that local concerns should take precedence over the non-local that gave birth to our country (bye-bye, Britain!) and the principles upon which it was founded (federalism, subsidiarity).  We have bucked this conviction to our detriment.  It is no secret that the guarantee of national exposure motivates mass shooters.  That same guarantee is exploited by terrorists.  And there is no doubt that national attention given to a handful of controversial police shootings is responsible for the myth that blacks are disproportionately victimized by law enforcement in the United States.  Similar national attention given to isolated incidents of racism, sexism, etc. are responsible for the myth that these are systemic problems in America.  And as these "national conversations" continue, our sense of powerlessness grows, and the Leviathian right along with it.

I'm not recommending that we be Luddites or political ostriches with our heads buried in the sand.  But the wisdom in what Rod Dreher calls the Benedict Option is becoming clearer by the day.  At the very least, we need to periodically take a rest from what is causing so much unrest.  Turn off the TV and radio.  Take a break from Facebook and Twitter.  Don't look at your cell phone.  Doing so would be for the good of not just our own souls, but the soul of the country as well.

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