A Blackout In Which We Cancel The Culture

They say a fish is unaware of water. Analogously, we are unaware of the environment in which we live our lives. Insofar as we do consider our environment, it is usually in terms of the physical world; the air we breathe, the water we drink, the climate surrounding us. These are important things that deserve our intention, but we should not overlook a less tangible, but far more important environmental concern -- our culture.

The average American spends more than half his waking hours looking at a screen, a computer, television, tablet, or the ubiquitous smartphone. A certain percentage of this is productive, work-related usage such as spreadsheets, word programs, and the like, but an enormous block of time is consumed by our need to be stimulated and entertained. What is often overlooked is that the stimulation and entertainment we consume changes us, and it changes the way we experience our lives.

Over the last few years, I have participated in a Catholic men’s program titled “Exodus 90” that observes a challenging regimen of asceticism, including cold showers, 60 minutes of prayer and meditation daily, dietary restrictions, rigorous exercise, and fasting. The most powerful tool, and the most difficult to observe, however, is the “blackout.” Over a period of 90 days, ending on Easter Sunday, there is no television, no radio, no social media, no movies, no pop music, no texting. It’s complete abstinence from contemporary forms of entertainment and stimulation.

To fill the void, which can easily be eight hours per day, participants are asked to appreciate silence or to limit inputs to that which challenges intellectually, philosophically, and theologically. I chose to re-read classics such as Crime and Punishment, discover obscure gems such as The Power and the Glory, or to find new insights into old texts such as The Confessions. While doing mundane labor, which is a significant part of my work, I would listen to lectures and long format discussions featuring such diverse speakers as Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Steven Pinker, and Bishop Robert Baron. 

It is a difficult and trying experience. The pull of popular culture is powerful and relentless, but in the end, after ninety days of the blackout, one is changed in ways that are both subtle and profound. You can see that all entertainment has a didactic value and that everything you consume has an effect. From characters to the storyline, from background music to dialogue, almost everything has meaning. Even the absence of a message means something. Even the most hollow and meaningless entertainment changes our worldview so we see life as hollow and meaningless.

Maybe Marshal McLuhan was right when he wrote “the Medium is the Message”. For example, consider the phrase “the soundtrack of our lives.” We associate this term with the imagined music that ran in the background as we acted out periods of our lives.

We seldom consider how cheap and artificial this reduction is. Instead of remembering our experiences as they truly were, whether it was the thundering of a waterfall as we rounded the bend of a canyon, or the soft and heartbreaking sobbing of a lover who discovers the end has arrived, or the overwhelming silence of a desert mountaintop, we cheapen and destroy the truly meaningful moments by thinking of them in terms of pop entertainment. We have shifted our worldview from the priceless and unique to the artificial and commercial, a life lived as Steven Spielberg would want it, devoid of any telos and true meaning. It’s only entertainment.

There has been much said and written recently about “The Great Reset.” It threatens to be an even larger and more powerful consolidation of power and influence than the Reformation. We can be confident that the tech titans and media moguls who are the engine of this reset are not jeopardizing their own power and influence.

But what if the reset came from us? What if we drove the reset? After all, Marxist structuralism has a fatal flaw because, ultimately, it is culture, not economics, that drives change. Economics influence change, but it is how people live their lives and view the world – that is, culture -- that maintains or changes things.

Concurrent with, and an integral part of the Great Reset, will be the de-platforming of opposing voices and the consolidation of the communication channels. We witness it now with the tech titan’s de-platforming voices on the right, most notably former President Trump, as well as snuffing out competition such as Parler, an alternative social media platform.

There are voices in the opposition who call for constructing an alternative economy complete with social media platforms, news outlets, banking, commerce, educational institutions, professional services, and everything else that has been infected by the woke mob culture. This is not the answer because it does not address the problem. The problem is us. We would still be like the fish, only in different water, unaware.

This brings us back to the blackout. Some people say it takes ninety days to break a bad habit such as, alcoholism, drug abuse, pornography, and all the things that impede us from living our lives as we might wish. The popular culture is the same, although perhaps less apparent. By breaking the cycle, by learning to discriminate between good and bad, by tolerating and, eventually, relishing silence we are changed. We can become a fish who is aware of the water.

To truly change the culture and, subsequently, the political environment, we must become aware, and awareness does not reside on cable news channels, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, or the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Awareness is not virtual, it's transcendent. Imagine how the culture would change if Hollywood spent hundreds of millions on a superhero or Star Wars movie and could not sell any tickets, if Facebook and Twitter usage dropped by 15-20% if a large portion of cable programming and streaming diminished by half. The changes would be tremendous.

Andrew Breibart is credited with saying that politics is downstream from culture and, while this was observed less succinctly by Jacques Barzun and others long before Breitbart, it overlooks the fact that the culture is downstream from the individual. It is time for a Great Reset, but the reset needs to be on an individual level, a change where we become aware of the water and begin to live our lives and make our choices on the foundation of this awareness. The first step to this awareness is the blackout.

You can reach Chris Boland at cboland7@outlook.com.

IMAGE: Turning off electronics by PickPik (royalty-free).