As a former magazine editor, I'm a news and politics junkie. That means I scoop up anything and everything I can on the state of the world, and especially US politics given our unusual predicament as American citizens now living in “cloud cuckoo land”, to invoke the great British expression. That being the case, I surprised myself last year when I moved to a smaller place after a divorce and didn’t replace my television set. As a result, I didn’t watch TV for most of the election and its crazy convolutions including the debates, and daily downloads from the media circus.
While at first I felt some pangs about not watching this or that so-called “must see” event, after a while I began to see some distinct advantages to being off the electronic grid. I began monitoring the flow of political events more at arms length rather than being caught in the real-time media whitewater rapids. To keep track of major events, I used Web newsletters and searches while trying to avoid getting overwhelmed by events that were thoroughly disheartening and depressing i.e. our nation’s political race to the bottom.
This experience provided me with a buffer against the sharp edges of the foolishness that now passes for political discourse and became both necessary and actually helpful in gaining perspective. I still don’t have a TV but, like millions of other Americans, I have to confess to being riveted by the post- election flurry of crazy events and equally crazy reactions to those events, as much as I’m saddened to see what has happened to our fair republic. Like watching a bad car wreck, it’s hard to turn away.
Post-election, I seem to have reverted to taking in the media circus more on a daily basis and joining with friends and family to commiserate on the outrage of the day. But I wonder to what extent I’m participating in some kind of normalization and “negotiating with crazy”. Let’s say you’re walking down the street and an obviously unstable person comes up to you saying waving their arms and shrieking at the top of their lungs: “Don’t eat the lemons”. Do you immediately counter with “Well I was reading just the other day about the health benefits of drinking lemon water.”? Of course not. Why should it be any different when our country’s government has gone off the rails?
Foolish, illogical, and morally reprehensible acts by this or any other government deserve to be called out for what they are. But what’s just as bad, or in some ways worse, the process of normalizing them has become a cottage industry. The mainstream media still salivates over every little bizarre event associated with the Trump administration. Unfortunately, this represents an invitation for all of us to participate in the normalization process because arguably just by listening and giving it our full attention, we render small bits of affirmation. Consider this quote from Yale history professor Tim Snyder:
Except for really dramatic moments, most of the time authoritarianism depends on some kind of cycle involving a popular consent of some form. It really does matter how we behave. The danger is if we say, 'Well, we don’t see how it matters, and so therefore we are going to just table the whole question.' If we do that, then we start to slide along and start doing the things that the authorities expect of us. Which is why lesson number one is: Don’t obey in advance. You have to set the table differently. You have to say, 'This is a situation in which I need to think for myself about all of the things that I am going to do and not just punt. Not just wait. Nor just see how things seems to me. Because if you do that, then you change and you actually become part of the regime change toward authoritarianism. (italics added)
Any “consent” to authoritarianism that we might give can be subtle but depends upon the gradual erosion of our will to resistance via the normalizing process. Humans seem to have the capacity to get used to just about anything which can be both a good trait and a horrific one depending on what individuals or groups are adjusting to. Personally I find watching the normalization process quite discouraging especially when it happens in unlikely places. The PBS News Hour is a great example: Judy Woodruff and company play the straight person to executive branch insanity in a completely irony-free zone. PBS and NPR, now worried about funding and their continued existence, are doing great damage because they haven’t found a way to call out Trump’s actions either themselves or by providing useful counterpoint. Thus, by default, they are serving to legitimize them. Even some of the networks are doing a better job than PBS.
A few months ago, I spotted a clever and colorful graphic from the creator of “The Simpson’s” that was floating around social media. It read: “Stop adjusting to the insanity”. That captures it in a nutshell. My recommendation for avoiding normalization is simple: follow events but at arm’s length to avoid getting sucked in to the media’s real-time coverage. Fight and resist unethical and unconstitutional governance to the extent possible by picking your battles and speaking the truth to anyone who will listen but especially key influencers. And, finally, take necessary mental health breaks from the media circus as needed to gain perspective and avoid becoming overwhelmed by a reality that most of us thought would be impossible to see happen in our nation and in our lifetime.