April 1, 2018

2400 words 12 mins read

What Happens When a Political Junky Unplugs?

I gave up news for Lent. 


I also stayed away from blogging. I’m trying to have fewer opinions about fewer things. When you have a lot of opinions about a lot of things, nothing is more important than anything else. But that’s ridiculous. Some things are more important than others. Some questions must be answered before others. 


So I gave up news for Lent, and I might never go back. 


I’m going to tell you how I did it, the effect it had, and how I hope the experience changed me for the better. Sit back and enjoy. 


How to Give Up the News

It’s harder to get away from the news today than it was 100 years ago. That’s part of the fun of trying. It’s also part of the sacrifice. 


First, I had to turn off all the Breaking News notifications from a bunch of iPhone apps I use. That took a couple of weeks. I decided the easiest way to do this was to use each news flash as the prompt to turn off notifications. I learned that some apps, like Fox News, consider about anything to be Breaking News. Others, like The Hill, only alert users to really, really big stories. Which reminds me: don’t let others tell you what’s important. 


Next, I turned off alerts from Facebook (which I can’t stand anyway) and Twitter. That was harder than I thought. Facebook seems to ignore all attempts to ignore it. After I unsubscribed from all their emails, they found obscure emails and started sending me emails to those addresses. It’s stalking, plain and simple. And that’s another lesson I learned in all this: Facebook isn’t your friend, and Facebook friends aren’t people. 


Third, I had to avoid news in the car. This proved both easy and difficult. The easy part: I locked my car’s entertainment system on Bluetooth and set up my iPhone to automatically play my favorite non-news podcasts: Adam Carolla and Stoic Mettle. But Adam Carolla’s show has a news segment which usually includes two or three stories, one hard news, the others odd or funny news. But the news is always in segment 2 of the show, and the funniest stuff is usually in segment one. Carolla splits his daily podcast into two parts. So I had to skip segment 2 or hit the fast-forward-to-end button when the news started. Which provided another lesson: to give up news, you have to pay attention. 


The fourth step to disconnecting involved TV news. This wasn’t too hard, as I’m not addicted to TV news. I have too much going on most evenings to sit in front of the TV yelling at Tucker Carlson’s guests (though I do get sucked into that terrible habit from time to time.) To ensure I didn’t slip, I got myself hooked on an old AMC series called “Halt and Catch Fire.” I loved it. Four seasons about the early days of technology in the 1980s and 1990s. This gave me prompts to reflect on my life during that period. And the great life I’ve had because of computer technology. (Most of my adult life I’ve been a programmer.) And that’s another lesson: when you give up news, you find many things to be grateful for. 


The last step was very hard. I lost friends over it. That was to ignore news supplied by friends and loved ones. I told iMessage to silence a political newsgroup I belong to. If I got a personal text that looked like news, I ignored it. I told some friends that I gave up news for Lent, but not everyone got the message. I also skipped over emails that looked like news stories. This I handled badly, I now realize. Even though I believe we should keep our Lenten sacrifices to ourselves, I should have recognized that my sacrifice affected others. I could have turned on an email auto-reply that said, “Friend, I have given up news for Lent. If your message is about the news of the day, I won’t read it or respond until April.” But I didn’t. Which brings me to my fifth lesson in unplugging: don’t make your private sacrifice somebody else’s problem. 


Those are the steps and lessons to unplugging. Now, the effect on me. 


The Effect of No News

Important news has a way of finding you, so there’s no need to go looking for it. 


Because of this, I never felt out of touch with the world. I never felt like I was missing out. I never felt irresponsible or uninformed. I heard about the school shooting in Florida. I heard about the bombings in Austin. I heard that Stephen Hawking died (though a week after it happened). I heard some mention of a woman named Stormy Daniels, though I still don’t know the whole story. Or care, for that matter. 


I was generally in a better mood since Ash Wednesday. I went to Scottsdale, Arizona for a few days on business and appreciated the sunshine, which has all but vanished from St. Louis. After a week or two, I noticed my idle thoughts turned toward making myself a better a person instead of making other people conform to my ideas of “better.” 


I also found, and you might, too, that I talk less. I spoke when I had something important to say, when someone seemed to need to talk. The dialog in my head starting sounding like the dialog I remember from before 24/7 news. (I didn’t have cable with CNN until about 1991, in time for the Gulf War.) 


I thought a lot about my inner dialog when I was on submarines. We got little news on SSBNs. We were under water for three months at a time. We were busy. The only news that mattered then involved the USA vs. the USSR. I read books then. Lots of philosophy. I read books by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I read lots of Plato and Aristotle. I read the modern philosophers, like Derrida and Sartre. I read Nietzche and Kierkegaard. I read a lot of socialist novels, like Sinclair Lewis and early Orwell and Shaw and the like. I started getting into C. S. Lewis which led me to G. K. Chesterton. In reflection, I realized that thinking too much about humanity and the world will lead you to think about God, as studying subatomic particles will lead you to study the cosmos. And studying the cosmos after studying quarks reminds you that unknowns at one of a spectrum are identical to the unknowns at its opposite end. In fact, they seem to merge into one problem, one unknown. A singular problem. 


Stephen Hawking wrote a book about the search for the Grand Unified Theory to explain everything. It was his life’s work. With many other theoretical mathematicians, Hawking went from string theory to M-Theory to . . . whatever came after that. It took millennia to get from Euclid to Newton. Centuries to get from Newton to Einstein. Decades from Einstein to string theory. Years from string to M. And the G.U.T. theory engine now cranks out new theories the way CNN cranks out fake news. 


But that singular unknown remains elusive. 


I’m not interested enough to look it up, but some theoretical physicist once said M-Theory came about cause string theory answered every question in the universe except one. The only way to account for that one unknown was the possibility of more than one universe, and M-Theory bridged that gap. 


I’m probably wrong, and certainly naive, about how all those theories work. Or don’t work. Maybe I’m misremembering what the physicist said about M-Theory and parallel universes. But I don’t need to know those theories to recognize the one thing they all have in common. They all share one, unifying problem. When they run out of answers, they still have one question. 


When you get away from the news for a month and a half, you realize that there’s always one more question your theory can’t answer. And if there’s one question that a genius like Hawking couldn’t answer, the same is true of every issue you can name. If the universe keeps one thing hidden, doesn’t politics? 


So, that’s how ignoring the news changes you: you realize you’ll never all the answers. One more hour of watching Fox won’t satisfy you. One more Gateway Pundit post won’t. One more tweet won’t. Even one more Trump rally won’t. 


But that doesn’t mean we stop looking. It means we accept that the next answer will carry with it a new question. 


How I Hope to Change

When you realize that a) there’s always another question, and b) you have to keep looking, you start to look for help. 


I told you that big news finds you. Big news found Ted Kaczynski in his lean-to in Lincoln, Montana. It will find you. And if it finds you in a lean-to in Lincoln, Montana, it’s big news. You don’t have to think about it. When you cut yourself off, the news that finds you is big, even if it doesn’t seem big at the time. 


I first heard of Jordan B. Peterson shortly after I went on my news diet in February. I’m not sure where or when or what exactly the context was. 


Then, in Walmart, I saw 12 Rules for Life, Peterson’s book, on an aisle end-cap. I didn’t buy it. But I recognized the name, so I looked it up when I got home. 


The first thing I read about Jordan B. Peterson and his book was derogatory. It described Peterson as a holier-than-though, racist, homophobic, anti-trans, misogynist, (did I mention racist?), failed academic and likely serial killer. In other words, this Peterson guy sounded like the left’s description of every white male since and including Christ. 


I dug a bit further. Dr. Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist who taught at Harvard and University of Toronto. He makes YouTube videos (which the left want to be banned). He writes books. And he’s gained rapid popularity with young men. 


So I bought 12 Rules for Life and began reading. 


It’s a difficult book to read. Not because it’s hard to understand. It’s not. (Well, I don’t like the way he uses commas. That’s a problem.) The book is hard to live. And the book is about, after all, right living. 


My favorite and least favorite chapter is Rule 8: Tell the Truth— Or, At Least, Don’t Lie.  Reading this chapter reminded me how much I lie. And I do. 


A study found that the most honest people in the world lie 20 percent of the time. James Althucher suggested that, because of that, the only way to lie less is to say less. But Altucher might be wrong. We can lie less. At least, I can. For me, it’s a target-rich environment.


To lie less, we have to think hard about what we believe. Then we have to identify all the ways we lie about those beliefs. The way St. Peter lied about being a disciple of Christ. (Before you say “I never lie, Bill,” think about that. Are you more honest than St. Peter? The rock upon which Christ built his church? Why didn’t Christ choose you as His foundation, then?) 


How I lie is interesting. I lie when I think the truth will be a self-fulfilling prophesy. In 2012, I lied about Mitt Romney’s chances of winning the election. Sure, I wrote some prophetic pieces about Romney getting creamed in November, but I told people that if they knocked on enough doors and made enough phone calls, Romney would win. They did and he didn’t. And I was pretty sure the whole time he wouldn’t. (On election night in 2012, I hid in the back room of the tea party’s office because I was ashamed to look in the eyes of the people I’d lied to. I had excuses then, but now I know why I did it. Lying and cowardice go hand-in-hand.) (Read my wussy admission here.)


Some people say I was doing my job to rally people. That’s what I told myself then. Now, I feel like a liar, and I think Dr. Peterson would agree with me now. (For the record, in 2016, I really expected Trump to win. That wasn’t a lie.)

I know it seems like a stretch. Giving up news for Lent exposed my lying ways? But it makes sense when you think about it.

You know that cliche that we use only ten percent of our brains? That’s a lie, too. The brain operates close to capacity just about all the time. The brain processes whatever is available, like a wood chipper that’s always on.

If you make news (or social media) available all the time, your brain will process news all the time. And if it’s processing news all the time, it won’t have room to process . . . truth. The truth about the world. The truth about theoretical physics. The truth about yourself.

And, if you think that pondering the truth about the world and about physics is hard, try thinking the truth about yourself. There’s nothing harder. Nothing.

When you take away social media and news, your brain starts to chew up everything else. Old synapsis, long dormant, spring to life and dredge up things you said and did in 2012, 1992, and 1980. And they’re not all good things.

Then, when you read a book about right-living, your brain goes into overdrive. Because it’s no longer overwhelmed with Trump’s latest tweet or some Hollywood millionaire’s latest self-indulgent hypocrisy, your brain has time and energy to evaluate and judge the truthiness of your own thoughts.

It’s terrifying. More terrifying than ISIS. More terrifying than terrorism. More terrifying than public speaking or death. Or moving. Or losing a child.

And that’s what I hope will change about me. I hope to break the 20 percent barrier. I hope to tell the truth. Or, at least, not lie.

That’s what unplugging the news did for me. It made me want to be better. It made me realize that everything leads back to that elusive, singular answer.  The answer to philosophy. The answer to physics. The answer to our troubled world and its troubled people. The answer that’s a single a word.

The word.

The Word.