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The Less We Know the More We Care About it

By David Chorlton
April 1, 2002

Each day the radio-alarm wakes me up at 5 AM. The first thing I hear is a voice telling me, courtesy of National Public Radio, that a suicide bomber caused six more deaths in Jerusalem, a helicopter went down in Afghanistan causing loss of life, or that some other such disaster has occurred. My comatose hand floats toward the relevant button and cuts off the flow of information before my eyes have had chance to open. After avoiding Morning Edition for a couple of hours, I give in to temptation and switch it on. Nothing has happened while I was eating breakfast to bring the dead back to life. I know I ought to care, but I canít.

By ten or eleven oíclock, I have listened to some baroque music, a little Howard Stern, and the sound of the doves and mockingbirds ushering in the daylight around the house. Life has improved. Aesthetics work wonders. And the raunchy irreverence brings such earthiness to the airwaves that I think it to be almost mandatory preparation for the inevitable sound of the president trying to be presidential, or worse; Donald Rumsfeld offering the kind of comfort to America that only a bombing campaign can bring.

What is wrong with the media, I convince myself, is the way it assaults us with a catalogue of tragedies. So, off to the World Wide Web where I can pick and choose stories and sources. For news of the United States I turn to online versions of foreign newspapers where I can at least be spared the jingoism and cheer-leading of domestic news agencies. With luck there is a bizarre story being reported of the colorful sex lives of the French or the ability of Austrians to consume record quantities of alcohol. Such froth helps to buffer the impact of more drastic announcements, although it cannot persuade me that the pursuit of happiness is going anywhere but backwards.

By the time the mail arrives, the sun is high and it feels good to be in Arizona with unseasonal warmth for March. Only as the envelopes are opened does the light seem to fade. A gift of $25 will help . . . Please contribute to . . . You can fill in the dotted line. Most of the causes look good at first glance. That doesnít slow their passage to the recycling pile. By the time the blue bin is hoisted high in the air by the mechanical arm on the truck that comes by once a week, I see a shower of starving children, endangered species, and death row inmates rain down into the jumble of cans and cartons destined to reappear at a future date in a transformed state. If only the world could be recycled in such an easy and productive manner.

Now I find my friends calling to report that they have chosen to turn away from problems they cannot cure. They arenít mindless individuals Hell bent on Dionysian dreams, but thoughtful and conscientious citizens. We have reached the common conclusion that life is good if you concentrate on that which is personal and beautiful and stop believing that we have the power to turn back the ominous tide of unscrupulous politicians and weapons manufacturers. Still, a comment by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko comes to disturb me; to the effect that in this world only an idiot can be happy.

What is wrong with us? We are the people who rush out of our houses when an elderly neighbor has a dangerous fall. We are the ones who try to save the injured birds we find in our yards. We have learned to care on an appropriate scale. The events of the world as a whole are for heroes to tackle, and we know we are not heroes.

Meanwhile the latest movie releases are bringing us more superhuman feats by actors pretending to make the world safe for America. Everyday life makes dull viewing for television shows, with medical examiners and police officers facing blood, fire and brimstone on the small screen as they unfailingly succeed in stopping evil in its tracks and always within the allocated sixty minutes, advertising included. Only in those ads are lives most of might recognize portrayed, replete with magic cleaners and stomach medicines to make our houses and bodies feel good. This diet of indigestion and superhuman heroics seems to keep the country preoccupied even in terror-troubled times, but judging from my limited exposure to them they are no more realistic than Franz Kafkaís metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa.

Kafka knew something that NBC, CBS and ABC will never admit: that harmful events strike without rationale and that they come in mundane disguises. At the beginning of The Trial it is not the impending arrest of K that shocks, but the fact of the officers who come to his house sitting down and eating his breakfast. How better to show the way tragedy slips into our everyday lives?

I think more Kafka and less Rumsfeld would work wonders for us. Dark humor strikes me as being more comforting than the optimism that Americans insist on as their national birthright. If we are to be subjected to exaggeration, let it take us down into the subconscious realm where we process information honestly. Even John Ashcroft canít censor our dreams. George W. Bush has no power there. In those unguarded moments of sleep, we can admit that our enemies have a cause and our protectors have their own interests at heart. If only we could hold on to our nocturnal insights, we would be less susceptible to taking the reports that ambush us in waking life at face value.

If we are to get news noir, we may as well go all the way. Enough of pretty faces telling us about the dayís robberies and murders in our cities, enough of professors with their weighty theories of why men kill one another, enough of analystsí analyses. They are too much to take if we care and irrelevant if we donít. The off switch is the first line of defense of course, and that leaves silence, beautiful silence, in which it is possible to reflect on why we care about anything.