Did you hear about the rich American who’s cut himself off from all news since Donald Trump was elected? There’s no reason why you should. He wouldn’t have done, if it hadn’t actually been him. His name’s Erik Hagerman and he used to be a Nike executive, but now lives on a pig farm and doesn’t even farm pigs. He just works on his art and goes for coffee and plays guitar and gives interviews to the New York Times. Which presumably he then doesn’t read, so the interviewer could have indulged in a rare consequence-free, easy-to-write hatchet job, but didn’t.
I don’t mean to be snide – things I say neutrally just come out like that. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of people whose faces’ resting expressions look deeply sad or intensely cross, so they have to smile to seem normal (which must cumulatively be depressing or irritating, thus retrospectively giving them temperaments to match their looks). Because, as it happens, I support Erik Hagerman’s life choice.
Then again, I’ve got a few nits to pick. For a start, the whole art thing’s a bit lame – you can see his stuff online. He just does sort of scrunched things and patterns and, well, fine, but if there’s enough rolling news in the world, there’s more than enough crap art. Plus, his non-consumption of news media seems to involve a lot of slightly precious “business”. It smacks of the self-involvement of those who believe their allergies make them interesting.
For example, in order to avoid accidentally hearing any careless talk at the coffee shop he goes to every morning, he wears headphones playing white noise. He says music won’t do because “stray conversation can creep in between songs”. He still watches basketball on TV but on mute so that no contemporary reference sneaks through. And he’s given his lifestyle a name, which is annoying even before you hear the name, at which point it gets more annoying.
He’s called it “the Blockade”. That’s all wrong, and not deliberately, I don’t think. A blockade is a siege. Ingress to, or egress from, an entity is prevented by outsiders. What Hagerman’s doing – the entity in the middle trying to prevent ingress from the outside world – isn’t a blockade, it’s Trump’s immigration policy. What’s more, Hagerman certainly doesn’t oppose informational egress from the central entity in his blockade (which is him) because, as I mentioned, he gave an interview to the New York Times. It seems like he wants other people’s attention while simultaneously withholding his own. “Watch me ignore stuff!” is the pitch
However, leaving aside my cynicism about how Hagerman advocates his approach, the approach itself is tremendously attractive. The NYTinterviewer touched upon criticism it had received in a way that, to me, merely encapsulated its appeal: “To avoid current affairs is in some ways a luxury that many people… cannot afford.” I mean, why not just liken it to a holiday in the Maldives? A lobster dinner? A dishwasher? Yes, not everybody can afford it: for many, ignoring the news is impossible because it affects them directly – just as, for many, buying a dishwasher is impossible. But does that mean, if you can, you shouldn’t?
Probably. In an ideal world. But you’d need to have ignored the news for a very long time to be willing to believe that’s what Earth is. Capitalism is pretty horrible, but the various attempts at improving on it have either led to totalitarianism or gradually eroded back into capitalism. Or, in the case of modern China, both.
Obviously, people are much more likely to get slagged off for ignoring current affairs than for buying dishwashers. And that’s appropriately capitalistic: keeping up with the news, like buying a dishwasher, involves purchasing stuff. Or, when it doesn’t, it involves being sold: allowing the fact that you’ve looked at something to be marketed to advertisers or worse. Either way, it’s economic activity. However, ignoring the news doesn’t add to the GDP and so, unlike other luxuries that do more tangible harm (eg air travel or golf), it can be widely condemned without commercial risk.
Erik Hagerman himself broadly goes along with this consensus: “It makes me a crappy citizen,” he says of the Blockade. “It’s the ostrich head-in-the-sand approach to political outcomes you disagree with.” He has been pouring his energies into an ecological project instead – he’s bought 45 acres of former mine workings that he hopes to develop into a public park – and the New York Timesinterprets this as an atonement.
Over the past few weeks, while not having to find subjects for columns, my own attitude to reading the news has become (to adapt Hagerman’s unsatisfactory blockade metaphor) a medium-strength raft of sanctions. I’ve kept half an eye on events, just in case I suddenly have to stock up on water purification tablets and look for a defensible cave, but no more than half. And I’ve loved the comparative calm of it, feel no guilt whatsoever and have no intention of paying for some penitential local swings.
I think I’ll always value a vague sense of what seems to be generally going on – the alternative would feel like a denial of society. But the way the news reaches us these days, with so much of it either “fake” or “breaking”, is worse than ignorance. It’s a decontextualised screech that monetises its ability to catch our attention, but takes no responsibility for advancing our understanding or avoiding disproportionate damage to our peace of mind.
It’s a barrage of human pain and tragedy, which our brains are not evolved to process without either retreating into a carapace of indifference, or perpetually experiencing the kind of trauma previously reserved for medieval villagers witnessing the Black Death. And it’s also up-to-the-minute micro-snippets of information about events, the real significance of which will only become evident in many weeks’, months’ or years’ time; it’s like trying to assemble a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of Satan’s face by being given one piece every hour, each one accompanied by a bone-rattling fanfare.
Under capitalism, current affairs are presented like this because it makes economic sense. The media generate money by getting our attention and we grant it most reliably not in response to the accurate, illuminating and proportionate, but to the loud, sensational and frightening. That’s a problem we can only solve by ignoring it.